Earlier this summer, the folks up at the Shark Lab at Cal State University Long Beach and the University of Minnesota announced that the white shark nurseries, for lack of a better term, had shifted south, off Torrey Pines, Solana Beach and elsewhere.
Since then, there have been many sightings of juveniles by lifeguards and others, including one day in June when Sky Ranger 7’s eagle-eyed crew was flying over Torrey Pines.
Shark experts said in a recent report that juvenile great whites have relocated from Santa Monica Bay and Will Rogers Beach to Torrey Pines, Solana Beach and Carpinteria.
But what if they’re not all juveniles?
There has long been speculation by locals that the marine predators may be drawn to the areas off the coast of La Jolla Cove and the Children’s Pool, where a large population of seals and sea lions have made themselves at home for decades.
One local scientist recently told NBC 7: “Once [mature female great whites] give birth, they likely start to feed on seals/sea lions again, but we [assume] mainly around the [offshore Catalina and North Channel Islands]. where a majority of the seal/sea lion population reside during the summer.”
At least two locals, though, said they saw big great whites much closer to home, though.
Dr. Austin LaBanc, a 33-year-old otolaryngologist resident at Balboa Park Naval Hospital, has been going in the water regularly off Torrey Pines for decades,
TORREY PINES GREAT WHITE SIGHTING
“It was another weekend at Torrey Pines.”
Or was it? Dr. Austin LaBanc, a 33-year-old otolaryngologist resident at Balboa Park Naval Hospital, has been going in the water regularly off Torrey Pines for decades, even while growing up in Scripps Ranch, where the adult version of Austin now lives with his wife and three daughters.
The thing about this day, though, July 9, that was different: For the second time in as many weeks, LaBanc encountered a white shark swimming, this time at a depth of about 30 feet. He said he was maybe 150 yards off-shore sharing the deep with a juvenile he estimates was between 6-8 feet. As he put it on Instagram: “We’re gunna [sic] need a bigger boat.” Two weeks earlier, though, he had an encounter that was closer in proximity and more of a “jolt,” as LaBanc put it.
“I think the one we saw previously, there was actually some paddleboarders that saw that one, and that one was quite a bit bigger than the one we have on video,” LaBanc told NBC 7. “They estimated — again, that one actually got closer to me than the one in the video … there was a paddleboarder that said they saw it breach, and they were saying 10-12 feet, which I think seems fairly accurate. And that day they actually put up the signs for the shark warning and the … I’m not sure who they called — they called the appropriate, you know, kinda scientific authorities ’cause that one was bigger than usual.
“For that one, as we were coming out of the water, the lifeguards were hammering in the signs — you know: ‘Shark Sighting. Enter at Your Own Risk’ — and we were chatting with the lifeguards and they were saying that, I don’t know the protocol, but they were saying they usually call when they see one of that size … they were saying that one was bigger than they typically do see out there.”
Turns out LaBanc’s experience is rare, sure, but not, at least recently in San Diego, unique.
PB native Nico Gibbons and a couple fishing buddies were aboard about 100 yards off La Jolla Cove on the Winnegabo, their Cuddy Cabin, when they spotted a great white shark nearly as long as their boat.
LA JOLLA GREAT WHITE SHARK SIGHTING
PB native Nico Gibbons owns a pop-up business — Nico’s Fish Market — that makes itself at home in Carlsbad Village outside Al’s Cafe when Al (yes, there really is an Al) calls it a day and also sells his fresh, locally caught fish at the city’s farmer’s market. A graduate of UCLA, the 27-year-old has worked at fish markets around the county since he was 18, and his thought behind starting his own business was that it would allow him to mix his love for the ocean with his culinary interests.
Gibbons is a co-owner of the Winnegago, a 20-foot Cuddy Cabin he owns along with his friend Jason and another pal. When the boat’s not parked at Jason’s house in Poway, the trio often find themselves out on the water catching the creatures that — along with others caught by fishing buddies — that he then sells at his “market.”
That’s why, on July 10, Gibbons found himself up early. If you’re keeping track, this is a couple weeks after LaBanc saw his big shark.
“My fisherman buddy Jason, he’s just like, ‘Let’s hit the boat. You know, it’s supposed to be nice tomorrow. Good water — it’s supposed to be pretty glassy, and the yellowtail, they’ve been biting a bit,’ ” Gibbons recalled. “It’s been a bit tough with the yellowtail, so we just took it out on Sunday morning, like, really early. We got there at about 6 a.m. and just fishing for yellowtail.”
