Great White Shark sightings spark concern among coastal community

SANTA BARBARA—A pair of adolescent great white shark sightings near the Santa Barbara Harbor prompted officials to post warning signs throughout the area on June 8 and June 20.

With a spike in observed reports, harbor officials said it is important for those on the water to understand the significance of these sightings.

Harbor Operations Manager Mick Kronman said accounts in the surrounding area of the harbor have increased significantly within the past three years. While there have been no attacks on the public in the harbor or in Santa Barbara waters, Kronman said confirmed sightings are most prevalent between April and October.

“Since April of 2012, we started to see a spike in white shark sightings and recently mauled marine mammals,” Kronman said. “Since then we’ve had two dozen separate shark incidents, which includes over a dozen white shark sightings and over a dozen attacks on marine mammals that have prompted several beach advisors.”

A harbor official said a lifeguard reported seeing what was described as a 9-foot juvenile great white floundering 30 feet offshore on June 8, north of the harbor and inside the swim area. Reports state that the shark was chasing either a seal or a sea lion. The confirmed account, which was taken by the Santa Barbara Parks and Recreation Department, forced Harbor Patrol to close Leadbetter Beach for 24 hours. It was later reopened, and warning signs were distributed throughout the area.

On the morning of June 20, a pair of stand up paddleboarders witnessed a sea lion escaping the clutch of a great white approximately 700 yards from shore, outside the kelp beds, beyond the buoy. City officials again posted advisories at 22 separate locations on city beaches.

Prior to issuing a warning or closing any shore area, Kronman said an official first must assess the validity of the claim and the credibility of the report.

“We have a form that we have people fill out,” Kronman said. “The authorities, be it parks personal or Harbor Patrol, interview the party that sighted it to determine its credibility. If we determine it’s credible, we post the beaches with advisories.”

He added that advisories typically last 72 hours. A 24-hour soft closure is typically instituted at the beach.

“In the case of early June, we did a soft closing of the beach advising people to stay out of the water,” Kronman said. “But you can’t physically stop people from staying out of the water.”

With the recent reports of unabashed shark visits on the shoreline, Dr. Chris Lowe, head of California State University Long Beach’s Sharklab, said the shark population is steadily on the rise.

“We think the population may be increasing,” he said. “It’s rare to see adult white sharks on our beaches. That part we do know. But starting around this time of year, it’s not uncommon to see what we consider baby white sharks.”

Santa Monica Bay and San Onofre seem to be a hot spot for these shark species to appear, Lowe said. Most shark sightings along the shoreline tend to be baby sharks that were born this year. It’s not uncommon for surfers to witness these newborns while out in the lineup.

The coastline also offers a rockier terrain, which increases the probability for sea lion habitation. Lowe said offshore islands house most of the adult great white sharks. It’s not out of the norm for adolescent sharks, like those witnessed in Santa Barbara, to complete laps near harbor entrances in Long Beach and Los Angeles, Lowe said.

Through his research of placing transmitters on newborn great whites, Lowe said he has found that they tend to migrate south to Baja, Mexico, in the winter, with a quarter of the population returning the subsequent summer to Southern California coastlines. Most newborn sharks leave their mothers at birth, elevating their hunting skills in the readily abundant warm waters of the shoreline.

Lowe said water goers should be reminding that the “young of the year” pose no threat to people and typically feed on fish.

“If people see them while out paddling, they really don’t pose much of a risk—the little ones,” Lowe said. “They should just enjoy it and think it’s a cool thing to be able to see such a cool animal.”


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