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Don't be bait, bro

Their teeth are bigger than yours. Show some respect.

September 23, 2003|Julie Sheer | Times Staff Writer

Surfers have a saying: When the landlord arrives, it's time to vacate. In surfspeak, "landlord" is a pet name for a shark.

"First and foremost, don't go in the water where sharks are known to be patrolling," says Steve Long, lifeguard supervisor at San Onofre State Beach, where great white shark sightings have been frequent recently.

Long may seem to be suggesting obvious common sense, except that many beachgoers -- including those in kayaks or on surfboards who falsely think they're safe -- often ignore him, even during August and September, when the majority of shark attacks occur in California.

Great whites are the only shark known to attack humans in Southern California, although the odds of being mauled and eaten are about the same as a Martian landing in your backyard. Until August, a fatal shark attack had not occurred in the state since 1994.

Nonetheless, it's best not to tempt fate, especially when fate can grow as long as 22 feet with a set of teeth that demand some serious respect.

Adult white sharks tend to cruise water with rocky bottoms, eyeing the surface and looking for some of their favorite foods, including fish and pinnipeds such as seals and sea lions. When they spot a familiar silhouette above -- say, a finned and wetsuited swimmer resembling a sea lion -- a shark might ascend from below to investigate, and even strike the prey to test its palatability.

Investigators suspect this may be what occurred in August at Avila Beach during the fatal attack on a 50-year-old woman, who was bitten while swimming in an area where seals were feeding on sardines.

"Unfortunately, white sharks don't advertise themselves," said John McCosker, a senior scientist and shark specialist with the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. When up against such successful muggers, there's not a lot a victim can do. If you've been targeted by a great white, "there's no maneuvering you can do to trick them or protect yourself." Long, the lifeguard, says he has heard of attack victims who survived report poking sharks' eyes and punching their snouts during an attack, but trying this against a great white would probably be futile. "Do anything you can to deter further action, since you're going to be fighting for your life," he said.

To avoid getting into such a deadly situation, make yourself less vulnerable. The buddy system is always a good idea -- another set of eyes and ears can't hurt, since most people attacked by a shark are alone. Although surfboards and other flotation devices have been known to provide some protection, they shouldn't be treated like bite-proof barriers, Long said.

And of course, don't forget to pay attention to the obvious -- posted signs that warn of shark sightings.

"Be aware of everything going on out there," Long advised. Keep an eye out for unusual behavior on the part of other sea life, which often sense danger before people do. If the natives seem restless, it may indicate that a white shark is feeding -- and perhaps it's time to get yourself and your buddy out of the water.

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