sharks el nino california

Read This Or Get Eaten By A Shark

Words: Steve Root
Photo above: Michael Muller

Heads up Cali surfers: El Niño Is Coming And So Are The Sharks.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a sun-scorched rock (searching for water, perhaps?), you know that the entire western United States has been dealing with a severe, years-long drought. You may also know that a much-anticipated El Niño condition has been brewing, and fingers are crossed for it to bring plenty of moisture this fall and winter. 

What you may not know, but should if you surf, paddleboard, kayak or swim along the California coast, is that with that meteorological phenomenon in which warmer water moves up from the southern hemisphere comes plenty of tropical sea life, namely yellowfin tuna, mahi mahi, wahoo and the like. And where the prey goes, so go the predators. 

That’s right, sharks. And lots of them. Specifically, hammerheads, great whites, tigers and bullheads, as if that’s supposed to make you feel any better.

sharks el nino california

Shark conservationist Jimmy Hall swims with a great white.

© Phil Waller

It may not be reason to freak, but it is a matter of concern. 

“The cast of characters is changing,” says Dr. Chris Lowe, marine biology professor and director of the Shark Lab at California State University Long Beach who has been studying sharks and their behavior for almost 30 years.

sharks el nino california

Dr. Chris Lowe, marine biology professor and director, Shark Lab, California State University, Long Beach.

© California State University, Long Beach

“Last year oceanographers were kind of waffling about El Niño because they were looking at sea surface temps along the equator and saying they’re just not forming like we’ve seen in the past. But the funny thing was that all the animals that had shown up in past El Niños — like in the mid ’80s and in ’97 — were arriving. It was like they didn’t get the memo. The scientists were unsure, but the animals were acting like there was an El Niño.”

Lowe began noticing other hints even earlier than last year. He and his grad students at CSULB use trackable tags, implants and submerged Go Pro cameras to study movements of the young white sharks commonly found cruising along Southern California’s surf line. “Normally, when the water gets below 60 degrees in the winter,” says Lowe, “the baby white sharks [and by babies, he means 5 to 6 footers] would migrate south to Baja to warmer waters. But none of the animals that we tagged last summer or the summer before left. It was like they didn’t have winter. So we had one-year-olds and two-year-olds that were still around. And then we had this whole new crop of babies. A lot of people were asking, ‘where are all these sharks coming from?’ ”And when you add to that burgeoning gen pop all the interlopers arriving from the south, you’ve got, well, a sharknado, of sorts. 

“It’s a different ocean right now, because it’s like the tropics suddenly invaded Southern California.”

Should we be worried? Lowe is quick to point out that while some species, like bull sharks and tiger sharks can be large and sometimes aggressive, others, like leopard sharks and even hammerheads are usually fairly passive. What has changed in the equation, argues Lowe, is human behavior. Beaches and surf breaks are more crowded and, he says, “people are doing more risky things in the ocean now than they were doing 20 years ago.” 

hammerhead el nino sharks

A hammerhead’s wide-set eyes gives it a better visual range than other sharks and the ability to more thoroughly scan the waters for food.

© Getty Images

“The guy who got bit in San Diego was spearfishing 100 miles off shore at Tanner Bank. For most people, that place is like Jurassic Park. It’s crazy predators there.  He speared a yellow tail, saw a sea lion charge it, swam down and grabbed it and stuck it under his arm, a big no-no. He didn’t see the hammerhead, who tried to bite the fish and bit his hand instead. The guy who got bit in Malibu was fishing from a kayak, which 20 years ago people weren’t doing. At least not out of kayaks. The guy hooks the thing, he’s got his foot in the water, he’s trying to reel it in, and then it bites his foot. Here are two things that people are doing now that are more risky sports. To be honest, those would be classified as provoked attacks. 

It’s a different ocean right now, because it’s like the tropics suddenly invaded Southern California.” 

Expect that invasion to peak between now and January or February. And until then, remember: It’s their ocean, we just play in it.

Don’t Get Bit

There are several steps you can take to minimize your risk of becoming human chum:

Do your homework. If you’re going to a beach, find out what animals are known to occur there. Are there jellys, rays, sharks? If so, where do people see them and what time of day? Simple awareness of a given beach will go a long way toward safety. For example, more people are killed in rips and more lifeguards are killed trying to save them than would ever occur from sharks.

No joke: don’t provoke. Yes, they’re out there, but that doesn’t mean you need to go film them with your new Go Pro. “I’ve even heard of people trying to ride them,” says Lowe, “and that’s when somebody’s gonna be bitten.”

Know the new normal. With an El  Niño and all the new animals it’s brought, if you’re out fishing in a kayak, you need to know that a hammerhead’s going to behave very differently than many of our other “local” sharks. Avoid having your legs dangling in the water, especially when you’re also using bait or have bloody fish with you. That’s a great way to get bit.  

Avoid dead stuff. If there are dead mammals—a sea lion or a dolphin—get out of the water, because those things can draw in predators.

Stay in groups. A lot of people like to go in the ocean for the solitude, but it’s safer to be in a group, even if that means losing out a great wave to another surfer. 

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09 2015

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