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Shark sighting off Torrey Pines State Beach reignites worries of migration to La Jolla

A shark advisory was posted recently at Torrey Pines State Beach after a 10- to 12-foot shark was reported near divers.
(Courtesy of Kurt Hoffman)

Local marine biologist says he sees no evidence to support fears of adult great white sharks, drawn by sea lions, using Point La Jolla as a hunting ground.

A perceived increase in sightings of great white sharks off the San Diego coast have some local residents worried that the notorious sea predators could make their way to La Jolla. That’s especially possible, they argue, because the seasonal public closure of Point La Jolla may attract more sea lions and therefore more adult white sharks that count the marine mammals as part of their diet.

A shark advisory was posted at Torrey Pines State Beach on Aug. 20 after a shark was seen 100 yards from shore near some divers. Representatives of the California Department of Parks and Recreation said they were unable to determine the species of the shark, though some people who frequent the area believe it was a great white.

“The shark was seen swimming in the area of three free divers who were spearfishing. The shark did not interact with divers during this time,” said Sean Homer, a lieutenant in California State Parks’ San Diego Coast District. “The shark’s actions were considered non-aggressive and consistent with normal shark behavior. To ensure the safety of our visitors, state park peace officers posted shark advisory signs along Torrey Pines State Beach 100 yards north and south of the Flat Rock area and in front of the beach trail staircase to remain in effect for 24 hours.

“State Parks would like to remind visitors that sharks are an important part of the coastal ecosystem and that interactions between humans and sharks are rare along the coast of Southern California.”

Kurt Hoffman, who frequents Torrey Pines State Beach and La Jolla, said this was just one in a string of recent sightings.

“These sharks have been pretty consistent over the last year,” said Hoffman, who added that he often sees them while paddle surfing. “There is definitely increased shark activity in the area. I don’t want them to come to La Jolla … but I think [the likelihood of that] is something that needs to be studied.”

He said he sees a great white “about every third time” he paddles out.

During one recent sighting, Hoffman said, “it was within three or four feet of the waves and a surfer was right there, so I asked him if he knew and if he was OK with it, and he told me he sees them all the time.”

However, local experts say the sharks seen near the shore are mostly juveniles and are not a threat to humans.

“There is a big difference between juvenile and adult great white sharks. Juveniles are primarily what we see off San Diego and are often under 10 feet in length,” said marine biologist Dovi Kacev, an assistant teaching professor at UC San Diego’s
Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.

“We have, over the last few years, identified areas where these juveniles aggregate. [The water off] Del Mar is one of them. It does seem [that] this year that has shifted south toward Torrey Pines State Beach. These animals are there in the summer. We don’t know a lot about where they go outside of that.”

He said the juveniles “mostly feed on stingrays and small fish along the bottom of the sea floor,” which is why they come closer to shore. “They are not the adults that we envision that are going after seals and sea lions.”

Sharks reach maturity by length rather than age. When they’re about 10 feet long, their teeth change from being narrower and more suitable for eating stingrays to more triangular and serrated.

Based on size estimates, the shark seen off Torrey Pines was believed to be an adult, 10-12 feet long, Homer said.

With a few exceptions, the adults tend to live farther out to sea, Kacev said. “It’s the adults that people should be worried about,” he said. “Adults do pass through and have been sighted, but the majority of animals we see are juveniles and they are not the ones targeting seals and sea lions. But pinnipeds are part of the adult shark diet.”

Recent developments at Point La Jolla, a rocky area between La Jolla Cove beach and Boomer Beach where sea lions go on land to rest and give birth, may draw more sea lions — and sharks — to the area, Hoffman said.

The California Coastal Commission voted unanimously April 8 to approve a city of San Diego request for a permit to close Point La Jolla to the public for some of the year to keep people and pinnipeds apart during sea lion pupping season. The commission expanded the proposed closure period to six months (May 1 through Oct. 31) from the proposed 3½ months (May 25 to Sept. 15) and expanded the closure area to include most of Boomer Beach. The permit is in effect for at least seven years.

However, Kacev said he sees no evidence that the closure of Point La Jolla and the congregation of sea lions there are attracting sharks. “If you look at the number of pinnipeds in La Jolla vs. the Channel Islands, [La Jolla] is not that populated,” he said. “There might be 100,000 on the Channel Islands, more so than the La Jolla area. That doesn’t mean a white shark passing by might not feed on one, but we have no evidence of white sharks using this as a hunting ground.”

Sharks have been sighted off La Jolla before, but usually farther from the shoreline. In 1959, skin diver Robert Pamperin disappeared off La Jolla Cove in what is believed to be the first recorded shark-related fatality in San Diego waters. Pamperin’s body was never found. The only trace was a swimming fin that washed up at La Jolla Shores a few days later.

In 2012, a shark believed to be an adult great white was spotted about 50 yards off the coast at La Jolla Shores, prompting lifeguards to close the ocean to swimmers and surfers. A lifeguard saw the 12- to 15-foot-long shark headed south just outside the surf line.

The following year, a teenager encountered a 14-foot great white while fishing a couple of miles off Windansea Beach. The fisherman reported that he was cruising on his boat looking for yellowtail when he came across a giant pool of blood and a half-eaten harbor seal.

Kacev said it is important to note that “the majority of sharks have never bitten a human … whether intentionally or accidentally,” and that there are 500 species of sharks, with new ones identified every year.

“They range in size from a few inches to 40 feet long,” he said. “They feed on different things … from shellfish to marine mammals. They have important roles in the ecosystem. It’s amazing to think sharks evolved before there were trees on land.

“There is this whole concept of a shark in people’s minds, which comes from things like the movie ‘Jaws’ … that they are eating machines and people are on their menu, which is not the case. Sharks have more to fear from us than we do of them.” ◆