Why are there so many great whites off the coast of LA?
The great white sharks seen in growing numbers in Santa Monica Bay are not the typical “Jaws” of the Spielberg variety.
Rather, most of the sharks spotted off our local beaches are less than a year old -- the equivalent of toddlers at an all-you-can eat buffet without supervision. They've been left by their parents to fend for themselves.
The shark that bit a swimmer after breaking free from a fisherman's line on Saturday was one of these juveniles.
As it turns out, Santa Monica Bay is an ideal proving ground for baby sharks.
“Remember they’re naïve, their goal is to find things to eat and not be eaten themselves. So when they encounter things larger than them, they probably move away,” said Dr. Chris Lowe of California State University Long Beach’s Shark Lab.
Santa Monica Bay's relatively warm water attracts large schools of small fish. And the natural shape of the coast kind of pens them in, making them great targets for great white pups looking to practice their hunting skills.
Researchers are still uncertain where great whites breed, but they do know that once a shark is born, its mother gives her pups enough food for them to swim to shallow coastal waters.
Then they're on their own.
According to Lowe, great whites have been using the waters of Santa Monica Bay as a veritable playground since the early 1900s. He estimates that on any given day there are about 10 to 40 sharks swimming in local waters.
“People really don’t have any need to be worried about these little white sharks. In fact we should be excited,” said Lowe.
Marine researchers, including Lowe, agree shark populations are low due to over-fishing. But the presence of these top-of-the-food-chain predators is a sign of a healthier ocean.
But not everyone views more shark sightings as a positive.
This weekend's shark bite incident at the Manhattan Beach Pier reawakened concern about the growing number of sharks seen recently in local waters.
"The incident tapped into many fears of beachgoers," said Sarah Sikich, Science and Policy Director for Heal the Bay. "But we also see that it's quite an unusual circumstance where the shark was hooked and stressed."
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife reported 101 white shark attacks on humans in all of California since 1950. Of those, 13 were fatal.
"I always tell people you have a better chance of getting in an accident on the 405," Sikich said.
Though baby great whites can grow up to 5-to-7 feet long, they stick primarily to a diet of small fish.
Once the sharks grow larger, they lose interest in their Southern California buffet and swim farther out to deeper waters for high-calorie meals like mackerel and tuna.