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Cape Cod shark scare: More people, more sharks, more run-ins

July 09, 2012|By Amy Hubbard

The shark-chasing-kayaker story out of Cape Cod has caused some gasps and shudders, but here's something to consider: Shark experts believe the population of great whites may be growing.

And as people make more use of the ocean, there is ample potential for interactions between humans and the world's largest predatory fish, scientists say.

"We've learned a lot more about white shark behavior in the last 10 years based on advances in tracking technology," Chris Lowe, director of the Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab, said in an email to the Los Angeles Times on Monday morning.

It's hard to tell, he said, whether shark patterns are based on their prey, environmental conditions or changes in their population, "which we think are growing."

What's certain is that it's rare to see adult white sharks along the Southern California coastline, Lowe said.

A great white coastal sighting is even more rare on the East Coast -- although it's a favorite spot for shark attacks in the public imagination thanks to the movie "Jaws."

Lowe is among authors of the study "Responding to the Risk of White Shark Attack," which shows that from 1876 to 2008 there were 346 unprovoked white shark attacks around the world. 

"As human utilization of the ocean has increased over the last century," the report states, "encounters with more dangerous species have become more frequent."

Of the 346 unprovoked white shark attacks, 126 occurred in Australia, and 50 were fatal.  There were just eight reported in that time period in the eastern U.S.; four were fatal.

The western U.S., however, was second on the list with 112 unprovoked attacks by great whites, and 12 of those were fatal. 

Southern California, it turns out, is where the baby white sharks come out to play.  It's a nursery ground for some of the eastern Pacific white sharks, Lowe said. 

"Starting in May, baby white sharks are seen close to the shore, many of these are newborns or close to it.  Unfortunately, we do not know where birthing actually occurs. Since adult white sharks are rarely sighted along the shore ... we suspect they [may] give birth in deep water and the pups swim in to the shoreline."

Also, adult white sharks are more often seen around offshore islands in Southern California, he said, so birthing may occur there and then pups swim to the shoreline. 

"Either way," he said, "it is rare to see adult white sharks along our coastline."

The report notes that the risk of shark attack is "exceptionally low" when compared with other dangers facing beachgoers, such as the possibility of drowning or running into a rip current or encountering jellyfish or stingrays.

But shark attacks are the headline-grabbers.

In early May, a teenage girl was paddleboarding near California's Catalina Island when her board was bitten by a shark.

Just over the weekend, a white shark estimated at 18 feet in length bit into a kayak near Santa Cruz.  According to the Mercury News, the kayaker was fishing in about 40 feet of water when the shark lifted up the kayak and attacked the front, tossing the man into the water.  He was pulled unharmed from the water by a nearby boater.

As The Times reported in 2011, the U.S. led the world in shark attacks in 2010, even beating out shark-filled Australia.  Of the 79 attacks that year, 36 were in the U.S.

But, as George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, told The Times: The number of shark attacks in a year could be reduced by half if people simply used more common sense.

Avoid fishing areas and inlets where sharks gather, he said, and leave the water when a shark is sighted.

"The reality is, going into the sea is a wilderness experience," Burgess said. "You’re visiting a foreign environment -- it’s not a situation where you’re guaranteed success."


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