photo Kenan Chan

“I’ve never seen a shark before,” I told him.
“I guarantee they’ve seen you many, many times,” he replied.
That’s an excerpt from “Define Sharky”, an article I wrote a few issues ago about our perception of sharks along the California coast. The gentleman assuring me that sharks have been perving on me from below was Dr. Sal Jorgensen, a shark expert from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Since then, I’ve carried on with my surfing life about as concerned with sharks as I’ve ever been — more than some, but not as much as most.

Then I heard about the hammerhead in La Jolla. Then I heard about the woman getting hit at Morro Bay. These clips, plus various headlines from the East Coast, South Africa and Australia, make it seem like shark encounters are on the rise worldwide. Then, I saw the below video, from the beaches I grew up surfing.

 The first time I watched the clip it stirred a primal fear within me. I surfed here every day as a teenager. Often alone. How many times was I spitting distance from a white? After more thought, the video was almost encouraging, as it showed sharks and humans peacefully coexisting. But why so many of them? Specialized Helicopters’ said on its Facebook page that they’d been seeing them by the dozens this summer. I sent the video to Sal Jorgensen. “Hey Sal, WTF?”

Things progressed quickly from there. We emailed and texted and rearranged schedules until September 2, when we met at the Watsonville Airport to take a helicopter ride above the beaches shown in the video. Sal brought his computer, and as the chopper warmed up, he walked us through his theory about the surprising amounts of sharks in the area.

“Typically, small great whites [between 4 to 9 feet] hang out in Southern California where the water is warm,” he explains. “But this year, the water has been so warm that they’ve ventured north well past Point Conception, which is normally a cold water barrier. And you can see here,” he points to a graphic of satellite water temperature readings, a composite from the previous week, including the day the above video was shot. Yellows and oranges paint the inside of the Monterey Bay, while a blue ribbon of cold water spans the area outside. “The water is now 10 degrees colder outside the bay, so I think the smaller sharks are just sticking in the bay because it’s so warm.”

He goes on to explain that juvenile white sharks need warm water to maintain their body temperatures (big sharks can stay warm in cold waters because their surface-area-to-volume ratio is lower).

Specialized Helicopter’s chief pilot, Chris Gularte, confirms that the vast majority of the sharks he’s seen this summer have been juveniles. And while he’s seen plenty of sharks from the air in his 25 years of flying over Santa Cruz County waters, this quantity is unprecedented. I ask him if he’s ever seen them acting aggressively toward surfers or swimmers. “They’ll investigate people sometimes. Swim around and check them out — the surfers don’t even realize they’re there — but I’ve never seen one act aggressively toward a human. And you know when they’re being aggressive. I’ve seen big sharks attack seals and dolphins, and it happens with such speed that it’s hard to wrap your head around it.”

When I’d called Chris to make the booking, he told me with unflinching confidence that we would see a shark. But even when we first hovered above the shores of La Selva Beach and I saw how clear the day was, I was skeptical. These are wild and unpredictable animals. How could 20 minutes above waters I’d surfed for 20 years assure me a sighting? Then…

“There’s one,” Chris said, pointing out the open window toward the waves off Sand Dollar. We all focused below to see the shadow of a 6 to 8 foot great white swimming slowly outside the whitewater line. It felt like Jurassic Park, like you were seeing something prehistoric in a very unnatural way. Surreal, but awe inspiring. “Ehhhh, that one’s pretty small,” Chris said, and just zipped past it.

I was tripping. Like, A bird in the hand, man! Let’s go get some photos of that thing. But within a minute we saw another, just off the cliffs of the Seascape Resort. Then another off Hidden Beach. And another off Platforms. Four sharks within 10 minutes and we circled back and watched them all more closely. They swam like they were in a food coma, catatonic and lazy. Two of them were about 200 yards off shore, but the other two were swimming in the surf zone or just outside of it — in just three or four feet of water. And yes, there were people in the water nearby. (The irony that way more people die in helicopter crashes than shark attacks escaped me until well after we’d landed.)

Ever since I saw the above video on Facebook, I’d been thinking about why sharks are so visible these days. Were there really that many more? Perhaps. But maybe they’ve always been there and we just didn’t hear about them as much. Maybe, like white policeman beating an unarmed black man, it’s nothing new, except now eye witnesses are also iPhone witnesses. The kayaker in San Diego had a GoPro on him. Mick Fanning had a webcast on him. The chopper pilot uploaded his clip to Facebook. Everyone shares. Everyone’s connected. News travels fast, and scary news at light speed.

Maybe it’s more sharks. Maybe it’s more visibility. Maybe it’s both. We can’t say for sure. What we can say is that you should be less afraid of sharks now than ever before. A recent study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, which Sal himself coauthored, explains why.

Using shark attack statistics from the 1950s to 2013 they found that yes, the average number of shark attacks on the California coast has gone up per year, from .9 to about 1.5 people. But when you factor in the increased number of swimmers, surfers, divers — which have gone up exponentially thanks to population growth and wetsuit technology — your chances of getting attacked have decreased by 91 percent over that 63 year period.
These findings, along with my description of lazy animals coexisting peacefully with humans, is not an attempt to paint great white sharks as harmless. I don’t think we should ride them like ponys at the county fair. But I also disagree with their depiction as bloodthirsty killers, on the prowl for humans. I don’t think they should be culled. Our view of these animals cannot be so black or white. It needs to be grey. A silhouetted grey. A grey that’s bigger and stronger than us. A grey that should be respected and admired from a safe distance. Because they are wild fucking animals. And they were here first.
—Taylor Paul

Wanna see for yourself? Contact the fine folks at Specialized Helicopters