The Inertia

Reading headlines about two “interactions” between great white sharks and Southern California surfers taking place in the same week, at breaks where until very recently shark encounters were absolutely unknown, gives me pause, to say the least. And regarding the now standard rationalization provided by various shark researchers and well-meaning ocean conservation advocates that the increased number of these interactions proves that California has always been teeming with white sharks and these “rare” and sometimes fatal instances of mistaken identity are simply the result of there being more surfers, not more white sharks, has me wanting to respond with complete conviction: “Bullsh-t!” 

Before howling in outrage, follow me here, my hypothesis beginning with a personal, and very pertinent, anecdote. 

It was an irrational fear, we knew, but a dread fear nevertheless; this was 1977, after all, and the release of Steven Spielberg’s blockbuster movie Jaws two years previous was still fresh in everybody’s minds. We thought about great white sharks a lot while surfing along California’s Central Coast, ranging from Pismo Beach up through Big Sur, especially at spots deemed, for various reasons, to be “sharky.”

Funny thing, though, was that up to this point none of us had ever seen a great white shark, nor knew anyone who had. Our trepidation was fueled purely by the imagination, the peril existing only in the abstract. Until that one day in Cayucos. We were surfing a spot called Toro Creek, me and friends Jeff Chamberlain and Rick Black, settling into a fun, three-to four-foot beachbreak session. The day before, Jeff had reported speaking to a Morro Bay fisherman who claimed to have seen a large shark in the area; probably a basking shark, he said. Big, but harmless. But then, only minutes into our session, Jeff, his voice flat, almost expressionless, uttered three words I’ll never forget: “There it is.”

Fifty yards offshore a large, gunmetal gray dorsal fin broke the surface, moving perpendicular to the shore. 

“There’s two of them,” whispered Rick, as if whispering would help.

“That’s the tail,” I said. Judging by the distance from the dorsal to the tail, the shark had to be at least 15 feet long. And even as I said this, the tail suddenly made a broad sweep and the shark turned and headed straight for us, coming on so fast that a wave actually broke across its broad snout. We, in turn, bolted for shore, and I hate to say this, but it was every man for himself; so adrenalized was I that I actually paddled my 5’10” Rocket Fish down over the top of a wave that had already passed under me. Then, with no thought to my fellows, I cast my board away in the shallows, high-stepping onto shore and another 50 yards up the beach, as if the monster shark, ragged jaws gnashing, was going to flop up over sand at my heels.

Jeff and Rick bellied in on the wave after me, and we three stood spellbound, no, horrified on shore while the huge shark, now virtually in the lineup, aggressively swept its tall caudal fin back and forth, sending spray flying in an impressive display of what we interpreted as sheer frustration at missing out on an easy meal, before eventually submerging, disappearing back into our collective nightmare.

Over a decade would pass before we learned how wrong we were. In my later role as a surf magazine writer, by the early 1990s I had interviewed many of the world’s leading shark experts, including Dr. John McCosker, director of San Francisco’s Steinhart Aquarium, Beulah Davis, director of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board, and Ralph Collier, director of the Shark Research Institute’s Global Shark Attack File. In every case I described my own “interaction” to the very last detail, including descriptions of the shark’s size, dorsal shape and two-tone coloration.

In every case these experts asserted that it probably wasn’t a great white, because the behavior described had never been witnessed by shark researchers before. By shark researchers. As explained by Dr. McCosker, one of the period’s premier white shark experts, great whites were so rare along the West Coast that all we really knew about their behavior was what was learned when tricking them up to a research vessel and teasing them with bloody chum and horse meat. “The equivalent of studying human behavior solely at a drunken frat party,” he said.  

In fact, it wasn’t until 1992 that an Endangered Species Act biologist named Scott Anderson, while studying nesting seabirds on the rugged Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco, also began taking note of the archipelago’s healthy population of great white sharks in a natural, undisturbed setting. In particular, one previously unobserved behavior was an aggressive territorial display in which larger, more dominant sharks would come to the surface and furiously sweep their tails, throwing up fountains of spray, handily driving away smaller competitors. 

I told them so. And so, here’s my point. Forget back in the 1970s – until three decades ago, great whites were so rare along the coast of California that researchers knew very little about them. But we surfers knew this: the possibility of actually seeing a great white shark, let alone being bumped, bitten or even killed by one, existed pretty much in the imagination alone. I personally have been surfing the California coast for the past 54 years, ranging from Crescent City to Coronado, and until the early 2000s had seen a total of one great white shark.

Yes, interactions resulting in injury occasionally happened, and even some unfortunate fatalities, with 80 percent of those deaths occurring north of Point Conception (Shark Stewards, 2021). But none, none, had even been recorded in Southern California spots like Solana Beach, Manhattan Beach, Corona del Mar, San Onofre and Encinitas, until between 2008 and 2018 injury interactions and even a fatality occurred at each of these previously placid breaks. These grim numbers are not an anomaly. The Frontiers in Marine Science website cites a statistic indicating “a significant 1.7 fold increase in the average number of injury incidents from 2004 to 2021 than in the previous 54 years.”

This is not because, as many researchers attest, there just happens to be more surfers (surfers making up more than 50 percent of all white shark/human interactions) paddling out these days – surfers have been flocking to every one of the beaches mentioned above for over 60 years. Take San-O, for example. Watermen and women have been riding waves there since before WWII, and not a single account exists of any of them pulling their feet up onto their redwood boards as packs of juvenile great white sharks (and an occasional big mama) cruised in and around the lineup. Not until the early 2000s, that is, when, as I can attest to personally, shark-spotting here became as common as parking-lot bocce ball.

And now, two Southern California interactions in one week? One in Del Mar, and another at San Clemente’s T-Street, heretofore considered one of the safest beaches on the coast, a veritable surfing daycare center for generations of San Clemente groms. No, the excuse that the increase in shark-surfer interactions simply reflects an increase in surfers doesn’t hold water. The more obvious answer is that following a century of prey item protection (sea lions and elephant seals), a spot on the Endangered Species List since 1994, and a shift in range attributed to significant fluctuations in sea temperature associated with climate change, today there are way more white sharks in California waters than ever before. 

So, on the topic of surfers and sharks there’s my opinion, and considering my own personal experience and professional pedigree its hardly pedestrian. But when it comes to the reality of coexistence with the growing number of white sharks in California, do I have any helpful suggestions? Well, one of the shark researchers quoted in an Orange County newspaper story about the recent spate of interactions explained that the juvenile great whites in Southern California have obviously become used to being around surfers, hence the infrequency of injury incidents. She went on to assert that the two most recent interactions must have involved immature white sharks who had not yet made our acquaintance. Meaning that, according to the experts, at least, until the increasing number of white sharks grow more accustomed to swimming with us, we really have no choice but to get used to surfing with them.

Have fun out there.


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