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Dead sea lion raises question of shark presence in La Jolla waters

Was a dead sea lion that washed ashore in La Jolla attacked by a great white shark?
Was a dead sea lion that washed ashore in La Jolla attacked by a great white shark? A local resident believes so; a local marine biologist isn’t so sure.
(Los Angeles Times and Getty Images)

A local waterman and a marine biologist have differing views on whether the animal’s injuries were caused by a shark attack.

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A dead sea lion washed ashore this week in La Jolla with injuries that a local waterman believes were caused by a shark attack.

The animal was first seen the morning of Dec. 18 floating in the water near The Marine Room restaurant, according to bodysurfer and fisherman Kurt Hoffman. By noon, it had washed ashore with gashes visible across its body and a portion of its insides protruding. It washed back out to sea by the next day.

Hoffman said he thinks the injuries were caused by a shark because “the bite marks are all on the underside of the animal in a complete circle with a diameter of 18 inches.”

If the sea lion had been hit by a boat propeller, the injuries would be on the top of its body, Hoffman said.

In an email he shared with the La Jolla Light, Hoffman asked a marine animal expert “how long a white shark may have been to inflict an 18-inch-diameter bite.”

Hoffman’s message included several photos of the dead sea lion, but he did not give the Light permission to publish them.

While Hoffman is certain the injuries came from a shark, marine biologist Dovi Kacev, an assistant teaching professor at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, isn’t so sure.

Kacev was shown some of the images of the sea lion’s injuries.

Though it was “hard to say from looking at these pictures alone,” he said the wounds did not look consistent with a shark bite.

“Firstly, the big wound is very clean and does not show evidence of teeth marks or tearing, which would be expected,” he said. “Secondly, the general shape of the wound does not look consistent with an upper and lower jaw making contact. That being said, it is certainly possible that this resulted from an unexpected interaction.”

As part of their annual round trip to Baja California and back to the Arctic region, gray whales can be seen from La Jolla’s coast from December to about April.

Hoffman expressed disappointment that the sea lion washed out to sea — where it could continue to bleed and attract sharks — instead of being removed by San Diego city workers.

San Diego Fire-Rescue Department spokeswoman Monica Munoz said responsibility for removing dead animals from the sand does not rest with lifeguards but rather the Parks & Recreation Department.

She said beach-goers who find a dead animal should notify lifeguards, who will notify Parks & Recreation.

“P&R staff (with the proper equipment) come out and remove the animal, although sometimes our lifeguards assist,” Munoz said. “The P&R team that cleans the beaches often removes animals before anyone ever sees them because they are out very early in the morning.”

In this case, the Parks & Recreation Department wasn’t told about the sea lion in time to remove it, said spokesman Benjamin Cartwright.

“When the city of San Diego is notified about dead sea mammals on the shore, staff will alert the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service and then park rangers will take action to properly dispose of the carcass,” Cartwright said. “In most cases … lifeguards will often cover or rope off the carcass until staff can arrive for proper disposal.”

Hoffman previously has expressed concern about the possibility of great white sharks coming to notable places in La Jolla. He has argued that the seasonal public closure of Point La Jolla may attract more sea lions and therefore more adult sharks that count the marine mammals as part of their diet.

He said has seen an increase in the number of sharks while paddleboarding near Torrey Pines State Beach. An advisory was posted there Aug. 20 after a shark was seen 100 yards from shore near some divers. ◆