Watch the teeth (are there more White Sharks?)

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Posted by on May 12, 2005 at 06:40:15:

The recent rise in shark attacks may just mean there's more of them -- and us.

One morning last June, Kelly French of Laguna Beach paddled among dolphins in glassy water near San Onofre as he waited on sun-flecked swells to ride a wave. Instead, he met a surfer's worst nightmare.

From the deep, a 9-foot white shark surfaced about 20 yards away. French swung his legs up and clung to his board as the fish charged him. "I was in shock that I was seeing that large a shark in my favorite surfing spot," he says.

The shark thrashed the board for about 20 seconds before diving beneath the surface. Seizing the reprieve, French says he bodysurfed to safety.

French was one of four shark attack victims off the coast of California and Oregon last year, and one of 16 in those waters since 2000, says Ralph Collier, director of the Canoga Park-based Shark Research Committee and author of "Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century."

Shark attacks are rare, but that rate in recent years is double the average of the previous 50 years, during which sharks struck 107 surfers, divers, kayakers or swimmers. Only one attack was reported in the half century before that, in 1926.

No attacks have been reported so far this year, but surfers and swimmers have reported several shark close encounters in waters at such beaches as Zuma, Huntington and Encinitas.

Some researchers say attacks might be increasing as more humans share the water with more sharks.

Their numbers are difficult to quantify, but white sharks may have surged since 1993 when laws banned killing or capturing them in California. An abundant supply of seals and sea lions could lure the fish closer to swimmers and surfers, Collier says.

"It's a combination of more sharks and more people using the habitats that the sharks are in as well that leads to higher interaction," says Bill Sydeman, director of marine ecology at Point Reyes Bird Observatory, which studies sharks at the Farallon Islands.

Sometimes those interactions prove deadly. Sharks killed two people on the West Coast in the last two years. Abalone diver Randall Fry, 50, was decapitated in August off Mendocino County by a large shark as he readied for one last dive. A swimmer was killed near Avila Beach when a shark attacked her in 2003.

About half of the shark victims escape unscathed or suffer only minor injuries, Collier says. An additional 35% to 40% sustain wounds that require hospitalization. Fewer than one in 10 victims since 1926 have lost their lives. Sharks sometimes chomp people - or surfboards or kayaks - before spitting them out as unfamiliar prey, experts say. That's what happened to Peck Euwer from Santa Barbara, when a shark attacked his surfboard as he paddled out to Maverick's in 2001.

Other times sharks attack aggressively, as in French's case, then retreat, giving the victim a chance to escape.

"When we say there were 20 shark attacks in the year, everybody seems to think of the horrendous, fatal ones or incidents where people lose a limb," says Marie Levine, executive director of the Shark Research Institute in New Jersey, which tracks global shark attacks. "But most of them tend to be very minor."

Levine questions whether the upsurge in shark attacks reports reflects increased reporting of minor incidents. "In one incident [in Florida] a man's big toe was cut. If it was a dog bite or he'd stubbed his toe at home it wouldn't make news," she says.

John McCosker, a senior scientist at the California Academy of Natural Sciences in San Francisco and coauthor of the book "Great White Shark," says the recent increase in attacks could be a statistical blip, not a long-term trend.

"I think it was just a stroke of bad luck on the part of our species," McCosker says.

Experts advise caution when entering shark-infested waters.

Don't wear colorful swimsuits, flashy jewelry or contrasting colors. Steer clear of murky water, where sharks and humans might bump into each other, Collier says. Avoid dark, rocky bottoms and submerged outcroppings; Sydeman says studies at the Farallons show that white sharks use topography to conceal attacks. Also, avoid places frequented by seals and sea lions or where previous attacks occurred.

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