It had been a perfect Southern California day. At a section of San Onofre State Beach called Church — named, old-timers say, for a long-gone Methodist steeple — a line of surfers bobbed on the waves, waiting for the next set. Leeanne Ericson swam among them. The 36-year-old mother of three wore a black wetsuit and short, stiff-bladed fins designed to help her catch the waves. Surfers often talk about the spirituality of their sport, but, unencumbered by a board, Ericson communed directly with the ocean. On shore, a group of young men played beach games. One of them looked out at the group in the water.
From below the surface, something else watched, too.
On this late-April day, Ericson couldn't have known she was being sized up by a shark. They are masters of stealth. As it would for any prey, the shark would have lined up below and behind her, being careful to hide in the gloom just beyond the range of visibility. The shark's crescent-shaped tail flicked in short, powerful bursts that launched it at its target. In her black wetsuit and with fins on her feet, Ericson's silhouette could have been interpreted by the shark as an ungainly, and possibly injured, seal. Now that the shark was committed, there was nothing Ericson could have done, even if she had managed to see it coming.
Jen Adeva of Huntington Beach had been waiting for a wave when she heard someone in the water shout, “Shark!” She pulled up her legs and began to paddle in. But then, as she told the Orange County Register, she heard someone call for help. Adeva asked herself, “What if I was the one out there?” She paddled toward Ericson. The contact with the shark was over in less than a second, but as Thomas Williams, who was on the beach when Adeva brought Ericson to shore, later told the paper: “All of the back of her leg was kind of missing.”
Since spring there have been numerous sightings of sharks in the waters of Southern California, from San Clemente to the ocean just south of Los Angeles. Shark season starts in May and peaks by the end of July. Then they typically migrate southward around October. But this year's season seems to be particularly intense. Beaches have been closed, with ominous signs indicating “swim at your own risk,” after a fisherman reeled in what looked to be a 10-foot-long great white shark near the San Clemente Pier, according to video by Fox 11. In April, surfer Adam McKillican reported a nerve-wracking encounter at Oxnard Shores to the Pacific Coast Shark News website after a 10-foot shark chased him out of the water.
By May, schooling white sharks made Southern Californians take notice. Video footage from an Orange County Sheriff's Department helicopter went viral, showing shadowy figures swimming in shallow waters, as Deputy Brian Stockbridge placidly makes a deadpan loudspeaker announcement to people below: “Attention in the water: You are paddle-boarding next to 15 great white sharks. Exit the water in a calm manner.” On May 11, a pack of 25 sharks was spotted off the coast of Long Beach, and five more great whites were cruising around near San Clemente on June 26.
The theories behind the increase of shark sightings vary, from rising ocean temperatures to the ubiquity of mobile phones that are simply capturing the action more often. While sharks have a bad reputation, their presence off the coast is actually a good thing. Sharks are a natural part of a healthy oceanic ecosystem, and their growing presence indicates how well we're now caring for our waters. Most of us haven't experienced sharing the ocean with large predators, thanks to years of mismanagement and over-exploiting our natural resources. Sharks have returned, and it's up to us to learn how to live with them. Sharks won't change their behavior, but we can change ours.
Sharks have achieved totemic status across cultures. We see their image in everything from primitive petroglyphs to the works of painters like Winslow Homer and John Singleton Copley. The latter's 1778 painting Watson and the Shark depicts a harrowing rescue of teenaged Brook Watson — who would eventually go on to become the peg-legged Lord Mayor of London — from the jaws of a shark in Cuba's Havana Harbor. The First American Volunteer Group of the Chinese Air Force — better known as the Flying Tigers — stenciled stylized shark faces on the noses of their Curtiss P-40 Warhawks during World War II. An entire subgenre of horror movies is devoted to them. There's the Sharknado series (the fifth, Global Swarming, premieres Aug. 6 on SyFy), The Shallows, 47 Meters Down, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus and Two-Headed Shark Attack, to name just a few. Sharks occupy a lot of space in the collective human subconscious despite the fact that bees, dogs, livestock and other humans all injure or kill more people each year than sharks do. Still, attacks happen, and when they do, it summons a primal fear.
There are few fates worse than being eaten alive.
Maria Korcsmaros, a personal trainer and triathlete, was on a conditioning swim at Corona del Mar on May 29, 2016. As she approached Buoy 3, the unthinkable happened. “I felt an intense pain in my torso,” she says. The reality of the situation registered quickly. “Oh, my God, I've just been bitten by a shark!” Fortunately, a lifeguard boat was nearby and Korcsmaros got its attention. “I was yelling, 'Get me out!'” Lifeguards pulled her aboard and immediately raced around the jetty to Balboa Island to a waiting ambulance. “They kept asking me if they could cut my wetsuit,” Korcsmaros says.
