Ralph Collier of Los Angeles is one of America's top shark-attack experts.  Whenever there's a shark scandal, Ralph is called to comment.  He has been on dozens of TV talk shows, and is the author of the book Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century from the Pacific Coast of North America.  His website is www.SharkResearchCommittee.com.

Shark Attacks of the 20th Century

Ralph's excellent shark book is a gold mine (buy it here).  His 2011 press release reveals an ominous statistic: There were 108 unprovoked shark attacks between 1900 and 1999, and there were 56 in just the first 10 years of this century.  In only one decade of the 21st century we've seen more than half of what we saw in the last century.

Read Ralph's 2011 Pacific Coast Shark Attacks press release here.



When something out of the ordinary happens, good detectives look for clues.  Ralph Collier's Shark Research Committee has been gathering clues about shark activity for years, and when an attack occurs on the West Coast, Ralph Collier becomes Sherlock Holmes.

The Dave Martin fatality in April 2008 at Solana Beach, California involved the presence of a dazed sea lion on the beach only yards from where Dave was brought in by his swimming companions.  This may have been an important clue to the Why of the event.  Read on.

Ralph CollierI connected with Ralph Collier some weeks after the fatal attack on Dave Martin (2008) at Solana Beach.  Swimmers up and down the San Diego coast were spooked -- many afraid to swim at all.  The attack had defied "the norms."  Why did a shark (a great white, no less) go for a swimmer in the middle of a group?  Why did it attack at all?  No one seemed to know.  Most people, including experts, concluded the shark "made a mistake," but Ralph's inspection of the wounds revealed a series of bites -- as many as seven.  I learned that these were "repurchasing bites," meaning that the shark bites down repeatedly as the victim struggles.  There was no torn flesh -- just deep punctures.

To the first-time reader or listener, this sounds horrifying.  But in research language, it simply describes what happened.  I was particularly dismayed because the beach was my favorite in San Diego.  I had swum there hundreds of times.  I knew the ocean floor like the back of my hand.  And Dave had been attacked "right where we angle out," one of the swimmers had told me -- in front of the house on the cliff with the peaked roof and the two palm trees.  I had swum through the "kill zone" for years.

Ralph told me he hadn't come to any firm conclusions.  He still needed to gather data and analyze it.  He recommended a book for me to read: Twelve Days of Terror: A Definitive Investigation of the 1916 New Jersey Shark Attacks by Richard G. Fernicola, MD.   I bought the book and began to read, fascinated.  Prior to 1916, no one had ever imagined a fish could eat or kill a man.  But on July 1st, ocean-goers in Beach Haven, New Jersey witnessed Charles Vansant rescued by Olympic swimmer and lifeguard Alexander Ott as the ocean turned red around them both.  Charles did not survive.

Early ocean swimmers

In those days, "sea bathing" (as it was called) had not been around for very long.  Men wore dark tights and undershirts for the activity; women wore black woolen dresses with ruffles.  Ropes were strung out into the "violent sea" for bathers to hang onto.  Some of the men actually swam, but most people engaged in "fanny dunking" -- allowing the waves to break and swirl around them as they held onto the ropes and each others' hands, laughing with glee.

July 15, 1916 Philadelphia InquirerHotel employee Charles Bruder was the next victim, five days later, 45 miles north of Beach Haven -- bitten multiple times, his lower legs torn off.  With this second attack, the media went wild.  The reality of the "man-eating fish" was born with a bang.  While seafaring experts continued to assure people that such a thing could not happen again for a thousand years, New Jersey experienced a total of five attacks within a span of 12 days.  Was it one shark -- a great white?  To this day, no one is quite sure.

I first learned of the New Jersey attacks in an August 2001 Reader's Digest article titled "Jaws: The Prequel" -- promoting Michael Capuzzo's new book, Close to Shore.  A ravenous shark had coursed the waters of New Jersey in 1916, attacking humans.  I was puzzled by the idea of a starving shark.  How was this possible if sharks were so big and could eat anything?  The ocean was full of fish.  It was later that I would learn about their taste for marine mammals -- mainly seals.  (Read article here.)

The Coastal Shallows

Agility of sealsWest Coast shark sightings are updated regularly on Ralph's website, which is www.SharkResearchCommittee.com (click on Pacific Coast Shark News).  I learned from him that the frequency of sightings has greatly increased in the last few years, as well as the likely reason why.  When I first began swimming in the ocean some 20 years ago, I was told by fishermen and local ocean "experts" that white sharks were deep-water fish, loved the cold, and hated the shallow "coastal soup" around the beaches.  Swimmers could be confident in the water.  It made sense to me.  I only saw small bait fish and occasional garibaldi when I was swimming ... why would a huge shark be interested in those?

