Monterey Bay scientists are working to crack the mysteries of—and dispel the myths about—great whites. But in the highly contentious world of shark experts, there’s a fin line between love and hate
It was was a foggy morning like any other on Aug. 29 when 15-year-old Kristopher Morales and a friend launched their kayaks off the Coast Guard Pier in Monterey. A sophomore at Salinas High School, Morales grew up fishing and diving with his father, who would soon join them in the water. An hour later, while fishing for sand dabs about 100 yards offshore, the flat surface shattered into a sight he’ll remember for the rest of his life.
“We heard some splashing, and then we turn around and we see the belly of this shark, and then some water and blood all over its belly—a big white belly. The dorsal fin was about 3 feet out of the water, so we think it was a 15- to 18-foot shark, and then it was thrashing around, and we were just there trying to take pictures,” says Morales, who says the shark was eating what looked like a ripped-open sea lion. The photograph of a dorsal fin, just a stone’s throw away from his kayak paddle, was later confirmed by a Stanford University scientist to be that of a carcharodon carcharias—a great white shark.
Morales, who paddled to a kelp bed and somehow continued fishing, says he was more amazed than scared—though he was that, too, especially afterward. When asked if the close encounter changed his attitude about being out in the water, he says, “Not really. Like my dad always likes to say, ‘if you can taste salt in the water, there are sharks in the water,’ so that’s kind of my mindset.”
And of course, he’s correct. But sightings of great whites here are rare—even in “Sharktober,” the peak of their return to local waters, which lasts from late summer through early winter. The underwater visibility in the Monterey Bay does not commonly surpass 10 feet. And white sharks don’t breach every time they charge the surface to eat—especially the largest ones, which top out around 20 feet. It takes a lot of energy to launch a few thousand pounds of animal out of the water, which is why the smaller white sharks of South Africa are known to breach much more often than the ones that visit the Monterey Bay.
Great White Highways
It’s a golden, 90-degree October afternoon outside Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey, not far from where Morales saw a shark just a couple of weeks before. Taylor Chapple, postdoctoral scholar and researcher at Stanford, appears right at home just yards from the breaking surf, and he waves an arm toward a guano-bleached outcropping in the sparkling blue.
“You see that buoy just past the rocks out there?” asks Chapple. “That has a real-time receiver on it. So, right now, there’s one shark that’s been hitting pretty consistently on that buoy over the past month and a half. She’s a 14-foot female, named the Countess.”
“It’s sort of like a pinging beacon,” he says of the receiver, which picks up the signals of acoustic tags that researchers have been attaching to dorsal fins since 2000. “And so we have real-time monitors here, we have one at Tomales Point, Farallon Islands, Año Nuevo, and then Point Piedras Blancas.”
While juvenile sharks remain coastal, dropped off as pups at the seamounts of Southern California, we now know that the larger sub-adults and adults make a yearly trek between the middle of the Pacific Ocean and the waters of Northern California, aggregating at the blubber-rich seal colonies named above. “We think they’re just bulking up on calories,” says Chapple, “because they’ll come in skinny, and they’ll leave just really girthy.”
White sharks go through what’s called an ontogenetic shift, says Chapple. “When they’re first born, they are about 4- to 5-feet long, and they’re eating squid or fish or sharks. And then when they reach about 7 or 8 feet, their dentition changes. They go from having sort of these fish-eating pointy teeth like a mako does to those triangular teeth that you see a shark have. And that’s when they change their behavior over to eating seals and marine mammals.” White sharks reach adult maturity between 12 and 15 feet.
A population modeller by training, Chapple is studying the genetically distinct sub-adult and adult population of white sharks that returns to Northern California each fall. “They’re the only ones we can study using decoys and coaxing them to the surface with a marine mammal bait,” he says.
Using a seal-shaped decoy, Chapple and his team attract sharks to their boat to photo ID their dorsal fins, which are as unique as fingerprints, and affix them with an acoustic tag.