A couple hours later, the Winnebago posted up about 100 yards west of La Jolla Cove, just outside the area of the state marine reserve.
“We were just starting to fish and as we were moving to another part of the area of the cove to see if there were some yellowtail at that area, we … I saw kind of like a red object in the middle of the water, about 20 feet from us,” Gibbons said. “And I just told my buddy Jason, who was doing the driving and everything — I was like, ‘I think I see some red object.’ I thought it was a … maybe part of a bluefin tuna? Like a loin or something? ‘Cause it — you saw this red bit. So we just wanna go check it out and, yeah, what we saw was not what we expected. It was a half-eaten seal and, you know, its tail end was totally cut off.”
A closer look at the videos, however, shows that what they spotted was a half-eaten sea lion, not a seal — you can tell the difference when you spot the small external ear flaps that only the former has.
Gibbons and his other friend who was aboard the boat both shot video of their grisly discovery. While they were hitting “record,” another marine animal came into view.
“As we were looking at that for about a minute, we then suddenly see the shark, you know, 14-foot great white, at least 14 feet,” Gibbons said. “You know, hovering and circling this seal. And then it was actually encircling our boat too. We thought the shark was going to finish the seal off, so we were there for a bit waiting and seeing what was gonna happen but instead it would just kiss this seal, kind of almost like it’s having its second meal or something, taking its sweet time. And then we left. We kind of realized … we thought that this shark kind of wanted us to leave so it could finish it’s business, it’s nice meal.”
On the video, one of the boatmates can he heard exclaiming, “Look at him!” and, “No way!” Somebody else chimes in, “That’s like 15 feet, dude.” And then, for punctuation, someone else replies, “Dude, that is a big f—ing shark.”
The pinniped, which was obviously in terrible pain and terror, can be seen on the video repeatedly attempting to dive. Gibbons said the sea lion was still about 6 feet long, despite missing its lower half, suggesting it was an adult.
So why is Gibbons so confident about the size of the shark he saw?
“By the time it’s circling the front of our boat, its tail is still at the other side…,” Gibbons said. “It was unreal. It felt like I was on a paddleboard just seeing the shark. The shark was definitely no dummy. I mean, thinking, connecting the dots and thinking, you know, this is La Jolla Cove. This is where a lot of seals hang out and spend their time.’
WHAT SHARK EXPERTS ARE SAYING
In June, researchers at the Shark Lab at Cal State University Long Beach and the University of Minnesota published an article providing insight on the location, movement and disposition of juvenile great white sharks off Southern California beaches.
One finding was that juvenile Carcharodon carcharias tend to congregate near shore to evade predators, such as adult white sharks and orcas, and expend energy only when necessary, optimizing growth rates.
Over the years, the sharks have relocated from Santa Monica Bay and Will Rogers Beach to Torrey Pines, Solana Beach and Carpinteria, according to the report.
But what about the big sharks, like the ones spotted by LaBanc and Gibbons, who said he was close enough to La Jolla Cove on his boat to easily make people out on the sidewalks above the cove.
NBC 7 reached out to the Shark Lab to see if their team was aware of any mature white sharks spotted locally, but they said they had not. Christoper Lowe, who is a professor of marine biology at CSULB, said in an email that adult white sharks “are rare off SoCal beaches, but are more common off the offshore islands (Catalina, N. Channel Islands).”
“In addition, pregnant females return in the spring and summer from their offshore migration to give birth somewhere offshore,” Lowe said. “Once they give birth, they likely start to feed on seals/sea lions again, but we [assume] mainly around the islands where a majority of the seal/sea lion population reside during the summer.”
NBC 7’s Audra Stafford spoke with an expert on sharks for Shark Awareness Day.
Lowe said he wasn’t surprised “there are occasional sightings of adults predating on seals along the shoreline, but have to say it’s still pretty rare compared to [juvenile] white shark sightings along the beaches.” He added that some adults that have been tagged are detected passing through, though it’s rare. He said that none had been “detected on our receivers in the last year or so.” Not all great whites have been tagged, of course.
