Sometimes it just takes some patience and a little faith that your reward will come.
This is the case on a recent Saturday afternoon off the coast of San Clemente as we bob in the 58-degree water looking for great white sharks.
Fortunately, we are safely aboard the OCeanAdventures catamaran piloted by Captain Frank Brennan of Dana Wharf Whale Watching out of Dana Point Harbor. The company recently began offering two-hour “shark searches” every Saturday because of the unusual number of great white sharks — mostly juveniles up to 12 feet — that are populating local waters.
Our time window for finding the sharks is just about up when someone spots one sliding through the clear, shallow water between the boat and the shore. Its fin breaks the surface again and again to the cheers of the passengers and the rapid-fire clicks of the Nikons and Canons.
Within a few minutes, there are about a dozen great whites circling the boat and darting underneath it, apparently unbothered by the catamaran or the people hanging over the sides. We stay for another 45 minutes watching these really big fish that have no known predator except for killer whales, and there aren’t any of these in the neighborhood.
Why so many great whites off our coast all of a sudden?
“They’ve actually always been there,” says naturalist and shark expert Todd Mansur. “If you’ve swum in these waters, you’ve swum with sharks.”
But the story of these great whites in our current-day ocean actually begins with the 1975 Steven Spielberg film that we all simultaneously love and hate.
“‘Jaws’ had an amazing impact on great whites,” Mansur explains. The film portrayed great whites as ferocious people eaters, “and it scared people to death. As a result, we killed as many as we could.”
Then there was the gill net factor. These were used by fisherman to catch halibut before the 1980s, but it wasn’t that unusual for a week’s catch to include five or six juvenile great whites, as well as dolphins and other non-fish sea life. These animals were never thrown back.
Eventually gill nets were banned completely in 1989, then killing great whites became illegal in 1994, so the population of these sharks began ballooning.
Add to that the perfect conditions of our coastal waters between Dana Point and San Clemente.
“We have the topography (a sandy bottom), the climate and the forage (food supply),” Mansur says. “Not in my lifetime have I seen so many great whites so close to shore. My parents don’t remember seeing this many sharks. They’ll probably be around for some time. They have no reason to go anywhere.”
The buffet is especially bountiful lately because of the abundance of grunion, which are swimming in the shallow waters close to shore on their way to spawn (lay eggs) in the sand.
“You won’t find them at Laguna Beach,” Mansur adds, “It’s too rocky.”
While the ocean off the Orange County coast is perfect for juvenile great whites, the adults usually head north where the waters are cooler and buffet is more generous. Adult great whites prefer to eat mammals like sea lions, seals, small whales, otters and sea turtles. And by the way, they bite, but they don’t chew their food.
Adult female great whites can grow to 20 feet and weigh up to 4,300 pounds. They are more likely to be 15 feet to 16 feet and live up to 70 years.
Two-hour Shark Search trips run Saturdays. The cost is $45 for adults; $29 for children. Visit https://danawharf.com/ or call (949) 496-5794.
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E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.