“Our team’s been doing it for almost 30 years, since the mid ’80s, and so we see the same sharks over and over again, which is really amazing. Scot Anderson was sort of the pioneer of shark research here, and he’s got the photo IDs that go back to 1987,” says Chapple, who says seeing the same sharks each year is like greeting old friends. He even has a belt buckle of Scar Girl, “like, the awesomest shark,” a 16-foot female with half a dorsal fin and giant chunks taken out of her—which, sadly, he hasn’t seen for a couple of years, but appears in the documentary Great White Highway which Chapple collaborated on.
Chapple and his team have tagged 179 sharks between 2000 and 2008, and used the photo ID data of 130 individual animals to issue the first population estimate of central California’s white sharks.
“We have our estimate, which came out in 2011, that says there’s about just over 200 adults and sub-adults in central California,” says Chapple—219 to be exact.
Chapple’s 2011 population estimate, released in a paper titled A first estimate of white shark, Carcharodon carcharias, abundance off Central California, was much lower than anyone expected, especially compared to other apex predators, and it prompted petitions for governmental endangered species designations.
The low number was challenged recently in an open-access article published by ichthyologist and fisheries biologist George H. Burgess, which extrapolated Chapple’s data and estimated the population to be over 2,000—a number that includes the addition of juvenile white shark numbers from Southern California. The re-evaluation cited, among other things, an exclusion of transient sharks, which, by definition, are those that are seen once but never again. “There’s no reason to expect transience in our white sharks,” writes Chapple in an email. “We actually study these sharks, unlike the authors of Burgess et al, and have data about their movements and residency. They have gut feelings. We don’t see evidence of transience, let alone the 70 percent they suggest.”
Nevertheless, the paper sparked controversy about a population increase, and Chapple has spent the last eight months defending his findings. “I worry that people either will get complacent and think that the population’s increasing so we don’t need to worry about sharks, or that they’re going to get scared because they think that the population is skyrocketing, which is not the case,” he says.
It will take several years of monitoring to be able to identify population trends, says Chapple, who intends to do just that, but the notion that white sharks are thriving is unfounded. Only a of couple years ago, researchers realized the animals live to around 70 years of age—a far cry from the long-held belief that they live for about 20 to 30 years. It’s a fact that changes the entire dynamic of white sharks as a protected species, says local shark researcher Sean Van Sommeran. “Were losing them quicker than we can replace them, and that’s just the bottom line. Because the waters are warm we’ve had increase in presence, but that in no way represents an increase in population,” he says.
Van Sommeran skids his beach cruiser to a stop, an hour late to our meeting place and full of steam. He’s the founder of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation (PSRF), an organization he began in 1992 with a mission to develop and assist projects that help protect and better understand sharks.
“There’s about 22 different species of sharks reliably in the bay,” says Van Sommeran, taking a bite of croissant. “At least on a seasonal basis. The highly migratory sharks like blue sharks, makos, threshers, salmon sharks, basking sharks, white sharks, those are the ones that come in seasonally.”
He speaks with the surfer-lilt of a Santa Cruz local, and doesn’t hide his massive grudge against many of the credentialed ichthyologists, or fish scientists, working in the area—at whom the self-proclaimed “blue-collar scientist” has a long history of gnashing his teeth and thumbing his nose.
“I’m despised in a lot of circles,” says Van Sommeran. “But I was born and raised here, so I had a lot of unfair advantages, you know. I saw my first shark when I was 12.”
Despite his smug shroud of ego and a propensity for dramaticized rants, his undeniable passion and years of self-made experience make him likeable. Van Sommeran has been more than busy for the past two weeks, in the wake of an alleged Sept. 17 shark attack on a surfer at Manresa State Beach. He has a nose for shark reports, which he follows up on meticulously, making a point to bust false white shark reports—a common category which he’s convinced the Sept. 17 attack falls into.
“Based on a look at the surfboard, there’s not a single indicator of a shark attack on the surfboard,” says Van Sommeran of the surfboard that allegedly appeared briefly for sale on Craigslist following the media buzz. “And then talking to the investigators and journalists, it became apparent that there were no witnesses, and the story was different depending on who it was told to. So, to me, it’s a slim chance that it was a true story right there.”
This time of year sends Van Sommeran out to beaches to identify salmon sharks (commonly mistaken for small white sharks) and frequently flying in helicopters to look for the giant creatures from above. “When they’re around, they’re hard to miss when you have a 20-foot shark close to the beach.” And come close to the beach they often do; sharks have been known to stream through the surf zone, and can swim in as little as 10 feet of water.
