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Shark attack fuels debate

In the aftermath of a lethal great white shark attack April 25 that claimed the life of a 66-year-old retired veterinarian from Solana Beach, scientists - and the public - are debating the cause of the tragic incident and trying to figure out if there’s any way such attacks can be prevented in the future.

An autopsy conducted by the county Medical Examiner’s Office revealed that two minute lower-tooth fragments taken from the body of David Martin, who was bitten, while swimming north of Fletcher Cove with fellow members of the Triathlon Club of San Diego, confirmed he was attacked by a 15- to 16-foot-long great white shark.

According to the National Geographic Society, great white sharks can grow to a length of 15 to 20 feet and weigh 5,000 pounds or more. They can detect one drop of blood in 25 gallons of water and can sense even tiny amounts of blood in the water up to three miles away.

In the wake of the freat white attack, debate has resurfaced about whether the existence of the harbor seal rookery at La Jolla’s Children Pool could be connected, in any demonstrable way, to the recent great white shark attack and similar documented attacks over the years on area pinnipeds.

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Anne Cleveland, outgoing La Jolla Town Council president and a marathon swimmer, said the great white shark attack has piqued everyone’s interest - and perhaps confirmed their worst fears.

“I swim out in the Cove every day,” Cleveland said, “and what really worries me, as a swimmer, is the proliferation of sea lions at The Clam, and of course, harbor seals at the rookery at Children’s Pool. It is an ongoing dilemma: We’re ringing the dinner bell out there.”

Richard Rosenblatt, professor emeritus of marine biology at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD, wouldn’t render an opinion as to whether any direct causal connection could be drawn to the great white shark attack in Solana Beach and the existence of a rookery and harbor seal colony at Children’s Pool in La Jolla, about eight miles distant from the April 25 attack site.

Rosenblatt, did, however, point out San Diego’s coast is a spawning area for great whites. “It’s clear that (great white) females come down and pup in warmer waters and we’re warmer waters,” said Rosenblatt, who added great white mothers “drop” their 3 1/2- to 4-foot long offspring, then leave.

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The professor emeritus noted great whites are protected under a California law that was enacted after the movie “Jaws” in the 1970s led to a huge increase in shark hunting, including harvesting of great whites. “I think great whites probably were in danger at that time,” said Rosenblatt.

Rosenblatt said when great whites attack humans they “seem to reject humans as prey, not complete the thing (attack), which has allowed persons who’ve been attacked to get out of the water. It’s a little hard to dissect out what really goes on.”

Rosenblatt said he was unaware of any evidence of great white shark activity near Children’s Pool. “It’s not like the pool seal colony always has a lot of sharks around that eat lots of seals,” he said. “It isn’t a very big seal colony. I doubt if it’s a couple hundred.”

Jeff Graham, a marine biologist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, conceded that areas with large populations of seals or sea lions, or which have pinniped rookeries, are common features of those areas where great white sharks might be present. “But that would be more true in Northern and Central California than in the south,” Graham said. “They are here, and we do know they take seals and sea lions, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility that one (great white) could be there (Children’s Pool).”

Graham said there are two other things that are true about the seals in the area now known as Children’s Pool. One is that there is documentary evidence to show seals have been hauling out in that area since the early days of human habitation and undoubtedly much earlier. And there have been documented cases of seals being wounded, though it’s uncertain whether those wounds were the result of shark bites or motor boat propeller cuts.

“It is such a shocking and abrupt thing (shark attack) when it happens in the ocean,” noted Graham. “You can’t even say I told you so. There’s no trail. Nothing except a dead person. You can’t even organize a search (for the predator) like you could on land. Sending out fisherman to find them would be like looking for a needle in a haystack.”

Long-distance swimmer Cleveland noted, though the recent great white attack has gotten her and others’ attention, it likely won’t change their swimming habits. “It’s worrisome,” she said. “The man in the grey flannel suit hasn’t come to get me yet. I don’t think I’ll see him come. When the grim reaper comes calling, you can’t get away. I figure I’m going to swim out there until my time comes.”