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Tracking Great Whites in The Red Triangle - Part 1

by Richard Schmidt
Richard Schmidt Surf School


Growing up in an area scientists have labeled the "red triangle" due to a dense great White Shark population, I've always been fascinated with the thought of sharing the surf with one of the biggest, most efficient predators on earth.

Though after 27 years of surfing the "triangle", I'm still not sure if I've even seen one. Once, I observed what I thought was a White thrashing the water off of Ano Nuevo and, another time, I windsurfed through an apparent blood slick off of Davenport. I'm sure there have been days when I was the one being observed. But after spending such an enormous time in the ocean and with only these few encounters to speak of, it's incredible how elusive a creature the Great White can be.

The Pelagic Shark Research Foundation (PSRF) , located in Santa Cruz, was formed as a nonprofit research and education group in 1990 to help increase ur knowledge and, hopefully, public awareness about sharks.

I recently had a discussion with Sean Van Sommeran, the Operations Director of the Foundation. My goal was to shed some light on my brief shark encounters in an effort to better understand and co-exist with sharks.

The following is the first of three parts of a discussion I recently had with Sean:

Rs: So, Sean, I hear you're tagging Great Whites off of Ano Nuevo. What kind of results are you getting?

Sv: Since mid-October, we've managed to tag 12 and identify 14.

Rs: What are some of your goals with this program?

Sv: Well, with this project in particular, we started out with the question: can White Sharks be studied at Ano as they are off of the Farallons? So, since '92 we've been on boats just seeing if we could observe any evidence of shark activity. There were certainly reports but they were very sporadic.

After confirming activity, we then moved to Ano Island and observed and photographed events through '94. In '95, we entered the interactive, tagging phase. We're trying to make this behavioral study as least invasive as possible. We don't want to encroach on what the sharks are doing naturally. We'll wait for a feeding event and then drive over in our boat and hook the [dead] seal which is then used basically as a bait station, so the observations are from a natural event which is taking place. As the shark comes up to feed, we put a Fish and Game tag onto the shark's back.

Rs: Will these tags stay on indefinitely?

Sv: Yeah, on the East Coast, they've found that the tags will stay on for at least 25 years on other species of sharks. So, with this project, we wanted to establish whether we could do the research out there [Ano]. Now that we have tagged a dozen animals and started an I.D. catalogue, we want to take it to the next phase by tracking [them]. in co-operation with U.C. Davis and UCSC.

We'll start using sub-sonic tags which are now being used by researchers off the Farallons. These tags have their own signature beacon; which have also been cross-developed and utilized by the marine mammal researchers on elephant seals. They've actually been tracking the elephant seals' migration which goes way out to the middle of the ocean.

We'd like to get these tags on the sharks as well, so we'll know when, where and who is going within that certain grid area we'll have patterned out of Ano. [Sometime in '96], we hope to have at least a half-dozen sharks tagged that we can literally follow around.

Rs: How often do you see sharks when you're researching? Sv: When we were observing on the Island, we'd go weeks without seeing a thing. In the boat and using decoys, we've seen sharks almost every time we go out. I'd say, since mid-October, we've been out 2 dozen times and 3 or 4 of these times we didn't get any results. Some days we'd see one shark and other days we'd see several.

Rs: Tell me about the decoys used to attract sharks?

Sv: The decoy is actually a plywood cut-out where the silhouette looks like an elephant seal. We've also got one named Raisin that's actually a good mock-up of an elephant seal.

Rs: Do [the sharks] just come up and nail these things, or what?

Sv: No, only a few times they've smashed the target up. Usually, when the shark comes up to check out an object, they come up closely; and I think that's what happens when a human is attacked.

A lot of times, we'll throw out seat cushions and other objects out in the proximity of a feeding event. The object will always eventually be checked out. The sharks will swim up slowly, rest [their] head on it, put it in [their] mouth and, basically, check it out; and that's what usually happens to a surfer. You're paddling along and the shark kind of cruised up and grabs you with his mouth and, from there, it's basically seeing what you're doing.

Usually, once it establishes that it's just a primate on a floating piece of something, then it just goes away. Meanwhile, the surfer screams, "oh my God", paddles in all #$@%*! up, goes to the hospital, gets stitched up, and rarely dies.

If it really was a serious attack, and sometimes that does happen, for example, Lou Boren off of Asilomar a few years back. The shark swims up at 30 mph and blows your doors off and you never knew what hit you. I've seen attacks on 1000 pound seals where they're absolutely destroyed on the first bite! I would say that happens [in] 1 in 20 investigations. Most of the time the shark will swim under the object without even touching it. Maybe a big boil would come up and, if that were a surfer, he'd be freaked, but unscathed.

That's usually what happens with the objects we put out. But then I'm sure 90% of the time the shark swims by 20' under the surface and goes, "okay, that's a piece of plywood" and keeps going.

Rs: Yeah, I've often wondered how many times I've been checked out.

Sv: It's like how many times have you walked by a dog and have it bite you. Surely, once in a while, one may jump out and bite you, but the majority are going to hold out for a scoobie-snack.


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