Shark attacks increase, no worries

Brooklyn Dippo | News Editor

The chances of a shark attack happening are smaller than being killed by a coconut falling on your head but there is something about it that is more daunting. Despite an increase in attacks, students at the University of San Diego are still unlikely to encounter one of these beasts in the water.

Last year California saw a record high for unprovoked shark attacks according to the Global Shark Attack File (GSAF). Of the 10 attacks, eight were attributed to Great White sharks and none of the attacks were fatal.

California witnessed a record high number of shark attacks in 2015.

California witnessed a record high number of shark attacks in 2015.

Ralph Collier, the founder and president of the Shark Research Committee, has been studying Great White shark behavior off the California coast for over 50 years. He attributes the increase in attacks to simple population dynamics; an increase in humans in the water and an increase in sharks in the water means millions of contact hours between the two species.

White sharks are responsible for the majority of interactions with humans in California. Southern California, and La Jolla in particular, is a breeding ground for White sharks and many of the juvenile sharks live close to shore. Researchers are observing and tagging juvenile sharks and have determined that the population is increasing but they do not know to what extent.

Juvenile sharks are particularly curious, but the species as a whole is highly intelligent. Young sharks will often swim around and investigate a surfer or paddle boarder until they have determined that it is not a threat, and then they will swim away.

“There are millions of contact hours off the West Coast and to have so few unprovoked shark attacks says a lot about the fact that these animals are actually pretty intelligent,” Collier said. “And we know that they learn and we know that they remember.”

While some humans get bit while taunting sharks by chumming the water or trying to interact with them, the GSAF only records shark attacks that are unprovoked. Collier explained exactly what that means.

“If an individual does nothing provocative – they don’t pull the tail, the don’t poke it, they don’t try to hold its fin and ride on it – they do nothing provocative, and the shark comes up to them and rams them or bites them or a piece of equipment they are on, then that is an unprovoked shark attack,” Collier said.

Collier believes that the shark tourism industry is unlikely to alter shark behavior towards humans. The sharks are conditioned to circle around the tour boats and approach the bait from the bottom or in the iconic White shark breach, and while they might associate the presence humans with food it is unlikely that they will start seeing humans themselves as food.

Global warming is another factor that could alter populations and migratory patterns of shark species but it is still unlikely to change how they interact with humans.

Junior Max Gough enjoys surfing without worry of shark attacks.

Junior Max Gough enjoys surfing without worry of shark attacks.

Junior Max Gough, a San Diego native and avid surfer, does not worry about sharks when he is in the water.

“I wouldn’t say that when I’m in the ocean that sharks are a topic that crosses my mind,” Gough said. “I’ve never seen one before or ever met anyone that has seen one so it is not much of a worry. However, if there was an attack at a surf spot I would probably avoid that spot until I believed that rogue shark had traveled elsewhere”

Avoiding areas of recent attacks is a wise idea considering that attacks often occur in places where there have been previous attacks. Surf Beach, in Northern California, is well known for recurring attacks. They have had series of attacks on a two-year cycle since 2008, many of which have been deadly.

50 percent of shark attacks also occur within a three-month period in August, September, and October. Students shouldn’t rely too heavily on these statistics for safety though because human preference also plays a role, meaning that these could just be the times when more people are in the water.

Collier is on the frontier in shark research and is very confident in a shark’s ability to distinguish human beings from other prey swimming in the water.

“There is a lot more to these animals than swimming and biting things,” Collier said.  They are highly intelligent. They are extremely dangerous under the right circumstances and docile under the majority.”

Despite the scare, USD students are more likely to encounter a shark from their living room couch watching Discovery Channel than they are to ever see a shark at any San Diego beaches.