Friday, July 29, 2005

Jaws is still influencing people's view of great white sharks

In the summer of 1975, a young director named Steven Spielberg introduced audiences to one of the silver screen’s most notorious villains when he unleashed "Jaws," a film about a group of men sent out to kill a great white shark that had terrorized a quaint seaside village. After its release, beachgoers young and old began to think twice before stepping into the salty waters of the unknown — unconvinced that a shark attack at the beach should be the least of their worries.

Fast-forward 30 years later and it’s easy to see why people are still terrified of sharks. Television, movies and sporadic but compelling news coverage have bolstered the shark’s image as a ruthless killer.But a steady diet of shark-attack reports over the past few years — most recently, the death of a young girl and severe injury to another swimmer in southern Florida earlier this month, casualties of highly aggressive, shallows-venturing bull sharks — finds the infamous predator again grabbing headlines and inspiring apprehension at oceanside locales around the country.

That’s unfortunate, says Robert Veria, the senior lifeguard at Del Mar Beach. He says more pressing beach safety issues — not sharp-toothed, blood-craving carnivores — should be commanding media attention.“Beachgoers should be more concerned about jellyfish and stingray injuries, not sharks,” Veria said.

“Right now, we’re averaging about 12 injuries a week due to these animals, and we had seven alone on the Fourth of July.”Although San Diego County has a healthy shark population — including lemon sharks, leopard sharks, salmon sharks, great hammerhead sharks and, yes, bull sharks on rare occasions, Veria has yet to spot any off the beach during his 18 years as a lifeguard at Del Mar.

Of course, he wasn’t at San Onofre last summer, when a 15-foot great white shark lingered for days just beyond the surf zone. “We do have sharks in the neighborhood, but they really aren’t a concern here. People have a greater chance of getting caught in a powerful rip current and drowning than they do of being attacked by a shark,” Veria said. Still, beachgoers should exercise caution and understand the remote but menacing threat, he said.

“People also need to realize that when they enter the water, they are entering the food chain. The woods have bears and the oceans have sharks,” Veria said. “The only way you can completely safeguard yourself from an attack is to stay out of the water,” Veria said.One local shark expert agrees with Veria that people shouldn’t make such a fuss about sharks.“From 1959 until 1990, there were only four fatal shark attacks in the state of Florida,” said Dr. Richard H. Rosendlatt, a professor of marine biology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

“But in that same time frame and state, there were 313 fatalities caused by lighting strikes.”Moreover, TVs are more-prolific man killers than sharks, Rosendlatt said, citing a quirky tidbit of trivia. “Also, from 1991 until 1998, there were five fatal shark attacks in the U.S., and in that same time there were 32 children killed from falling television sets,” he said. “So how come the media doesn’t focus on killer television sets?” Rosendlatt asks.

While TV sets the world over seek to devour unsuspecting children, shark attacks in some coastal parts of the country seem to be inching upward — although not in Southern California. According to the International Shark Attack File (since 1926, only 10 attacks in San Diego County, resulting in one fatality, have been recorded. During that time, 85 attacks have been logged in California — 57 of them in Northern California and only 28 in Southern California.

The disparity largely is due to the vicious great white shark, which prefers cooler waters up north and is less plentiful down south, Rosendlatt said. But is there an increase in great white shark activity in Southern California? Rosendlatt said he hasn’t observed or heard of one. But a news report aired on KUSI television in San Diego recently said an increase in seals locally may be luring more sharks into the area.

Moreover, a July 2001 Los Angeles Times report included anecdotal accounts of increasing greatwhite shark presence from longtime divers at Catalina Island. If shark activity is increasing locally, it might be because sea lion populations have mushroomed — from 10,000 in 1972 to 200,000 in 2001, the Times article reported. The article attributed the increase to stronger sea lion protections triggered by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, passed in 1972. Sea lions are a primary food source for greatwhite sharks.

Experts speculated that last summer’s sighting near San Onofre Beach may have stemmed from a beached whale buried in the sand. The whale’s rotting flesh may have attracted the shark, they surmised.A similar sighting of great whites frighteningly close to shore was confirmed near a Los Angeles beach. Despite all the hoopla surrounding the recent attacks, Capt. Jason Mitchell, 33, an intelligence officer with 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, and his wife aren’t about to give up the aquatic life just yet.

“The recent incidents in Florida didn’t faze us at all. In fact, my wife and I are going to be getting our scuba diving licenses soon,” Mitchell said recently while enjoying a day at the beach with his wife.


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