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Close ocean encounters: Surfers say shark incidents are increasing in frequency

Posted: Friday, Oct 30th, 2009


Some surfers believe warmer than normal Pacific waters led to an increase in the number of great white sharks off South Beach this fall. “I think if you spent a lot of time thinking about it and pondering it, you’d probably psych yourself out. But, if you’re the last guy out of the water, and it’s getting dark, it usually crops into your mind,” said Tim Henton, co-owner of The Oregon Surf Shop in Lincoln City. (Staff photo)


Dum....dum...dum..dum - it’s every surfer or swimmer’s nightmare, a great white shark in the surf. Local boarders say it is a scenario that is happening with greater frequency along the central Oregon coast.

“I’ve been here since the ‘80s and never, ever in all those years can I remember this many sightings or incidents occurring in the Newport area, ever,” said Ralph Meier, owner of Envision Surfboards in Newport.

Meier says that in the past, shark incidents seemed to occur about every seven-and-a-half years along the coast, but starting in September, he heard of a shark encounter happening about once a week.

Most of the incidents occurred at South Beach. One of Meier’s friends reported seeing a shark - whose tail fin and dorsal fin were at least 10-feet apart - swim between a group of surfers. A week later, another friend surfing in the same area saw a large shark explode completely out of the water and take a sea lion.

“He said it was just like on National Geographic,” Meier said “He said the water was like a red pool and there was swirling afterward.”

Another surfer at South Beach reportedly was dragged off his board when a shark momentarily entangled itself in the board’s leash.

“I’ve been surfing this year and seen shadows, but you shake it off and keep surfing,” Meier said.

Meier thinks warmer water during the fall may be one reason there has been more shark sightings.

Tim Henton, co-owner of the Oregon Surf Shop in Lincoln City isn’t convinced that there are more sharks than normal along the coast. He theorizes that in a fall that saw less wind than normal, conditions were better for people to spot sharks.

“More people surf when it’s smooth and calm and in a bigger variety of places than when it’s howling 25-knot north west winds, Henton said. “In my mind, that would have as much to do with it as anything.”

Henton says surfers and swimmers can lessen the chance of encountering sharks by avoiding certain areas with large concentration of shark prey, such as river mouths and rocky outcroppings with an abundance of seals and sea lions.

This is the time of year when great whites are closer to shore, and unusual water temperatures this year may also affect the distribution of the big sharks, says Wade Smith, a shark researcher at Oregon State University

“Good conditions for surfing also have more people in the water, increasing the chances of an encounter,” Smith said.

Despite it’s lore, which got a mammoth, if somewhat distorted boost after the 1975 movie ‘Jaws,” scientists still have much to learn about great whites.

“The high mobility of this shark, in part, makes it difficult to study,” Smith said. “For many years, we assumed that these sharks stay in relatively shallow, nearshore waters. But, recent satellite tracking has revealed that they often dive to thousands of feet and move from the west coast to the central Pacific Ocean. Much more remains to be known about their diet, movements patterns, growth rate, and reproductive biology.”

A white shark in Oregon waters might range as far south as Mexico, east to Hawaii and north to Alaska, Smith said.

Great whites can live to be 30 years old or more and weigh more than 4,000 pounds. The largest white shark on record was 22.3 feet long, but Smith said there have been a number of unconfirmed reports of larger sharks.

A great white brought into Depoe Bay in August after it snared itself in crab pot lines measured 12-feet and weighed about 400 pounds. According to Smith, that shark would have been between 10 and 20 years old.

Sharks find their prey through a highly developed sense of smell and through electroreceptors that detect electrical energy given off by living organisms it the water.

Young white sharks feed on fish and squid, and as they become larger began preying on marine mammals such as porpoises, dolphins, small whales, seals and sea lions.

Some scientists speculate that the similar silhouette of seals and seal lions and surfboards when viewed from below may be one reason surfers get bit or bumped by sharks.

In most attacks on humans, sharks make one bite and let go. According to Smith, sharks bite their prey and then move off while it bleeds and loses energy.

“Prey items like seals or sea lions have large claws and could be dangerous when injured, the biting and waiting appears to be a strategy that allows them to minimize risk,” Smith said. “However, many sharks will bump or take a small bite out of items as a form of investigation that differs from a full predatory strike.”

Despite the popular image of sharks dragging unsuspecting swimmers to their deaths, fatal sharks attacks are quite rare.

The last documented shark attacks in Oregon occurred between July and October of 2006, when three people were attacked - none fatally, including a surfer near the mouth of the Siletz River whose board had a large bite taken out of it by a shark.

According to the International Shark Attack File maintained by the Florida Museum of Natural History, on average, 41 people are attacked by sharks in the United States each year, with one fatality occurring about every two-years. By comparison, about 40 people a year die by lighting strikes in the U.S., 55 die in hunting accidents and 130 perish in car collisions with deer.

Any shark encounter is frightening, but there are other large sharks off the Oregon coast that might be mistaken for a great white, particularly salmon sharks, that could inflate the actual number of white shark encounters reported.

“When in or on the water, one is often only able to get a quick glance at the shark, so it can be quite difficult,” Smith said. Without a photo or a specimen at hand, it can be a challenge. White sharks are born at larger sizes and grow to larger sizes than salmon sharks. But an examination of teeth and the keels near the tail (caudal fin) provide the best way to distinguish between white sharks and salmon sharks.”

Smith says the best way to avoid an encounter with a shark is to stay in groups, avoid activities in the water at dawn or dusk and to be cautious between sandbars and near steep drop-offs, favored shark hangouts. And, as if it doesn’t go without saying, do not harass sharks and get out of the water when one is sighted.

The increase in shark sightings doesn’t seem to keep most boarders out of the water. Henton, of the Oregon Surf Shop, says the risk is minimal and just as in driving; a person could make themselves crazy thinking of all the possible ways they could get hurt.

“Is it something in the back of mind we’re not excited about running into? Absolutely. Is it something we sit around and think about a lot? No,” Henton said. “I think if you spent a lot of time thinking about it and pondering it, you’d probably psych yourself out. But, if you’re the last guy out of the water, and it’s getting dark, it usually crops into your mind.”



Larry Coonrod can be reached at 265-8571 ext 211 or larry@newportnewstimes.com



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