Playing tag with SoCal's great white sharks

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165430 full

The Shark Lab at California State University Long Beach has a bumper crop of research subjects this summer. White sharks, more commonly known as great whites, have been hanging around L.A. and Orange County beaches in numbers Shark Lab director Chris Lowe only dreamed of a decade ago. 

In recent months, he and his research assistants have tagged 18 sharks — mostly 1- to 3-year-olds — in local waters. That's more than they ever have this early in the year, Lowe said. "And the peak of pupping season isn’t until late July.”

Pupping season, when female white sharks give birth to 4- to 5 1/2-foot-long babies, generally runs from May to October. Researchers don’t know exactly where they give birth, but they suspect that the babies hightail it to warmer, coastal waters quickly after they’re born. They then spend the next several years cruising the coast, eating stingrays and other small prey.  

The dearth of knowledge about white sharks drives Lowe’s research. Asked how much we know about the ocean predators on a scale of 1 to 10, Lowe answered “2.” 

"We’re getting there,” he said. "We’ve jumped from zero to 2 in literally the last 20 years. And all the new technology that we have is going to get us up that scale much, much faster.”

I recently joined Lowe on a trip off Dana Point to see some of that technology in action. The goal was to find baby white sharks and attach acoustic tags to their backs in order to track their movements up and down the coast. 

A research assistant working for Chris Lowe of California State University, Long Beach, attaches a device to a pole used to tag sharks for a research project near San Clemente, June 28, 2017.
A research assistant working for Chris Lowe of California State University, Long Beach, attaches a device to a pole used to tag sharks for a research project near San Clemente, June 28, 2017. Andrew Cullen for KPCC

Receivers attached to buoys along the shoreline register data any time one of the tagged sharks passes within 300 yards.
 
“It’s kind of like using E-ZPass on the toll road to keep track of who’s going by,” Lowe said. The city of San Clemente recently purchased several of its own receivers so that it can monitor sharks swimming near its public beaches. 

The city has logged more than 100 shark sightings this year, forcing lifeguards to close sections of beach to swimming and surfing on several occasions out of safety concerns. 

One of those closures followed an attack on a woman swimming at San Onofre State Beach on April 29. She survived but suffered serious injuries to her hip and upper leg that kept her in the hospital until mid-June, the last time she updated her status on a fundraising webpage. 

Hers is the fifth confirmed unprovoked shark attack in Orange County since 1926, according to the International Shark Attack File maintained by the University of Florida. Another woman was bitten last year while swimming off Corona Del Mar.

Chris Lowe of California State University, Long Beach, joins San Clemente lifeguard Rod Mellott on a jet ski while looking for sharks during a research project on shark behavior near the San Clemente pier, June 28, 2017.
Chris Lowe of California State University, Long Beach, joins San Clemente lifeguard Rod Mellott on a jet ski while looking for sharks during a research project on shark behavior near the San Clemente pier, June 28, 2017. Andrew Cullen for KPCC

Trolling for baby sharks

I set off with Lowe and his research team from Dana Point Harbor on the 22-foot boat “Wingman” as the morning fog began to break up. Near the San Clemente coast, local lifeguard Rod Mellott drove up on a jet ski. He wore a headset to communicate with the pilot of an Orange County Sheriff’s Department helicopter flying overhead.

The sheriff’s helicopter has become a key alley in Lowe’s research and in efforts to keep OC beaches safe for swimmers. It’s much easier to spot the outline of a shark from the sky on a sunny day than to scan the water for fins at sea level. 

Plus, Lowe said, the increasing number of tourist boats out looking for sharks may be starting to spook them.

“People want to see them, which is great, but they are kind of harassing the sharks,” he said, adding that he hoped his research might lead to guidelines for responsible shark watching. 

Lowe pulled on a wetsuit, attached a tag to the end of a spear and got on the back of the jet ski. He and Mellott headed a few hundred yards closer to shore and then we all turned south to troll for sharks. We scanned the water while the helicopter above did several laps up and down the coast.  

Nothing. Not a single shark, even though there were multiple sightings around San Clemente the previous day.

But the trip wasn’t a total bust: On the way back to Dana Point Harbor, we stopped at a buoy — just outside of the designated swim zone at Doheny State Beach — to check on one of Lowe's receivers. 

