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Seal Beach uses drone to track young great white sharks

Seal Beach is using a $1,400 drone to track juvenile great white sharks in the area

With his head covered by a beach towel, Seal Beach Marine Safety Lt. Chris Pierce focused on an iPad mounted on a remote control console.

On the tablet's screen was a live video feed of the Pacific Ocean several yards off the coast of Surfside. A lifeguard boat appeared on the left side of the screen, along with a gray figure swimming in the water.

It was a juvenile great white shark, about 5 feet to 6 feet long, seen in high definition through the Marine Safety Department's new drone.

"We sent the drone about 1,100 feet from where we were, just outside the surf line," Pierce said Wednesday. "There was nobody in the area and the shark was swimming around, doing shark things."

Seal Beach has reported several sightings of young great white sharks off its coast since late April. Marine Safety Chief Joe Bailey said he would send a few lifeguards on a boat or personal watercraft to try to count the sharks, but that proved difficult and time-consuming.

"It's hard being 5 feet off the water and looking into the water and searching a wide area," Bailey said. "So we came up with the idea to try a drone."

In May, the department bought a $1,400 Phantom 3 model from drone manufacturer DJI and has used it at least twice a week to monitor sharks. Bailey, Pierce and Marine Safety Officer Nick Bolin have been trained to pilot the drone, though the department is looking to train its entire staff to use the equipment when needed.

The drone has a range of about 1.2 miles and can record about 20 minutes of video, Pierce said. On Wednesday, Pierce saw five sharks on the drone's live video feed. On Monday, 10 were seen.

"It's been a great tool to identify if we have sharks in the water," Bailey said.

Shark advisory signs have been posted on the sand at Surfside since the initial sightings, but the department hasn't closed the beaches.

The Marine Safety Department turned to Chris Lowe, a marine biology professor at Cal State Long Beach, to help safety officials identify the breed of the sharks off the coast and to figure out why they were there.

Lowe, director of the university's shark lab, has been studying sharks for more than 25 years. He said the great whites could be turning up because of the unseasonably warm water or the abundance of stingrays they can feed on.

"These are the things that we're trying to figure out," he said.

This month, Lowe and his students placed tracking devices on six juvenile great white sharks to follow their movements. Preliminary results show that the pod has remained off Surfside and the Sunset Beach area of Huntington Beach, and Lowe says the sharks might stay there through the summer and possibly the winter if the water remains warm.

Lowe said the sharks aren't focused solely on the Surfside area. In the last nine years, he has seen juvenile great whites linger around Ventura County, Santa Monica Bay and San Onofre State Beach during the summer. The sharks typically headed toward warmer waters off Baja California during the winter, but for the last two years they have remained in Southern California.

"We haven't had a winter for the past few years, so our water temperatures never got that cold," he said.

Bailey said the department will continue warning beachgoers about the sharks but won't take further action if sharks continue not to bother swimmers and surfers.

"The sharks are behaving naturally and normally as the experts think they would," he said. "They're cruising around and they're feeding on bottom fish.… It's unusual to have them in Seal Beach, but their behavior is not unusual."

Surfside resident Sonny Reser, 73, an avid kite surfer and diver, said he is fascinated by the number of sharks off the coast.

Reser said he's in the water almost every day and sees at least one shark when he kite surfs.

"There were a couple that were out here this morning," he said Wednesday as he watched Pierce fly the drone. "Sometimes you go by them and they'll take off, but other times they'll just stop and look at you."

Reser has lived in Surfside for more than 20 years, but this is the first time he has seen sharks in the area. He has gone to Cocos Island in Costa Rica to dive with sharks, but now he doesn't have to go far to get a glimpse.

"I don't mind them, and they don't bother me or make me nervous," he said. "I just don't like them being right underneath me when I'm in the water."

anthonyclark.carpio@latimes.com

Carpio writes for Times Community News.

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