When Sharks Look up

By Mitchell Kriegman   |   November 1, 2018

“There’s no angry way to say microbubbles,” Bill Murray said, not the real Bill Murray, just someone pretending to be Bill Murray on Twitter. Does it matter? It’s true even if he didn’t say it. I think that’s one of the reasons in these troubling times microbubbling is so gratifying.

The best form of microbubbling I know is swimming. I swim every day off Montecito’s Butterfly Lane, to the buoys and back until they take them away, then I just swim aimlessly about.

Swimming is good for you. It’s a full-body workout, particularly in the ocean, where your body has to adjust to the temperature. A big plus: you get to make bubbles. My goal in swimming is to create as many bubbles as possible and watch them disappear.

In fact, there’s nothing that’s not great about swimming in the ocean, unless you consider sharks. Actually, the sharks are fine; it’s the people that like to remind you about their existence that are the problem. These are the same people who remind you about bike accidents when you ride your bike.

In the world of shark lore, there’s been great progress tracking their actual presence and danger. We’re not talking crazy flights of menace like a tornado of sharks, or Sharkeez Bar on State, where the heavy-lidded eyes of college kids binge drinking is truly frightening, or the enduring fright of Jaws. I believe, by the way, that the terror of Jaws had nothing to do with Selachophobia. It was actually a fear of Steven Spielberg.

Let’s be clear, the most important fact about sharks, particularly white sharks, is that they do not eat people for food. We are simply not part of their diet. They just make “test bites” which, of course, can be fatal.

The next important fact is that in the world of people versus sharks – sharks are losing and that’s not good. Around the world last year, unprovoked shark attacks – where humans did not initiate physical contact – resulted in five fatalities. Cows are responsible for more deaths per year than sharks. Meanwhile, humans catch and carve up almost 100 million sharks annually as we wreak havoc on the ecosystem. 

The chances of being bitten by one are the same as being crushed by a falling candy machine while buying a Snickers. This bit of statistical arcana is courtesy of Mark Romanov, an undersea cinematographer, and a graduate of UCSB’s Blue Horizon’s program, who specializes in capturing shark habitats on film along SoCal and in beautiful places like Sri Lanka. 

Kevin Lafferty, a senior ecologist and researcher with UCSB’s Marine Science Institute perplexingly assured me that the number of shark attacks in California is as high as it’s ever been, but my risk of being bit by a shark is lower than ever. To help my head stop spinning, he explained that statistically with so many more people in the water, an individual’s risk is lower. 

Most of the sharks in these parts are juveniles, the six-footer kind. Their physiology controlled by temperature, they can’t deal with cold, so they hang out down south in the warmer water until they grow and can swim north and tolerate the colder water. 

The good news about the six-foot babies is that they spend all their time looking down, hunting Benthic prey, the bottom dwellers, like rays. It’s only when they get big enough to start hunting Pinnipeds, seals, and sea lions, that they look up. That’s when they gaze at us humans. 

The local hot spot according to Kevin is Ellen DeGeneres’s house off Santa Claus Lane. That’s where most of the small guys hang out. He should know, because he’s created a way to test the water for sharks using eDNA. Normally, you’d have to swab the anus of a shark to test its DNA, but if it’s moving through the water turns out you can measure the water itself and the particles of skin, scales, and excrement it deposits as it swims. 

“One of the goals of this research is for a lifeguard to be able to walk down to the shore, scoop up some water, shake it, and see if white sharks are around,” Kevin added. Meanwhile, there are drones patrolling the surface, and now sonar-enabled Clever Buoys at least down at Newport Beach. There’s even a new wetsuit designed to throw off an approaching shark. Another important solution I use: just don’t think about it.


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