Pad­dling with sharks

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - steve.lopez@la­times.com

CARPINTERIA, Calif. — It was not a dol­phin, that much I knew. The fin skimmed the sur­face of the wa­ter like a ra­zor blade, un­like the lolling rise and fall of a dol­phin’s fin.

It was not a fig­ment of my imag­i­na­tion, ei­ther. I know that be­cause my 14-year-old daugh­ter saw the same thing I did as we waited, with our body boards, for the next good wave to roll in.

We were in waist-deep, blue-green surf at Padaro Beach, the sweet lit­tle stretch of par­adise you can see from High­way 101 at Santa Claus Lane. It was late morn­ing on Sun­day, a gray, cool day, with sur­pris­ingly warm wa­ter.

“That’s a shark,” I said, stat­ing the ob­vi­ous to my daugh­ter as we both walked back­ward to­ward the sand, eyes fixed on the fin about 40 or 50 feet away. “Let’s get out.”

I was a lit­tle spooked, sure, but it was also ex­hil­a­rat­ing. I grew up swim­ming at Cal­i­for­nia beaches and have al­ways been mes­mer­ized by the beauty, won­der and mys­tery of the coast, but I’d never had such an ex­pe­ri­ence.

Three kids were in the wa­ter just up the beach, where the shark was headed, so I yelled for them to get out. Then sev­eral adults gath­ered at the wa­ter’s edge to talk about what has been, in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, an­other fin-filled sum­mer.

Last year, when I toured the en­tire Cal­i­for­nia coast while cov­er­ing the agency whose duty is to pro­tect it, the Santa Cruz-area beach I en­joyed as a kid was closed be­cause of shark sight­ings. And then the main beach in Carpinteria was closed for the same rea­son just a day af­ter I swam there with my wife and daugh­ter.

So should we have re­tired the body boards on Sun­day, even though based on the fin size, the shark we saw was prob­a­bly young and no more than 6 feet long?

A day ear­lier, I’d bumped into Chris Keet on the same beach. He runs the Surf Hap­pens camp where I first learned to surf, and I asked how it was go­ing. He said busi­ness was good, but he and his in­struc­tors had spot­ted sharks nearly ev­ery day. They usu­ally came in at low tide to feed on stingrays, he said, and the sharks were mostly be­tween 6 and 8 feet, with at least one closer to 10 feet or so.

Look out for seals

Keet said his crew goes out on pad­dle boards to make sure the area is safe, and he uses a whis­tle to call stu­dents out of the wa­ter when sharks are in the vicin­ity. To the south is a har­bor seal rook­ery that has been known to draw big­ger great whites look­ing for a nice meal, so Keet takes ex­tra pre­cau­tion if he sees a seal in the wa­ter.

The sharks he’s spot­ted have been nonag­gres­sive, don’t seem in­ter­ested in peo­ple, and have not at­tacked. Keet said he ex­plains all this to par­ents, some of whom get ner­vous, but most of whom are com­fort­able enough to turn their kids over to him.

“If you pro­ceed with cau­tion and re­spect, I think most peo­ple are go­ing to be fine,” said Keet.

That sounded rea­son­able to me. I’m not brave enough to pad­dle straight out, 300 yards from shore, but I grew up swim­ming on the Cal­i­for­nia coast, and it’s not some­thing I want to give up. Be­sides, the grow­ing shark pop­u­la­tion signals a healthy ecosys­tem, and that’s some­thing to cel­e­brate rather than fear.

So my daugh­ter and I, along with other peo­ple on the beach, went back into the wa­ter Sun­day, stayed just waist-deep, and kept our eyes open.

Was I an ir­re­spon­si­ble dad for do­ing that in the mid­dle of a sum­mer in which TV news cov­er­age of great whites has been more preva­lent than car chases?

I called Chris Lowe, the marine bi­ol­o­gist who heads up re­search at Cal State Long Beach’s Shark Lab, and told him about my ex­pe­ri­ence in Carpinteria.

“You’ve just de­scribed the new re­al­ity,” he said.

Lowe said some have ar­gued that we don’t have more sharks, we sim­ply have more peo­ple with pad­dle boards, drones and ac­cess to so­cial me­dia.

