Environment & Science

Orange County lifeguards prepare for new, sharky reality

File photo: A shark advisory issued by the Long Beach Marine Safety Division. Several Los Angeles and Orange County beaches have issued shark advisories and closures in recent months due to a large number of shark sitings near the shore. Experts say it could be the new reality.
File photo: A shark advisory issued by the Long Beach Marine Safety Division. Several Los Angeles and Orange County beaches have issued shark advisories and closures in recent months due to a large number of shark sitings near the shore. Experts say it could be the new reality.
Long Beach Marine Safety Division via Facebook

To safely respond to a shark attack, the United States Lifesaving Association says lifeguards should have an "enclosed rescue boat with high gunwales.” But some Orange County marine safety agencies don’t have boats, and even if they do, it’s unlikely they’d be parked or cruising close enough to a shark attack to be useful, said Ian Burton, a marine safety officer for the city of San Clemente. 

“It’s all so new,” he said on a recent morning, standing inside the main lifeguard station north of the San Clemente pier. “The lifeguard world, at least for us here in Orange County, has never really had to deal with such a scenario. And now here we have two attacks in the last year.” 

Lifeguards in San Clemente and elsewhere along the Orange County and Los Angeles coastline are preparing for a potential new reality, one where white sharks frequently swim and feed near shores where surfers catch waves and bathers swim. Though attacks are extremely rare, the two attacks that have occurred in Orange County in the last two years — the first attacks ever recorded here — have put marine safety agencies on high alert. 

Shark sightings have become fairly common in recent months. More than 100 shark sightings have been reported in San Clemente since May, the city’s marine safety chief, Bill Humphreys, told city council this week. 

“This isn’t due to just more people on stand up paddle boards or drones," Humphreys said. "There’s more sharks.”

The city has closed off its 2-mile stretch of beach at least five times in the last few months because of shark concerns, including once over the busy Memorial Day weekend. (The first closure was after a shark bit a woman a few miles south of San Clemente at the popular Church surf spot in late April. The woman, Leeanne Ericson, suffered serious injuries but has begun to walk again, according to a recent update on a fundraising webpage.)

To keep beachgoers safe, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department has been routinely flying a helicopter up and down the coast to look for sharks.

San Clemente's marine safety division has a drone that it sends up when sharks are spotted. The drone, called Pelican One, takes video and shows it in real time on the controller display, so lifeguards can estimate the size of the shark and monitor its behavior. 

Orange and L.A. county lifeguard agencies use an algorithm, which takes into consideration the shark’s size, behavior and whether there’s been an attack, to help them decide whether to close a beach and for how long. 

"Typically if a shark’s 6- to 8-feet, they’re mostly feeding on smaller sea life like stingrays and fish,” explained San Clemente marine safety officer Blake Anderson. "The 8-foot mark kind of distinguishes between eating smaller sea life into eating more marine mammals such as sea lions and possibly mistaking a person as a sea lion.”

Marine Safety Chief Humphreys gave some scenarios to city council. “If it’s a 10-foot shark that’s acting aggressively, it’s going to be a closure,” Humphreys said. "If it’s a 6-foot shark that bites somebody, it’s going to be a closure.” 

If there is an attack, a lifeguard may or may not initiate a rescue. 

“The last thing we want to do is send a 16-,17-, 18-year-old out on a rescue when there’s a 10-foot shark lingering out there,” Anderson said. Older lifeguards can decide for themselves whether they feel safe trying to make a rescue. 

Chief Humphreys said he recently sent an email to the parents of 800 children registered for the city's junior lifeguard program this summer, ensuring them that the children’s safety is the top priority and that some activities may be modified. 

Tryouts for the positions of lifeguard captain and lieutenant are coming up, and the city had planned to do a long-distance, ocean swim test next week. Humphreys said they decided to do it in a pool instead. 

“Maybe we’re being overly cautious, but we’d rather err on the side of safety."