By Stephen Baxter, Santa Cruz Sentinel LA SELVA BEACH >> In a video shot by a helicopter crew above Manresa State Beach last week, juvenile white sharks swim just feet from the dangling limbs unsuspecting surfers.
No one was attacked or touched, and the surfers in the video don’t even see the sharks because of the reflection they see on the water and the waves on the surface. From the air, sharks are much more easily seen, said Specialized Helicopters Chief Pilot Chris Gularte. The company offers tours from Watsonville and Monterey airports.
“It’s clear, it’s shallow and we can see them. When you’re standing on a wharf, you can see about three feet in the water,” Gularte said. “When you’re flying at 1,000 feet, it’s unbelievable what you can see.”
What Gularte recently has seen, as well as researchers at Moss Landing Marine Laboratory’s Pacific Shark Research Center, has been a huge expanse of bait fish in Monterey Bay that has been a magnet for sharks, whales, sea lions, fish and other marine life. Warmer water also has been a draw.
“There’s more bait out there than I’ve ever seen,” said Gularte, who’s been flying over South County waters for more than 25 years.
David Ebert, program director of the Shark Research Center, also flew with Gularte recently. After the juvenile white sharks such as the ones in the video eat fish and other prey in colder, deeper water, they tend to swim to warmer water closer to shore and rest, he said. That’s what they’re doing in the video.
“They’re basking in shallow water, and they’re in an inactive state or resting,” Ebert said.
“When they’re active, their body language is different. They’re on the move.”
He said he’s seen similar shark behavior in South Africa and Australia. Though they might be languid, sharks still tend to investigate unknown objects such as surfboards and boats with their rows of sharp teeth, Ebert and Gularte said. So they could still hurt someone, they said.
Ebert added that the smaller, 6-foot sharks in the video are more likely to feed on fish than mammals because their teeth aren’t fully developed.
Still, Ebert said, “If I was in the water, I’d probably call it a day for surfing.”
Gularte, a lifelong surfer in Santa Cruz County, said he’s sworn off surfing at Manresa and South County beaches because of the sharks he’s seen over the years and especially in the past six months. This week, he took a Surfing Magazine writer and photographer on a flight to spot sharks for an upcoming story.
Seacliff State Beach’s Cement Ship, for instance, teemed with sharks in late June and prompted Junior Lifeguard leaders to move a kids competition. State Parks leaders also posted signs on the beach that warned of sharks.
State Parks Public Safety Superintendent Bill Wolcott saw Specialized Helicopters’ YouTube video this week after a Sentinel reporter emailed him the link. Because he viewed it days after the footage was shot Aug. 27 and posted online Aug. 28, Wolcott said lifeguards would not post signs on the beach to warn surfers and swimmers of sharks.
State Parks’ policy is that if more than one person sees a shark and reports it to a lifeguard that day, lifeguards will post the beach but not block access to the beach or ocean. An attack would prompt further precautions.
Ebert said that although Santa Cruz County surfers know there are sharks in the ocean, he would prefer an educational sign rather than a warning sign, “So people can make up their own minds.” Sharks only spend about 10 percent of their time on the surface, Ebert said. With dozens to hundreds of surfers in Santa Cruz County waters daily, the chances of an attack remain slim, he said.
“Still, it’s really just fascinating for someone to share that information,” Ebert said.
“I think most surfers are going to take their chances and not worry about it.”
Shark sightings at Manresa can be reported by calling State Parks’ Sunset Beach station at 831-763-7063 or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.