Passengers on a Memorial Day shark-watching tour off Santa Cruz check out an approaching great white shark.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Environment

Taking a tour of ‘Shark Park’: What to know and how to see our local great whites up close

Between Capitola and Aptos lies a spot with the warm water and prey that juvenile great whites crave, and Santa Cruz whale-watching outfits have been quick to add shark cruises to their offerings. Lookout’s Mallory Pickett went along for a look.

Great white sharks, once a rare sight in Monterey Bay, are now a predictable, common occurrence in a particularly hospitable area running southeast along the coast from Capitola past the Cement Ship in Aptos.

It is such a common occurrence, in fact, that local charter companies now regularly lead tours offering shark encounters in that area of Soquel Cove that has become known over the past few years as Shark Park.

Santa Cruz Whale Watching, Sea Spirit Ocean Safari and Nomad Sailing Charters all have shark-watching trips alongside their more standard whale-watching tours out of Santa Cruz Harbor — giving locals and out-of-towners alike the chance to see an apex predator up close and personal.

This new tourism opportunity — that has slowly been able to return after being put on pause by the pandemic — is the result of a profound shift in our local ocean habitat.

A juvenile great white shark near a sailboat off the shore between Capitola and Aptos on May 4, 2021.
A juvenile great white shark near a sailboat in the so-called Shark Park, roughly between New Brighton State Beach in Capitola and the Cement Ship in Aptos on May 4, 2021.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Why are the sharks here?


Ever since a marine heat wave, followed by back-to-back El Nino events, first brought warmer waters to Monterey Bay in 2014, juvenile white sharks have been congregating in Soquel Cove, which roughly spans the stretch of ocean from New Brighton State Beach to the Cement Ship. Juveniles need warm water and plenty of prey — they prefer flatfish such as flounder and sand dabs — and this spot now seems to provide both.

IF YOU GO

Visiting Shark Park

These companies offer cruises from Santa Cruz Harbor:

Santa Cruz Whale Watching
Two-hour trips starting at $48. Click here for more information.

Nomad Sailing Charters
Three-hour trips for up to six for $480. Click here for more information.

Sea Spirit Ocean Safari
Two-to-four-hour trips for up to 20 people for $1,050. Click here for more information.

Salvador Jorgensen, a research associate at the UC Santa Cruz Institute of Marine Sciences, said in an email that the appearance of juvenile white sharks in Monterey Bay in 2014 was “unprecedented.”

“In the northeast Pacific, newborn and small juvenile white sharks were historically confined to Southern California and Baja, a ‘Goldilocks’ zone that was neither too hot nor too cold,” Jorgensen said. But in a new study, Jorgensen found that recent ocean warming, caused by climate change, has shifted this zone north by 175 miles to include Monterey Bay.

The juvenile sharks hang around this area for most of the summer, from around June to September, and this residency appears likely to continue for the foreseeable future. With the proliferation of shark touring opportunities, we all have an opportunity to get to know them better.

It’s also created some havoc for beachgoers, including junior lifeguard programs, which must frequently monitor the location and behavior of the shark population. It was a year ago when surfer Ben Kelly became the first person killed by a shark in this part of the Monterey Bay.

Experiencing a sighting: ‘Exciting and not terrifying at all’


Over the Memorial Day weekend, Lookout’s Mallory Pickett set out with Santa Cruz Whale Watching, on a tour captained by Megan Petersen and guided by naturalist Brian Phan, to see what these shark encounters entail. Here’s her Shark Park travelogue:

The boat left Santa Cruz Harbor with a two-hour itinerary planned: a short jaunt over to New Brighton State Beach, where we would cruise up and down the coast keeping an eye out for dark shapes in the water, or a peek of a dorsal fin above the waves.

Naturalist Brian Phan helped guide a Memorial Day shark-watching tour with Santa Cruz Whale Watching.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Phan said that the juveniles often approach the boat, motivated by what appears to be curiosity. Looking for the sharks can involve a lot of waiting, punctuated by slow cruising. A warning: This is not a great combination for anyone prone to seasickness.

After about an hour of unsuccessful cruising, Petersen was about to turn back toward the harbor when suddenly, we were surrounded. Two sharks approached the boat, one each at the bow and stern, coming within feet of the railing.

Everyone crowded to get a glimpse of the dark bodies in the green water. One of the sharks appeared to be about 10 feet long.

Passengers on a Memorial Day shark-watching tour in Santa Cruz check out an approaching great white shark.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Jill Chambers, a Santa Cruz resident on her first shark tour, said sighting the animals was “exciting, and not terrifying at all.”

“It’s a shame that sharks and rays are endangered,” said Haley Williams, who joined her mother and some friends on the tour. “It was really incredible to see one alive because they’re getting more and more rare.”

A juvenile great white shark spotted off New Brighton State Beach on a Memorial Day shark-watching tour.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Unlike anywhere else in the world


“Everywhere else in the world, to look at great white sharks, they do chum (put out bait) to get the sharks to come up,” Phan said.

Shark Park is unique because there’s no need to chum to produce reliable sightings (chumming is illegal in the U.S.). Perhaps it’s because the sharks are so abundant, or because the juveniles are just interested enough in the boats to approach them. This creates a unique experience, and it’s confined to a very small area.

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“It’s interesting with this area, if you go to Monterey, or Big Sur, it’s cold,” Phan said. “But then you go north of us, it’s also cold. It’s this small, small, area that just gets the right temperature and the right conditions.”

In this special location, right in Santa Cruzans’ backyard, “you get to see a top predator, and you see them come up to us — not being aggressive, just doing its own thing,” Phan said. “I love that moment when someone [goes from] ‘I’m terrified of sharks,’ to, ‘That was beautiful.’”