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California beaches reopen after shark sightings

Elinor Dempsey and her surfboard, which had a bite taken out of it by a shark.
Elinor Dempsey and her surfboard, which had a bite taken out of it by a shark.
Elinor Dempsey via NBC L.A.

A pair of shark sightings this weekend off the California coast prompted two beach closures.

Elinor Dempsey says she was surfing at Morro Strand Beach off the Central Coast when a shark swam under her board — and took a bite out of it. She told her story to KPCC media partner NBC4.

"Sitting on the board just, you know, relaxing. Next thing I knew, its body was literally next to me and time sort of stops and I thought, 'I bet I could pat it.' 'Cause I thought it was a dolphin, it was the color of a dolphin."

Dempsey shoved her board at the shark before jumping off and swimming to shore. It was later found with a 14-inch wide bite mark.

Christine Lowe, a park aide for Morro Strand State Beach, says they have signs up on the beach warning of sharks, but that the beach is open. She says the warning signs will be up through at least Sept. 2.

Shark bite video

Meanwhile, kayakers off La Jolla Shores saw a 10-foot hammerhead circle their boats on Saturday. Lifeguards closed the beach for the rest of the day.

Captain Joe Amador with San Diego Fire Department says La Jolla Shores was closed on Saturday after a shark sighting. Then on Sunday there was a shark advisory, which basically means "swim at your own risk," and there was a second shark sighting. That advisory was set to be lifted at 1 p.m. Monday.

Hammerhead Shark video

President of the Shark Research Committee Ralph Collier planned to meet with people from both incidents, including Connor Lyon, whose kayak was bitten by a shark, and Dempsey.

Collier will examine the shark bites on the kayak and surfboard to find out more information on the shark, including its size. Before embarking on his trip, Collier, who began documenting shark attacks in 1962, spoke to KPCC about shark bites and other shark facts.

"The greater the spacing between the teeth, the larger the shark," Collier said.

There weren't any shark teeth found in the board, but Collier is going to take a closer look.

"I'm going to look very carefully to see if we might have any small fragments that might be embedded in the surfboard. I'm currently and have been for several years now working on a brand new plenary DNA project, where we are extracting DNA profiles from the enamel coding on white shark's teeth, something no one has ever done before, and if there is a small fragment in there, then we can get DNA from that," Collier said. "That DNA profile we can then match to other DNA profiles of white sharks that will hopefully give us some idea of which family group the shark might actually belong to."

Collier said that white sharks are the most common ones that humans run into off the coast of North America.

Examining objects that a shark bit is intriguing, Collier said.

"I find it challenging to be able to try to look at something and determine, well, how did the shark bite this? Was it a 90 degree angle when he came into the surfboard or did he come at a 45 degree angle? What was going on in the water around that person at the time that might have motivated the shark to bite?" Collier said.

After 50 years of looking, Collier said that there's no common denominator in what causes sharks and humans to come into conflict like in these situations. Still, there are factors present in the majority of shark attacks.

"One of them, along the Pacific coast, we normally find that a high percentage of the incidents occur in and around pinniped populations — seals and sea lions. Well, we know that white sharks feed on them," Collier said.

Also, the majority of shark attacks occur between August and October, Collier said. That's because those months also have the presence of salmon and steelhead spawn, which seals and sea lions feed on.

"You have all sorts of predator and prey actions going on between the salmon, the seals and the sharks, and now you drop a human in the middle of all of this and quite frankly, I've always been surprised we don't have more events than what we have," Collier said.

Overall, though, Collier said not to worry.

"People shouldn't fear sharks. They are not out there to eat us. That's not their reason for being," Collier said.

Collier offered some advice on how to minimize the chance you'll run into a shark:

This story has been updated.