Nick Carroll On: The Eerie Great White Shark Similarities Between Ballina & San Clemente

9 May 2017 17 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Just last Sunday afternoon near Capistrano Beach, San Clemente. Photo by Matt Larmand

Just last Sunday afternoon near Capistrano Beach, San Clemente. Photo by Matt Larmand

COASTALWATCH PLUS | EXCLUSIVE CONTENT

THE EERIE SIMILARITIES BETWEEN BALLINA AND SAN CLEMENTE

Why these towns share a great white problem.

Let’s get one thing clear here. The waves are way better around Ballina.

But aside from that — the extraordinary scenes playing out recently in the near-shore waters of San Clemente, California, make these two very different coastal towns almost blood sisters.

Like Ballina two years ago, San Clemente has suddenly become host to an influx of young adult great white sharks. Drones planing along above its placid springtime waters are spying half a dozen of the animals at a time, cruising just a couple of hundred metres offshore from the otherwise phenomenally non-threatening surf zone of Poche Beach just north of town.

Surf cams mounted on the lifeguard tower near Lower Trestles are capturing young white sharks in full breach between Lowers and Uppers, in waters no more than three or four metres deep, while the classic Lowers crowd sits in seeming blissful ignorance 100 metres away.

Last week the whole area was thrown into shock by an attack on a woman at San Onofre. The woman had decided to take a bodyboard and fins and kick out to her boyfriend, who was riding a SUP. The shark hit her from side-on and took most of the flesh from the back of her upper right thigh; at last report she was still in a critical condition in a San Diego hospital.

As you can imagine, many local surfers are in a full on spin about these events — just as were many Ballina and region locals in 2016.

Step back, though, and some other much more telling connections appear. Here are three of them...

i: They’ve always been there — just not as many of ‘em

Fishermen and other ocean-goers have been seeing (and catching) the occasional white shark along the Evans Head to Byron stretch for many years. This is in tune with the sharks’ now well-known migratory path along the Australian east coast.

In similar vein, local fishermen and State Parks crew have recorded white sharks along the San Clemente/San Onofre stretch on and off for a long time — usually at this time each year, and usually just one at a time.

Typically a shark would show up around March or April, in sync with the coastal gray whale migration, which travels annually to breeding grounds in the Sea of Cortez off Mexico. Then after a couple of months, the shark would move on. Sightings would usually be on the quieter bit of coast past San Onofre, where the Camp Pendleton Marine base has prevented development, and few people swim or surf.

So, similarity number one: a long-used migratory pattern, de-populated for many years by commercial and sport-fishing, until the species was placed under protection some 20 years ago in both places (California in 1994, Australia in 1996).

ii: The whales keep washing in

In recent years, as the Australian east coast whale population has bounced back thanks to the end of commercial whaling in 1962, more and more whale carcasses have drifted into the NSW coast.

The carcasses are shark catnip. Gooey with high-energy fats, they are always targeted by white sharks and tigers, who often devour them altogether in deeper offshore waters, and sometimes follow them in closer. On several occasions, including on Seven Mile Beach just north of Ballina, the carcasses have reached the beach, only to be buried and left to rot down in nearby sand dunes by local council and the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Do sharks follow the scent of dead whale into near-shore waters as a result, only to find themselves stymied and searching for other prey? A university study of that possibility is currently under way in NSW.

Meanwhile, grey whales came under protection in the eastern Pacific at the same time as the Australian humpback population — ie., pretty much as long as modern surfing has been around. Their numbers have come back faster thanks to a shorter breeding cycle, and now stand at around 20,000.

And, yep, guess what. In the San Clemente area, at least three whale carcasses have washed up in recent years. One, six years ago, was buried in the sand just south of San Onofre. Another was buried along the open beaches south of Newport (where, by the way, a swimmer was attacked in June last year). A third washed ashore at Lowers last summer, and was left to decay for some days before the State Parks crew hacked it up and transported it to landfill. Local surfers swear they can still occasionally smell remnant traces of the carcass.

iii: The vulnerability timeline

Here in Australia, great white sharks have been considered a vulnerable species since the mid-1990s, when they were placed under legal protection. That means the young adult whites that suddenly began arriving in numbers along the Ballina coast in 2014 and 2015 were almost certainly conceived and born after the protection took effect.

In southern California the timeline is almost an exact match. Great whites were placed under protection from all types of fishing in 1994, a year or so earlier than in Australia.

Has protection resulted in a white shark population increase? Ballina seemed to confuse the shark biologists — they hadn’t expected a significant bounce-back in the population. (SEE VIDEO BELOW, Vic Peddemors in our Shark Panel last year.) But there seems no such confusion among US observers. A study published by a research team from the Universities of Florida and Cal State Long Beach in 2014, following 20 years of protection, concluded that white shark populations in the eastern North Pacific were stable and very likely increasing.

The sharks cruising the waters off San Clemente are genetically distinct from the Australian white shark populations, but otherwise, they may as well be cousins. Same ages, same behaviours, same protection time-line. Boom.

That’s three big, eerie similarities between these otherwise very different surf zones. Add a fourth — big increases in surf zone use by humans in both areas — and you’ve got a custom designed shark attack cocktail.

But there’s also two big differences. Aside from the surf, there’s the deaths. The Ballina shark crisis began with two killings within six months, and continued with numerous attacks, at least three of which have left terrible scars on the victims and their families.

So far in San Clemente, there’s been just the one attack on the San O bodyboarding woman.

The deaths, and the constant threat of more, are why the NSW Department of Primary Industry was forced to act. Which to its credit, it did, with 85 tag and release drumlines, a smart buoy network hooked up to social media, and a trial of shark meshing off major beaches in the area. Result so far: the sharks are still there, but they haven’t hit anyone for eight months.

It’s called shark mitigation, and in San Clemente, indeed in all California, it’s a conversation that’s yet to begin. Maybe that conversation won’t begin until SC and Ballina really are blood sisters.

VIDEO BELOW, The Coastalwatch Live Shark Discussion From Ballina 6 October 2016


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