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Half Moon Bay Review


Sharks part of coastal landscape

By Lewis Rutherfurd--[ lewis@hmbreview.com ]
Published/Last Modified on Wednesday, Aug 01, 2007 - 03:43:20 pm PDT

They eat everything from tuna and dolphins, to turtles and elephant seals. They range from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean and from the edge of the Gulf Stream off Long Island to the far reaches of the North Pacific. They thrive and hunt at all depths and can handle a wider range of temperatures than almost any other fish.

But that's not what most people think about when a great white shark shows up.

Fat as a Volkswagen bus, with red-rimmed, bayonet jaws, the sharks are capable of jarring speed. Their brand of mayhem is ingrained in the history of the coast.

Shark researcher Sean Van Sommeran takes a sample of Tim West's bloodied surfboard foam after a shark attack in 2005. Van Sommeran says attacks, such as the one that occurred last month off of San Gregorio Beach, are not unheard of this time of year.

And if you frequent the water around here, they've been watching you.

A recent encounter off Bean Hollow State Beach served as a reminder that great whites are crossing paths more than ever with a growing population of ocean users in the region, especially as late summer turns to fall. A kayaker was upended by a curious white during a fishing session about a mile from shore last week, and escaped with only a damaged boat and a rash of articles in area newspapers.

Much about the sharks is still a mystery, and a local researcher, who lures them to the surface off A�o Nuevo Island and tracks their wanderings with electronic tags, has devoted decades to filling in some of the blanks about this charismatic local presence.

"All the conventional wisdom about great white shark behavior and range, since 2000, has been dismissed," said Sean Van Sommeran, the executive director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz. Van Sommeran founded the group and has worked since 1990 to track sharks. The foundation was instrumental in having the great whites declared a protected species in the state and with satellite tracking tags and use of surface shapes as lures, moved study methods away from the old "cage and bait" paradigm, said Van Sommeran.

"Until then they were understood to be a coastal species" and a surface feeder, he said. Research now shows that the sharks travel farther and feed more continuously at different water depths. They can hit adult elephant seals far below the surface, for example, before the attack graduates to the surface where such events were previously observed, he added.

A picture of a much more complex fish is emerging.

"It's one of the most widely distributed sharks in the world," said Van Sommeran. He noted that there are great whites in oceans like the Mediterranean and the Aegean, as well as in the tropics and the Atlantic. "And the prey items (of these groups) are totally different and the behaviors are totally different," he added. Whites eat sea turtles and other sharks and in the Mediterranean their main prey consists of tuna and bottlenose dolphins.

In Coastside waters they are after pinipeds like elephants seals. There have been sightings at well-known surf spots like Mavericks in 2000 and 2005 - and every local surfer has at least a few secondhand stories about an encounter.

"We get reports every year that begin at this time," Van Sommeran said. "The peak time is in the fall and early winter, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest a year-round random presence. Just because people are seeing them more often doesn't mean the population is growing."

A surge in ocean activities like kayaking, kite surfing and the growing popularity of surfing have put more people in shark territory, he said. And areas like Bean Hollow and lonely reefs around the Coastside that were once well off the beaten path are now in the recreational loop.

The sharks have always been there. Recorded attacks in the Bay Area go back to at least 1926, according to a chart in the book "Great White Shark," by Richard Ellis and John E. McCosker.

The book lists several attacks on the Coastside up to 1991, including the fatal attack on diver Omar Conger at Pigeon Point in 1984.

"Most people I know that use the coast frequently have come to terms with this," said Van Sommeran. "And if they haven't, they should. They should include sharks on their long list of things that could go wrong."

But maybe not at the top of that list. Great whites are unusually discerning and watchful predators, said Van Sommeran. They are difficult to fool or provoke into a strike, even for experienced research teams, and good at staying just out of visual range.

"If you see it, that's actually good news. ... it's probably looking for something else - sniffing the surface water - or listening," said Van Sommeran. "The surface is like a drum and it's like laying an ear to the tracks.

"But it's still a good idea to leave," he added. "These are not docile or benevolent creatures."

Most attacks on humans seem to be exploratory in nature, Van Sommeran said.

"Having seen sharks hit big elephant seals, I don't think anyone could survive that sustained determined attack," he said.

Dan Temko, the harbormaster at Pillar Point Harbor in Princeton, has a photo of a 16-foot great white taken from the deck of a charter boat off Pomponio State Beach hanging on this wall. He notices a spike in reports of activity at nearby Mavericks around the first of October, right when the first big swells bring in surfers and the water is murky with debris from early storms.

"There's a deep trough just inside where the sharks cruise," he said. "It's a great area for them."

At Pigeon Point, Jeff Parry, the general manager of the hostel, has made his peace with the big fish.

"I've been surfing around here since I was 14 and I've never seen a shark," he said. "I just don't think about it too much. If I get a really heavy feeling, I get out."

But along with remnants of a Portuguese whaling cove and the historic lighthouse, shark attacks are a part of the local landscape for him.

"You see that rocky island way off shore?" Parry said, pointing to a foggy wash-rock north of the point. "We call that Shark Island. There was a diver who got bit out there. He made it back to shore but then he just bled out. It was all over the papers."


Confirmed and unprovoked

Territory Total Fatal Last

Attacks Attacks Fatality

Humboldt 11 0

Marin 11 0

San Diego 10 1 1959

Monterey 9 2 1981


Sonoma 8 0

San Luis Obispo 7 2 2003

Santa Cruz 6 0

Santa Barbara 6 0

San Francisco 4 1 1959

Los Angeles 4 0

Del Norte 2 0

Mendocino 1 1 2004

Alameda 1 0

Orange 1 0

Unspecified 2 0

California 92 7 2004
original URL: http://www.hmbreview.com/articles/2007/08/01/news/local_news/story05.txt
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