Illustration by Kenny Srivijittakar.
Illustration by Kenny Srivijittakar.
Sean van sommeran and his research team at the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation have spotted three great white sharks in Santa Cruz since October. Photo by Morgan Grana.
Sean Van Sommeran and his research team at the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation have spotted three great white sharks in Santa Cruz since October. Photo by Morgan Grana.

Next time you are out in the waters of Santa Cruz, don’t assume that the fin you spot out in the distance belongs to a dolphin. This time of year, it could belong to a ferociously hungry, 20-foot-long great white shark.

Lifeguards, researchers and boaters in Santa Cruz County have made numerous sightings of great white sharks in Carmel Bay, Marina, Moss Landing and Monterey Bay since the beginning of August. Over the summer, Seacliff beach, New Brighton state beaches, and Capitola city beaches were closed to swimmers and surfers after a shark was spotted.

While it may not be common knowledge that great whites migrate to areas in and around the Monterey Bay, Sean Van Sommeran, the executive director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, said that this is actually very common activity for the sharks.

Sommeran coined the term “Sharktober” at his research center to give a name for the time of year when shark activity is most prevalent.

“I see great whites on a regular basis beginning in July,” Sommeran said. “With the increased number of people using the coastline in the summer and with the improvements in technology, shark sightings are much more common.”

Sommeran said that since October his research team alone has spotted three great whites. The number of great whites seen in these areas has increased dramatically from previous years due to increased technology and the ability to explore new territories.

Great White sharks are highly migratory because their prey — elephant seals and bait fish — swim in areas as large as their predators do. Additionally, the seasonal water temperature and swell shifts have influence over their migration.

“The environment acts as a kind of conveyer belt in an airport that moves the animals within them along the current and that’s why we see them in the Monterey Bay,” Sommeran said. “They are just following their prey and are moved along by the natural conditions.”

Giacomo Bernardi, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UCSC, said that there are two reasons why new technology has been so much more useful in discovering new deep sea animals.

“We are discovering more about the deep sea in rural habitats because we are probing it a lot more with updated submersibles and cameras,” Bernardi said. “And traditionally we discovered new species of animals from fishermen bringing them back, but because many fisheries have crashed, fishermen are resorting to go to more remote places to catch fish and they are finding these new species in the water.”

New Shark Discovery

The increase in technology has assisted researchers and scientists in the discovery of more shark species. A new breed of ghost shark that resides in the deep sea was discovered on the coast of Southern California in mid-September.

The black ghost shark is the 12th new species of ghost shark discovered in the past three years. Technically the black ghost shark is a chimaera, which comprises the oldest and most enigmatic groups of fish alive today, according to Science Daily.

Professor Bernardi said that the ghost sharks are also called rat fish and their names are based on their appearance.

“The name comes from the strange looking faces that they have,” Bernardi said. “Cartilaginous fish often look weird and they dwell in the deep waters.”

Bernardi is fascinated that researchers are still uncovering new species that has likely been around for millions of years in an area so close-by.

“It’s a major deal when a new species of chimaera is discovered because chimaeras are so ancient and they have been delegated to particularly dark and cold environments,” Bernardi said. “This discovery only underscores how little we know about the deep sea. I find it amazing that fairly big animals can be very inconspicuous.”

Sora Kim, a graduate student at UCSC with a degree in marine sciences, said that the reason we do not know very much about the chimaeras and sharks is because of their adaptations to stay out of human sight.

“We also don’t fish them regularly and they are not a regular part of our consumption, so we don’t know a lot about their population numbers,” Kim said. “It is hard to watch what they do because they are underwater and they travel such long distances, so in the world of science there is still a lot that is unknown about sharks.”

Misunderstood Monsters

From Hollywood representations to urban legends, sharks have long been portrayed as vicious killers with a taste for human blood.

Lauren Smith, a second-year marine biology major at UCSC, recently completed a nine-day field study in Bahia de las Animas. While she knows her fear of sharks may be a little unfounded, she was nonetheless happy not to encounter one during her time there.

