Surfers' Paradise Lost to the Great White Hungry Shark
By NICK MADIGAN; Chris Dixon contributed to this article.
SAN CLEMENTE, Calif., Aug. 31
A shout erupted from the crowd perched on a bluff high above thebeach, their binoculars trained on the glassy, white-tipped Pacific.
''Look!'' the yell came. ''Right there!''
A long shadow crossed the curve of a breaking wave, the outline ofa fin above it: a great white shark, trolling for dinner.
A handful of white sharks, which can grow to more than 20 feetlong and have long been feared as the oceans' fiercest predator,appear to have found a home here just off San Onofre State Beach, apopular spot for surfers, some of whom say they have had extremelyclose encounters with the beasts.
''I could clearly see the flat face and little stumpy nose, so atthis point I know what this puppy is,'' said Graeme Rae, 36,describing the sight of a white shark while he was surfing here.After swiftly paddling to shore, he and another surfer consideredtaking up another sport, he said. ''We actually discussedPing-Pong.''
It is unusual for great whites to be spotted so far south -- thebeach is just 53 miles north of San Diego -- and they rarely spendmuch time so close to shore.
Speculation is that the sharks, none of which appear to be morethan about eight feet long, are attracted by the smell of a 40-footgray whale that was buried on the beach two years ago. Effluence fromthe decomposed animal is thought to be leaching into the ocean.
The increasing frequency of great whites off the California coasthas been of particular concern since a fatal attack on a 50-year-oldwoman on Aug. 19 at Avila Beach, 200 miles north of Los Angeles.Witnesses said that the woman, Deborah Franzman, had joined someseals for a swim when she was bitten. The authorities in Avila Beachclosed the beaches there for several days, and closed them again thisweekend after a sea lion washed ashore on Thursday with marks of agreat white attack.
Here at San Onofre State Beach, a couple miles south of SanClemente, lifeguards kept swimmers and surfers from entering amile-long stretch of water on Saturday and today.
''I was actually going to take surfing lessons this year, butthere's no way now,'' said Kristen Ross, 28, a teacher who waswatching from the safety of the bluff.
To Sam Pettit, 7, who came from Santa Barbara to see the sharkshere with his family, there was a straightforward solution for thosewho were spending hours hoping for a glimpse of the great whites.
''It would be easier to know when they're coming if they justplayed the music,'' he said, referring to the ominous, thudding themefrom ''Jaws.''
Reports of large sharks have been documented at San Onofre forabout 18 months, but their frequency and proximity seem to haveincreased in the last few weeks.
''These things are more unpredictable than a grizzly bear,'' T. R.Bancroft, a lifeguard who has worked the San Onofre surf for 22years, said from the bluff. ''They appear to be docile, but they'renot.''
Last Sunday, Mr. Bancroft said, a great surf drew dozens ofsurfers. ''A shark was right there, bumping into some of them,'' hesaid. ''All the surfers suddenly had their hands and feet out of thewater.''
Carrie Wilson, a shark expert for the California Department ofFish and Game, said that since 1950 there had been 93 white sharkattacks on humans in California waters. Of those, 10 were fatal. Thelast one before the killing of Ms. Franzman was an attack in 1994 ona diver off San Miguel Island, near Santa Barbara. Ms. Wilson saidwhite sharks seemed to prefer the colder waters and more prolificfishing grounds between Santa Barbara and San Francisco and aroundthe Farallon Islands.
Beginning on Wednesday, a nearby beach called Lower Trestles willbe the site of the Boost Mobile Pro Surf Contest, which will featuretop names in the sport. There are no plans to cancel that event.
Here at San Onofre, at a spot known as Trail 1, visitors arewarned of the danger.
''Sharks have been seen around Trail 1 today!'' a sign said.
But surfers like Shan Smith, 32, who said he had surfed this beachfor 20 years, did not need to be told about the danger ofencountering a shark.
''I'll go back in,'' Mr. Smith said, ''when I see it on a hook.''
Images: Photos: With warnings posted at a popular area for surfersoff San Onofre State Beach, people took to a bluff on Sunday to watchfor white sharks. Just a mile away, at Old Man Beach, surfers andswimmers frolicked. (Photographs by Robert Galbraith for The New YorkTimes)