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Joe Surf: Shark attack yields insights into area predators

Joe Surf: Shark attack yields insights into area predators
Warnings are on Corona Del Mar beach after a suspected shark attack. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Shark happens.

It's just a way of life for those of us along the shore these days, as there have been more and more shark sightings close to land over the past couple of years.

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The potential danger of living with the creatures so close to us was evident over the weekend when a woman swimming off the coast of Corona del Mar was bitten by a shark, according to officials.

Though that was more the exception than the rule, it's good to know what we're dealing with.

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Specifically, lots of sharks.

"The last year and a half has been unprecedented," said Claude Panis of Huntington Beach's Marine Safety. "We've seen more Great Whites, and we've had instances of surfers being bumped on their boards. I've been here almost 40 years (H.B. Fire Department) and I've never experienced that level of activity with regard to sharks. It's kind of a new thing. For now, it's become kind of the new normal to have them around.

"But with that said, being here 38 years, I've seen a lot of cycles, things come and go, all kinds of things with the currents. You get the red tuna crabs, for a while there in the '80s, we were seeing orcas off our coast. I've seen all kinds of weird patterns of things."

For the past couple of years, several Great White juveniles have congregated in the Sunset Beach area. There are many reports of sightings, and even more that aren't reported.

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"We tagged 13 of them last year with Dr. Chris Lowe of Long Beach State, and he's actually followed them after we tagged them, and he sees a pattern where they stay in the area," Panis said. "They move up and down the coast but they stay in the same general area. Some of them actually leave the area, some of them come back.

"We've seen some that we've tagged in the area of Sunset Beach go up to the L.A. beaches and them come back down. Some of them have gone south to San Clemente, but there's still a lot to learn about them."

Panis said officials believe the sharks are here for two simple reasons — food and safety.

"Dr. Lowe's take on it was the sharks are going to follow their food supply," Panis said. "And at that time we had a lot of stingrays in the area. In fact the police helicopters saw the sharks feeding on the stingrays, so they're going to stay where the food is.

"Another thing about the juveniles is they don't like to go into deep water because they're safer in shallow water. Apparently, as soon as the mother gives birth to them, one of the first things she does is try to eat them. So for that reason they're going to hang closer to the coast, where it's safer for them. Specifically at Surfside Beach and Sunset Beach we've seen a lot of them hanging out of them."

Tagging the sharks allows researchers like Lowe to track where they've been, but it doesn't enable them to track them in real time.

"When he puts a tag on them it's actually a transmitter tag that sends out a signal," Panis said. "So to track them he has to put out receiver units up and down the coast. He's had one at Sunset Beach, he's had one at Bolsa Chica, he's put one out at our pier, north of our pier and when they get within range of the receiver, it pings the receiver and stores that data on the receiver. He has to go by later and pick up the receiver and send it to a computer and download the data."

While the tagging of the 13 sharks is a good way to study them, there are plenty more in the area.

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"We didn't tag them all," Panis said. "There's a lot that aren't tagged. There's more than just 13 out there, let's put it that way. I just know we do get regular sightings in Sunset Beach."

So now the big question: How long will they stay around? They won't be juveniles forever.

"These are still yearlings and maybe 2 or 3 years old," Panis said. "One of them we've seen is actually 11 feet and hangs out around the tidal inlet over by Seapoint, so we don't have any that are 15 feet yet. They're still eating fish.

"When they get to be about 3 to 5 years old they can get bigger than 15 feet and, at that point, their diet changes. They go from eating fish to eating mammals, like sea lions. And when they start doing that they'll gravitate to where there is some of that kind of food. Central California has more sea lions, and mammals that they would eat so they should be leaving and eventually gravitating toward their food supply."

Panis understands the excitement and drama related to shark sightings, but he wanted to make clear there are dangers for those who enter the water that have nothing to do with big, sharp teeth.

"I think people should be more worried about being caught in a rip current and being swept out into the ocean than being attacked by a shark," he said. "More people die in rip currents than shark attacks on our beach. We are constantly dealing with that and that is something they should be worried about.

"People need to check in with the lifeguards regarding all conditions, not just if there was a shark sighting. Strong surf, rip currents, that's more of a realistic threat to their life.

"I know it's a hot topic right now with what happened down south but I'm looking out the window right now and there's a solid south swell, and we've got some strong rip currents and any of those rip currents could grab somebody waist deep water, drag 'em out and drown 'em. The rip current threat is a much more serious threat than any kind of sharks in the area."

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JOE HAAKENSON is a Huntington Beach-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at joe@juvecreative.com.

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