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Great White Sharks Thriving Off California Coast, Says Researcher

Above: A lifeguard and several other beachgoers reported seeing a Great White Shark about 50 yards off La Jolla Shores on Monday, July 2, 2012.

Aired 7/4/12 on KPBS News.

Many people will flock to San Diego beaches this 4th of July, despite a Great White Shark sighting near La Jolla earlier this week. A California shark expert says the dorsal-finned predators are thriving along the Southern California coast.

It's similar to a scene in the movie, “Jaws.” A San Diego lifeguard spotted what appeared to be a 12- to 15-foot Great White Shark lurking 50 yards off La Jolla Shores on Monday -- the week of July 4th. Swimmers and surfers were called out of the water and the beach was closed.

Seal lions, seals and birds rest on rocks along La Jolla Cove, while scuba divers and snorkelers explore the underwater ecological reserve, January 16, 2012.
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Above: Seal lions, seals and birds rest on rocks along La Jolla Cove, while scuba divers and snorkelers explore the underwater ecological reserve, January 16, 2012.

A Great White Shark was spotted about 50 yards off the coast at La Jolla Shores on July 2, prompting lifeguards to close the ocean to swimmers and surfers.
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Above: A Great White Shark was spotted about 50 yards off the coast at La Jolla Shores on July 2, prompting lifeguards to close the ocean to swimmers and surfers.

The sighting is likely no fish tale, said Chris Lowe, professor of marine biology at Cal State Long Beach and director of the Shark Lab.

"One of the interesting things about La Jolla is you have that deep water canyon there," he explained, "so it’s possible that these sharks are staying deep, and might periodically come up the canyon where they’re exposed to shallow water."

Lowe said California’s white shark population is on the rise because commercial fisheries are more closely regulated and pups aren’t dying in the nets. "White sharks have been protected in California since 1994, and it has been since about that time that we've seen an increase in sightings."

The pups are approximately 4.5 feet long at birth. Females give birth to two to eight pups on average. The question that remains is where the females go to give birth.

"One possibility is that they're doing it in deep water and then the babies swim into shore," he said.

The other possibility is along California's offshore islands.

"I think moms give birth and then they leave," explained Lowe, "because it’s actually pretty rare to see adult white sharks along our beaches in Southern California and that’s part of the mystery."

The pups spend their summers along Southern California beaches and then migrate south to Baja around November, he added.

La Jolla Canyon has steep sides and a vertical headwall and extends for thirty-three miles seaward in a general southwest direction and enters San Diego Trough twenty-seven miles off the coast at a depth of 3,600 feet.
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Above: La Jolla Canyon has steep sides and a vertical headwall and extends for thirty-three miles seaward in a general southwest direction and enters San Diego Trough twenty-seven miles off the coast at a depth of 3,600 feet.

California's nursery waters provide the pups an abundance of food, like stingrays and fish. Lowe said the adult food base is also making a comeback.

“It was estimated that in 1920 there were as few as 2,000 California sea lions in all of California and Baja," he said. "And now of course that estimate is well over 300,000.”

Lowe said the pups aren't dangerous, and the odds of an attack by an adult Great White are extremely low. Still, he said, beachgoers should use caution while swimming and surfing.

"The reality of it is people are at far greater risk driving to the beach than they ever are going in the water," said Lowe.

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