SURFERMAG.COM INTERVIEW: Shark Expert Ralph Collier
“Shark Week” just ended on the Discovery Channel, but Shark Season along the Pacific Coast of North America is just beginning. Few people know more about the behavior of white sharks along the California coast than Ralph S. Collier. The founder of the Shark Research Committee (www.sharkresearchcommittee.com) and author of Shark Attacks of the 20th Century: From the Pacific Coast of North America (Scientia Publishing, 2003) in which he detailed more than 100 attacks between 1926 and 1999. At the end of the book Collier analyzed the data by time of day, month, sex and activity of victim, water temperature and more than a dozen other variables. His results showed that while shark attacks can be random at any time of the day or the year, there are also certain months, water temperatures and activities that put humans in closer contact with white sharks.
On a blazing hot day in July, on the final day of “Shark Week,” SURFER spoke with Ralph S. Collier about the coming shark season, and what surfers could do to minimize their chances of a Close Encounter of the “Whitey” Kind.
SURFERMAG.COM: Hot enough for you?
RALPH COLLIER: Over here in Canoga Park it’s about 100 degrees and climbing, but with the heat index it’s 110. I just try to make sure I’m in an air-conditioned building.
SURFERMAG.COM: Yikes. You should come over to Malibu and go for a swim. The grunion are running. The moon is full, the tide is a 7.2. Maybe go for a night surf.
RALPH COLLIER: That might not be such a good idea. It has been proven scientifically that sharks migrate towards land masses with the setting sun. Also, the reason all those juvenile white sharks start showing up around Malibu in spring, then all through the summer, is grunion.
RALPH COLLIER: The mothers give birth along the Southern California coast in spring because of the water temperature and available food.
SURFERMAG.COM: Grunion are an easy food source.
RALPH COLLIER: Yes.
SURFERMAG.COM: There’s a story going around that Jay Gillespie had a close encounter with Whitey up along the Malibu coast.
RALPH COLLIER: You know him? You seem to know everybody.
SURFERMAG.COM: Well, Jay is one of the bartenders at Paradise Cove. A good one. When I order a $5 baked potato and load it up with $20 worth of trimmings from the salad bar, he sometimes looks the other way. So I’d hate to lose him.
RALPH COLLIER: Did you have a chance to talk to him?
SURFERMAG.COM: No I didn’t. What was the story?
RALPH COLLIER: He was out at — let me look at my notes. Jay wasn’t at Linda Mar. His encounter was at Deer Creek near the Los Angeles/Ventura County line. Jay sent me a report that on July 12th he was surfing Deer Creek near the L.A./Ventura County line. He said it was kind of overcast, the air temperature was in the mid-60s, he had been in the water about two hours and there were scattered chunks of kelp floating here and there and that he and a friend had spotted one small seal pup when they were heading out, but they never saw it again. He thought at the time that the pup looked a little lost or frightened. Although the swell was small they decided to hang out and they rode it for a while. They had been paddling between both breaks indecisively for about two hours and finally decided they were going to settle on the left break. He said the whole time he was in the water he had this “sharky” feeling. It just didn’t feel right.
They were sitting and waiting for a wave — the last wave to ride in — when all of a sudden Jay noticed a fin about 20 yards in front of him. He thought the fin was about 18 inches high. It was solid gray, triangular, and it was cutting through the water at a pretty good pace, moving parallel to his friend in a northerly direction. He said they watched it for three or four seconds as it submerged and then they looked at each other and realized it was a shark — no way could it have been a dolphin. Jay asked his friend Al if he had seen the fin and they talked about it for a few seconds. Then Jay started laughing hysterically as they headed toward the beach. He became scared because there was a strand of kelp wrapped around his leash that was slowing him down. When they got to the beach they turned around and the fin was exactly in the same place where they had been sitting moments before. They told another surfer on the beach because he said he had witnessed a large thrashing in the water about 20 minutes before the two of them saw this big fin. Jay said he had been surfing the coastline for about 23 years and only on one other occasion had he ever seen a shark and this was by far his scariest encounter ever.
This is not uncommon for this time of year, as you know. The highest activity months for interactions between sharks and people are August, September and October. Also, a friend sent me a recent census count for the pinniped populations [carnivorous aquatic mammals that include seals, walruses, and similar animals having finlike flippers] for the state of California and they now exceed 300,000.
SURFERMAG.COM: All pinnipeds?
