California's first fatal shark attack since 1994 occurs and in its wake comes the inevitable ripple effect A day after Tuesday's deadly attack on Deborah Franzman, by a great white as she was swimming near seals and sea lions off Avila Beach near San Luis Obispo, a Santa Maria angler said he saw the same shark in the same general area nearly two weeks ago as he and a friend were trolling for halibut. The shark was estimated at 15 to 18 feet by state marine biologist Robert Lea. "It was a 19-footer and I know it was 19 feet because it was exactly as long as my boat," said Don Chavez, 37, a former commercial fisherman who said there was no mistaking what kind of shark it was. "I saw its head, its eyes — the whole thing. It came right up next to my boat and I told my buddy to get ready at the controls in case it started hitting the boat." Chavez, who was six miles south of where Tuesday's attack occurred, in about 60 feet of water half a mile from shore, said the shark swam alongside and past his boat, then turned around and appeared briefly at the stern before sinking down and disappearing from view. "You would not believe how big around it was," he said. "It was probably three feet around just where the tail met the body. I picked up my cell phone and immediately called all my surfing buddies, but I didn't call the authorities. I feel bad about that now, but what would they have done?" Probably nothing. Offshore shark sightings do not typically result in calls to action.
Meanwhile, in Southern California If you're a surfer planning a trip to San Onofre State Beach, you might want to know that there has been at least one large great white "camped out" just south of the nuclear generating plant, according to Michael Domeier, president of the Pfleger Institute of Environmental Research and a prominent white shark researcher. Domeier this week positively identified the animal based on aerial photographs provided by the U.S. Marine Corps. They were taken by members of a helicopter unit, who saw five smaller sharks July 21 and since have seen as many as two much larger sharks every few days, as close as 100 yards from the beach. "After talking with the other pilots, we believe the big sharks we saw were 15 to 17 feet," said Maj. James E. Fox Jr., an officer stationed at Camp Pendleton. "I saw them personally five times, but recently there has been only one." Domeier, whose organization has been involved in a long-term white shark tagging study at Guadalupe Island off Baja California, said he has wrestled with his conscience for days over what to do with the information and has been considering issuing a news release announcing the frequent presence of the shark. "I didn't want to be perceived as the person to strike the fear of God into everybody out in the water," he said. In an e-mail sent Wednesday to Fox and copied to The Times, Domeier wrote, "After [Tuesday's] fatal shark attack I was wondering if we should put out a press release about the presence of the shark off San Onofre. "If you had seen it only one day I would not have bothered, but your guys have seen it regularly for three weeks now. Perhaps people should know about it and let them decide if they REALLY want to go surfing at Trestles!" Trestles is a good jog up the coast. There are several popular surf spots closer to the generating plant, the closest being accessible by Trail One at the southern end of the state beach. "One of our [lifeguards] has spotted a shark more than once at Trail One, just south of the power plant, but he thought it was a mako shark," lifeguard supervisor Joe Layng said. Layng was unfazed when told it might be a great white. "Those things aren't going to bother us," he said. "No one's complained. There's no hysteria and no one jumping and screaming, 'Sharks!' " How volatile is this situation? "The bottom lines, those surfers are much more likely to be injured in a car accident on the way to the beach, especially on that freeway," said Chris Lowe, a shark researcher and professor at Long Beach State, referring to Interstate 5. "That there hasn't been an attack [despite the close proximity of the sharks to the surfers] really speaks toward the [low] probability of shark attacks — that these are really rare events." Southern California coastal waters are considered a nursing ground for adult great whites during the spring and there is a chance that the smaller sharks seen by the helicopter pilots were great white pups.
However, Lowe said, the pupping season has been over for several weeks and he could not explain why the larger shark or sharks keep appearing in the same area, other than to say they're probably feeding on sea lions. White sharks appear seasonally at elephant seal rookeries off Northern California, such as the Farallon Islands, Año Nuevo Island and Point Reyes, but otherwise their movements remain largely a mystery. It has recently become known that they are not strictly coastal inhabitants, as previously believed. They travel at least into the mid-Pacific and some tagged in Northern California have traveled to Hawaiian waters. Domeier recently returned from Guadalupe Island seeking satellite pop-up tags placed in sharks there last summer. Though the archival tags are designed to pop free of the animal at a specific time, Tom Pfleger, founder of PIER, boarded a small inflatable boat and used his hand to physically grab a tag from the back of a large white shark he and Domeier had "chummed" to the surface. "In the process, the shark bit one of the compartments of his boat and deflated it," Domeier said. "It makes for a good story, but he was never in any real danger because his boat was right up against the bigger boat." Domeier wouldn't reveal the results of data collected from the tag, saying it was incomplete, but said that of another shark tagged at Guadalupe Island popped up on schedule and data relayed via satellite positioned it in Hawaiian waters. Sean Van Sommeran, executive director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, said his group's tagging efforts, using four sharks that visited Año Nuevo Island last fall, revealed travels by two females to areas deep into the Pacific, and by one male to an area near Guadalupe Island. The fourth tag malfunctioned. "The females were diving as deep as 700 meters, while the male never went deeper than 500 meters," Van Sommeran said. "They traveled an average of 42-43 miles a day." In an interview Wednesday from Guadalupe Island, Tim Ekstrom, skipper of the Royal Star out of Fisherman's Landing in San Diego, said via satellite phone that great whites had been stealing tuna from his passengers' hooks. "They're definitely well fed on our account," he said. "We probably contributed 15% of our catch to the white shark population here yesterday. Even when they're not eating our fish, they're swimming around our boat. There has got to be 10 to 12 sharks around the island right now." Guadalupe Island, a volcanic land mass 220 miles southwest of San Diego, is sparsely populated with military personnel and seasonal fishermen. There have been two verified attacks on spear-toting free-divers from Southern California — one of them fatal — but locals have told stories of others. News and Notes Bluefin bonanza: Capt. Shawn Trowbridge of the Legend put his passengers on the season's first sizable school of bluefin tuna Tuesday in an area 70 miles south of Point Loma. But the anglers were geared up for smaller albacore and lost way more than the 53 bluefin they brought over the rail. On Wednesday, back in the area with heavier tackle, Trowbridge turned in a tally of 108 bluefin averaging 35-45 pounds. The boat, which runs from Seaforth Sportfishing, was back on the school Thursday. Mixed bag: Bluefin and albacore may be the most prized tuna available to anglers fishing from San Diego's overnight vessels but yellowfin tuna have moved into striking range and with them have come yellowtail and dorado. The Dominator on Thursday reported limits of yellowfin not far from where the bluefin were being caught. The presence of yellowfin and dorado, which prefer much warmer water than bluefin and albacore, could be a sign of a changing of the guard. Dove prospects: They're good throughout the Imperial Valley for the opener Sept. 1, in large part because of cooperative efforts by the Department of Fish and Game, the volunteer group Desert Wildlife and area farmers. For the third consecutive year, those groups have teamed to plant 25 large parcels of land, which will be made available to hunters for a 15-day early season. Five large fields within Imperial Wildlife Area's Wister and Finney-Ramer units are also well planted. Prospects are also good at San Jacinto Wildlife Area in Riverside County.