Gawkers gather in San Diego to catch glimpse of sharks

Sep 2 2011 - 11:39am

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Spectators watch some big waves in Newport Beach, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011. High tide and a winter storm off New Zealand are combining to bring high waves to the Southern California coast. The National Weather Service said waves of 8 feet to 11 feet or more could hit beaches from San Luis Obispo to San Diego counties through the afternoon and peak Thursday night or early Friday. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
A large wave crashes behind a surfer at the Wedge in Newport Beach, Calif. on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011. High tide and a winter storm off New Zealand are combining to bring high waves to the Southern California coast. The National Weather Service said waves of 8 feet to 11 feet or more could hit beaches from San Luis Obispo to San Diego counties through the afternoon and peak Thursday night or early Friday. (AP Photo/Orange County Register, Mark Rightmire)
A body boarder walks past a 8-10-foot shelf of eroded beach at the Wedge in Newport Beach, Calif. on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011. High tide and a winter storm off New Zealand are combining to bring high waves to the Southern California coast. The National Weather Service said waves of 8 feet to 11 feet or more could hit beaches from San Luis Obispo to San Diego counties through the afternoon and peak Thursday night or early Friday. (AP Photo/Orange County Register, Mark Rightmire)
Surfers and body boarders look on as a large wave rolls ashore at the Wedge in Newport Beach, Calif. on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011. High tide and a winter storm off New Zealand are combining to bring high waves to the Southern California coast. The National Weather Service said waves of 8 feet to 11 feet or more could hit beaches from San Luis Obispo to San Diego counties through the afternoon and peak Thursday night or early Friday. (AP Photo/Orange County Register, Mark Rightmire)
A body boarder stays ahead of a closing wave at the Wedge in Newport Beach, Calif. on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011. High tide and a winter storm off New Zealand are combining to bring high waves to the Southern California coast. The National Weather Service said waves of 8 feet to 11 feet or more could hit beaches from San Luis Obispo to San Diego counties through the afternoon and peak Thursday night or early Friday. (AP Photo/Orange County Register, Mark Rightmire)
Spectators watch some big waves in Newport Beach, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011. High tide and a winter storm off New Zealand are combining to bring high waves to the Southern California coast. The National Weather Service said waves of 8 feet to 11 feet or more could hit beaches from San Luis Obispo to San Diego counties through the afternoon and peak Thursday night or early Friday. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
A large wave crashes behind a surfer at the Wedge in Newport Beach, Calif. on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011. High tide and a winter storm off New Zealand are combining to bring high waves to the Southern California coast. The National Weather Service said waves of 8 feet to 11 feet or more could hit beaches from San Luis Obispo to San Diego counties through the afternoon and peak Thursday night or early Friday. (AP Photo/Orange County Register, Mark Rightmire)
A body boarder walks past a 8-10-foot shelf of eroded beach at the Wedge in Newport Beach, Calif. on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011. High tide and a winter storm off New Zealand are combining to bring high waves to the Southern California coast. The National Weather Service said waves of 8 feet to 11 feet or more could hit beaches from San Luis Obispo to San Diego counties through the afternoon and peak Thursday night or early Friday. (AP Photo/Orange County Register, Mark Rightmire)
Surfers and body boarders look on as a large wave rolls ashore at the Wedge in Newport Beach, Calif. on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011. High tide and a winter storm off New Zealand are combining to bring high waves to the Southern California coast. The National Weather Service said waves of 8 feet to 11 feet or more could hit beaches from San Luis Obispo to San Diego counties through the afternoon and peak Thursday night or early Friday. (AP Photo/Orange County Register, Mark Rightmire)
A body boarder stays ahead of a closing wave at the Wedge in Newport Beach, Calif. on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2011. High tide and a winter storm off New Zealand are combining to bring high waves to the Southern California coast. The National Weather Service said waves of 8 feet to 11 feet or more could hit beaches from San Luis Obispo to San Diego counties through the afternoon and peak Thursday night or early Friday. (AP Photo/Orange County Register, Mark Rightmire)

SAN DIEGO -- Nothing injects adrenaline into a languid summer day on the beach like heavy surf and a few dorsal fins.

After three shark sightings in the last week, the bluffs and coves teemed with lifeguards, surfers, sunbathers, tourists, gawkers and reporters, all scanning the water for that little sloping gray triangle that can send shudders up and down the coast if humans catch just a fleeting glimpse of it.

Even some surfers who know that the odds of an attack are astronomically low were reluctant to re-enter the water. "Call me a wimp, I'm staying on the shore," said Carl Dunsmir, 19, a community college student. "My mom is pretty freaked out."

The last sighting occurred Wednesday, when surfers saw what looked to be the dorsal fin of a great white. Lifeguards briefly closed the beach, as was mandatory, and opened it Thursday.

Dozens of people stood on the bluffs with cameras and binoculars. Lifeguards in personal water craft looked for any signs of the fabled predators. TV and military helicopters hovered overhead.

The fear of attack didn't prevent surfers from taking on some of the most challenging waves of the season, delivered by a distant storm off New Zealand.

"Man, it's for real, it's what you surf for," said Lionel Wade, 23, an unemployed roofer from Santee, Calif., as he left the surf at South Casa. "If there was a shark, it's long gone by now. No way it's staying around for those waves."

Sharks are known to populate the San Diego County coastline, particularly during the species' birthing season.

Great whites, especially adolescents between 7 and 10 feet and 4 and 6 years old, are typically seen in Southern California waters as early as May.

This year, water temperatures didn't warm until later in the summer, which might account for the spate of late-summer great white sightings, said marine biology professor Chris Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach.

Researchers also think the great white shark population may be growing in California.

Gill nets, which for decades had entangled and killed young great whites near the shore, were banned in California waters in the 1990s. More plentiful food supplies -- including bottom-feeding fish and sea lions -- may be boosting their numbers as well, Lowe said.

All three sightings were dubbed by lifeguards as credible, having been made by lifeguards, surfers and boogie-boarders. A sighting early Thursday off Sunset Cliffs was declared not credible and no closure was ordered.

In April 2008 a local veterinarian, a veteran rough-water swimmer, was fatally attacked by a shark off Solana Beach, north of La Jolla. The memory of that attack has left many locals concerned about the rash of recent sightings.

And talk here, over the pounding of the surf, was all about sharks:

"I just hope the scientists get to the bottom of it, and tell us what's going on," said Andrea Hahn.

Even out-of-towners were excited by their brush with the creatures.

"We don't get many sharks in Idaho," said Joe Ornstein, 46, as he, his wife, and two daughters stood near the lifeguard tower, no plans of taking a swim. "When we get back home, we're going to have quite a story about our vacation in California."

(c)2011 the Los Angeles Times

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