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All about San Diego sharks

The better to eat you with my dear!

Of the 250 known species of sharks about 30 can be found in and around the waters of San Diego.
  • Of the 250 known species of sharks about 30 can be found in and around the waters of San Diego.
  • Image by Bill Robinson
  • It just happens that the epicenter of White Shark distribution in this part of the world happens to be off San Francisco and we have a number of While Sharks off this coast, especially around the Channel Islands.
  • —Ray Keyes, curator of fish, Sea World

ON JULY 25, 1975, while the movie of Peter BenchJey’s Jaws was playing to a full house in Mission Valley, Brian Hawthorne, owner of the 60-fool San Diego swordfish boat Heather B., was busy harpooning his own Jaws, a 12'6" Great White off Catalina Island, 20 miles northwest of San Diego County. When the 1400-pound monster was dissected at Sea World a few days later, its stomach was found to contain two human-size harbor seals, one weighing 125 pounds, the other 175.

The summer of ’75 saw the capture of over a dozen White Sharks off the coast of southern California. This past summer an 18-foot, 4150-pound White was taken by the San Diego fishing boat Comanche and was the largest White Shark ever caught off the west coast of North America. The feeling among area specialists is that there may be more White Sharks present in local waters these past two years than at any time since 1959. With so little known about the natural history of sharks, people are reluctant to venture a guess as to why this might be. One theory is that after years of being filmed by people like Jacques Cousteau and Peter Gimbel, the big fish have developed a taste for publicity.

For most people, however, the shark is little more than a source of fear and loathing, a nasty fish hated for his refusal to respect man’s top position in the food chain. But for others, people willing to put aside their narrow prejudices, the shark can be an endless source of wonder and amusement. It is for these true “seekers after the shark” that this guide is written.

How to know your shark

THE SHARK is the most primitive of all fish, having gone through only minor evolutionary changes in the last 300 million years. Its skeleton is cartilaginous. Only its jaw and a few of its fin spines are made of bone. Its spinal column is just hard enough to make a walking stick. “Shark sticks” were something of a fad in San Diego during the Gay Nineties. A shark’s skin has a rough, sandpaper-like texture. If you rub a shark with your hand, you will probably start to bleed. A shark can detect—and will be attracted to—blood or tissue fluid diluted to one part per 80 million parts water. As your shark approaches, you will notice three great fins, the vertical dorsal, on the top, and the two pectorals, projecting downward from the sides. The fins are used for balance rather than for swimming; it is the big swishing tail that propels the shark forward through the water.

Since a shark does not possess a swim bladder like other fish, it must keep moving or it will sink to the bottom. It is not true, however, that a motionless shark will drown. Many sharks can lie on the bottom and force water across their gills to get their needed oxygen. The “sleeping sharks” of Baja are well known for this trick.

As your shark comes closer you might study its teeth. You’ll notice that they are sharp and serrated, like steak knives, and set in rows, one behind the other. As the front teeth wear down or break off, the rear teeth move forward to replace them.

Now quickly strike your shark across his sensitive snout with a hard object. This should ward him off. Good! Despite a highly developed sense of smell and the ability to pick up vibrations through the water, the shark has a very primitive nervous system. A large killer White might have a brain the size of a chicken’s. Of course, intellect isn’t everything. If chickens had hundreds of razor-sharp teeth and weighed up to four tons each, we’d probably treat them with a lot more respect. (Certainly the price of eggs would be higher).

Where to find your shark

OF THE 250 known species of sharks about 30 can be found in and around the waters of San Diego. These include the White, Blue, Mako, and Hammerhead. The first place you might want to look for your shark is at Sea World. The park’s nine large, mean sharks (two Nurse Sharks and seven Lemon Sharks) will be on display in two to four weeks when remodeling of their huge tank is completed. These “denizens of the deep" were originally caught off the Florida Keys, but came to Sea World via Hawaii Kai, a sea park outside of Dallas, Texas that is no longer in business. They were transported across the Southwest in a 2,800-gallon box mounted on the back of a big ten-wheeler truck last October. The trip took 39 hours. The sharks rested comfortably while swimming across Death Valley and were ready to eat 12 hours after their arrival in San Diego.

If you are looking to find your shark in a more natural setting, you might try searching in and around La Jolla Cove, where a majority of local shark sightings are reported. The Cove is near La Jolla Canyon, a submarine trench that extends out from the shoreline. This deep-water trough is thought to contain the kinds of cooler currents and food that might attract sharks.

In 1959, the year Bob Pamperin was killed, there were dozens of sightings around La Jolla. City lifeguards, who set up a shark patrol that summer, pulled a number of Blues and Hammerheads out of the water. It was thought that a large female White must have “pupped" in the Cove early that summer since a number of “baby" White Sharks, four to five feet in length, were taken from the water. Why sharks appear in numbers one year and not another is unknown. Their migratory habits, age, and rate of growth are but several of the mysteries yet to be resolved. If you are unable to find yourself a shark in the La Jolla Cove, and no one has for several years now. you might try the deeper waters several miles off Baja California.

