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Guest commentary: More seals and sea lions in La Jolla could be a draw for white sharks

People gather to watch the seals at the Children's Pool in La Jolla in 2019.
(Ashley Mackin-Solomon)

I think Mr. [Kurt] Hoffman is right about white sharks being attracted by the seals/sea lions (“Guest commentary: With more sea lions at Point La Jolla, great white sharks won’t be far behind,” Jan. 6, La Jolla Light).

Regarding the Cape Cod [Mass.] white sharks mentioned in the rebuttal (“Guest commentary: The fact is, seasonal closure of Point La Jolla is necessary,” Jan. 13, La Jolla Light), white sharks were virtually unknown there, according to a shark researcher featured on Shark Week [on Discovery Channel], until gray seals recolonized the area as a result of the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972. Now it’s a seasonal hot spot for white sharks, which I’m guessing coincides with the largest number of gray seals being there. Since 2012, there have been five recorded shark attacks on people [according to The New York Times]. Although none of those attacks were fatal, gray seals haven’t fared as well. White sharks turning patches of the sea red with gray seal blood has been documented on a number of occasions. This would indicate that the attacks on people were probably cases of mistaken identity.

Some seals, and particularly sea lions, can outswim and outmaneuver white sharks. Thus the sharks rely on ambush from below and behind, coming in at full speed, culminating with a violent bite.

This was likely the case in the fatal attack off Solana Beach in 2008 in which a swimmer was bit, dying from exsanguination [loss of blood]. Once the shark realized what it grabbed wasn’t the expected blubbery pinniped, it terminated the attack, but the damage was done.

During my 34 years at SeaWorld in the Aquarium Department, about 40 white sharks were brought into the park. This was during the “Jaws mania” time and before the sharks were protected. They ranged from 40 pounds (young) to over 4,000 pounds. All but a couple were bycatch from commercial fishermen. The smaller ones were from shallower waters around Southern California, mainly from Del Mar to Carlsbad.

Ventura and Oxnard were also hot spots for juvenile white sharks. The large ones (over 1,000 pounds) were taken by swordfish fishermen who thought they were ridding the world of evil monsters and making some bucks to boot. Yes, SeaWorld paid the fishermen. Otherwise, SeaWorld wouldn’t have gotten the sharks.

Researchers from Scripps, NOAA and other institutions were delighted to come in to collect samples and data from the sharks. Back then, very little was known about them, and the technology for collecting data was primitive by today’s standards, and in most cases, only dead white sharks were available for study.

I was involved in or conducted necropsies on at least 30 sharks. The smaller ones (under 10 feet) contained fish, mainly rays and small sharks. Bat rays and spiny dogfish were definitely in their diet, as identified by the spines embedded in their jaws and stomach.

Pinnipeds were definitely the mainstay of the large ones. Harbor seals and elephant seals were the most frequent species identified in stomach contents, but sea lions were also significant. The large sharks were taken offshore, mainly around the Channel Islands, where, you might have guessed, pinnipeds have haul-out areas and rookeries.

Since inshore gill netting has been banned in California, more white sharks have a chance to reach adulthood. This is the main reason more juvenile white sharks are being spotted off Del Mar and Solana Beach than in the past. Most of SeaWorld’s small white sharks came via gill netters. Gill nets are effective, deadly and indiscriminate in what they catch. The bycatch includes pinnipeds, diving birds, crabs and other species that end up being discarded.

Once the juvenile sharks grow up, they’re going to be attracted to areas with good feeding opportunities. The Farallon Islands off San Francisco are the most notorious area for this in California. Tracking tags have recorded white sharks coming from as far away as Hawaii for the seals’ annual pupping and molting seasons. Deep nearshore water and lots of food make it an ideal hunting ground for them.

I like seeing the seals and sea lions [in La Jolla] at Boomer Beach and the Children’s Pool. Their numbers seem to be increasing and will likely continue to do so and take over more beach. More seals and their pups could be more of a draw for white sharks. Lots of food and access to deep water nearby. Perfect for white sharks.

Before retiring from SeaWorld at the beginning of 2009, I remember at least one juvenile harbor seal from local waters that was brought in with a large shark bite. Consensus was that the bite was from a white shark. Was that seal pup from the Children’s Pool?

There may never be another white shark attack off La Jolla, but they will be around from time to time.

I used to spend a lot of time as a teenager spearfishing for yellowtail and other fish off The Cove. Even though I knew Robert Pamperin had been eaten by a white shark while skindiving for abalone at The Cove in 1959, it would never happen to me! Besides, back then, my heroes were members of the Bottom Scratchers (the most exclusive spearfishing club in the USA) and none of them had trouble with sharks.

Luckily, I’m too old to do that sort of thing now. Besides, bobbing around out there for hours at a time just doesn’t seem like a good idea now.

Carl Jantsch is a former assistant curator of fishes at SeaWorld San Diego.