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DNA shows great white shark attacked boy off Encinitas beach

DNA shows great white shark attacked boy off Encinitas beach
Keane Webre-Hayes, 13, recovering from shark attack at Rady Children's Hospital on Oct. 1 (Courtesy of Ellie Hayes via AP)

Results from DNA testing of a wetsuit worn by a teenage boy bitten by a shark last month while lobster diving in Encinitas confirmed he was attacked by a great white shark, officials said Wednesday.

Lifeguards and scientists had suspected from the beginning that they were dealing with a white shark, which witnesses described as being about 11 feet long.

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But results obtained Friday of analysis of a DNA sample swabbed from the wetsuit of 13-year-old Keane Webre-Hayes provided conclusive evidence that a white shark was responsible.

“Shark bite incidents are exceedingly rare, considering the number of people that use Southern California waters, but people do need to be aware that the fall season is a time when more large juvenile and adult sharks may be moving along the coast,” Chris Lowe, director of Cal State Long Beach’s Shark Lab, said in a statement.

The teenager was severely injured in the attack, which occurred as he was diving for lobster at Beacon’s Beach on Sept. 29, the first day of the recreational lobster season.

The boy was about 200 yards from shore, in water about 9 feet deep, when he was attacked. Lifeguards later said the boy was lucky that an off-duty state lifeguard and off-duty Oceanside police officer were nearby. They pulled him into a kayak and applied pressure to his badly bleeding wound.

After being airlifted to Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego in critical condition, Keane underwent surgery and improved rapidly. He has been released from the hospital and is recovering at home, Encinitas city officials said.

After the attack, lifeguards closed down a stretch of North County beaches for two days, keeping swimmers, surfers and divers out of the water from Ponto Beach in southern Carlsbad to Swami’s Beach in Encinitas. The beaches reopened after no other shark sightings were reported by lifeguards or members of the public.

A new test is being developed that can detect shark DNA in ocean water samples where they’ve been swimming.

Such a test could be used by lifeguards and biologists to get a better idea of which types of sharks are in a particular area.

“While the methods still will require more testing and calibration, this could potentially offer a way for lifeguards and biologists to figure out what species was involved, and whether that species is still in the area,” Lowe said.

Southern California is a known nursery area for white sharks, with juveniles ranging in size from 4 feet up to 10 or 11 feet.

The juveniles are mainly fish-eaters and therefore less dangerous to humans than adults, which feed on marine mammals like sea lions and seals, said Andrew Nosal, a professor of environmental and ocean sciences at the University of San Diego who has studied sharks in San Diego for the last 11 years.

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Nosal, who saw photos of the teen’s bite wounds, had speculated that the shark in the attack was likely a white shark even before the DNA test results came back.

The fact there are so many sharks off the coast of San Diego is good news because that means the ecosystem is healthy, he said. “These sharks, they are top predators, they are an important part of the food chain and they keep the ecosystem balanced.”

The odds of being attacked by a shark while swimming in the ocean remain small, Nosal said.

The number of white sharks swimming off the coast of Southern California has been increasing for the last 10 to 15 years, according to researchers.

“I try to remind people there are no such thing as ‘shark-infested’ waters. This is where they live, this is their home. And you can’t infest your own home,” Nosal said. “We just have to remember that we don’t belong in the water, that’s not our home. And when we get into the water, there is a risk to getting into the water, and it is a very small risk.”

Kucher writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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