“You are more likely to be killed by a hole dug in the sand than you are to be killed by a shark attack,” Smith said. “But even with that said, I would still be scared to encounter one in the water because with a wetsuit on, a person looks a lot like a seal to a shark.”

Kim explained that sharks hunt sea animals that are easiest to catch and that give them the most nutrients, and humans do not possess either quality.

“In the case of great white sharks, they actually like eating things that are very fatty and have high protein content like seals and sea lions with blubber layers,” Kim said. “Humans are pretty small compared to other animals sharks could eat and we don’t have a very high fat content.”

Sommeran explained that it is normally not the shark attack that kills an unlucky human victim, but rather what occurs after the attack.

“Statistically shark attacks and injuries are really, really rare, but even though attacks are usually not fatal, when people are attacked it is injurious and they are usually far from help or from the shore,” Sommeran said. “Usually I find that people don’t go out too much further than the wave breaks because it gives people the creeps.”

Justin Mendez, a second-year from College Nine, frequently surfs at the beaches in Santa Cruz and has never encountered a shark but he still gets spooked on occasion.

“When I went out last Saturday, I was tripping balls because I thought I saw a shark and we were the only ones out there, so I paddled my ass back in for a little bit,” Mendez said.

On her field study, Smith learned some tricks to evade shark attacks.

“If you put a hand on a shark’s nose, which is full of sensory organs, they will fall back and swim away because they do not understand what it is and they do not want it to happen again,” Smith said.

Part of the work that Sommeran and his team of researchers do is to warn surfers of dangers in areas where there are sharks. However, they still joke about the inexperienced surfers and pedestrians in Santa Cruz.

“We have this ongoing inside joke that the sharks sort of weed out the kooks and keep the crowds down in a lot of the more remote spots in Santa Cruz,” joked Van Sommeran. “They help natural selection create a faster, smarter, and more alert breed of surfer.”

However, Mendez has a different take on the way sharks go about choosing their food.

“It doesn’t really matter to a shark if you are a weak surfer,” Mendez said. “If you are floating around out there, a shark is going to eat the guy who looks most like a seal.”

A Reverse Threat

Despite the fact that sharks pose a threat to humans, they face threats of their own as well. Even though sharks are apex predators, they are still in danger of extinction due to high sea fishing and because of their horrific reputation. Sharks are long-living, slow-growing and easily susceptible to being over-fished. In addition, a lot of small species like ghost sharks and skates get caught in troll fisheries.

Sommeran’s Pelagic Shark Research Foundation has been making efforts to conserve sharks since 1990.

“In many cases this by-catch [of sharks and rays] is discarded,” Sommeran said. “It is also estimated that numerous high-seas commercial fisheries discard more than 210,000 metric tons of sharks and rays annually.”

Several local efforts are targeted at addressing the threats humans cause to sharks.

At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the tour leaders try to change the negative perception of sharks by emphasizing the danger that can occur from a diminishing shark population.

“Sharks are really in danger and they are a big part of the food chain because they are apex predators, so if you take them out there is going to be a great unbalance,” Ann Veneman, a tour guide at the aquarium, said. “They eat fish that are usually diseased or not as fast as they normally should be, so they are cleaning up the environment.”

Sommeran’s Pelagic Shark Research Foundation has three long-term monitoring programs at Moss Landing where there are critical breeding habitats threatened by a few real estate restoration issues.

In the Monterey Bay Marine Canyons, the foundation is checking pelagic sharks that are heavily affected by open ocean drift drill nets and whale liners. They track the sharks from the Monterey Bay pacific basin to Japan.

Sommeran recognizes the value sharks have in the field of marine biology and is doing all that he can to preserve them for the future.

“Sharks are fascinating for all of the obvious reasons because of their teeth and all that, but they are also interesting for showing a long tenure in the fossil record,” Sommeran said. “They represent some of the earliest, if not earliest, vertebrates of our planet.”

As a surfer, Mendez has developed a respect for sharks despite commonly held misconceptions about these ancient vertebrates.

“Sharks are interesting because everyone freaks out about them and thinks that they are crazy,” Mendez said, “but they are actually pretty calm creatures.”