Occasionally a seal carcass would wash up on shore, sometimes headless or bitten in half.  Curious beachwalkers would peer at the remains or avoid the rotting body altogether.  I thought nothing of these incidents, concluding they were simply part of nature.  Today I see them differently.  Seal carcasses with evidence of bites, wounds or missing flesh are signs of white sharks hunting for sport, Ralph told me(In particular, sharks bite seals in the head because of the blood vessels clustered in this area ... one bite and a seal can quickly bleed to death.)

Shark hunts seal
  Sharks pursuing seals
Shark hunting seal
(photos by Chris Fellows)


The relationship between seals and sharks is an old one.  I found that I harbored even more misconceptions: I had thought seals were pudgy and lazy, but they are acrobats in the water -- their spinal flexibility allowing them to twirl and move in all kinds of amazing ways.  Sharks, if you can believe it, have a hard time catching them.  Evolution helped the shark develop its dark coloring so as to blend into the ocean floor, particularly in the dim light of early morning.  Seals prance at the surface (where they can eject from the water by hurling themselves upward) and stay close to shore (where they can "haul out" on dry land).  To get their preferred source of food, sharks have had to become problem solvers.  Ralph informed me that white sharks not only leap out of the water to nab a seal in mid-air but they can also grab a sea lion from a rock.  They can think, so to speak.

Sea Lions - California coastToday there are over 400,000 seals and sea lions (pinnipeds) on the Californian coastline. Only a few decades ago, there were a mere 50,000. Enter the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972! Established by the United States government to protect marine mammals (mainly because fishing and hunting were reducing their numbers) these animal populations have grown over the years. Seals and sea lions (pinnipeds) were once concentrated on offshore islands. Overcrowded, they have moved to the coast. Now seals and sea lions are found everywhere -- lazing around, fishing, and being themselves. Tourists fondly snap pictures of them, and entire beaches have been given over to these plump and not-so-little whiskered friends.

What's wrong with that? you ask. Well, a few things. Between the real estate grab, body waste and aggression (they're not so cute!), our own comfort and safety is now an issue. And, they happen to be the great white shark's preferred energy source. When a GWS attains a length of 12 feet, it begins to seek pinnipeds for food. Starting with harbor seals, it eventually goes for sea lions as it grows bigger, and then (as a full adult) it chows down the elephant seal. Sharks are also scavengers, cleaning the oceans of carcasses and anything weak or dead.

People enthralled with sea lions
Tourists and kayakers throng around sea lions in La Jolla, California

Thanks to the MMPA, Southern California beaches are now a habitat for sea lions and seals. Which means they are a virtual buffet for white sharks. Believe it or not, great white sharks are warm-blooded, with no body fat. They metabolize blubber and turn it into their fuel source -- squalene -- also known as shark liver oil. A 4000-pound white shark can have a 1300-pound liver full of squalene. (A visit to Ralph Collier's page entitled "Distribution and Diet of Pacific Coast White Sharks" will fill you in on what and where sharks eat.)

1972 and 1975 -- The MMPA and the movie Jaws

Jaws terror sceneRalph explained the dovetailing of two significant events: The MMPA was passed in 1972 to protect marine mammals, and the movie Jaws came out in 1975, causing terror in people of Carcharadon carcharias, the great white shark.  Jaws unleashed a massive hunt for great whites, with many placed on ice in amusement parks for looky-loos to gawk at.  One trucker even created a glass-walled trailer filled with ice and drove up and down the freeway with a dead great white on display.  "It takes 10 to 12 years for a great white shark to reach maturity, which is when they are capable of capturing full-grown pinnipeds," Ralph told me.  "And with all that hunting of sharks going on, along with legislation that protected pinnipeds, there was a whole decade for seals to procreate without any predators."

So, thanks to Jaws and the MMPA, we now have a large and thriving pinniped population, which is feeding what is finally becoming an increasing number of great white sharks.  And humans are caught in the crossfire.  The warm water temperatures of southern California bring thousands of people to the beaches each year.  And in these very waters, the number of sightings and encounters involving white sharks and people is steadily escalating. (Visit www.SharkResearchCommittee.com for reports and details.)

Seals on the beach
Seals have taken over some California beaches (La Jolla Children's Pool)


"Southern California has always been a shark nursery," Ralph told me.  Female great whites migrate southward from northern waters to give birth in warmer currents rich with small fish for young sharks to feed on.  Typically, they would next head for the nearby Channel Islands where seals were plentiful before going north again.  Now, with pinnipeds swarming mainland southern beaches, adult sharks have found a new haunt.  "Where the prey goes, the predator follows," Ralph emphasizes.  "I don't know if it will be in my lifetime, but one day it may not be safe for people in southern California to go in the ocean."