Lowe swam out to the buoy, detached a canister holding the device, then swam back to the boat and transferred the data to a laptop computer. Lowe’s research assistant, Echelle Burns, pulled up a graph showing dozens of blips, color-coded to represent individual, tagged sharks. 

Scrolling through the data, Burns announced that the most recent detection was just a few hours before we passed by the same location.

In all, 17 tagged white sharks had swum by the buoy a cumulative 1,125 times in the previous two weeks. That means they’re hanging out in the area.

Follow the movement of tagged sharks and other fish at scattn.org

Shark researcher Chris Lowe of California State University, Long Beach swims to a buoy to attach a device that collects information from sharks that the team has tagged for a research project on shark behavior near Dana Point, June 28, 2017.
Shark researcher Chris Lowe of California State University, Long Beach swims to a buoy to attach a device that collects information from sharks that the team has tagged for a research project on shark behavior near Dana Point, June 28, 2017. Andrew Cullen for KPCC

When life gives you no sharks, ask questions instead

All these sharks hanging out together, does that make them a school? I asked Lowe. 

“Technically, no,” he said. “They’re not that close together, but they do use the same general area. We’re not sure if there’s a social component or whether they’re all seeking out the same conditions.”

He thinks the latter is more likely. Historical fishing data shows that there are at least four juvenile white shark “hot spots” in Southern California: Ventura/Oxnard, Santa Monica Bay, Huntington Beach and the stretch between Dana Point and San Onofre.

But Lowe hasn’t yet been able to determine from his research what makes young white sharks pick one area one year and another the next. 

This year, the summertime hot spot for baby sharks seems to be Ventura, Lowe said, and for juvenile (1- to 3-year-olds), it's Belmont Shore in Long Beach and between Dana Point and San Clemente. 

Generally, Lowe said, the young sharks seem to be attracted by the warm, coastal waters (juvenile sharks can’t handle cold temperatures the way adult sharks can), the lack of predators, like orca and other big sharks, and abundant food.

"The number one thing we’ve found in baby white sharks’ stomachs are stingrays,” Lowe said. "And stingrays are super abundant in Southern California. Their numbers have been going up over the last 50 years because we got rid of all the coastal predators." 
 
Lowe said the increased number of sharks we’re seeing this year is an ecological success story: decades ago, we started to protect white sharks and the marine mammals that adult sharks feed on, and now there are more of both. 
 
“You can’t just say we want to have marine mammals, but we don’t want to have sharks. We need them to have a healthy ecosystem,” he said.

Lowe suspects that the sharks’ behavior might be changing because of rising ocean temperatures and changing climate patterns. The young sharks that usually migrate in the winter from Southern California to Baja haven’t done so in the past few years. 
 
"We had weird oceanographic conditions this past winter,” Lowe said. "It started to get cold, then all of a sudden a warm slug of water moved in close to shore again, so it's possible they started to move to Baja, got halfway there and then conditions changed, and they thought, 'Ok, maybe I should stay.' We just don’t know the answer to those questions.” 
 
Lowe hopes to get at some of these questions by tagging sharks and tracking their movements and behaviors. But right now he’s sort of a victim of his own — and the sharks’ — success: it’s barely the beginning of prime research season, and he’s pretty much out of tags and out of money. 

Chris Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach, releases a juvenile white shark off Belmont Shore in spring 2017 after successfully affixing a smart tag to its dorsal fin.
Chris Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach, releases a juvenile white shark off Belmont Shore in spring 2017 after successfully affixing a smart tag to its dorsal fin. Courtesy: Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab

Sharing the waves
 
Lowe hopes the high demand for his research — especially from local beaches wanting to keep visitors safe — will translate into more resources to fund his work. 

In the meantime, he's constantly reminding the public that the likelihood of being attacked by a shark is extremely slim -- much less than the chance of dying in a car accident on the way to the beach, he told me. 

If you do see a shark, consider yourself lucky, he said. And respect its territory. 

"We’ve basically had a sterile ocean for the last 50 years where we got rid of all the predators, either because we wanted to eat them or we killed them because we viewed them as a risk,” he said. "People have to learn to share the waves again." 

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