by Rebecca Parsons
On April 29, 2017 thirty-four-year-old Leeanne Ericson was swimming at Churches beach when she was attacked by a shark. Surfers and onlookers responded quickly and efficiently and the victim was lifted to Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. Despite significant injuries and a long road to recovery, Ericson is now able to walk and is doing well considering the circumstances.
A year previously, in May 2016, a female triathlete was attacked by a shark while doing an ocean swim approximately 150 yards offshore in Corona Del Mar. The victim survived, but suffered severe injuries that would have been life threatening had it not been for her quick thinking and the fast action of lifeguards on site.
Since the attacks, sightings have been off the charts and the media has been all over it. San Clemente, Dana Point, and Long Beach received the majority of the sightings and “Shark Sighted” signs have become a constant on local beaches.
So why the increase in the number of sightings? Why now?
According to the Ocean Institute’s At Seas Programs Director, Leslie Kretschmar, “studies have shown that juvenile white sharks have a certain water temperature preference. In recent years, our waters have provided perfect conditions during the summer months. Our local coastline provides a safe and warm location for them to learn to hunt and to grow. The individuals we are seeing on our coastline tend to be 5-9’ long, so they are the typically the ‘young of the year’ and are 4-5-year-old juveniles. At this stage in life, they feed on skates, rays, and fish, which are in abundance just off the shoreline. Adult white sharks target seals and sea lions whose populations have successfully rebounded from near extinction, in California, to carrying capacity in the last 100 years.”
In addition to ideal conditions, conservation efforts may be another contributing factor to the population spike. In the ‘90s the use of commercial and recreational gill netting was prohibited. Previously, sharks were frequently caught as bycatch and were often killed or discarded without consequence. Now, fines for killing a white shark can be as high as $10,000. Although conservation efforts took a while to pay off, an increased shark population is an indicator of a healthy and thriving ecosystem. Add in a hyper-alerted media and an increased prevalence of cameras and drones and bam, shark central.
So the question is: should we avoid the ocean? And is there anything that can be done to deter sharks from frequenting our coastline?
In short, the answer to both is no. Despite an increase in sightings, the local shark population isn’t significantly higher than it ever was and the majority of the shark’s sighted close to shore have been juveniles. Statistically speaking, your chances of being attacked by a shark are slim to none. According to the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack Files, your odds of being attacked are one in 11.5 million.
Realistically, humans do more harm to sharks than the other way around. Millions of sharks are killed annually for their fins, suffer from the effects of habitat loss due to pollution and environmental degradation, are caught in shark nets, and some of the recently sighted white sharks have been found with large cuts, most likely from boat props. With an increase in the number in sightings, we must hope that instead of instilling fear in people, it increases awareness into the preservation of this important species.
Facts aside, it’s human nature to feel some degree of fear. Luckily, there are some precautions that can be taken to further decrease your odds of being attacked. Sharks typically feed at dawn and dusk, so it is wise to avoid the water during those times. Surfing or swimming in groups is also a smart move as sharks are more likely to attack individuals. Avoid swimming after heavy rains or in murky waters as it decreases visibility in the water. Also, avoid wearing shiny jewelry or watches, as they resemble fish scales in the water. Most importantly, use common sense and make wise choices.
There are even shark deterrent products on the market to protect you. Wetsuits are available in camouflage patterns or strategically placed striped patterns, which work to confuse and deter sharks, hopefully leaving the person in the suit unharmed. Human studies and testing are still ongoing, but with increased research designs should continue to improve. There are also magnetic and electrical devices that work to deter sharks in the vicinity.
Again, odds of an attack are slim to none, but as with anything, there is an inherent risk when you set foot in the sea. Just remember, you are in a shark’s home, not the other way around. Treat it as such.