She managed to stay conscious all the way to the emergency room at Orange County Global Medical Center in Santa Ana. By the time she arrived, she says, “I was in intense pain. I asked, 'Can you give me something?'”
Korcsmaros' brief encounter resulted in three broken ribs, a triceps that had been detached from the bone, a damaged liver, a severed femoral nerve and a broken pelvis.
Korcsmaros, 53, now describes the experience as “surreal” and admits she's had some lingering psychological effects from her encounter. “I've had anxiety,” she says. “There are some things that are still stuck in my head.”
While she has been back in the ocean since her recovery, she's mostly limited herself to lakes and “controlled” waters. She says she's more cautious now. “I assess the area now and use an app that monitors shark activity.”
Korcsmaros also stresses that she believes the shark wasn't trying to eat her. “It was a baby, 9 or 10 feet long. It released me as soon as it felt how bony I was. We're not really on their menu,” she says.
Steven Robles' encounter with a young white shark was different from most. A long-distance swimmer — who, in the months before he was bitten, had swum from Santa Catalina Island to Palos Verdes — Robles was swimming near the Manhattan Beach Pier on July 5, 2015, when bad luck put him in the path of a young white shark that had been hooked by a fisherman. “That shark was fighting for its life,” says Robles, a South Bay real estate broker. “I didn't see it until just before it hit. It came up right in front of me and locked onto my torso. I grabbed its nose and pushed.” Nearly two years after the incident, Robles says he's still dealing with nerve damage and post-traumatic stress. “I was back in the water six weeks after it happened, but the PTSD still plays with my mind.” Nevertheless, Robles is planning to swim the strait between the Hawaiian islands of Molokai and Oahu.
Leeanne Ericson's experience was much more serious. Fortunately, in Southern California, medical help is never far away. After Ericson was brought to shore, Thomas Williams — who had just completed an EMT training course — and others applied what aid they could until an ambulance arrived. It was a well-coordinated evacuation that involved both ambulance and helicopter. Ericson was at Scripps Memorial Hospital within 30 minutes of being bitten.
At a June 20 press conference, Scripps trauma surgeon Gail Tominaga said that Ericson “has been able to get up and has feeling in her leg. Her emotions and spirit are positive and optimistic. She's pretty amazing for all that she's been through.”
Since the April 29 attack, Ericson has undergone six plastic surgeries, plus repair to her sciatic nerve and skin grafting to close the wound. She's also been on antibiotic regimens to ward off infections from the ocean water and the shark's mouth.
Ericson's mother, Christine McKnerney Leidle, set up a GoFundMe page that has raised more than $90,000. But she has requested privacy — since the incident, the family has declined to talk to the media — for Ericson and the family during what promises to be a long and difficult recovery.
While no one saw the shark, it is suspected that it was one of the juvenile white sharks that frequent the area or, possibly, a sevengill shark. But as Dr. Chris Lowe of Cal State Long Beach's Shark Lab points out, sharks aren't out to get us. “Occasionally we'll have a situation where somebody's bitten, but if you look at the number of people bitten relative to the number of people going in the ocean, the shark attack rate is actually declining. By comparison, 40 people are killed by riptides every summer. What we're really seeing are signs of ecosystem recovery.
“The waters of Southern California are ecologically distinct. Los Angeles is situated in the middle of the Southern California Bight, that long scoop of coastline that runs from Santa Barbara down to Baja. Cold ocean currents from the Gulf of Alaska stir up rich nutrients, which are the foundation of a diverse and thriving ecosystem that has been exploited — and overexploited — since the Chumash indigenous people populated the coastline many years ago.
Although our ocean has always been filled with sharks, not much science was devoted to them until after World War II. The U.S. military had a problem on its hands. Fear of sharks created a significant morale problem among sailors and airmen. Downed pilots and shipwrecked sailors reported shark horror stories such as what happened to the crew of the USS Indianapolis — famously memorialized by Robert Shaw's character in Jaws; as he says, “Eleven hundred men went into the water, 316 men come out, and the sharks took the rest. June the 29th, 1945.” The date may be wrong — the sinking actually took place on July 30 — but the horror of what remains the greatest loss of life in the history of the U.S. Navy, much of it attributed to sharks, struck a nerve among the ranks.
