Previous highlights from the front page of this website

Sometimes we don't even know what we have ...  Gary Elliot, a regular at Swami's beach in Encinitas, took a bunch of pictures on Thursday, September 1, 2011 as a giant south swell graced Southern California with surging waves and longshore rip currents.

It was only later, as he looked through his photos, that Gary saw an outline in a wave that was ... um, what you see below. "I sent the picture to CBS," he said, "and they spent about eight hours making sure it wasn't digitally altered."  Some maintain that the form in the water is a surfer on a board, his leg doing something that surfers typically do (huh?).  Interestingly, the day before as the Big Waves arrived, I myself was watching them churn up a nearby beach, when I saw a dark form in a cresting wave, backlit by the sun, that looked exactly like a shark.  However, within a moment, as the wave broke and the water flattened, the form revealed itself to be a guy in a wetsuit on a surfboard: it was his elbow sticking up and the nose of the board that had fooled me.  This picture (below) ... I would not call "human."  There's just something about the jumbo-jet trunk and the whole zen of it that smacks of the real thing.  Plus, I know Gary, and he's all about proper karma ...

10-12 foot white shark at Swami's

The good news?  If it was a shark, nobody was the wiser.
Researcher Ralph Collier bills this one a sub-adult 3-4 meter white shark (that's 10-12 feet, not quite grown).  I mentioned to Gary that it was a bit odd that no one else saw it, not even the fin poking out of the water.  Was it a dolphin?  "The surfacing behavior of sharks and dolphins is very different," Gary pointed out, adding that he has been a lifelong Cousteau fan and was scuba-certified at age 13.  The photo has circled the world, with many ocean users comforted that a shark could be so mellow and friendly as to be sharing the waves and never be seen.  The beach was left open, surfers continued to ride the waves, and landlubbers marveled at the wild picture taken in Encinitas. Gary's photo follows shark sightings elsewhere in San Diego within a single week, though several miles apart.  "Sharks have always been there," ocean lovers declare.  Comment (on the ridiculous) from a former lifeguard: "Mission Beach was closed because a shark swam by!"

Summer came to Southern California for the months of June and July this year, took a leave of absence for the first three weeks of August (2011), and returned on Thursday, August 25th with blue skies, hot coastal days and a couple of dorsal-fin sightings at San Diego's crowded Mission Beach.

Tower 15, 100 yards off shore ... middle of the day, just past noon.  Lifeguard Todd Rice, all too familiar with ocean critters, was out on a rescue board (off duty, however) when he spotted a fin sticking out of the water, 18 inches high.  He knew what it was -- a great white, and not a small size -- and took the first wave right back in.  Three hundred people were cleared from the water, some bummed because it was the last summer weekend before school started.  And hot, to boot!  A 2-mile stretch of beach was closed, re-opening Friday morning only to promptly close again as surfer Tom Lochtefeld saw a gray fin only 25 yards out.  It was 8:45 a.m.

Helicopter shot Mission Beach

25 yards is scary.  100 yards isn't much more comforting. The reality is that most sharks, even if they cruise in for whatever reason, will not do anything, although most of us wouldn't take the risk. Researchers hesitate to put a number on how many whites are on the Pacific Coast, but some are willing to guess it's in the vicinity of 200 to 300.  For some 1200 miles of coastline, that's not a whole lot. Let's do the math ... that's one for every 4 or 5 miles of coastline, and it doesn't mean they're patrolling the shore.  Researcher Ralph Collier comments that fishermen have not seen the usual number of juveniles off their boats this spring, suggesting that not as many adults have reproduced (for whatever reason).  Seal carcasses did not decorate San Diego shorelines this past winter in the numbers noticed in the past. Perhaps there are low years and higher years for white shark presence in different regions of the world ... Southern California seems to have dipped this time around.

In the meantime, the frightening sight of The Fin. La Jolla beaches were closed a week after the Mission Beach sightings for the same reason -- a fin.  A local science teacher, irked at the waste of manpower and fuel spent on looking for the Mission Beach shark, said: "What are they going to do when they find it?" Probably tell everyone at nearby beaches to watch out!  The point being that if no action is taken, public outcry will demand that something be done.  So it's better to fly helicopters and drive power boats for a while in search of the offending shark -- at least until the hubbub dies down.  (Note: Word has it that the La Jolla sighting was a dolphin -- and this is from a reliable source!  Still, beaches for a mile in each direction were sealed off.)

The traditional migration of adult white sharks southward to the waters of Southern California has occurred, and sightings should begin to rise throughout the spring and into early summer.  Signs of their presence?  The sharks themselves, and their kills.

Great white shark
This is what a white shark looks like
Shark-bitten seal
A shark-bitten seal

If you walk or run California beaches between February and July, you may see seal carcasses lying on the sand.  Look for signs of shark wounds.  These would be gouges made of half-circle teeth marks, missing torso-flesh or complete decapitation.  Headless seals are a sign of well-fed white sharks hunting for sport.  It's a creepy thought, but it's part of marine life.

On the subject of creepy, the sightings and encounters round-up from last year (2010) is noteworthy. Shark researcher Ralph Collier of Los Angeles reports: "There were 7 authenticated unprovoked shark attacks along the Pacific Coast of North America during 2010.  The 7 cases reported for 2010 brings the total number of unprovoked shark attacks occurring along the West Coast during the first decade of 21st century to 56.  This is more than five times the 20th-century annual average, and represents [more than half] of the total number of attacks reported for the entire 20th century."

Serious news, folks: 56 total unprovoked attacks in just ten years -- more than half of the total for the last 100 years.  What does it mean?  Sharks are trolling these waters in greater numbers.  Sharks are less able to figure out what humans are and are coming closer to take a bite.  The loss of visibility in the water is a big player.  As the ocean is increasingly stripped of its fish, algae blooms are taking over.  Why? Because many fish are plankton/algae feeders and, without fish, there's less that's eating the algae.  Red tide is an algae (dynoflagellate) bloom, and red tides have plagued us for many years.  In 2010 another algae appeared -- bright green tetraselmis. Though sharks have great vision underwater, they can't see through murk.   So they come closer.  If they still don't know what something is, they are apt to take a bite.  It's a very creepy thought, but it's part of marine life.

Read more on our Seals and Sharks page.