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While taking an ocean swim off Will Rogers State Beach, Alden Harris spotted a seven-foot great white shark.  Photo: Umami Photography

White Sharks Sighted off Will Rogers Beach

April 02, 2009

Sue Pascoe , Staff Writer

Pacific Palisades resident Stephen Spielberg made ‘Jaws’ in 1975, about a larger-than-life great white shark terrorizing a beach community. Possibly those images popped into Alden Harris’s head when he spotted a large dorsal fin while taking his daily three-mile ocean swim off Will Rogers State Beach on March 18.

‘It was parallel to me and about 15 yards away,’ said Harris, a Palisades resident. ‘I knew it wasn’t a dolphin; it was gliding.’

He immediately ran from the water and climbed atop the storm drain at the Bel-Air Bay Club, looked out at the ocean, and saw a second shark that he estimated to be seven feet in length. He knew two other people were swimming that way, so he ran farther down the beach, got back into the water, and swam out to warn them.

Later, the three swimmers heard about another sighting that same day, recorded on sunsetsurf.com, a Web site devoted to tracking the waves for surfers at local beaches. ‘I was at Sunset on a standup board,’ Christopher Harford wrote on the Web site. ‘I saw a large shark swim under me and observed it for about a minute.’

The three swimmers reported the sharks to lifeguards, then contacted Ralph Collier, president of the Shark Research Committee and author of ‘Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century.’

Two days later, Harris, co-owner of PaliTutor.com with his wife, Amy Barranco, was debating whether to enter the water for his morning swim when he saw a fisherman pull a five-foot shark to shore near Temescal Canyon. A lifeguard was alerted and the white juvenile shark was returned to the water because the species is on the endangered list.

KTLA News reporter Jaime Chambers visited Will Rogers Beach on March 25 to interview Collier about the sharks. The expert said he wasn’t surprised by what seems to be a recent increase in great white sharks off the coast, explaining that females migrate to this area to give birth. Offspring range from 47 to 59 inches in length, with two to 10 in a litter.

Collier also defended the great whites, saying that they have been given a bad rap in the press.

‘In the 20th century there were 108 authenticated, unprovoked shark attacks along the Pacific coast of the United States,’ he said. Of those, eight were fatal. ‘When you consider the number of people in the water during that 100-year period, you realize deadly strikes are very rare.’  By comparison, in 2007 there were 33 fatal dog attacks in the United States.

Collier said that this area has sharks year round. ‘They don’t pose that much of a threat. The pups stay in this area and eat grunion. There are more reports of sharks when the grunion spawn, which is every two weeks.’

Juvenile great whites eat squid and other fish, such as stingrays and smaller sharks. Adults eat seals, sea lions, dolphins and dead whales. They have also been known to eat elephant seals, sea otters, turtles and sea birds.

Humans are not considered ‘food’ for sharks, which prefer fatty tissue to muscle. Collier scoffed at the idea that adult sharks attack humans because they resemble pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), pointing out that the sharks have excellent eyesight, and can see in color.

‘Sharks are curious animals. They’re attracted to anything unusual or unique. They’ll check out something new and may investigate by taking a bite, but then generally leave,’ Collier said.

Katina Zinner, a local freelance artist, film editor and producer who swims year round in the ocean, was also at the beach that morning. She told the Palisadian-Post that while taking her daily swim in front of the Bel-Air Bay Club on July 1, 2007, she felt something clamp down on her left arm and yank it below the water. A shark had bitten down, pulled and then let her go. She had teeth and razor marks on her palms and arm.

‘It took me nearly three weeks to go back in the water,’ Zinner said.

Collier said no one is sure what the shark population is off the Palisades/Malibu coast: ‘They’ve been protected for 15 years, but there are also more people who are using the ocean, so the likelihood that someone will report a shark is higher.’

Meanwhile, Alden Harris still swims daily.

‘You have to get over it,’ he said. ‘Statistically, it’s extremely rare to get attacked by one.’ Yet he has made some concessions. ‘I’ve stayed away from that area [around the Bel-Air Bay Club]. I used to swim 50 yards out, but now I stay closer to the shore.’