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You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Ocean

White sharks are being sighted off the California coast more than ever before. As the species interacts more and more with humans, researchers find themselves in need of more funding—and beachgoers will have to reevaluate their relationship with an animal most famous for its villainous role on the silver screen.

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When writer Peter Benchley heard about a 4,550-pound shark that was caught near Montauk in 1964, he became fascinated. He jumped aboard fishing boats to hear stories of great white encounters, dove in cages to get looks up close, and eventually wrote his own fictional narrative in 1974, titled Jaws. The subsequent 1975 Steven Spielberg film—about a rogue, 25-foot-long great white shark that developed a taste for human flesh and terrorized a small New England town—ignited a fear of sharks that has lasted for generations.

That film spawned a lucrative shark film subgenre, with movies like Deep Blue Sea, The Shallows, Open Water, 47 Meters Down, Sharknado, and this summer’s The Meg following in its wake. In these stories, sharks are the perfect villains. They’re toothy, they reign over an unknown kingdom, and their patterns of behavior are foreign to the general public. And unlike the animals that can harm us on land—lions, tigers, bears, wolves, and the like—sharks have the ultimate home-court advantage: the ocean. The sharks in these films stalk humans in some of their most vulnerable states—when they’re swimming, surfing, or even running out of oxygen while diving. They’re wildly intelligent, able to anticipate their prey’s next move, and ruthless.

All this, of course, is fictional. A 2007 study published in the journal Ocean & Coastal Management found that there’s an average of 129 million beach visits in Southern California per year, and 45 percent of those visits include contact with the water. Last year, along the entire coast of California, there were just eight recorded shark attacks. After writing his book, Benchley’s opinions about the animal changed and he became a staunch conservationist. In a 1995 piece for the Smithsonian Institution, Benchley wrote that “the shark in an updated version [of Jaws] could not be the villain. [The shark] would have to be written as the victim, for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.” Before his death in 2006, he told the London Daily Express, “Knowing what I know now, I could never write that book today. Sharks don’t target human beings, and they certainly don’t hold grudges.”

Roy Scheider in Jaws
IMdB/Universal Pictures

The white shark species has come a long way since Benchley wrote Jaws. The animal’s villainous reputation largely remains, yes, but its numbers are increasing. In a Hollywood studio, located so close to waters that are now teeming with these animals, it would no longer feel realistic to portray just one shark lurking off the coast when, within the past decade, those numbers have risen into the thousands.

The summer of 2017 in particular, dubbed the “summer of sightings” by NBC Los Angeles, saw a massive spike in reports of shark activity along the California coast. Surfers, swimmers, kayakers, and boaters reported seeing sharks in the water, and many not far from shore. The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week came to town to film a special called Sharks and the City: LA, to determine why so many white sharks were swarming the region. Media outlets reported on sightings and attacks, of which there were eight last year in California and nine total along the U.S.’s Pacific Coast, according to the Shark Research Committee.

Quoted in many of these stories, and one of the major players in the Discovery Channel special, was Dr. Chris Lowe, the director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach. Lowe has been running the lab for the past 20 years, studying shark behavior and biology, and attempting to educate his students and the general public about shark activity in California. Together, he and his team are some of the leading white shark researchers in the state; their research has an emphasis on the territory between Santa Barbara and San Diego, where much of the recent activity has been located.

Lowe and his team spent much of the early part of last summer tagging sharks, attaching a device to a shark’s dorsal fin to collect data that the researchers can gather once the tag falls off and is retrieved. Lowe said that his team tagged 30 sharks last year, a lab record—at least two dozen more than they were tagging just over a decade ago. And that presented problems for Lowe and his team.

“We can’t be in all those places at the same time,” Lowe said. “So we need to scale this up, and we’ve just never had the money to do that.”

Because of this uptick in activity, by July the lab had run out of tags. And that same month, it ran out of funding. In the midst of the greatest flurry of shark sightings in recent memory, Lowe’s team was unable to study why the creatures were suddenly being spotted so often. But now, thanks to a concerned state assemblyman from Long Beach and a state government finally ready to acknowledge the issue, that may be about to change.

Accounts of shark attacks date all the way back to at least 492 B.C. According to texts from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, “monsters” in the water attacked Persian soldiers who’d been shipwrecked during the Greco-Persian Wars. More than 2,400 years later, the first verified shark attack in California occurred in July 1926. A 15-year-old boy was out swimming with his dog in San Francisco Bay when a shark, estimated to be a little over 6 feet in length, approached. First, the shark attacked the dog, then it went after the boy, wounding both of his legs and his right hand. Both the boy and his dog escaped and made it to shore, where they were treated for their injuries. Following that incident, it would be 24 years before another attack was recorded along the Pacific Coast, and another year and a half after that before the first authenticated white shark attack was recorded in California.

