Sharks: Fact And Fiction

ASP World Tour Even Jefferys Bay, South AfricaAll Photos: DJ Struntz (unless otherwise noted)

Surfers have plenty of theories about what attracts sharks and what makes a spot sharky. Peeing in your wetsuit. Blood. Colored wetsuits. Rivermouths. Murky water. Deep canyons. Et cetera. In the interest of separating fact from fiction, SURFING Editor-at-Large Taylor Paul brought a list of these theories, which he gathered through an informal survey of the SURFING staff, to present to Dr. Salvador Jorgensen, a research scientist and shark expert at the Monterey Bay Aquarium — and also a dedicated surfer. So does scientific research confirm or deny our sharky superstitions? Here’s what Dr. Sal had to say.

ASP World Tour Even Jefferys Bay, South Africa
Deep water:
“The spots where we go to tag sharks all have pretty deep water adjacent. The sharks like the steep drop, more than a gradual incline, maybe because they like to come at their prey from below.”

ASP World Tour Even Jefferys Bay, South Africa
Fog:
“I think that’s more in your head [laughs]. Sort of like, if you’re listening to the Jaws theme before you paddle out, does that make a place more sharky?”

ASP World Tour Even Jefferys Bay, South Africa
Rivermouths:
“Rivermouths commonly have harbor seals hauled out, and anywhere there are seals and sea lions hauling out or foraging is likely a sharkier spot.”

ASP World Tour Even Jefferys Bay, South Africa
Birds swarming overhead:
“When a shark kills a seal or sea lion, it often takes a while for it to eat the whole thing, so there will often be gulls above. Seeing birds like that usually means there’s some sort of feeding action going on. If there are little fish that could mean there are bigger fish, which means there could be pinnipeds, which means there could be sharks.”

ASP World Tour Even Jefferys Bay, South Africa
Murky water:
“White sharks have pretty good vision. Their eyes are evolved for low and high light. But we know that a lot of these bites are based on our visual similarities to seals, so if the water’s murky it’d be harder for them to tell the difference until they’re much closer. That could potentially lead to more mistaken identity bites. Hard to prove that, scientifically, but with what we know that makes sense. You’re going to look more like a seal if the water’s murky.”

ASP World Tour Even Jefferys Bay, South Africa
Active fishing nearby:
“That’s something to be aware of, because the fish will attract pinnipeds and that could attract sharks.”

ASP World Tour Even Jefferys Bay, South Africa
Colored wetsuits:
“What, ‘yum-yum yellow’? You never heard of that? There was a theory back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, probably when colored wetsuits were a bit more common, that yellow was the worst color to wear. Anyway, while it seems like white sharks are able to see color (they have the rods and cones), there is no indication that they prefer one color or another.”

ASP World Tour Even Jefferys Bay, South Africa
Research vessels or shark tours:
“Researchers and shark tours set up shop where they know sharks are, so if you see them, chances are it’s a ‘sharky’ spot. Sometimes there’s this perception that researchers are out there chumming the waters and bringing sharks in from a broader area. That’s not how it works. The sharks are already there. We use a seal decoy at the end of a fishing line and that’s what the sharks key in on, then we reel it in toward the boat. At the boat we have a small piece of marine mammal blubber — it weighs about 2 pounds — that keeps them close to the boat long enough for us to poke them with a tag. Now, a lot of times people will say, ‘They’re training sharks, habituating them to boats and decoys.’ But if you think about it, we’re poking them with a tagging pole when they get close, so it’s a negative association. They feel it. And shark tour companies haven’t been able to use chum for more than a decade.”

Kelly Slater cut the taco line and got caught tortilla-handed. Photo: ShermPhoto: Sherm
Human blood:
“When we go to South Africa they’re using blood and fish guts and stuff like that to attract the sharks. And that seems to work there. Here, people used to try with blood and fish and different things and none of that seemed to work in Central California. The only thing that is proven to work is the scent of marine mammal blubber.”