Dave Martin shark attackThe lifeguard present at Dave Martin's attack noticed a sea lion huddling against the cliff as he escorted a construction crew along the beach to their sea-wall building project at daybreak that morning.  (The City of Solana Beach contracts with construction companies to provide a lifeguard truck escort and presence for certain shoreline projects.)  It was 4 a.m.  At 7 a.m., when the sun had risen, the lifeguard drove his truck down to the sea lion to have a better look at it.  It seemed groggy, dazed and confused.  The guard tried to coax it into the truck with the help of a rope, but the sea lion would not cooperate.  It pressed itself against the cliff, clearly wanting to stay there.  It was a light-colored sea lion and fairly large, the guard said, "and it absolutely didn't want to go anywhere near the water."

While the guard struggled with the sea lion, the Martin swimmers (as they are called), were heading for shore with Dave.  Some did not even know what exactly had happened.  Three men held on to Dave, and the others swam back with them.  The group had been spread out during the swim, with three up ahead, four forming a line in the middle, and two bringing up the rear.  One swimmer felt the water roll under him as the shark passed along the ocean floor.  A woman new to the group was the only one to see the shark as it came in once and circled back, approaching from the shore.

Dazed seal
Another pinniped hugging the cliff,
groggy and dazed

What is very atypical as shark attacks go was the deliberate "thinking" on the part of this particular shark.  It was a female, about 16 feet long, with a 22-inch jaw.  (How can you tell a male from a female?  "The dentition," says Ralph, meaning the teeth.  See these jaw specimens at JawShark.com.)  The shark scoped the scene and then went for the biggest swimmer, a male, at the center of the pack.  Thus the attack was calculated and intended to solve a problem -- to scatter the swimmers completely away -- which it definitely succeeded in doing.  Perhaps the shark had been hunting the sea lion and saw the swimmers as an impediment.  The sea lion, which had already spent several hours on shore, clinging to the cliffside, might have well been seeking refuge from the predatory shark.  A local story has it that some surfers had tried to get into the water at Tabletop Reef that morning and a line-up of dolphins prevented them from doing so.  Perhaps the dolphins knew a shark was in the area and were intent on protecting the humans.

Alligator Head, La Jolla
Alligator Head, La Jolla, where Robert Pamperin
disappeared in 1959 (click for better view)

Regardless, this was not a case of mistaken identity, as some experts have concluded.  Dave Martin was San Diego County's first shark fatality in nearly 50 years, the last having been abalone diver Robert Pamperin in June 1959 at La Jolla Cove (just off Alligator Rock).  In that incident, Pamperin's partner reported suddenly seeing Robert struggling in the jaws of a large shark at the bottom of the Cove.  As both men were free diving, he rose to the surface for air and to call for help.  Returning to the bottom, both Pamperin and the shark were gone.



The Martin Attack: Concurrent Sightings

Shark sightings, spring 2008
Sightings at the time of the Martin attack

As a public service, Ralph Collier's Shark Research Committee website posts shark sightings and related phenomena like "fresh kills" (dead seals with bites).  A review of the 2008 reports shows a pattern of events around the attack on Dave Martin (4/25/08) that strongly suggests the presence of at least one large white shark in the area at that time.  Examples:  4/16/08 adult sea lion found dead in Carlsbad (6 miles north); 4/24/08 dead sea lion Encinitas (3 miles north); 5/4/08 a "huge" white shark seen at Tabletop Reef, Solana Beach (same location as Martin attack); 5/23/08 15-foot white shark seen at Del Mar (2 miles south); 5/24/08 12 to 14-inch fin spotted in Del Mar (2 miles south).


A Solana Beach lifeguard told me that in July 2008 he and other guards watched a seal repeatedly hurling itself out of the water right by the swimming buoy in front of headquarters, only 200 yards or so from shore.  Ralph Collier's comment was: "That means a predator is in the water."  This happened in the middle of the summer season, at a busy beach.  (Incidents of this nature can be reported to Shark Research Committee: sharkresearch[at]aol.com)

Since before World War II, the "Children's Pool" in La Jolla was a place where mothers brought their toddlers to paddle around in safe, shallow water and build sand castles.  A breakwater wall constructed in 1931 sheltered this little beach, and the breakwater itself became a sightseers' landmark.  Standing on the it with your hands on the railing was almost like being out at sea; on stormy days the salt spray hit you right in the face as breakers crashed against the concrete.