That’s according to the book Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century: From the Pacific Coast of North America, written by researcher Ralph S. Collier. In 1963, Collier founded the Shark Research Committee, a nonprofit scientific organization that started off as a documentation outlet for the Smithsonian Institution and eventually broadened to conduct research on West Coast sharks. In his book, Collier has recorded each authenticated attack that occurred along the Pacific Coast from 1926 to 1999, and he’s been tracking post-2000 incidents on his website since.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife said that since 1950, the state has seen 178 shark incidents, defined as “any documented case where a shark approached and touched a person in the water or a person’s surfboard, kayak, paddleboard, etc.,” but does not include mere sightings without contact. Of those, at least 158 incidents involved white sharks. That’s not to say white sharks are tracking people, or that they’re even particularly interested in humans, just that they are present, and in increasingly greater numbers.

Collier said it’s nearly impossible to estimate how many sharks make their home off the coast of California, though that hasn’t stopped researchers from trying. A 2011 study claimed that there were about 219 white sharks off the central California coast, while a study coauthored by Lowe just three years later estimated that, at minimum, there were more than 2,000 off the coast of California.

And as scientists struggle to make accurate population estimates, sightings and incidents continue to grow. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife recorded 41 incidents throughout the 2000s, and 44 incidents so far since 2010. That’s a major spike from a low of 11 in the 1960s:

California Shark Incident Statistics

Decade No Injury Non-fatal Injuries Fatalities Total
Decade No Injury Non-fatal Injuries Fatalities Total
1950s 1 7 4 12
1960s 1 10 0 11
1970s 2 18 0 20
1980s 3 14 3 20
1990s 11 18 1 30
2000s 21 17 3 41
2010s 28 14 2 44

There’s a straightforward explanation for this increase in sightings: There’s been an increase in sharks. According to Lowe, the overall white shark populations in the area have risen because of environmental protections established some 40-plus years ago. The Clean Water Act of 1972 protected the sharks’ habitat; the Clean Air Act of 1970 created federal and state regulations to control air pollution, affecting the health and population stability of many of the sharks’ major food sources; the Magnuson-Stevens Act of 1976 prevents against overfishing; and the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 was designed to protect species whose populations had been severely depleted by human activity.

Great White Sharks in South Africa Photo by Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

The Marine Mammal Protection Act was not only revolutionary for the groups of animals that it protected, but also for future conservation efforts. It shifted the population expectations of marine mammals from a “maximum sustainable yield” to “optimum sustainable populations,” which better ensured healthy ecosystems overall. It also established a policy designed to prevent marine mammal populations from “declining beyond the point where they ceased to be significant functioning elements of the ecosystems of which they are a part,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Among those species protected were seals and sea lions, mammals that larger sharks rely on for their food. And because of the MMPA’s emphasis on the health of the ecosystem as a whole, not just population numbers, the shark’s environment began to bounce back. Shark populations were also aided by their own specific protections. In 1994, white sharks were given special protected status under California law, which made it illegal to fish for or catch white sharks throughout the state. White sharks have also been protected under U.S. federal law since 2004 and must be released immediately if they’re caught by fishers.

“So all that landmark legislation that protected all those things, [those species] have taken decades to show [they’ve] recovered,” Lowe said. “We have marine protected areas now, and we have better fisheries management. Why put all that in place and not expect to see things like sharks come back? Wouldn’t that mean we’re doing something wrong?”

There are other reasons to help explain the increase in sightings, too. Collier believes the causality to be two-fold: First, the bounceback of shark populations has flooded the areas off the California coast with juvenile sharks, and second, there’s been an increase in the number of humans to witness them.

“The human population of ocean user groups has increased,” Collier said. “We have more surfers today than we had 10 years ago. We have more kayakers in the water. We have more divers, more swimmers. We have more people utilizing the ocean. So, if you increase the groups of potential observers and you increase the number of sharks, what’s going to happen? You’re naturally going to have an increase in the number of sightings.”

In Southern California, there are four places—what Lowe calls “hot spots” —where the juvenile white sharks congregate as they wait to get bigger. These are located between Santa Barbara and Ventura, in Santa Monica Bay, between Long Beach and Huntington Beach, and between Dana Point and San Onofre. Lowe’s team has three hypotheses as to why these particular beaches are suddenly overcrowded with young white sharks. First, white shark mothers give birth in deeper waters with cooler temperatures. Lowe said the pups, despite being endotherms, tend to act more like cold-blooded sharks until they’re a couple of years old because of their size—they need to find warmer water, which is often located closer to shore. Second, young sharks are drawn to shore to find food. Small sharks eat things like stingrays, of which there’s an abundance near the coast. And finally, being closer to shore may be safer for these pups. Shark parents aren’t exactly the nurturing type, so from the moment a shark is born, it’s left to fend for itself. There’s a natural, biological urge to find somewhere safe, where they’re some of the biggest creatures around. And unlike in Mexico, where there are larger lagoons in which sharks can congregate, “we got rid of ours,” Lowe said. “We filled them in, we turned them into marinas, we filled them in and turned them into cities and houses and so all we have left is the coastline.”

