What Is the ‘White Shark Cafe’ and What Does It Mean for Swimmers and Surfers?

On Sept. 29, a 13-year-old boy was diving for lobster off of Beacon’s Beach in Encinitas, California, when he was attacked by what’s presumed to be a great white. He’s expected to fully recover.

An empty lineup at the popular surf spot Beacons in San Diego. Photo: Courtesy of Brian Chernicky

Earlier in the month, on Sept. 15, on the other side of the U.S., a Cape Cod surfer, 26-year-old Arthur Medici, died as a result of injuries sustained in a great white attack. And two weeks before that another Cape Cod man was bit near Longnook Beach.

With this flurry of incidents on both coasts, are we seeing an uptick in shark activity? Is it safe to go in the water?

The easy answer is that it’s as safe as it’s ever been.

Put in context, these incidents aren’t necessarily out of the ordinary. In 2017 there were 88 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide, including five fatalities, according to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) at the Florida Museum of Natural History. That number is slightly higher than the five-year average between 2012-2016, which stands at 83, but well below the record of 98 attacks established in 2015. Statistically, the United States leads the world in shark attacks with 53 recorded in 2017 – compared to 14 in Australia and two in both South Africa and Reunion Island (all notoriously sharky zones). In the case of Cape Cod, it was the first lethal great white attack since 1936.

Graphic: Courtesy of OpenStreetMap

At present, 2018 doesn’t appear to be radically different in what we’ve seen in recent years. If it feels like there are more sharks in the water that can be attributed to a triad of factors. First, according to ISAF, “the number of human-shark interactions is directly correlated with time spent by humans in the sea.” Simply put, there are more people having fun in the ocean than ever before, and that’s going to lead to more shark encounters.

ISAF also notes that there’s also been more study and communication among marine biologists and scientists around the world, which has led to more news-making, shark-related discoveries. And, of course, both mainstream and social media hunger for a good shark story, giving the term “click bait” an even worse name.

In general, most great white attacks occur in the autumn months. The reason for this is starting to become a little clearer after a study by a team of scientists from Stanford University and the Monterey Bay Aquarium was released last month. They discovered a “White Shark Cafe” in the middle of the Pacific Ocean halfway between the West Coast and Hawaii.

Graphic: Courtesy of Whitesharkcafe.com

According to the study, every winter sharks off the coast of California and Mexico (known as northeastern Pacific whites, which are genetically different than any other great whites found around the world) migrate to an open-ocean zone approximately 1,200 nautical miles east of Hawaii. It’s here that the sharks feed in a region of the ocean known as the “mid-water,” diving to depths of 3,000 feet to hunt.

“The story of the white shark tells you that this area is vitally important in ways we never knew about,” Salvador Jorgensen, a research scientist for the Monterey Bay Aquarium and one of the expedition’s leaders, told SF Gate. “They are telling us this incredible story about the mid-water, and there is this whole secret life that we need to know about.”

In terms of how this discovery affects surfers, swimmers, divers and other oceangoers, it’s believed the sharks make their migration in December. They spend the months leading up to their journey feasting on sea lions, elephant seals and other high-calorie critters. They’re basically stockpiling the nutrition they’ll need to make the long swim. In the San Francisco Bay area there are an estimated 220 Great Whites feeding in the “Red Triangle” area of Farallon Islands, Año Nuevo, Drakes Bay and Bodega Head. (Guadalupe Island in Mexico is another shark-rich environment.)

The great white shark. Photo: Elias Levy/Flickr Courtesy of Elias Levy/Flickr

The sharks will remain in this area from approximately December through April before returning back to the West Coast. If that data is accurate, it sure makes surfing in the winter a lot more appealing … as long as you can get over the cold.

The fact is, that despite fatal (and near-fatal) attacks in September, the ocean’s as safe as it’s ever been. Only eleven people have been killed by sharks off the California coast since 1952 when the first fatal attack was recorded. There’s just more people in the water.

Anytime you step off the sand and into the water you’re stepping into the food chain where humans aren’t the apex predator. A little vigilance in the lineup and heeding your intuition will serve you well. In other words, if it feels sharky, get out, come back and surf another day. Why add to the statistics and headlines if you don’t have to?

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