In light of several recent shark sightings, coastal authorities have posted several shark warning signs across the beaches of Santa Barbara for the first time.
In addition to the spike in sightings, officials have reported an increase in the number of marine mammals attacked by great white sharks in the area. Two years ago, 19-year-old UCSB student Lucas Ransom was boogie boarding near Surf Beach when he was fatally bitten by a great white shark described as 14 to 20 feet in length. Ransom’s death marks the most recent shark attack fatality in the U.S. to this date.
Chris Lowe, an associate professor at Cal State Long Beach and head of the marine ecology program Shark Lab, described the factors surrounding the increase in Santa Barbara sightings.
According to Lowe, great white sharks are naturally increasing in numbers and come to the shorelines during the fall to feed on baby elephant seals, though it is unusual to see adult great whites so close to the shore in southern California.
However, Lowe said the cycle of shark-spotting is also self-perpetuating in nature.
“One thing is that once someone sees a shark offshore then the likelihood of seeing more sharks goes up,” Lowe said.
Marine Science Institute assistant research biologist Jennifer Caselle said she is confident that the danger of sharks should not be a central public concern, as the chances of being attacked are quite slim.
“You have to be realistic; you are far more likely to be hit by a bus or get into a car accident than to ever get bit by a shark,” Caselle said. “The chance of you being bit by a shark is very, very, very small.”
Similarly, Lowe said shark attacks are generally uncommon and should not stop local swimmers and beach-goers from enjoying the ocean.
“It’s estimated on average that 30,000 people are killed every year by car accidents … yet people aren’t afraid to get in a car and drive. We know it’s a dangerous thing but we accept that risk,” Lowe said. “In fact, when you are in your 20s, it’s hard pressed to not know someone who has died in a car accident. But how many people know someone who has been killed in a shark attack?”
Both Caselle and Lowe attribute society’s fear of sharks to negative media portrayals of the creatures, specifically the 1975 blockbuster Jaws and its demonization of the sea creatures.
According to Lowe, sharks do not consider humans their primary prey and there were no recorded incidents of fatal shark attacks in the U.S. in 2011.
However small, the possibility of an attack does exist; Caselle said she encourages Santa Barbara beach-goers to take precautionary measures to protect themselves from the unlikely predators.
“Don’t swim alone [and] don’t swim in murky water where you can’t really be seen. … They go after organisms on the surface,” Caselle said. “What we like to say is — jokingly, but it’s kind of true — ‘you’re not going to see the great white that’s going to bite you.’”
While swimmers are at a relatively low risk of an attack, Lowe said they still must realize that the ocean is an untamed realm of nature.
“We like going into the ocean but we have to remember it is a wild place. There are no guarantees; there are no safety nets [and] it is not Disneyland where the rides are designed for your safety,” Lowe said. “It is not like that at all but why people expect that to be the case is surprising. … It’s not a god-given right for you to be safe in the ocean.”
Second-year biopsychology major Elijah Ozimec, a local resident and surfer, said the recent wave of shark sightings will not stop him from venturing into the deep blue yonder.
“I’ve lived here my entire life and I’ve never even heard of shark sightings until just recently … I mean, the people have seen them but they haven’t been acting aggressively towards people,” Ozimec said. “It’s going to take a little more than shark sightings to stop me from surfing. I think the only reason why people are making a big fuss is because Santa Barbara never really had sharks. If you go anywhere else in California, they will be seen every month.”