EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — Southern California beaches always draw crowds, but people are not the only visitors.
White sharks, known popularly as great whites, also swim among beachgoers – many times undetected.
Although shark attacks are rare, the LA Times reported researchers at California State University, Long Beach’s “Shark Lab” are trying to predict where and when these ocean predators will show up.
Cal State Long Beach professor Dr. Chris Lowe joined us to explain.
The goal of the “Shark Lab” is to learn more about sharks along the California coast and to advise lifeguards and the public whenever there is a sighting. Technicians can do that with the help of drones.
“It’s a relatively new technology that scientists are now using, that gives us a view that we’ve never had before. Since white sharks are such wide-ranging, highly mobile animals that are good at hiding in their environment, it gives us a bird’s eye view that enables us to see things we couldn’t see before,” Lowe said.
A lot of times when people are out in the water and among those sharks, they are not able to see the sharks, but the technicians can see them. Lowe said the numbers are up because the sharks were probably overfished and impacted due to human activities.
“But, it was really the recovery of the adult food source — marine mammals — that have probably been the biggest stimulant to bringing the populations back. So, we’ve got people using the beach for recreational purposes, they’ve been doing so for the last 50 years, but they haven’t gotten used to sharing the ocean with an animal that’s normally there, which are white sharks,” Lowe said.
One of the things Lowe and his team have learned is that there are hot spots throughout Southern California that white sharks use as their nurseries. These are areas where newborn sharks come into beaches and hang out there for a few weeks and up to a few months.
“The hot spots that we identified are Santa Barbara, Ventura, Santa Monica Bay, Long Beach, Huntington Beach, Dana Point, and San Diego. What’s interesting is that the more we’re studying them, the more we’re finding new hot spots popping up, and they shift from year to year,” Lowe said.
When it comes to food for white sharks, humans are not on the menu. Adult white sharks normally prefer to feed on marine mammals such as seals and sea lions, but they will also eat fish and squid. In Southern California, the young white sharks are not trained enough to feed on marine mammals so they’re feeding largely on fish and the number one thing they like to eat are stingrays. It’s not until they’re 10 or 11 feet long that they start transitioning to try to feed on bigger mammals, and it could take them years to successfully hunt that seal,” Lowe said.
When it comes to people being bitten by white sharks, Lowe said he thinks they’re being bitten by juvenile white sharks who are learning how to catch marine mammals, and they think those bites are mistakes.
There have been a record number of white sharks in California’s shallow waters this summer and chances are that someone will have an encounter with a shark. However, Lowe said he conducting a study about the behavior of white sharks when they get close people. In most cases, sharks just swim past people as if they weren’t even there.
“Hopefully what we’re going to learn is that as long as you mind your own business while you’re out in the ocean, sharks seem to mind theirs,” Lowe said.