“There are pockets—the cement ship has them, the river mouths. It’s not so much a landmark or feature [that attracts them] so much as the movement of schooling fish which pull in harbor seals and dolphins, and the sharks will just go there because of the noise,” says Van Sommeran. “Like teenagers looking for a keg party, they’ll just hear it and go to it. It’s not because the house is nice, it’s just because they hear all the birds, the lunging whales, and all of that stuff makes noise. All of it is acoustic.”
But attacks on humans are rare. In July of 2012, a white shark used a kayak as a chew toy, but the kayaker was unharmed, and Van Sommeran says a shark attack is really the last thing a boater or a surfer should worry about. “Humpbacks don’t attack people very much less than white sharks do. The last near-fatal injury in Monterey Bay [Manresa] was in the ’60s,” he says. There was also a fatal injury in 1952 and another in the ’80s off Pacific Grove. But in Santa Cruz County, there have been fewer than 10 reported shark attacks since the 1880s, and none of them fatal, according to a July 2012 report in the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
Homo sapiens simply aren’t on a shark’s menu. “Sharks are incredibly discerning,” says Chapple, who recently put cameras on the backs of sharks in South Africa, finding that they often charge a prey item on the surface only to bail out at the last second. “So you realize that that shark knew enough, going 15-20 mph after this thing, that it was not what it wanted [to eat] so it left,” he says.
And despite the misconceived notion that shark populations are on the rise, and therefore shark attacks are on the rise, Chapple says the shark attack rate has gone down precipitously in the past 50 years, despite an increase of people in the water.
Like “Sharktober,” a phrase Van Sommeran says he coined during the annual Shark Fest event he helped put on at the Santa Cruz Wharf each year between 1992 and 2004—pelagic is a term he says he’s also popularized. “It’s actually an archaic Greek word, says Van Sommeran. “It refers to the open ocean, high seas, off shore—which most of the earth’s surface is composed of. Most people look at it backwards.”
In 2000, Van Sommeran says PSRF put the first tags on white sharks in the Monterey Bay and off California, tracking four sharks to Hawaii and then the central Pacific, to a zone commonly referred to as the “white shark café.” His data proved that white sharks were in fact pelagic.
“It was revelational data, I had said as early as 1996 that we suspected as much,” says Van Sommeran. “At that time all of the conventional wisdom showed that sharks were coastal, and they freely admitted that that was their theory. Another researcher, Scot Anderson, concurrently, separately, attached two transmitters at the Farallones that also went out there,” he says. It put Van Sommeran at odds with credentialed scientists, including Barbara Block and Bernie LaBoeuf, who, he says, published a scientific article in Nature Journal and left him out of it “to punish me, for you know, being so smug and disrespectful previously.” After he sued Block for stealing his data, and won, she sued him through the Marine Sanctuary for violating his permits by illegally filming. While he says the charges were dropped in 2004, Shark Fest was moved to Monterey that same year, after Van Sommeran was ushered offstage by a federal agent—timed just right, he says, to try to humiliate and defame him.
Van Sommeran remains openly against the past white shark exhibits at the Monterey Bay Aquarium for many reasons, including that they don’t do well locked in one depth, pressure and temperature range.
Ken Peterson, communications director at the aquarium says no white sharks have died on exhibit since they began their white shark project in 2002. “Of the six young white sharks exhibited since 2004, one died shortly after release (of unknown causes) and one was caught four months later by a commercial fisherman in Mexico,” writes Peterson in an email. There are currently no white sharks on exhibit at the aquarium.
The Real Predators
While humans’ fear and fascination with white sharks is perpetuated and sensationalized for monetary gain—i.e, the less-scientific shows on Shark Week—it’s humans that pose the greatest risk to sharks.
ln 1994, California Assembly Bill 522 effectively prohibited the taking of white sharks for commercial or recreational purposes. It was a measure the local chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and the PSRF were instrumental in passing.
“At that time, there were a bunch of knuckle-dragging dudes that just wanted to go up there and feed sharks,” says Van Sommeran. “A lot of other areas had become fished out, South Africa and Australia, and so there was a lot of attention to our area, from all over the world really, and so we nipped it in the bud.”