“But … we ac­tu­ally do have more sharks,” he said.

That’s be­cause of 1994 re­stric­tions on the fish­ing of great whites, and be­cause en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions of wa­ter­ways have re­plen­ished both the shark pop­u­la­tion and the an­i­mals sharks feed on, namely seals and sea lions, stingray, gui­tarfish, hal­ibut and other an­i­mals.

By the way, it’s not sharks Lowe fears, but the sharp teeth of the na­tion’s cur­rent crop of big tuna, who are in­clined to shred en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion and snip fund­ing for crit­i­cal sci­en­tific re­search. Lowe has been tag­ging, mon­i­tor­ing and study­ing sharks for years, and his work was fea­tured on a re­cent Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel Shark Week episode called “Sharks in the City: Los An­ge­les.”

Ju­ve­niles ga­lore

He said sev­eral lo­ca­tions — Ven­tura to Carpinteria, Santa Mon­ica Bay, Hunt­ing­ton Beach and be­tween Dana Point and San Onofre — have be­come nurs­eries for ju­ve­nile sharks. Two or three years ago, video sur­veil­lance of the stretch be­tween the Man­hat­tan Beach and Her­mosa Beach piers showed the rou­tine pres­ence of up to 14 great white sharks about 5 or 6 feet long, said Lowe.

They feel safe close to the shore, where food is plen­ti­ful and there’s no threat of larger sharks com­ing af­ter them, and the warm wa­ter of the last few years seems to suit them. When they’re older and big­ger, they head to­ward the Chan­nel Is­lands and feed on the ex­plod­ing pop­u­la­tion of seals.

So we’re pretty safe, Lowe said, but we are lit­er­ally swim­ming with sharks — lots of them — as part of the new norm, and you have to re­spect them and their en­vi­ron­ment.

Lowe doesn’t put much stock in the the­ory that sharks feed at dawn and dusk or that those times are riskier for swim­mers. I told him I had a small cut on my wrist when we saw the shark on Sun­day and won­dered whether a trace of blood would have raised the risk for me. Lowe said he has dumped gal­lons of blood into the wa­ter and seen no ev­i­dence that it makes sharks hun­grier or more in­clined to fol­low the scent.

Pop­u­lar beaches can be safer than quiet ones, Lowe said, be­cause crowds of peo­ple are loud and their pres­ence scares away the food sharks are fish­ing for.

‘If you pro­ceed with cau­tion and re­spect, I think most peo­ple are go­ing to be fine.’ — Chris Keet, Surf Hap­pens camp

At­tacks re­main rare

In­ter­na­tion­ally, he said, although the num­ber of peo­ple in the wa­ter is greater than ever, shark at­tacks on hu­mans are up only slightly, and fa­tal­i­ties are down a bit be­cause of bet­ter emer­gency re­sponse and treat­ment.

Still, nat­u­rally, ev­ery­one’s at­ten­tion is riv­eted on oc­ca­sion, such as when that woman was se­verely in­jured by a shark at­tack off Camp Pendle­ton this spring. Two weeks ago, sharks at­tacked a kayaker and pad­dle boarder off Santa Bar­bara, although no one was in­jured.

But Lowe puts all this in per­spec­tive. For all the shark sight­ings and beach clo­sures the last two years, at­tacks on hu­mans have been rare.

Lowe said he wouldn’t frolic in the surf off the Chan­nel Is­lands, but he wouldn’t dis­cour­age any­one from en­joy­ing the coast as long as they as­sess the risks and use their heads.

“The chance of be­ing run over by a car in the park­ing lot,” he said, “far ex­ceeds the risk of be­ing bit­ten by a shark.”

There’s plenty of sum­mer left, so get your flipflops and your boards, head to the beach, and keep your eyes open.

Allen J. Sch­aben Los An­ge­les Times

AN AD­VI­SORY cau­tions beach­go­ers near Bel­mont Shore as Cal State Long Beach re­searchers look for sev­eral sharks re­ported in shal­low wa­ter in May.

Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab

A JU­VE­NILE white shark cap­tured by re­mote video off Man­hat­tan Beach in sum­mer 2015.

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