Thursday, August 03, 2006

Great White shark vs Orca...and the winner is...

Two weeks ago, a Bolinas fisherman spotted a great white shark near Duxbury Reef off the shores of Stinson Beach. It leapt out of the water and plunged back down. Later that afternoon, he saw another. And still later, another.“They come up from the deep with a lot of speed and go flying through the air, and then down with a giant splash,” said Jeremy Dierks.

The sightings were less than a half mile from where a line of surfers perpetually bob up and down, legs dangling into the dark water, awaiting the next wave.The sightings were also not far from where, four years ago, a great white flung itself out of the water and bit into the leg of a local surfer. The shark carried the surfer through the air in a wide arc and back beneath the surface before releasing him.

The surfer survived with an 8-inch tear into his flesh that required 100 stitches. Then, two years ago, a shark bit into the leg of another surfer off of Limontour Beach. The surfer punched the shark in the face, and it let him go.Also that year, near Bodega, a great white grabbed a surfer’s leg with its teeth. The surfer jumped onto the shark’s back, wrapped her arms around it and squeezed. The shark let her go.BloodbathLast year, another fisherman saw a 4-foot wall of whitewater coming toward him.

A shark emerged, and “all of the sudden it was like a submarine dumped a barrel of blood into the water and the whole area of whitewater went red,” said Jim Danse.“It was the power of it that was so shocking,” he said. The carnage, however, was the shark’s preferred prey: a harbor seal. “It would come up and take 50-pound chunks of blubber out at a time,” he said. “It makes you feel like a speck.”While attacks on humans perpetually make headlines, great whites are never in search of human flesh here in the “red triangle.”

Great white attacks on humans are almost always a case of mistaken identity, according to Peter Klimley, a UC Davis marine biologist, who says the sharks are looking for plump seals and don’t want to waste their time eating skinny, bony people.Sharks, despite their reputation as brutal killers, have only caused the death of 7 people off the California coast from 1926 to 2004 and have attacked 89 times.“You have a better chance of dying from a bee-sting, or of getting killed in an auto wreck.

More people die by attacks from wild boars,” said James Moskito, of Great White Shark expeditions, who takes people out in cages to the Farallones to see the sharks.“Usually just by looking at the shark, nine out of 10 times it will turn away,” he said. “For every human being killed by a shark, there are 10 million sharks killed by humans,” wrote Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, in a book about great whites.

Fists upSharks are not simple animals. The have personalities and engage in rituals. Once a shark has taken a bite out of a seal, the shark will let it float to the surface. One bite of seal is enough to keep a shark going for a month and a half, Klimley said, so other sharks gather around and compete for the next bite.To decide who is next, the sharks don’t physically attack each other, but they engage in a ritual display of aggression, by lifting their tails and hurling water at each other. Great white sharks, feared killers of the deep, solve their problems by splashing.Orcas kick Great White assWhile most think of the great white as the toughest animal cruising the high seas, on rare occasions they are put in their place.

In 1997, several researchers were waiting off of the Farallones, watching a pod of orcas, when one spotted a great white in the distance. “All of the sudden one of the orcas took off,” said Mick Meningoz. “Then there was a flash, and there was the orca, holding the shark in its mouth like a toy,” he said. The orca swam to the side of the boat, held the shark up like a trophy and then let it drop into the water.“It dropped it, and went down and got it, then dropped it again, and went down and got it. That went on for about 20 minutes. The orcas were just playing with it,” Meningoz said.The orcas attacked on October 4.

After that day, there wasn’t another shark sighted at the Farallones for the rest of the season.“The orcas put the fear of God into the sharks, and they left,” said Meningoz.EnigmasDespite humankind’s obsession with the shark, precious little is known of their biology. “We don’t know where they go. We hardly know anything about what happens from the time they’re born to when they begin breeding,” said Peter Pyle, a shark biologist. And still, no one knows how long they live.That sharky feelingWhile the number of great whites out at the Farallones are stable, at Stinson Beach they may be on the increase.

“I see more sharks every year,” said Josh Churchman, a local fisherman and surfer, who worried about the “inevitability index” of encountering a surf-shark encounter.Still, he’s been lucky so far. “I’ve left the water many times, if I get the wrong vibe,” he said. “I do think there’s something to that feeling.”


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