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Gawkers gather as sharks cruise off San Diego

Three recent sightings in the area have sent crowds to the bluffs with cameras and have some swimmers and surfers concerned.

September 02, 2011|By Tony Perry, Tony Barboza and Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles Times
  • Visitors to the Childrens Pool in La Jolla scan the water for sharks Thursday after a shark was seen in the area the day before. Last week, there were two sightings off Mission Beach.
Visitors to the Childrens Pool in La Jolla scan the water for sharks Thursday… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

Nothing injects adrenaline into a languid summer day on the beach like heavy surf and a few dorsal fins.

After two shark sightings last week off Mission Beach and one this week off La Jolla, the sidewalk overlooking a La Jolla beach teemed with lifeguards, surfers, sunbathers and tourists, all scanning the water for that little sloping gray triangle that can send shudders up and down the coast if humans catch just a fleeting glimpse of it.

Even some surfers who know that the odds of an attack are astronomically low were reluctant to reenter the water. "Call me a wimp, I'm staying on the shore," said Carl Dunsmir, 19, a community college student. "My mom is pretty freaked out."

Photos: Surf's up

The last sighting occurred Wednesday, when surfers saw what looked to be the dorsal fin of a great white. Lifeguards briefly closed the beach, as was mandatory, and opened it Thursday.

Dozens of people stood on the bluffs with cameras and binoculars. Lifeguards in personal water craft looked for any signs of the fabled predators. Television and military helicopters hovered overhead.

The fear of attack didn't prevent surfers from taking on some of the most challenging waves of the season, delivered by a distant storm off New Zealand.

"Man, it's for real, it's what you surf for," said Lionel Wade, 23, an unemployed roofer from Santee, as he left the surf at South Casa. "If there was a shark, it's long gone by now. No way it's staying around for those waves."

Sharks are known to populate the San Diego County coastline, particularly during the species' birthing season.

Great whites, especially adolescents between 7 and 10 feet and 4 and 6 years old, are typically seen in Southern California waters as early as May.

This year, water temperatures didn't warm until later in the summer, which might account for the spate of late-summer great white sightings, said marine biology professor Chris Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach.

Researchers also think the great white shark population may be growing in California.

Gill nets, which for decades had entangled and killed young great whites near the shore, were banned in California waters in the 1990s.

More plentiful food supplies — including bottom-feeding fish and sea lions— may be boosting their numbers as well, Lowe said.

All three sightings were dubbed by lifeguards as credible, having been made by lifeguards, surfers and bodyboarders.

A sighting early Thursday off Sunset Cliffs was declared not credible and no closure was ordered. In April 2008 a local veterinarian, a veteran rough-water swimmer, was fatally attacked by a shark off Solana Beach, north of La Jolla. The memory of that attack has left many locals concerned about the rash of recent sightings.

And talk here, over the pounding of the surf, was all about sharks: "I just hope the scientists get to the bottom of it and tell us what's going on," said Andrea Hahn.

Even out-of-towners were excited by their brush with the creatures.

"We don't get many sharks in Idaho," said Joe Ornstein, 46, as he, his wife, and two daughters stood near the lifeguard tower, with no plans of taking a swim. "When we get back home, we're going to have quite a story about our vacation in California."

Great white sharks generally don't pose much of a risk to swimmers and surfers, even though reports of sightings can spark fear, Lowe said.

The adolescent sharks that hang close to shore feed on bottom-feeding fish, not humans or even marine mammals.

Far more common than a shark sighting, he said, is a shark swimming by people in the water without them knowing.

Clearing all the beaches when a shark is spotted, he said is "about as ridiculous as saying we're not going to let people drive any more because driving is dangerous."

That said, the ocean is a place where your safety is never assured.

"People that go in the water have to understand it's a wild place, and whether it's sharks or big surf, you have to take your chances," Lowe said.

"It's not a Disneyland ride. You're not guaranteed to be safe."

Photos: Surf's up

tony.perry@latimes.com

tony.barboza@latimes.com

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

Perry reported from

La Jolla and Barboza and Mozingo from Los Angeles.

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