RALPH COLLIER: Yes, and that is a substantial food source for white sharks. Because of these numbers these animals are now hauling out on the beaches because there are so many of them. They’re not restricted to the islands down here in Southern California. When I was a youngster fishing the Malibu Pier back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, you never saw a seal or sea lion up on the beach. Now they are frequently observed at Malibu and all the way from Latigo Point up to Paradise Cove. Their population is such that they’re now starting to inhabit the shoreline and that could attract adult white sharks close to shore. Unfortunately, that could put them in contact with humans a lot more frequently.
SURFERMAG.COM: So you say the pinniped population used to frequent the islands and now is coming in to shore?
RALPH COLLIER: What’s happened is the seals are still at the islands but their population has increased to such a level that they are now using our coastal beaches. You never saw that many animals hauled out on beaches in Southern California unless they were sick or injured. Today locations like the Children’s Pool in La Jolla — which was a wonderful place for families to take their young children to wade in the water — have now been taken over by pinnipeds.
There have been several encounters so far this year between humans and pinnipeds along the California coast. The outcome of these events has not been pleasant for the individuals involved. Pinnipeds are capable of inflicting a very serious injury.
SURFERMAG.COM: So going back to the word “hysterical.” Did you see this guy on “Shark Week” go into the water with a bull shark and lose his calf?
RALPH COLLIER: Yes I did. In fact I know him: Dr. Eric Ritter. Eric is a friend of mine. They were doing a documentary for Discovery and he was working with Nigel Marvin. In order to get the sharks to come into this area, they started throwing bait in the water. When they were done filming — they really had completed their filming — they still continued to throw bait into the water. They started chucking in a pretty good amount and unfortunately the sharks became very inquisitive, and highly stimulated, from all of this food being tossed in the water. The investigatory bump the shark gave Eric initially is not an uncommon behavior. Sharks will frequently investigate an object by bumping it. They’ll swim up and bump something to test its texture, to see whether or not it might be edible. When the shark bumped Eric’s calf its sensory systems provided cues that it might be edible. So it turned on its side and took an investigatory bite. The difference between a predatory attack and investigatory bite are very dramatic. In a predatory attack the bull shark would have violently struck him with a great deal of force. However, in this case the shark very leisurely swam up to his calf, bumped him, then turned on its side and took an exploratory bite. Unfortunately their equipment is such that an exploratory bite removed almost his entire calf muscle.
SURFERMAG.COM: Where was this?
RALPH COLLIER: It was in the Bahamas — I don’t know the exact location.
SURFERMAG.COM: From reading your book and from working at SURFER for 10 years, I’ve become aware that shark season along the Pacific Coast begins in August and goes through October. Are the sightings heating up?
RALPH COLLIER: As for Southern California, there have been a number of anecdotal reports, but I have only been able to authenticate 18 encounters since the first of the year with four in the month of July. This number is not representative of the total number of encounters from our coast, only those that have been brought to my attention. It is not unusual to receive reports of small sharks in the surf zone at Malibu, Will Rogers, Marina del Rey, Redondo, Trestles, San Onofre Trail One, County Line and many other Southern California beaches during grunion spawns.
SURFERMAG.COM: Oh yeah, there is plenty of grunion flopping around at First Point these days.
RALPH COLLIER: Really? You haven’t seen any sharks though. Little ones?
SURFERMAG.COM: There was a dead shark washed up on the beach the other day that stunk to high heaven. You could have smelled it in Canoga Park.
RALPH COLLIER: Was it a juvenile white?
SURFERMAG.COM: I don’t know … I don’t think so … I didn’t get close to it because it smelled soooo bad. Could have been a juvenile white shark.
RALPH COLLIER: Might have been a juvenile. Next time try to get a picture for me.
SURFERMAG.COM: OK. It was almost dark but again, it was overwhelming from 30 feet away.
RALPH COLLIER: Pretty bad.
SURFERMAG.COM: Any other close encounters recently?
RALPH COLLIER: Yes, I have a report of a sighting at Linda Mar beach on the 16th of this month. Peter Outzen and a friend were surfing at Linda Mar. It was about 6 p.m. and they had been in the water about an hour and a half. There were two pinnipeds they had observed inside the lineup about 20 minutes before they saw the shark. The two of them were surfing and were getting ready to go in. They were waiting for the next set of waves to take one in and during this lull Outzen was scanning the horizon, looking for waves when he saw the shark moving very fast. It suddenly jumped completely out of the water approximately 10 yards from where they were sitting on their boards just outside the lineup. Outzen said it cleared the surface of the water by about a foot and was flipping its body in a swimming motion in the air. The shark’s belly and fins were facing him as it came out of the water and twisted in the air to land on its left side, giving Outzen a good view of its dorsal fin and tail. He said it was not a very big shark, probably a little over six feet with a dorsal fin of about 10 inches. That is about the right height for that size white shark.