Congress entered the picture following the war and charged the American Institute of Biological Sciences, now headquartered in McLean, Virginia, to put together a group of ichthyologists to develop an effective shark repellent — a quixotic quest that, to this day, remains elusive (despite the results you may have seen Adam West achieve in the 1966 film Batman: The Movie, when the Caped Crusader battled a rubber shark from the rungs of a rope ladder suspended from the Batcopter).
Among this elite team of ichthyologists was scientist Don Nelson, who was also a respected waterman, a world-class spear fisherman and one of the first proponents of the SCUBA system. Nelson realized right away that the research into developing a repellent faced a significant obstacle: Nobody really knew very much about sharks. Nelson, who had received his Ph.D. from the University of Miami, loved going underwater and observing sharks in person, but he realized there were limits to that method. He began cobbling together a variety of transmitters, receivers and other innovative devices using declassified military technology to better acquire a more detailed picture of shark behavior in the wild. Eventually, in 1969, he founded the Shark Lab at California State University at Long Beach.
Now headed by Lowe, one of Nelson's former students, the Shark Lab has become the one-stop clearinghouse for answers about sharks, especially in our local waters. The office on campus looks equal parts scholar's den and adventurer's lair, and a few steps away is a lab that hums with activity as students work with soldering irons and screwdrivers building tracking devices and transmitters. The walls are lined with sturdy fishing poles and outside is an open dinghy Lowe takes out to tag sharks. It looks fragile and entirely too small to safely approach large sharks, but Lowe assures with a laugh: “It's fine.” There are also a couple of large, concrete tanks with sandy bottoms that hold several docile horn sharks, which laze like hounds on a hot summer porch. Above them swims a more animated little dogfish. Lowe himself is tall, tanned and fit and has the look of a surfer. He's an enthusiastic booster of the mostly misunderstood shark.
Commercial fisherman never really targeted white sharks, but they slaughtered the creatures typically on the predators' menu. Lowe says that seals and sea lions eat the same fish we do and were seen by the fishermen as competition. So they were ruthlessly exterminated in Southern California. By the 1920s, scientists believed that the California sea lion was on its way to extinction. Pet-food barges anchored outside Los Angeles Harbor bought seal carcasses from commercial fleets that had a shoot-on-sight policy. The sea mammal meat was sold to process into dog and cat food. Now that their favorite lunch item could no longer sustain their numbers, adult white sharks cleared out of the region.
With the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1973, the seal population began to recover, and with it, the sharks began to return. “After 1973,” Lowe says, “you see a steep rise in northern elephant seals, harbor seals, dolphins — and great whites. If you stop killing them, they come back.”
Our waters are also an ideal pupping ground for large sharks. “This is a nursery for pretty much all our big sharks,” Lowe says. “We have the conditions sharks like. The water temperature and food supply draw them here. White sharks come to Southern California to give birth, mako sharks come here, thresher sharks come here, salmon sharks come here, blue sharks come here — they all come here to give birth.”
Lowe explains the somewhat existential psychology of why baby white sharks flock to the beaches. “A white shark doesn't know it's a white shark until it's about 10 feet long. They're scared of everything when they're small. It hasn't learned what's going to harm it yet, so the safest place for it is right off the beach. They have to learn how to catch things. One of the most abundant, easy-to-catch things is stingrays. We have truckloads of those things. When we look at [sharks] we've dissected, the most common thing in their stomachs are stingrays and bat rays. That, and the water's a little warmer and they like that.”
“Seeing great white sharks swimming under the Manhattan Beach Pier shouldn't inspire fear. Where else can you see that? It's cool!” —Dr. Chris Lowe
While young sharks congregate along beaches for their own safety, human beachgoers are easily alarmed when a fin peeks up from the water. And yes, you can blame Jaws.
When Peter Benchley's novel was published in 1974, followed the next year by Steven Spielberg's film adaptation, fisherman looking to boost their macho bona fides headed out on their boats to engage — and kill — the scariest fish in the sea. The impact was noticeable. “Earliest dates for white sharks being taken in our fisheries date to 1936,” Lowe says. “But in 1974 and '75, there's a spike. That's directly attributed to the book coming out.”
Today, shark sightings have become more common than ever.
Robert Pelton, 65, the operator of a boat and bait shop located near the Santa Monica Pier in the late 1960s, says the recent increase is noticeable. Pelton's an adventurous man — who, according to his daughter Tristen, “always made me, my sister and my mom clean the fish he caught” — and he loved the water and spent a lot of time on it. “At the time, our only encounters with sharks came when we'd fish in deep water — 350 to 425 feet — for rock cod,” Pelton says of those days. “These were blue sharks. They mainly got tangled up in our lines. Big sharks weren't really seen near shore.”
