When great white season meets summer beach season: The latest on ‘Shark Park’ from scientists, responders

A 9½-foot juvenile white shark in Soquel Cove last week.
(Eric Mailander via Facebook)

With a shark attack in Pacific Grove last week the latest scare in Monterey Bay and Fourth of July weekend ahead, many might be nervous as they hit the beach. Lookout talked to those who monitor the area between Aptos and New Brighton State Beach known as “Shark Park” to find out the latest on what they’re seeing.

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It’s officially summer here in Santa Cruz County, which means the masses are already flocking to area beaches, and we’re not even to the Fourth of July weekend yet.

With the multicolored quilt of towels spanning the beach comes the mass of humans cooling off in the ocean. And with that, particularly at our sandiest expanse of beaches that stretches from Capitola to Aptos, shark scares are part of the experience.

That seasonal fear, one that emerged more firmly in the past five years, reared its head back above the surface of Monterey Bay waters last week when a swimmer was attacked by a shark while at Lovers Point in Pacific Grove.

He sustained injuries to his torso, stomach and legs and was taken to Natividad Medical Center in Salinas, where he is recovering — after doctors said he was very lucky to survive.

The incident inevitably conjures thoughts of the tragic 2020 death of local surfer Ben Kelly, the first of its kind in this part of Monterey Bay, and prompted the cancellation of junior lifeguards competition at Seacliff State Beach in Aptos — a longtime kickoff to the summer competition season — after a school of baby great whites decided to crash the party near the so-called Cement Ship.

Then last week came social media footage of a 9½-foot great white spotted in the area of Soquel Cove known as “Shark Park,” amping up shark-related anxieties for locals and visitors alike.

But realistically, how worried should we be about wading into Monterey Bay waters this summer?

Marine life experts and those patrolling the sands agree: Sharks or no sharks, the ocean can be a dangerous place.

“Usually, shark attacks are the last thing you should worry about,” said Sean Van Sommeran, executive director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation, adding that many of the sharks his organization encounters are smaller and pose little threat to humans. “Still, the ocean is the last place you should go and be careless.”

Gary Griggs, director of UC Santa Cruz’s Institute of Marine Sciences, feels similarly about local shark danger.

“It may be surprising, but in the roughly 200-year history [of major settlements in and around] Monterey Bay, there has been one death from a shark attack,” he said, adding that even everyday activities like driving over Highway 17 easily pose more danger. “With regards to the ocean, there’s a much higher chance of getting caught in a rip current or falling off the rocks.”

The eyeballs paid to watch out for swimmers, surfers and paddlers who enter the water in the Shark Park zone from Manresa to New Brighton state beaches belong to members of the Central Fire District’s water rescue team.

“The ocean’s a big place; it’s the sharks’ habitat. And so obviously, we’re stepping into their backyard whenever we’re entering and doing our activities there, said Henry Tobias, a firefighter and paramedic who manages the team. “We just remind people to be aware and mindful of the hazards that do exist.”

Tobias said shark activity hasn’t seemed to vary greatly from previous years, and there have been no reports of hostile behavior.

“We’re having the usual daily sightings we’ve had the last few years. But they’re usually not active sharks, meaning that they’re not imposing any danger or hostile activity towards anyone in the water,” he said. “We haven’t been seeing anything that’s out of the ordinary or that would cause any extra concern.”

An aerial view of sharks in the "Shark Park" area of Soquel Cove, between Capitola and Aptos.
(Eric Mailander via Facebook)

Van Sommeran says that around 2015, sharks began to find their way up the coast from Baja California in increasingly high numbers, along with other marine species, thanks to a mass of warm water referred to by scientists as the “blob.” Aerial surveys of the Shark Park zone at that time routinely showed a dozen or more sharks, compared to one to four in previous years.

“Abruptly in 2014 or 2015, they [sharks] began to go way up the coast into Monterey Bay due to shifting currents,” he said. “Since then, they’ve been consistently around, particularly in this one spot between Capitola and Aptos where there are warm pockets that the sharks gather around.”

This abundance of shark activity has prompted boat tours that naturalists and ocean enthusiasts alike can sign up for in hopes of catching a glimpse of the awe-inspiring creatures — even if they are the juvenile version of what will become the large 15- to 20-foot whites people might see in on Animal Planet or in any of the classic “Jaws” movies.

Griggs agreed that shark sightings are certainly up locally, but that might not exactly mean there are more sharks.

“I think with the advent of drones and observations conducted from planes or helicopters, we’re certainly noticing more than we used to,” he said. “But I don’t think we’ve had long-term monitoring records that would tell us how many there were in, say, 1950. I don’t know of any statistics that would confirm or deny that.”

But the question remains: If there are more sharks in the area, why could that be?

Griggs says warmth is a big factor, and with climate change, this trend could continue. As local waters warm, they will become much more habitable for sharks.

“As air gets warmer, the water gets warmer, and we get kinds of climate anomalies that may drive some of these observations,” he said. “Most climate scientists would probably say that these wouldn’t happen without climate change, but it’s hard to take what’s happening with sharks locally and entirely attribute it to climate change. But it certainly is moving in that direction.”

The natural marine habitat at our ocean’s edge is special, yet it also shouldn’t be taken lightly.

“You can get this really wonderful view of the sharks, which are usually 10 feet long, and are very curious and relaxed,” said Van Sommeran. “But still, it is a wild animal, and you want to give it room and not encroach on it. Surely, I wouldn’t recommend sending my kids on inner tubes out there.”

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