Given the environmental protections in place, the resulting population increase, and the biological factors that draw sharks toward shore, it’s no wonder that sightings throughout the state have increased. But if the ever-increasing beachgoing populations of California cities are going to be able to peacefully coexist with the sharks in their orbit, scientists, lifeguards, and government officials have a lot of work ahead of them.

Lowe discovered sharks by accident. As a young boy fishing off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard, he caught something unfamiliar—a long, gray-and-white fish with spots running down its side. He went to the library to see what he could find out about this mysterious creature and realized he’d caught a spiny dogfish shark.

“I started looking at this book and I’m like, ‘Wow, there’s some cool things in here,’” Lowe said. “Then I started going to the beach and collecting more animals. I’d bring them home, I took care of them.”

Much of Lowe’s initial interest stemmed from his grandfather, who worked as a commercial fisherman for 65 years. After his discovery, Lowe began asking his grandfather if he’d seen any white sharks on his fishing expeditions—this was the part of the country where they filmed Jaws, after all. But shark populations weren’t yet on the rebound—Lowe’s grandfather told him that he hadn’t seen a white shark in three decades.

Lowe’s fascination continued throughout high school, and eventually he became the first in his family to go to college. He earned his undergraduate degree in Rhode Island, his master’s at California State University–Long Beach, and his doctorate in zoology at the University of Hawaii. The same year that he earned his final degree, he returned to Long Beach to take over the Shark Lab, and he’s been there ever since.

Lowe is a dynamic, yet controlled speaker, with the deft ability to explain feats of engineering, technical biological terminology, and the history of conservation policy in terms that are easily digestible. He has an easy smile and a quiet calm about him—except when he’s discussing the discoveries and breakthroughs that his lab has made.

Chris Lowe
CSU-Long Beach

The Shark Lab was founded in 1966 by Don Nelson, who remained at the lab’s helm for more than 30 years. His and his students’ research extended around the globe, from Southern California to Tahiti to the Bahamas and down to Baja. His team produced more than 50 scientific publications, and Nelson was one of the first researchers to employ ultrasonic transmitters to track sharks and their movements. After Nelson passed away in 1997, Lowe returned to Long Beach to lead the lab and continue Nelson’s research. Today, the lab’s stated mission is “to study the physiological and behavioral ecology of marine animals, emphasizing the effect of human activity on the ocean; to utilize and develop innovative technology to answer challenging questions important for the conservation and restoration of depleted populations; and to train the next generation of marine biologists.”

The lab isn’t solely focused on the biological or zoological study of sharks, but also develops some of the technology that goes into the research. Located on the first floor of CSU–Long Beach’s Hall of Science, the lab is full of different gadgets, both prototypes that Lowe and his students are working to develop, and functional models, some ready to be deployed and others in need of repair. Lowe, who said he’s developed some engineering skills himself throughout his 20-plus years at the lab, works with electrical engineers, roboticists, computer programmers, and other scientists to develop these technologies, focusing on devices that will more accurately and efficiently collect information. “What we’ve quickly found is no one tool does the trick,” Lowe said. “So we have to have a bunch of different tools. Of course, that’s been the other frustrating part—now we have all these wonderful tools, they’re expensive, and we just haven’t had funding.”

And the tools are expensive. Dart tags and acoustic transmitters cost hundreds of dollars each; mounted satellite tags are around $2,000; pop-off tags cash in at about $4,700; and the “shark Fitbit” that Lowe and his team developed—a pack that clamps onto a shark’s dorsal fin and carries a 3D accelerometer, 3D gyroscope, magnetometer, acoustic transmitter, and video logger—costs $9,000. And that’s not to mention the underwater robots, smart drones, and apps that the lab has or is planning to develop.

Lowe estimates that it costs between $50,000 and $70,000 a year just to maintain his receivers. Plus there’s the labor of his students, many of whom volunteer extra time to work on receiver maintenance and other lab projects. All in all, Lowe estimates that the lab’s operating costs alone run between $150,000 to $200,000 in a given year—a number that’s difficult to hit when, on average, its largest funder, Monterey Bay Aquarium, can spare only about $20,000 a year.

“Every year, we’re developing a new tool because we can’t answer all the questions with the tools that we’ve had,” Lowe said. “I’m like begging and borrowing money from all these different places to cobble together something to show that [these tools] will work, a proof of concept.”