Mónica Muñoz , a spokeswoman for San Diego Fire Rescue, told NBC 7 that city lifeguards had seen and received reports this year of “more juvenile white sharks near the northern parts of city of SD beaches.”
“Lifeguards from up and down the coast of California worked with Dr. Lowe from the CSU Long Beach Shark Lab to develop Shark Sighting and Incident Response Guidelines,” Muñoz said in an email. “All lifeguard agencies follow those guidelines (this includes the SDFD lifeguards). This summer, we have received reports and have followed the guidelines established. It is normal to get more reports this time of year for many different reasons. We have not had a report this summer that has required us to close a city of SD beach.”
Sean Homer, a lieutenant with the California State Parks, the agency overseeing lifeguards at Torrey Pines State Beach, was also asked about the posting of shark-sighting signs and beach closures, including on July 12, when an Instagram user posted a photo of signs at Torrey Pines, warning swimmers from Scripps Pier to Torrey Pines about the the possible presence of a large shark.
“When a report of a shark sighting is received, California State Parks investigates in an attempt to determine if a shark was seen,” Homer said in a statement sent on July 21. “State Parks has posted ‘Advisory’ signs numerous times this year at Torrey Pines State Beach as a result of a shark sighting. Advisory signs are posted in the event of a confirmed shark sighting and when the shark is over eight feet in length. These signs are posted at the immediate area of the sighting and remain up for 24 hours.”
Homer went on to state that he was unaware of any human-shark interactions this year in the waters off San Diego’s state parks, and added that none of the county’s state beaches were closed due to shark activity in 2022.
“State Parks would like to remind visitors that sharks are an important part of the coastal ecosystem and that interactions between humans and sharks are rare along the coast of Southern California,” Homer added.
More information regarding sharks along the coast of Southern California can be found here.
HUNTINGTON BEACH GREAT WHITE SIGHTING
Of course, the mature sharks don’t recognize any borders, which is why it may not be a surprise that a large shark was spotted north of San Diego just days after Gibbons recorded video of the large great white off La Jolla.
Authorities in Huntington Beach closed access to the waters off Sunset Beach on July 11, between Warner Avenue and Anderson Street, following a shark sighting.
A shark was slotted off the coast in Huntington Beach which temporarily closed beaches.
A beachgoer flagged a lifeguard between 12:30-1 p.m., saying a shark had been spotted, said Jennifer Carey, a spokeswoman for the city of Huntington Beach. The shark was estimated to be between 8 and 12 feet, Carey said.
“Based on those sizes, it may not be a juvenile shark,” Carey said.
The city has a policy that if a shark shows aggressive behavior or is a certain size, then the waters are closed for at least four hours, Carey said.
GETTING BACK IN THE WATER
So, you’ve spent time in or near a great white shark twice as long as you are tall. Do you get back in the water?
“Seeing that 100 yards west of the cove was something a little bit scary but also just a reality check,” Gibbons said. “My friends and I have paddleboarded there, we fish there … my paddleboard friends, they texted me after, saying, ‘I don’t know if we’re gonna do another paddleboard sesh anytime soon in that area,’ so it was just kind of an unreal experience.”
For his part, Gibbons said he would still going to the cove but would “think twice about diving into deep blue water.”
LaBanc’s experience, as he said, didn’t stop him from returning to the waters off Torrey Pines, but it did give him pause: “I’ll be honest: It took a little while for me to tell [my wife] that I’d actually seen the first one, just ’cause I wanted to make sure I told her at the right moment and made sure the stage was set before I told her … and then I saw the second one and I had the video and I figured I gotta spill the beans and let her know that we’d seen the great white.”
So, maybe the doctor is not the smartest one in his family?
That said, LeBanc added, “I do have a great respect for the ocean, and I don’t take it lightly that this encounter has happened. I think it’s important to know your limits and know the risks you take when you get in the water I definitely don’t want to make it seem like I’m being flippant and don’t care about it. I just think it’s the price of admission when you spend so much time in the ocean … that these are possibilities that happen. “
So what about other, less-experienced visitors to the beach? Gibbons has thoughts: “This is something we should talk about, and, you know, maybe people just have to think twice of going into the ocean, especially in La Jolla, and if they want to go for a swim they might see something. Not sure if they’ll be attacked, but to give the reality …”
As the PB man puts it at one point, “Nature’s a beast.”
The City News Service contributed to this report — Ed.