April 3, 2003

By Michael Strickland

Great White Hope

Last night, I attended a meeting of a local dive club, where a veteran lifeguard spoke about rip tides, beach diving and the local seal-human controversy at La Jolla's Children's Pool. In the course of the discussion, a club member mentioned the recent sighting of a great white shark attack just off the beach in La Jolla. Though the victim was one of La Jolla's hundreds of resident seals, not a human, the attack (which reportedly lasted for 30 minutes) was just the latest in a string of great white sightings in the area by local surfers and fishermen. Anecdotal evidence suggests there could be as many as 30 great white sharks hunting the waters off San Diego county. With over 200 pinnipeds now calling the Children's Pool home, it's not hard to figure out why this might be true. Such a huge biomass is like a smorgasbord for great whites, whose primary prey is the seal.

While the aforementioned estimates are highly unscientific, they certainly raise at least a guarded concern. Great white sharks do not have a taste for human flesh, and usually abandon a human victim after the first bite reveals that it's not a seal. However, as one observer noted last night, one bite from such a highly evolved apex predator as a great white shark can be fatal.

I repeat this information not to raise the alarm amongst swimmers and surfers in La Jolla—shark hysteria is already much higher than it should be—but instead to report what I feel is an exciting natural phenomenon. Great whites are seen fairly often in northern California, but are less common down here. Lightning strikes and plane crashes are more common ways to die than shark attacks, so I don't feel these great whites (if the local numbers have indeed increased) pose any greater threat than they did before seals claimed the Children's Pool. Rather, I relish the possibility of encountering a great white in the wild as I get more involved in the local diving community and start to explore with a scuba tank the waters I have come to know so well with mask and snorkel.

Certainly, I hope to be on the bottom looking up, instead of vice versa, if I happen to catch a glimpse of the reclusive great white. And, if the shark is especially hungry that day, hopefully my dive buddy will appear more appetizing than me. But any firsthand encounter with such a feared predator, especially outside the protection of a shark cage, would be unforgettable. It would be one of those experiences that scares you shitless while it happens, but provides you with the tale of a lifetime (assuming your life lasts longer than the encounter).

Photo by J. Stafford-Deitsch


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Michael Strickland ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

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