Sightings of great whites in Aptos aren’t killing tourism—they’re doing wonders for it
In the movie Jaws, a great white shark terrorized a New England tourist town on a Fourth of July weekend and scared people off the beaches. But this past Independence Day weekend in Aptos, 15 great whites drew hundreds of tourists to the beach.
Seacliff State Beach, home of the concrete ship, was packed all weekend, despite the shark sightings. Some brave souls swam and a lot of others watched intently, cell phones in hand, trying to spot the steady smooth pace of ominous fins (as opposed to the dolphins common to the area, which bounce roundly up and down).
“We heard that there were sharks in the area,” says Kristi Avila, 39, of Los Banos, who brought her husband and two kids to the beach to spot them. “We saw the news clip and we decided to come and check it out. My son can’t wait for Shark Week, and so when this happened we were like ‘we have to go’ because he is really into sharks.”
Local whale watching and fishing company Stagnaro’s made Seacliff a stop on charter boat tours last week at the request of visitors, says owner Ken Stagnaro.
“They hear about it or see it in the news and so about half the trips last week have gone in there and actually seen the sharks,” he says. “It’s kind of strange and different and fun at the same time, just something different to look at.”
Stagnaro says that it is rare for them to see sharks on their tours.
“Blue sharks are not uncommon to see out there in the summer months,” Stagnaro says. “But great white sharks are not something you see every day by any means. I’ve been doing this for close to 35 years now, and I’ve only seen great whites with my own eyes maybe 10 times or less. So it’s not a common occurrence.”
Friday night there were around 20 people at the end of the pier looking for sharks. Many were talking about seven sharks which had been seen by Rick Alexander, 49, from Hollister who was fishing at the end of the pier.
“One came by, you can see the fins and the tail went and came by. But most of the time it was just a dark shadow that swims by. People have been looking for them all day,” he says.
Scientists say warmer waters from El Niño may be a factor in bringing young, 1 to 2- year-old sharks that are only 6 feet long to shore here. Adults can grow up to 20 feet and weigh more than two tons.
“What’s significant is that they’re juveniles. They’re well north of where they’re typically found,” says Sean Van Sommeran of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation. “Rookery areas are typically known to be in, like, Baja, Southern California and this is the most northerly point you can see them in an assemblage like this. For juvenile white sharks up here, that’s a new thing.”
Van Sommeran says that while a shark attack is unlikely, he advises against swimming near them. “You wouldn’t want to go out and swim around off shore. There’s just no real reason for it. You probably could do it and die of hypothermia before a shark got anywhere near you. If they’re several hundred pounds, they’re just not to be trifled with. The smaller ones aren’t dangerous. The 5-6 footers I don’t think are really dangerous, but once you get around 300-400 pounds there’s always room for mistakes. You know that’s like a small child or something, it doesn’t take too much imagination,” says Van Sommeran.
Santa Cruz has shared the national shark spotlight with North Carolina, where seven people have been bitten by sharks in the last month. Fifty-two people were bitten in the U.S. by sharks in 2014, more than half in Florida, according to the online International Shark Attack File. There has never been a shark fatality in Santa Cruz. You can track many great whites that have been tagged at ocearch.org, an organization that tries to protect sharks.
Experts say that while the number of sharks has dropped by 30 percent in the past half century (some 2,000 great whites live off the California coast, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the number of people swimming is going up, sparking more interactions.
Van Sommeran says that people’s attitudes toward sharks vary. “It waxes back and forth between ‘sharks are these prehistoric homicidal devilfish,’ you know, to ‘oh they’re just peaceful docile critters,’ and no, they’re neither. It’s something in the middle that is not going to conform to any of the brochures or Shark Week specials and that kind of thing.”
While there have been older sharks in the area routinely, seeing so many juveniles is rare, says Van Sommeran.
“A juvenile, their migration routes are actually kind of geared toward avoiding those big ones. I mean, if they overlap, then the big one eats the little one,” he says. He also discounts a rumor of a larger, 18-foot shark sighting. From pictures he’s seen, the gam, frenzy or school of sharks (take your pick) are all small.
“Groups of white sharks like that have never been this far north,” he says. “We’ve seen individuals as early as 2011, but in terms of the big gaggles, assemblages of these sharks showing up like this, that’s unheard of. And then, them sticking to a site like this for such a long period again is unheard of for our area. That happens quite a bit in Southern California, Malibu, all the way down to San Onofre, and then Baja, California. But this far, the water is considered cold and not the best place to have a pup hanging around.”
The possibility of these sharks being here yearly is exciting to him.
“They may take off tomorrow, and we may not see them again for another 30, 40 years,” he says. “Or they could be here every summer, like they have been in Southern California for the last decade or so. And that is awesome, because it’s less fuel money to come down here and look at white sharks than it is to drive an hour up the coast to Año Nuevo.”
While several of the people on the pier said that they would not be going in the water, Lifeguard Supervisor Eddie Rhee-Pizano says that there has not been a significant difference in the number of swimmers.
“It’s kind of the regular use,” says Rhee-Pizano. “We still have kayakers, stand-up paddlers. We don’t tend to get many long-distance swimmers in the Seacliff area. But yeah, nothing out of the ordinary. The wildlife is still there. We still see otters and seals and stuff.”
Rhee-Pizano says there have been shark sightings in the past around the SS Palo Alto, one of 19 concrete ships built during World War I, but this time there have been more than usual.
“This is the first time we’ve had that many in a group off of Seacliff State Beach,” he says. “That’s a little bit different, that’s why we just permanently posted the signage advising that there’s been multiple shark sightings in the area.”
Rhee-Pizano says that the Junior Guard program that usually takes place at Seacliff is now happening less than a mile away at Rio Del Mar Beach. “Nothing has really changed down there, because we haven’t had any sightings or any activity down in that area,” he says.
One student saw the scare as an opportunity. Logan Mathew Kirk-Williams, 10, from Capitola, is doing a report on sharks, and wanted to see one as a visual aid. “My mom said I could pick anything I want, and I chose sharks,” says Kirk-Williams.
PHOTO: Kids onboard the ship ‘Velocity’ get up close and personal with some baby great white sharks last week. AZURE COHEN/CURTIS CRAVER