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Pete Thomas ON THE OUTDOORS

Fear gives way to mystery

May 02, 2008|Pete Thomas

I was 300 miles from the ocean last Friday morning, awaiting Saturday's opening of the Eastern Sierra trout-fishing season, when the phone rang.

A large shark, the caller said, had fatally attacked a swimmer off Solana Beach.

The news spread through the region as if carried by wind. Thousands of little fish became an afterthought, replaced by one enormous fish that killed a man with a single bite.

Gradually, though, the focus returned to trout, and when the first little fish began flopping on banks, big sharks became a distant memory.

But something so sensational is not easily forgotten. Many of those anglers are from the Southland and will soon visit the beach, and as they venture into the ocean an image may form in their minds . . .

. . . Colossal gray predator with dagger-like teeth . . . silent as the stillest night . . . savagely strong and swift. . . . On Sunday I drove home to sweltering Redondo Beach and went for an afternoon swim.

Then I watched children splash in the shallows and ride small waves.

Lifeguards were on extreme alert.

Beyond the breakers, a man in a green kayak fiddled with his paddle and I flashed back to the movie "Jaws," and half expected that evil mechanical shark to bite the kayak in two, then return to devour its pilot.

I dived back in to reclaim my senses.

Sure, this past week was vaguely "Jaws"-like. The attack on Dave Martin, 66, occurred just weeks before the busy Memorial Day weekend.

It prompted a beach closure and helicopter search, and produced considerable hysteria.

But comparisons end there. This was only the eighth fatal attack off California since 1926. Only two occurred off Southern California, where thousands of surfers, swimmers and kayakers enter the water almost every day.

White sharks do not seek human flesh. Their chief roles, as adults, are to subsist on elephant seals and make baby sharks.

Their primary haunts, when they're not mingling in the mid-Pacific each winter and spring, are elephant seal rookeries off Northern California and Mexico's Guadalupe Island.

On the other hand, says Chris Lowe, a shark specialist at Long Beach State, "This is not a Disneyland ride. People have to assume the risks when they go into the ocean."

Obvious questions were raised.

Did the 15- to 18-foot white shark mistake Martin, who was wearing a wetsuit, for a seal?

Was the shark a pregnant female here to give birth, since Southland coastal waters are an important nursery ground and this is believed to be the start of pupping season?

Nobody knows.

But there have been some interesting observations. Some suggest that the growing harbor seal colony at Children's Pool in La Jolla may have become a shark magnet.

Others point to the exploding sea lion population. The pinnipeds crowd atop every buoy and are so plentiful that fishermen regard them as pests.

Sean Collins, founder of Surfline.com, says he hears sea lions arguing for buoy position through the night from his home in Seal Beach.

"Sometimes you hear them freaking out, and you have to wonder if there's a white shark out there waiting to pick one of them off," the surf forecaster adds.

Like many surfers, Collins has experienced close calls.

One was off Magdalena Bay in southern Baja California. He was surfing alone and became "super spooked," so he boarded an inflatable boat piloted by his dad and they scurried off.

They later returned and "right where I surfed there was a 15- to 18-foot shark just cruising out there in the lineup."

I've experienced more controlled encounters. Last October I spent four days cage-diving at Guadalupe Island. I was astonished at how cautious the predators were as they rose from the depths, enticed by chum and tuna.

But I was more amazed by the ability of these gargantuan beasts to seemingly vanish in gin-clear water, then materialize behind our backs, only a few feet away.

We practically stuck cameras in their faces, yet they made no threatening lunges. Every movement was measured and they clearly did not regard us as food.

Guadalupe's great whites migrate offshore each winter to a vast region scientists have named the White Shark Cafe. Some travel clear to Hawaii.

Michael Domeier, president of the Marine Conservation Science Institute in Fallbrook, Calif., was involved in a project that tagged and tracked 75 Guadalupe great whites. Not one traveled to the mainland.

Likewise, adult great whites from the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, and nearby Ano Nuevo, visit the Cafe and Hawaii. Stanford University's Hopkins Marine Station has led a project that has tagged 143 adult great whites at those locations.

Only one, a female, chose a semi-coastal path, toward the Channel Islands off Ventura.

So what is known is that there are numerous small and medium-size white sharks along the Southland and Baja California coasts. They prey-switch from fish to mammals when they reach about 12 feet, then gravitate toward seal rookeries.

Clearly, there also are stray adults or pregnant females in our midst.

We as outdoors enthusiasts can ignore them, and resume swimming, surfing and kayaking. Or we can drive to the mountains for clean air and trout fishing.

Which is more dangerous? All one has to do is tune in to the morning traffic report to learn the answer.

--

pete.thomas@latimes.com

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