You hear about that shark?

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By now you’ve all likely seen and/or heard the news of the recent shark activity at OB. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to have affected the crowds much.

You know what they say.  Taste the water, if it’s salty there are sharks.  Yet, still lots of surprised comments on Surfline and Facebook.  After all, this is Ocean Beach not South Africa.

It definitely shouldn’t be a surprise to Central and Northern California surfers.  OB is of course part of the infamous Red Triangle and although I like to think our beach is less attractive to big predators, you can be certain they are out there.  In fact, if you spend time in the ocean in California you can be pretty sure that one has more likely than not swam under you or at least very near you as you sat on your board dangling your toes.  After all, tis’ the season.

Great Whites are truly amazing creatures having evolved little in the 16 million years they’ve been on this planet.  Crazy fact – sharks have been around 100 times longer than us and 3 times longer than the dinosaurs.  They pre-date insects!!

This latest sighting was clearly a juvenile as we all saw from the Surfline cam footage.  The larger more developed ones in our area don’t behave that way, thank goodness.  They hit from the bottom, but don’t fully breach like that.  I know their South African and Australian cousins do it all the time, but they are smaller and leaner.  They don’t subsist on the same massive elephant seals that our friends up here do and furthermore they are genetically different animals having been isolated from each other for so long.  Juveniles start off eating fish, rays, seals etc before graduating to larger prey and are therefore more nimble.

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Image Courtesy of George T. Probst

I had the unfortunate, or fortunate, depending on how you look at it, experience of being within arm’s reach of one early last March.  March 4th to be exact.

I had always told myself that they don’t like Ocean Beach because it’s like a big desert.  It’s shallow for a long ways out and they prefer deeper water.  They don’t have anywhere to sneak up from the depths and surprise prey, no rocks, sharp drop offs etc.  Furthermore, there aren’t a whole lot of seals, sea lions, or elephant seals at our beach.  Spots north or south or around the corner under the bridge, sure…but OB, not so much.  If they did come through, it was only in September, October and November, and they were just passing through on their way to more bountiful pastures.

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Image Courtesy of Warren Price as seen on @seasblack

I had been aware of the Shark Research Committee and the section by Ralph Collier cataloguing all the shark attacks and encounters here in California for years and knew they were out there.  The occasional sighting at Sloat or Pacheco over the years was interesting to read.  Still, I convinced myself that OB was relatively shark free.  In fact, there has never been an attack here at OB, and only one fatality in San Francisco which was at Baker Beach, near the mouth of the bay and in deeper water.  After all, I had been surfing out here off and on for nearly 20 years and had never seen one or heard much about anyone who did.

My experience last year bended nearly every one of the myths that I had created to make myself feel better about the presence of sharks here.  It’s well known that Great Whites have a fairly predictable migration pattern.  They are mostly down south in the spring and early summer at places like the ‘White Shark Cafe’ and Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja.  It’s believed that they likely go to the ‘cafe’, which is roughly equal distance between Baja and Hawaii, to have sex, somehow.  They give birth to their young closer to shore, slowly making their way up the coast of California with their new-borns feeding along the way.  They typically arrive up here in the Bay Area in the Fall and Winter gorging themselves at places like Ano Nuevo, the Farallon Islands, Pt. Reyes, and Tomales Bay.

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Image courtesy of WhiteSharkCafe.com

So back to dispelling my myths.  My encounter was in the Spring not Fall.  It was in shallow water on the inside and not on the outside.  It was at OB and not at Montara or up north in Sonoma or Mendocino where I would have expected to see one first.

It was dusk…about 6:20 at night.  The sun had set 20-30 minutes before and so it was nearly dark and the water was dark silver grey with traces of color still reflecting from the clouds above.   I had just kicked out of a little waist to chest high right hander.  As I was paddling back out, a ~12-18 inch dorsal fin emerged directly in front of me.  Hard to say exactly how big the shark was, because I never saw the top of the shark or the trailing caudal fin.  It looked a lot like the picture below and I would say that based on what I saw it was likely a juvenile no bigger than 12-14ft.

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Photo Courtesy of SharkIntel.com.au

I was surfing with my friend Jacob who was visiting from out of town.  He was further outside and the shark swam perpendicular to me, and between us both.  Jake was a bit further out than me…maybe 20 yards or so.  It was literally a few feet away from me when it first emerged from the water.  I sat up abruptly and sort of backpaddled to a standing position on the sandbar.  I was now in the trough of the waves moving backwards as another wave approached, the next wave kind of pushed me even further away from it.  I happened to be playing around with my GoPro and low light camera settings that night and had actually filmed the wave I had been on.  I unfortunately didn’t keep it on after I kicked out though.

I was kind of in shock at first and simultaneously yelled to Jake on the outside and turned on the camera to see if I could get it on video.  Jake didn’t know what was up, but could tell I was spooked.  I was so surprised, because it was clearly a big animal, but the water was so shallow.  I didn’t think they’d ever want to come in that close.  I know other species of sharks do it, but I didn’t think our Great Whites did.  I think it actually hit its belly on the bottom as it passed through the trough of the wave, cause it nearly stopped for a split second and then sort of lurched forward as the next wave filled in.  By the time I turned the camera back on, the shark had submerged again.  Jake said on the beach that he saw something go by him…but he didn’t know what it was at first.

Here is a screen grab of right after I turned the camera back on.  You can see my friend Jake at the top of the wave on the right as I wave him in.  The shark was likely in the wave halfway between him and my hand in the frame.

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On the beach, we were both excited and talking a mile a minute.  We were the only two guys out.  It was exhilarating, definitely a little scary, but as the night went on I felt comfort in the fact that it must have known we were there and probably had been checking us out for a while…and most importantly, didn’t eat us.  It was so close to me and certainly could have, yet seemed so disinterested…swimming right by me, and away from me, really slowly.  We both stood on the beach straining to get another glimpse as we giggled with excitement from the shore, but never saw it again.  I hoped it might show up on the footage I got before and after, but I couldn’t find it there either.  I even tried to enhance it a bit to see if I could see anything, but the dark shadow in the wave is more likely just a shadow from the cresting wave.  It’s hard to tell though as the wide angle really distorts the perspective and size of objects.

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In some ways, the experience settled my fears a little bit.  It made me realize that they can be anywhere.  I don’t feel any more comfortable on the inside than I do sitting way out the back now.  I realize after seeing the way it behaved, that it really wasn’t interested in us at all as food.  Just really curious, I guess.

So back to what was captured on Surfline this week.  Another one of my neighbors said he and a friend saw the same kind of breach a couple blocks north of the first one, only a little further outside the lineup.  I don’t recall if it was the same day or the day after and Surfline didn’t get this one on video.

Multiple sightings (breaches) is definitely a first since I’ve lived here and I didn’t see anything on the Shark Research Committee site to suggest this was normal.  The water hasn’t been warmer than it was last year, in fact last summer/fall had several trunkable days.  We don’t seem to have a noticeably greater amount of sea life in the water, except for the record amount of whales earlier this year.  Overall, not drastically different conditions.  I do remember the packs of sharks seen not far from shore last year, which was really surprising to scientists as well as ocean goers.  What are they doing right offshore in groups of 20 or more??

The past few years we’ve seen breaches like this at spots like San Onofre and Sunset Beach in Malibu and fairly regular juvenile shark sightings in other spots in Southern California.  I guess now its our turn.

Not sure if this will be a regular occurrence up here or the new normal, but I guess its a good sign that our oceans are healthy.  It’s also a good reminder of the fact that even though we live in the city, we have this amazing vibrant wilderness at our doorsteps and it deserves the utmost respect.

 

 

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