How to catch your shark

FROM THE 1870s right up through the Second World War, San Diego had a thriving little shark catching industry. The shark fins would be sold to the Chinese in San Francisco for Shark Fin Soup. The liver, which often accounts for as much as 15 percent of the shark's total body weight, would be converted to shark liver oil, one of the few sources of Vitamin A until the development of synthetic vitamins during the war. The skin would be tanned and used for boots, belts and wallets, and the rest would be rendered a greasy oil which sold for 50 cents a gallon and was said to make an excellent sheep wash. Today Mexico is the only country in North America that continues to maintain a shark catching industry, although a number of smaller commercial fishermen in San Diego catch sharks, along with halibut and rock cod, for the local fish markets.

Shark fishing for sport really didn’t have too much appeal for people until the release of the movie Jaws. Suddenly every other tourist in Florida decided he needed a stuffed man-killer to park in his garage. The charter boats, smelling new money in the water, quickly began organizing “Jaws" expeditions. “Challenge man's mortal enemy to a duel to the death," read the advertising brochure of one boat. After several thousand sharks had been slaughtered by Captain Ahabs in tanning butter and bermuda shorts, the blood lust began to fade and people gradually went back to fishing marlin and bass.

Here in San Diego, albacore and yellow tail remain the big sport fish, and sharks are considered a “nuisance” catch. Charter boats have no interest in going out after them, according to the Point Loma Sportsfishing Association. If you feel you simply must have a six-foot Blue to hang over your mantle, here’s a list of some basic equipment you should take along: heavyweight test line, 20 feet of steel leader, blood lure and bait, a grappling iron, a pair of thick work gloves and a 12 gauge shotgun. It's also a good idea not to try to boat your shark until you’re sure he’s dead. In 1959 a fisherman fired four pistol shots and jabbed a six-foot metal spear into a large White Shark off La Jolla. The shark swam away, apparently unharmed except for the spear sticking out of its head. If you do manage to get your six-foot Blue landed and safely home, there are over a dozen local taxidermists who would be glad to make a cast of your shark and provide you with an exact fiberglass reproduction for somewhere around $500.

Of course anyone can catch sharks from boats, or even with Bang Sticks. (Bang Sticks are those five-foot spears used by divers in heavily infested waters off Australia and South Africa.) But for true macho craziness no one can beat the Samoans. They cruise out at night in their outrigger canoes and bait the water with blood. When a shark surfaces, some hyped-up young stud jumps it, wraps his legs around it and sinks a knife into its belly. The sport is in getting back in your canoe before the shark’s friends smell the blood and go into a feeding frenzy. Some teenagers in Key West, Florida, got into the “sport” of “shark jumping” a few years ago until local police put a stop to it.

Here in Mission Beach, three swimmers wrestled a seven-foot Blue Shark into shore in August of 1961. After it was beached, a policeman dispatched it with two bullets to its head. Another nice thing about sharks is that they don’t hold grudges.

How to eat your shark

JOE, DOWN AT the Peoples Fish Company, says you can eat your shark any way you like it—broiled, fried, scalloped. Shark cooks up a dozen different ways. Sold as “Grey Fish,” shark is said to have a fine, mild flavor with a close grain texture like that of swordfish. However, unlike swordfish, shark sells for only $1.50 a pound. The tastier varieties of shark include the Soupfin, Leopard, and Thresher. They are best when they measure between two and three feet dressed down (without head or tail). The shark you eat is completely unrelated to the “man-eating” variety. It is tasty and delicious and by far the easiest way to get to know your shark.

Will your shark eat you?

ON JUNE 14, 1959, Robert L. Pamperin, 33, and a companion were diving for abalone in 25 feet of water just north of Alligator Rock, La Jolla. Pamperin was wearing pink swim trunks, a face mask, .and flippers. Suddenly he rose waist-high out of the water and cried for help before disappearing. His companion dove down and saw Pamperin’s torso protruding from* the mouth of a large White Shark. Pamperin’s face mask was missing and his eyes were staring up. The body was never recovered. For the next several days. State game wardens tried to capture the shark by using hooks baited with whale meat and dried cattle blood. The shark failed to take the lure, and the city was gripped with shark fever. “Experts” talked of “rogue sharks that develop a taste for human blood.” Politicians offered bounties on killer sharks. Scientists invented a pill that would kill a shark in ten seconds, but were not sure how to get the shark to swallow it. Increased shark activity that summer resulted in the establishment of a city “shark patrol.” Then, as suddenly as they had arrived, the sharks were gone. There was not a single sighting recorded along San Diego beaches the following summer. In 1960, people flocked back to the beaches in record numbers.

Over the last 30 years San Diego has suffered one fatality and half a dozen injuries from shark attack. This makes it statistically more likely that you will die from the bite of a rabid skunk, bobcat, or coyote than from that of a shark. Still, a few common-sense tips might be in order: 1. If you see a shark, get out of the water. 2. Don’t dive alone or at night. 3. Don’t carry dead fish around with you in the water. 4. Get out of the water if you’re bleeding or have an open

wound or infection. 5. Don’t splash the water if a shark is nearby. Swim away quickly but quietly using a breast or side stroke. 6. If a shark gets aggressive, strike it across the snout with a hard object. Do not use your hand.

Sharks are some of the most beautiful fish in the sea. Because the specialists don’t know what role the shark plays in the ecology of the ocean, some people claim they have no role to play and feel justified in spearing, shooting, and killing them. But if the shark’s only function is to remind us that there are forces in nature greater and more powerful than ourselves, that alone would seem to justify the existence of this predator of the sea.

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