But after last summer, something changed. Patrick O’Donnell, the California assemblyman from District 70—which includes Long Beach, Signal Hill, San Pedro, and Catalina Island—took notice of the increased shark sightings throughout the state, especially in his own district. O’Donnell grew up around Long Beach, swimming in the same waters that are now supporting the resurgent white shark populations. He has a daughter in the junior lifeguard program there, who warns him about the sharks people are seeing at local beaches. And he’s heard about encounters from professionals, the media, and his own constituents.

O’Donnell said his office contacted experts around the state to get more information, read studies, and did research, and eventually he contacted the Shark Lab. “We engaged ... with Dr. Lowe specifically, and identified his needs to see—‘What would you need, Dr. Lowe, to be successful in your endeavor?’” O’Donnell said. Together they came up with a number to fund the lab’s research into technologies, biology, and safety programs: $3.75 million, paid out over a five-year period.

Then came the process of asking for that kind of money from the California government. O’Donnell wrote a bill, AB-2191, aimed at establishing a White Shark Population Monitoring and Beach Safety Program in California, with Lowe acting as a consultant on the bill and coming to Sacramento to testify at the committee meeting where the bill was presented. The language of the bill states that the funding will be used to give grants to “academic institutions, public agencies, and nonprofit corporations engaged and experienced in, and local agencies assisting with, research regarding white sharks and to local agencies engaged in operations to promote public safety on California’s beaches,” though O’Donnell said funding will be directed to the Shark Lab with the expectation that its findings will be shared with institutions throughout the state.

A few weeks ago, Governor Jerry Brown signed the state’s 2018-19 budget, which included AB-2191, into law, and shark research in California got its funding. Collier said that, in his 50-plus years studying sharks, he’s never seen a government make a financial commitment of this magnitude.

Now that AB-2191 is law, Collier hopes that funding will materialize for more research endeavors. Throughout his more than 50 years running the Shark Research Committee, Collier has had boon periods of funding, when he was receiving enough money to be able to pack up and drive throughout the state when he got word of a shark attack. Now, as the committee’s funding has shifted mostly to private donations, much of that work is done over the phone. And David Ebert, the program director for the Pacific Shark Research Center at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, has had similar difficulties. His lab used to receive federal funding which it used to deliver information to NOAA Fisheries, but that stopped abruptly in the early 2010s. “There’s definitely a disconnect between the general public versus different agencies—[they] almost don’t even fund shark research at all these days,” Ebert said. “Despite the popularity of sharks in the public perception, I think when you ... start looking into the funding arena, there’s just not the amount of interest there.”

“What Chris [Lowe] is giving us is very important, but that’s not the whole picture,” Collier said. “I’m hoping that this money can be given to others [too] so that you can take their data and put that with Chris’s data and now you can say, ‘Well, now, wait a minute. Here’s what we’ve learned.’”

The future of human-shark interactions in California is uncertain. There’s still much to be discovered about these animals—their population size, movement patterns; the reasons they’re choosing these specific spots to congregate along the coast. The passage of O’Donnell’s bill is a step toward uncovering those secrets, and a step toward Lowe’s stated goal of getting inside the minds of white sharks.

Most of the bill’s funding will go to research efforts and to creating the technologies that will help Lowe’s team and researchers around the globe gain a better understanding of sharks’ behavior. But Lowe also estimates that about a fifth of the funding the lab receives will go toward education. That means education for lifeguards, in how to correctly identify sharks and interpret their behavior; education for fishers, so that if they accidentally catch a shark they’re able to identify its species and release it safely; and education for the general public.

This emphasis on education is ultimately one of the major reasons O’Donnell said he chose to act on this issue. “We need to understand this sea life is here to stay,” he said. “We need to understand you don’t need to go out there and kill it. We need to understand how we live with it.”

Lowe recognizes this importance as well, even if he approaches the issue with more of a scientific edge. His face lights up when he talks about the discoveries his team has already unearthed—they observed sharks swimming in extended circular patterns for hours at a time and hypothesized that sharks turn off half of their brains to “sleep,” a process previously seen in migratory birds and dolphins, but never in fish—and the technologies they’re creating—things like specialized smart drones that will be able to identify a shark’s size and species and report that back to lifeguards in real time. All of these advancements are crucial to developing a way for humans and sharks to coexist in California’s waters as both populations grow. And they’re critical to Lowe’s own endgame.

“Imagine being in a city, and you have all these cameras all over the city, and you have microphones all over the city and you can hear all of this information without actually knowing how a person’s making decisions,” Lowe said. “Our technology does this all the time—your cellphone has a GPS chip in it, people are tracking you all the time … [and] marketers are using that technology to figure out patterns that people exhibit. And based on those patterns, they can advertise specifically to you.

“We can do the same thing for sharks. If we understand how they’re responding to cues in the environment because we have enough sensors out there, we have a sensor on them, we can begin to decipher the patterns of behaviors that they show and begin to get inside their head and figure out what they do. That’s the new step. That’s the wave.”


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