Environment & Science

As shark populations bounce back, here's how to be safe

A researcher stands on a jet ski while a baby white shark swims in waters below.
A researcher stands on a jet ski while a baby white shark swims in waters below.
Capt. Joe Bailey – Seal Beach Lifeguards

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Yes, sharks are dangerous creatures with mouths full of sharp teeth. They are also wild animals that for decades were hunted and netted until populations hit seriously low levels.

Now, after years of conservation efforts, shark populations are bouncing back in the Pacific Ocean. That's leading to more run-ins like the one that took place Sunday in Newport Beach.

Maria Korcsmaros, 52, was swimming when she was apparently attacked by what experts believe was an adolescent white shark (the proper name for what's commonly called a "great white shark). She is currently recovering at Orange County Global Medical Center.

Chris Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach, said this is early in the year for a shark attack, but he said it wasn't totally surprising.

"More and more people are using the ocean than ever before," he said. At the same time, shark populations are rebounding from decades of overfishing.

“Basically two generations of Americans had unfettered access to the ocean. We eliminated all those predators 50 to 100 years ago and now that they are protected, they are coming back.”

Fishing for white sharks was outlawed in California in 1994, and in 2013 the animal was recommended for listing as a threatened or endangered species under the California Endangered Species Act, though that recommendation was withdrawn a year later.

They also have multinational protections from the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the World Conservation Union (IUCN) since some fear the animals could go extinct in the wild.

All of this has led to rise in shark numbers, and opportunities for shark-human encounters.

An underwater shot of a white shark.
An underwater shot of a white shark.
CSULB Shark Lab

There's a lot we don't know about white sharks, but thanks to scientists like Lowe who have studied their behavior and tracked their movements, we have some tips for avoiding shark encounters.

Be shark aware

First, remember we share the waters with lots of creatures, sharks included. Since shark numbers were so low for so long, most of us aren't use to looking for sharks. Keeping an eye out for them and thinking about risks is the first step in safety, says Lowe. 

Stick together

Sharks tend to avoid heavily populated beaches. Sure, choosing to swim with the crowds might disrupt your solitude, but it'll likely keep sharks away as well.

"We rarely see shark related incidents at heavily populated beaches," Lowe explained.

Avoid early morning and night swims

It's nice to hit the waves in the early morning or evening, but if you are worried about sharks, you might chose another time of day. Lowe says these hours are when the greatest number of incidents occur.

Don't swim with sea lions

Sea lions are a favorite meal for white sharks. If you are in waters near a clan of sea lions, chances are good there's a white shark near by. Same goes for seals. It's best to swim somewhere else, so you don't get seen as another tasty snack.

If you see a shark, you should watch its behavior, Lowe says.

If it's aggressive, say circling or coming close to swimmers, people should leave the water and warn a lifeguard. However, in many cases, Lowe said sharks will simply swim off on their own.