Great white sharks are coming back in California—and that’s a good thing

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Dr. Chris Lowe’s phone has been ringing almost constantly.  As the director of the Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab, Lowe is the go-to-guy for media and other scientists when they have questions about sharks. Recently, they’ve been wanting to know whether the waters here are safe for people—and with good reason.

In the past two weeks, there have been two shark encounters. On Memorial Day weekend, a great white shark attacked a 52 year-old mother of three who was training for a triathlon off the coast of Newport Beach. The shark’s bite extended from her shoulder to her pelvis, suggesting an adult shark perhaps 9 feet long or more. Then, last weekend, another nearby beach was closed after several large sharks, up to 12 feet long, were seen swimming just 150 feet offshore.

Seeing great whites in the waters here is not unusual. Over the last 20 years the local shark population has seen a remarkable comeback, thanks to conservation efforts and improved water quality. The lab tracks the movement of some 38 great white sharks that call the waters off Southern California home. To some, the recovery of the shark is a frightening prospect, conjuring Jaws-inspired images of frenzied maneaters, hungry for human flesh.

But Dr. Lowe says these fears are unjustified.

“Your chances of being bit by a shark is the same as winning the Powerball. It’s that small,” he says. 

Sharks, he says, deserve our respect, if not our love.  Sharks are critical to the health of the marine ecosystem, serving as apex predators that keep other species in check.

Over the last few years, our understanding of these animals has improved dramatically. At the shark lab, Dr. Lowe and his students have brought to bear an array of powerful technologies like acoustic and satellite tags, underwater video, as well as drones, to better understand where sharks feed and why they do what they do, including attack humans.

“Sharks aren’t intent on feeding on people,” he says. “They occasionally bite people, but as best we can tell, those are probably accidents.” It is possible, he says, that sharks bite people for defensive reasons, perhaps the way a grizzly bear might protect her cubs. But the reality is, we don’t yet know the answer.

Which is why his work here is so important. More people than ever before are using the ocean for recreation, and so attacks, while remaining incredibly unlikely, are guaranteed to rise, says Dr. Lowe. 

“This is something people are going to have to get used to, it’s the new norm. And we really have to do a lot more to educate the public about how to share the ocean.”