With the population recovering, we're again seeing the practice of great white fishing re-emerge, as in those days after Jaws hit the mainstream. As young white sharks become more established, they've also spawned a subculture of pier and shore fishermen. While white sharks are protected, the law simply says that they can't deliberately be caught and, once identified, they must be cut loose. It's a convenient loophole. A casual YouTube search shows a number of examples of young men hooking white sharks to the tribal cheers of their friends as they haul the poor sharks through that void between sea and pier. Backs are slapped as the shark agonizes on the deck until it is unceremoniously pushed over the edge back into the water.
While some fishermen are hauling in sharks for Instagram fame, other anglers respect the ancient sea beasts. Tom Hilgert is a shore fisherman who runs a website called Prehistoric Soul, which is dedicated to “land-based big-game fishing.”
Hilgert and the fishermen who frequent his site are not great white hunters; they take care to respect the ocean and its wildlife. “We're strictly catch-and-release,” Hilgert says, “but legal-size halibut go home with us. They're just too tasty.”
Hilgert and his cohorts are fascinated by “what lies beneath,” especially sharks. It's an adrenaline rush. “The waves are breaking and you have a shark snapping at you while you're trying to not get bit — or hurt the shark. We take the hook out, get some measurements, get some data points, and they're back in the water within five minutes,” he says.
On a spring evening on a spit of sand near Solana Beach, Hilgert and his friend Steve Kastama — who also answers to the name “Sasquatch” because of his large frame and friendly nature — set up and prepare to engage their quarry. The sun has just dipped below the horizon and everything has taken on shades of blue and gray. The primordial smell of the sea hangs heavy in the air. Not far away, cafes and bars buzz with customers and cars hiss along the streets, but just beyond the shoreline lies an unseen wilderness ruled by fin and fang.
The beach clears as Hilgert and Sasquatch set up and night begins to fall. The last to leave is a group of teen models shivering in the growing chill as the photographer shepherds them to the parking lot. The orange glow of a distant ship looms on the horizon. “Be careful where you step,” Sasquatch cautions. Hilgert adds, “Kids dig holes in the sand during the day. People worry about sharks, but you're more likely to be hurt falling into one of those things.”
“Or getting sliced by a ray's barb,” Sasquatch adds.
Both men set up bespoke rods with homemade rigs, weighted with objects that look like the old Soviet-era Sputnik satellites; these will catch on the ocean floor and hold the bait in place. In a cooler is cut mackerel. They cast into the darkness, green glow sticks bobbing eerily at the tip of the rod. Then they wait.
It's not too long before something takes Hilgert's bait. The glow stick dips as the stout rod bends and Hilgert fights the fish, drawing it closer to shore. It writhes in the foam with the undulating motion of a snake. It's a sevengill shark that measures close to 10 feet long. This is a primitive species known for its ability to hunt cooperatively with other sevengill sharks. The guys take a quick measurement and snap a few pictures of the gray, mottled creature, which sports dentition that mirrors the tooth pattern found on the blade of a crosscut saw. Sasquatch removes the hook, a feat in itself, and the men walk the shark back into the surf, where it streaks off.
When it comes to the great whites that have been spotted off the coast, these fishermen don't target them. But like all who hunt nearly mythical beasts, the guys have their own legends about close calls. “At this point, when I hook something, I'm 80 percent sure what species I've got,” Hilgert says. “Soupfin sharks will take the bait and run hard, rip sideways, they come up to the surface. Sevengills come up and start flapping their tails. But every once in a while we'll hit something different, and it's very different. Last year we hooked something I'm certain was a white shark. Lot of splashing, weird angles, super heavy, but I can't confirm the species.”
Sasquatch is more certain, “For it to bite through a 200-pound steel leader, nothing but a white shark could do that. And it was a clean cut. It couldn't have been done by anything else.”
For Hilgert and Sasquatch, sharks inspire a sense of joy. Like shark-bite victims Korcsmaros and Robles — who don't see evil in the animals — the guys acknowledge that when a shark encounter happens, the sleek creatures are just doing what they've done for thousands of years: They're surviving.
The reclamation of our waters by this ancient species is fascinating to watch play out in real time. “It's a different ocean than it was 40 or 50 years ago,” Lowe, of the Shark Lab, says.
We will have to adapt, but we shouldn't let fear rule us.
“Millions and millions of people use the ocean recreationally, and shark numbers are going up,” Lowe says. “But when it comes to animals biting people, our rationality goes out the door. Seeing great white sharks swimming under the Manhattan Beach Pier shouldn't inspire fear. Where else can you see that? It's cool!”