White shark sightings are up in California, but don’t panic

CSULB Shark Lab

They’re baaaack! 

Here we are in late summer and the great white shark stories keep coming. On August 22, a drone captured a white shark swimming beneath some surfers, who remained oblivious. Two days ago, a pair of kayakers off Cambria filmed a great white swimming beneath their boats. The shark circled the kayaks for a few minutes and then swam away. And in July, a large grouping of white sharks was spotted off Monterey. Of course, the list goes on. 

The fact is, great whites in California waters are not unusual. They’ve always been around. But over the last 20 years, the population has grown, so much so that scientists are calling it a remarkable comeback, which may not be the most comforting thing to hear if you spend a lot of time in the water. 

The growth in the shark population has several causes, says Chris Lowe at the Shark Lab at California State University Long Beach. First, the last 50 years have seen a dramatic improvement in water quality. That means the overall ecosystem is more healthy, allowing a richer abundance of animals on every level of the food chain. More importantly, though, is the impact of the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act, which made it illegal to kill or molest marine mammals like sea lions. As a result, the sea lion population has exploded in Southern California. Sea lions are sharks’ favorite food, so it stands to reason: more sea lions, more great white sharks. 

The CSULB Shark Lab has tagged around 40 great whites that swim in Southern California waters. Most of them are juveniles and are less than 10 feet long. The lab tracks the movement of the sharks using stationary buoys placed near beaches, and they use the data to inform lifeguards and coastal municipalities about the prevalence of the animals. The lab and local lifeguards also use drones to monitor popular beaches. Using this information, they’ve developed protocols from San Diego to Santa Barbara on how to best advises the public when sharks are sighted. The Shark Lab also recently began a project called Shark Shack, an personal outreach program designed to provide people directly with shark safety tips. The mobile shack visits beaches along the California coast and talks to people about what to do if they encounter them in the water. 

That’s a lot of effort to console an easily-panicked public over a concern that many scientists say is overblown. While attacks make big headlines, they are exceedingly rare. According to the shark research committee, which has tracked shark attacks along the West Coast of the United States for decades, there have been just 13 fatal shark attacks reported in California over the past 60 years. The last fatal attack in California was in 2012 at Surf Beach, Lompoc, in Santa Barbara County. The global average of fatal attacks worldwide per year is six.

“Your chances of being bit by a shark is the same as winning the Powerball,” Lowe told Quartz. “It’s that small.” 

Sharks, he says, demand respect and should be admired, albeit from afar. The animals are an important part of the ecosystem, serving as apex predators that keep other species in check. 

So, as summer winds down, try to not let the headlines scare you. Sure, be aware of your surroundings in the water. Check with the lifeguards at your favorite beach, and try your best not to look like a sea lion.