Shark attack suggests reconsidering seals

The recent, seemingly random shark attack in Solana Beach has left many coastal communities understandably shocked, to surfers from the La Jolla Reefs area, this unfortunate incident does not come as a total surprise. Chilling, yes, but not altogether unexpected.

And if the seal rookery off Children’s Pool is allowed to continue expanding unabated, this surfer predicts these potentially deadly encounters will start occurring with sobering frequency.

A bold and inflammatory statement to some given the emotional response the seal colony provokes, but the laws of nature and supply and demand are indisputable. As the seal rookery continues to grow, surfers in the area have had the uneasy feeling that a shark attack is not so much a question of “if,” but “when.” How can we not expect that at some point the larger predators will get wind of the “snack bar” in La Jolla?

It’s somewhat comforting trying to convince ourselves this event was entirely arbitrary. It’s a well-established fact that great whites don’t like humans. We’re too lean compared to their preferred meal of seal or sea lion. The assault, then, was not so much random as a tragic case of mistaken identity. In fact, many people are able to survive great white attacks because the shark won’t bother returning to finish the job. Evidence suggests this when considering last week’s attack. The other swimmers stayed with the victim, offering assistance in the midst of bloody chaos. And yet, there was no follow-up attack. The shark was probably long gone in search of something infinitely more palatable. Unfortunately for some, the initial taste can prove fatal.

The motivation and ability to find food is a fundamental instinct in ALL animals. Just about everything driving and inspiring their behavior concerns either reproduction or food. Memory serves as a powerful tool when concerning the whereabouts of finding their next meal. It is not a stretch of logic to assume they will be returning in ever-increasing numbers as the seal population in our urban setting expands unchecked. Once thought to be solitary creatures, great whites have been observed cooperating with one another during hunts. As such, they may very well be communicating where to find food along their well documented and defined migratory routes.

According to the ISAF (International Shark Attack File) operated by the Florida Museum of Natural History, in the years between 1926-2007, San Diego was ranked 3rd in California with 10, tied with Monterey and considerably ahead of San Francisco and Santa Cruz in unprovoked shark attacks of all species. Shocking statistics since Northern California is home to the infamous “Bloody Triangle.” An area stretching from South Monterey Bay to just north of Bodega Bay and out to the Farallon Islands. That great whites thrive here is well documented; seals and sea lions live there in large numbers. This explains why the swelling seal rookery at Children’s Pool will undoubtedly have repercussions in all of San Diego County, including perhaps, Orange County and northern Baja, as well. And while these northern areas may have more incidences of shark fatalities per person being bitten, San Diego may be catching up. The first documented attack occurred in 1959 at La Jolla Cove. Surrounded by urban myths and controversies regarding life-insurance schemes, it is nontheless accepted as a shark fatality. The second incident, occurring in 1994, some 35 years later, is also clouded in controversy. Autopsies suggest the victim either likely fell to her death or drowned. Indisputable, however, is that a great white shark bit off her leg. Does it really matter that she may have already been dead? The fact is the shark was there, inside or close to the surf line.

Now, 14 years later, we have our next fatality. Someone swimming within the surf zone where my friends, my children and I spend many hours. Frankly, the trend is disturbing. The rising human population in San Diego only exacerbates the problem.

It’s frustrating that the seal advocates perceive us as self-serving animal haters. This is not a question of like or dislike; it’s about responsible wildlife management in an urban setting. Complete eradication of the seals is neither realistic nor desirable; in fact, the dredging of Children’s Cove is a ridiculously expensive environmental boondoggle. The seal population was historically self-managed by joint use between humans and seals. Re-drilling the drainage holes that already exist in the sea wall to allow for better tidal flushing would alleviate the dirty-water problem.

As surfers we understand that the sharks were there yesterday, today and will be tomorrow. Like any outdoor enthusiast, we recognize the inherent risk when venturing into the domain of wild animals. However, common sense dictates if there are environmentally sound ways to reduce this risk, we should act accordingly. One argument in favor of allowing the seal population to develop unbridled has been the tourist draw they provide. I daresay reasonably safe enjoyment of our beautiful beaches and ocean is an immensely larger draw for tourists and residents alike.