But white sharks’ protection in California waters only keeps them safe for part of their migration, and doesn’t rule out accidental catches by fisheries, which often catch young sharks, especially in Southern California. There’s also a huge take by artisanal fisheries in Mexico, says Chapple.
“There is a lot of concern that when the sharks go off to the café that they’re in these international waters that are more or less unregulated—and that’s the place that there could be significant detriment to the population. If you’re talking about going to the middle of the café, where all of the sharks from Mexico and from central California seem to aggregate to some degree, if there’s a lot of fishing pressure there it could pretty quickly have a significant effect. And we’re talking about animals that live at least up to 70 years,” says Chapple.
Only last year, California Assembly Bill 376 was signed into law, prohibiting the possession and trade of shark fins in California. But Van Sommeran warns that it’s not easy to stop; shark fins are extremely easy to stack and trade—and very lucrative.
It’s a problem that increased in the ’70s and throughout the ’80s, with the introduction of monofilament gill nets, which quickly replaced harpoons in the fishing industry.
“You could catch more swordfish in a single night than you could have all summer. And so the price stayed high, but the supply was increased, and everyone started doing that,” says Van Sommeran. “And at that time, looking at the fishing gear and then looking at the fishing markets, it was discernable that the shark fin trade was the one that was skyrocketing. There was no end to it. it was like a 600-plus percent profit from the previous seasons, and this gear was making it all possible … So everyone that can get a market for the fins is participating.”
The human-eating archetype of the Jaws-era may finally be lifting, but the real white shark in our backyard remains one of the least understood animals on the planet. Working to decode some of the mysteries surrounding the ocean’s apex predators, Chapple believes that a better understanding of white sharks may provide insight into the total health and relationship of the ocean.
“Sharks are at the top, they’re up there with orcas,” says Chapple. “They’re like your lions on the Serengeti, they are what maintain what’s under them, keep things in balance.
So if you eradicate the sharks, then your marine mammal population surges even more, and then they’re going to decimate the salmon populations, or the anchovy and sardine populations. And then whatever the anchovies and sardines normally eat, that’s going to explode, so everything goes out of whack.”
What’s fascinating about the California current, which researchers call the Blue Serengeti, is that it’s an amazingly rich and mostly intact ecosystem, says Chapple. “You can’t have a healthy population of a massive predator without a healthy ecosystem underneath them. So, tracking sharks and tracking their health, gives us an indication of how healthy the whole system is,” he says.
Among the many things we still don’t know about sharks is how and when they reproduce. The estimated number of pups a female has ranges widely from 4 to 16. “And we don’t know if that’s every year, it’s at least every other year but it might be every three or four years,” says Chapple.
But the greatest mystery is what, exactly, adult sharks are doing when they swim out to the white shark café, which is located in the middle of the Pacific, between the southern tip of Baja and Hawaii.
“Based on some data that we have, the males do this really sort of strange behavior when they’re out there, they do this rapid oscillatory diving, (ROD) so they go 150 times a day, they’ll dive down to 300 meters and back, which is a crazy amount of energy. And they only do it in the café, and the further away from the café they get, the less they do it, so it’s all centered there. The females come in, and the males come in and do this crazy thing,” says Chapple.
One theory is that the shark café is basically the scene of a giant orgy; and that the males are moving across isoclines in search of traces of female pheromones—although there’s really nothing romantic about shark relations. “The mating process is a bit archaic in that it seems to involve a lot of injury,” says Van Sommeran. “Lacking any sort of grasping abilities, the male grabs the female with its teeth, and, either she submits or she resists, in which case she wrenches away and it leaves all these gnarly deep, deep scars. And to accommodate them they’re made bigger than the males.”
While Chapple’s ultimate goal is to go to the café to study sharks, it’s an expensive affair; chartering a boat in the middle of the Pacific costs around $15,000 a day, and he hasn’t gotten there—yet.
“Something’s going on there that we don’t understand at all. We don’t know why they go there. But learning the why may help us understand what makes certain parts of the ocean more valuable than others,” he says. “So obviously if we want to protect white sharks we need to protect the white shark café, where they spend a good amount of their time.”