Santa Barbara- S County

Growing great white shark population here to stay

'Population dynamics' behind spike in encounters

Growing great white shark population...

SANTA BARBARA COUNTY, Calif. - Summer of the great white shark. 2017 may go down in the history books.

A noticeable spike in great whites off California's coast, including Santa Barbara County, has shark experts ramping up research and shark tagging efforts.

Ralph Colllier, head of the Shark Research Committee in Chatsworth, is one of them, along with Peter Howorth, former director of the Marine Mammal Center in Santa Barbara. The longtime colleagues are researching a surge in near-shore great white sightings, encounters and attacks. The two experts met with local residents in Carpinteria to learn more about their encounters.

"I've surfed here 50 years and I've never seen any sharks," Duke Howard told NewsChannel 3. 

Howard and Tisha Ford said that all changed off Padaro Beach starting roughly two years ago. 

"I saw a fin and Duke was kind of like, 'Oh, no big deal,'" Ford said. 

"I've probably had over 30 encounters now," Duke said. 

Duke and Howard said nearly all of the sharks they encountered this summer while paddle boarding or surfing off Santa Claus Lane or Padaro Point were docile, except in a few heart-racing instances.

"It popped up again so I paddled over to it which I think was the first mistake," Ford said. "Then it started to pop up around us about three more times so we decided we were done and were heading into the beach and it came from the inside and came at us very fast. By the time we got to shore, my heart was beating out of my wetsuit."

The couple said they've had a number of encounters with one or more aggressive sharks, possibily duplicates. Another time, a shark breached and slapped the water with its tail. 

"What we're experiencing in California basically is population dynamics," Collier said. 

Collier said thanks to 15 years of federal protections, the great white shark is making a comeback after a kill-off following the release of "Jaws" in 1975. He pointed out that the number of water users is also growing. Collier believes the sharks are here to stay. 

Both he and Howorth confirm what Howard and Ford already suspected: at least one great white shark off the Carpinteria coast has become territorial. 

"Sometimes they just brush by you, sometimes they charge you," Howorth said. "Sometimes they take a bite. Sometimes they take more than one bite. They're getting progressively more aggressive, showing that they want you out of here." 

Collier said the smaller, juvenile sharks are coming close to shore to feed on bat rays and halibut. The larger sharks feed off marine mammals and do so year round. 

"What's interesting is the fact that we had three kayaks attacked so far this year, two in Monterey Bay and one off Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara," Collier said. "We've had a swimmer seriously injured at San Onofre State Beach and we've had a surfer that's been hit as well. And a paddleboarder."

That paddle boarding incident happened in July off Goleta Beach, just hours before Bret Zodtner Jackson was propelled through the water off East Beach in his kayak.

Jackson said he's not convinced about the "territorial" theory. 

"To me it just seems like it was hungry and wanted to kill because it bit so hard and shoved me sideways," Jackson said. 

Both Collier and Howorth have tracked shark encounters and attacks over the decades and see a pattern emerging at Surf Beach off Vandenberg Air Force Base every two years, starting in 2008. 

Two of them were fatal. 

In October of 2010, Lucas Ransom, a 19-year-old UCSB student, was killed while boogie boarding.

Two years later, nearly to the day, 39-year-old Francisco Solorio was killed while surfing.

In early October of 2014, two kayakers were hit by a just minutes apart. 

"One of the guys got lunged clear out of the water with the same shark," Howorth said. 

Howorth believes the key to the October attacks lies behind the beach gates guarding endangered snowy plovers.

"They locked it up so the surfers can't go there," Howorth said. "And guess what? They open it up in October."

Collier has spent nearly five decades researching recurring attacks and learned that female great whites have a two year migratory cycle. 

With the help of the Santa Barbara County Coroner, he extracted DNA from a tooth found in Ransom's remains. The question now: is the same shark coming back year after year? 

"So far this year we've had six shark attacks along the Pacific Coast: five in California and one in the State of Washington," Collier said.

And this is an odd year. But Collier warns, don't consider that protection. 

"Someplace between 200 and 2,000 is probably the number of sharks we have," Collier said, referring to the population off California's coast. He said the numbers vary depending on the model scientists use.

"Something that we know about white sharks is they have very good vision. And we know they see color," Collier said. "So, don't wear contrasting, bright colors in the water. Don't wear jewelry because it'll flash and could represent a bait fish to a small shark." 

Collier encouraged people to enjoy the ocean but to also exercise caution.

"You know, the same thing you and I would do if we went to the mountains," Collier said. "When you hike through the mountains, you run into a bear, a mountain lion -- there are a lot of hazards up there. You just have to use common sense."

Howard and Ford agreed. 

"If we see a fin, we get out. We're not going to mess around anymore."

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