Southern California is in the midst of some very sharky times. And while it’s tempting to make a crack about the number of men in grey suits out there (something about groomsmen in a conservative wedding?), the situation has grown serious.
A San Diego County woman will be lucky to walk again following a near-fatal attack at Church in April. Shark attack cannot be ruled out as the cause of a gaping wound suffered by a surfer at L.A.’s Sunset Beach earlier this month. Each day seems to bring more aerial footage, fin sightings, breachings, accidental catchings by anglers, aggressive bumps, and — possibly warranted? — hysteria. Sightings have become so routine that whale watching outfits in Orange County have taken to offering shark watching tours, where passengers routinely spot a dozen grey, torpedo-shaped silhouettes.
Given all of this, we got to wondering: What in the eff is going on with all these close encounters of the grey kind? Below is everything we’ve gleaned.
There Are Probably More Sharks in Our Waters Than in the Past
It’s not just that there are more GoPros, smartphone cameras, and spooked surfers. An estimated 2,400 great whites live in the waters off California, according to Southern California’s foremost shark expert, Chris Lowe of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach. That’s probably the largest the population has been since the 1960s, thanks to decades of protections for white sharks and their pinniped prey species. Scary as that may be, it could be a sign of a relatively healthy ecosystem.
Small juveniles stay close to shore where they can find small fish and rays. But larger-than-usual whites seem to be stalking very shallow waters this year — though it’s anyone’s guess as to why.
El Nino, Climate Change — or Both — Are Also Having an Effect
One enduring mystery of California’s great whites is where they give birth, though at least some probably do so off of Baja California. Wherever the pupping takes place, it’s apparent that near-shore waters off Southern California serve as nursing grounds for young sharks for the first months, or as many as a few years, of their lives.
Juvenile white sharks are picky about water temperature, a proclivity that may dictate the migration patterns between Southern California and Baja. In a typical year, the sharks hang around Southern California from late spring to mid-fall. In winter, they usually light out for Baja.
Starting with the 2014-15 El Nino event, water temperatures in the Eastern Pacific warmed, as you’ll remember, spurring all manner of wacky, warm-weather patterns like the arrival of hammerhead sharks. Those warmer ocean temperatures encouraged juvenile whites to linger longer into the winter last year and to return earlier in the spring, Lowe has theorized. “Ocean temperatures are rising, causing them to live in places they’ve never lived before,” he told the L.A. Times, adding that sea level rise might be a factor.
This year, juveniles seem to be back earlier, too, though neither he nor anyone else knows why.
Are They Here to Stay?
If normal temperature fluctuations continue, the sharks will likely adhere to their migratory pattern that takes them down to Baja, giving surfers the run of our lineups during the winters. However, if warmer temperatures prevail, the sharks “might start residing here,” Lowe has said.
No One’s Sure Why They Congregate in Specific Areas
A couple of years ago, juvenile great whites swarmed Manhattan Beach and Huntington Beach. This year, it seems they’re more interested in practicing airs at Trestles and the southern Orange County region (though surfers as far south as Seaside Reef in Cardiff have reported sharing the lineup with multiple whites).
Lowe is studying why the sharks seem to camp out in certain areas for a while, usually around 40 days, before navigating to someplace else.
A whale-watching boat captain theorized that the recent congregation of whites around Capistrano Beach is due to kelp forest depletion (for which you can thank warming temperatures). The thinned-out kelp has boosted visibility for feeding on a run of grunion, as well as sardines and smelt, he told the O.C. Register.