The other guys he was with saw it and they looked at each other and at the same time and said, “Big fish.” They decided it would be best to head in so they grabbed a wave.
SURFERMAG.COM: Very sensible.
RALPH COLLIER: There was a similar encounter at Montara on the 18th. Dan McDunn and a friend were surfing Montara between Half Moon Bay and Pacifica. He said they were sitting in the lineup and were the only two guys at the peak. They were waiting on a set telling stories and facing the open ocean when the shark came from their right, got near enough to the surface to disturb the water pretty substantially and that’s what got McDunn’s attention. They saw the shark’s body as it made a U-turn right next to them. “My buddy saw the water swirl around and turned to me and said, ‘That’s a really big fish.’” At this point everything got really small. They turned their boards around and began paddling in to shore. McDunn said he gauged the size of the shark with his 9′ 6″ board. The shark was quite a bit larger than his board.
He did provide an interesting insight into this encounter. He said, “You may find it interesting that for the last few weeks I’ve been dreaming about sharks and before we even paddled out I was feeling a little sharky. So much so that I refrained from urinating in the lineup as I inferred that it can attract sharks. In the hundreds if not thousands of sessions I observed I have never once deliberately not peed in the lineup.” You probably don’t want to use that in your article but I thought it was kind of interesting.
He said they headed in and saw a couple of other guys 200 yards down the beach from where they were. They waved them in and described the encounter and he said they all sat on the beach for 20 minutes and then the two guys who they had waved in headed back out.
Five Southern California encounters have occurred: at Solana Beach on the 28th, Del Mar on the 24th, Huntington Beach on the 16th, and Deer Creek at Ventura/Los Angeles County line on the 12th, and Upper Trestles on July 2nd. I’m sure there have been other encounters between sharks and surfers but I can only report those that come to my attention.
SURFERMAG.COM: Anything interesting?
RALPH COLLIER: I talked to a guy named John A. who had a pretty good story, and I believed him. On July 28th, he was surfing 200-300 feet from shore, south of 15th Street, at Solana Beach. It was 8:30 in the morning when he saw a shark breach completely out of the water. He said the shark was about 500 feet away but I estimated it to be 10-15 feet. He was sure it wasn’t a dolphin.
SURFERMAG.COM: So last year was a record year for white shark attacks along the Pacific Coast of North America?
RALPH COLLIER: White shark attacks, that’s right. There were nine on the West Coast. More authenticated attacks than have ever been reported from any location in the world.
SURFERMAG.COM: Eight on surfers and one on an abalone sport-diver that was fatal. What about this year?
RALPH COLLIER: We have no way of knowing. Actually if it was going to be a really busy year, it would have probably already started. I think there is a lot going on oceanographically. I know there are some interesting events occurring along the East Coast. You saw that 1,191-pound tiger shark they caught off Martha’s Vineyard.
SURFERMAG.COM: Heard about that.
RALPH COLLIER: That is an interesting range extension for that animal. Usually you find that animal in warm water locales. Of course it’s common in Florida and you even get them up around North Carolina but not usually that far north.
SURFERMAG.COM: That would be the equivalent of what, catching a tiger shark in Morro Bay, or farther? A lot farther north.
RALPH COLLIER: That would the equivalent of us catching a tiger shark, say up around Eureka, California.
SURFERMAG.COM: That would be unusual.
RALPH COLLIER: Yes, the farthest north a tiger shark has ever been authenticated along the Pacific Coast was Manhattan Beach, in the late ’90s when a five-foot animal was caught.
SURFERMAG.COM: You recently went to South Africa. What was your mission there?
RALPH COLLIER: I was the project leader for field-testing the visual discrimination of the white sharks at Seal Island. I brought back some good video from South Africa. I have a video of a white shark predatory attack on a seal that takes about 15 minutes. The two of them are kind of duking it out on the surface and then the shark flips the seal into the air. I can send you that if you like.
SURFERMAG.COM: Love to see it. We’ll watch it this evening before night-surfing Malibu in the middle of a grunion run.
RALPH COLLIER: Got to beat the heat.