Children's Pool, La Jolla
Children's Pool Beach in La Jolla, California
The scatter of "stones" on the sand is actually a colony of harbor seals

Today, in part thanks to Sea World releasing rescued seals in La Jolla waters, increasing numbers of harbor seals have taken over the Children's Pool, lolling about on the sand as though they are on vacation.  Tourists find the seals charming, enjoy observing them in a "natural habitat," and many include La Jolla in their sightseeing plans just to lay eyes on and snap pictures of the seals.  Stores and restaurants, of course, benefit from tourist traffic.

I remember waking a sleeping tourist up a few years ago -- a man who was snoring away and getting sunburned next to a seal who was close enough to do him damage if he were to awaken and sit up or roll over.  That was when people shared the beach with the seals, and were advised to keep a safe distance by the lifeguards.

A gull among the sealsAs the seals began to crowd out the people, to the point of pooping and giving birth to pups on the beach, animal activists spoke out to protect their rights.  Litigation ensued over the use of the beach, and the debate between animal lovers ("environmentalists" as they were also called) and locals who wanted the beach returned to the people became heated.  Court rulings eventually won the beach back for the people, but the matter of coaxing the seals to leave it continues.  In the picture to the left, a seagull wanders among resting seals.  (Click to enlarge!)

Read a 2006 New York Times article about Children's Pool here, and a 1998 write-up from International Harpoon here.  For more information, see www.FriendsOfTheChildrensPool.com

San Francisco Pier 39
Throngs of sea lions in San Francisco
(photo Robin Janet Brown, click to enlarge)

Thanks to the Marine Mammal Protection Act, La Jolla is full of seals and sea lions today, and marine mammals happen to be a white shark's favorite food.  The Martin fatality involved the presence of a sea lion.  In coastal communities north of La Jolla, Californians with private docks are discovering that seals are climbing on board their expensive boats and ruining the decks (defecation being one problem).  Seals have been known to sink entire docks with their collective weight as large numbers of them clamber out of the water to catch a rest and some sun.  The Coast Guard has attempted to chase the seals off by spraying the docks and boats with high-pressure water hoses, but the seals return as soon as the Coast Guard leaves.  Seals are interfering with fishermen's catches, stealing bait or the catch itself, and word has it that fishermen have taken to shooting seals.  A friend and I recently found a dead seal with a bullet hole in it lying on the beach.

Bull sea lion barking
Today, La Jolla Cove rings with the sound of pinnipeds barking
Swimmers share the water with marine mammals

Here's a bit of 2007 news commentary on the shark/seal issue on the East Coast (Cape Cod, Massachusetts).  Where seals congregate, sharks will feed.  It's a natural relationship in the marine world.  And if humans happen to be nearby, they may find themselves accidentally involved.  A comment on YouTube:  "There have always been whites in the area.  The problem is the exploding seal population.  Don't swim near the seal colonies and you should be fine."



Barking, stretching, snoring sea lionsWhat to do about the increasing number of pinnipeds in U.S. waters?  Should we press upon our legislators to review the situation and relax the protection laws?  Or should we wait for more shark attacks on humans to "prove" to legislators that ocean users are caught between the growing numbers of two other species that have evolved together as predator and prey?

Yes, seals and sea lions are engaging to observe and photograph, and their barking elicits joy and laughter from onlookers (for some strange reason).  As white shark sightings and encounters have been escalating in recent years, the odds of attacks are going up as well.  The Martin attack was the first fatality in 50 years in San Diego County, and a frightened sea lion was in the vicinity.  Ralph Collier's website documents shark encounters by each calendar year, and Ralph notes that the pattern of sightings has been increasing in southern California from February through the middle of summer, when adult whites finally start to head back to northern waters.  The reason for their migratory delay is the "buffet" of pinnipeds populating the southern California coast.

La Jolla Children's Pool
La Jolla Children's Pool once used by people
Seals, La Jolla Children's Pool
Seal colonies now occupy the Children's Pool


Tourism is a big draw for coastal cities and communities.  Shark warnings posted at local beaches would be a big minus, but lifeguards nonetheless have to answer dozens of questions each day from tourists about sharks.  What if they were to say, "Yes, sightings are on the rise!"  Animal activists remain fiercely protective of marine mammals, in which category dolphins and whales are included with the growing ranks of pinnipeds.  If you are concerned about the safety of beachgoers, divers, kayakers or swimmers in the water, contact your district legislator (see website for your State Legislature) and make your opinions known.



Sea lions, La Jolla
Sea lions in La Jolla, photo by Richard Guarascio (click to enlarge)