Are There More Sharks This Year? 6 Burning Beach Questions Answered

6:30 AM 8/5/2016

by Amanda Eberstein

Great whites, stingrays and tsunamis: Top experts answer FAQs.

Great White Shark Getty H 2016
Ryan Pierse/Getty Images

  • Are There More Sharks This Year?

    With a female swimmer bitten by a supposed great white shark during Memorial Day weekend in Corona del Mar, followed by a reported attack on a fisherman’s boat in Santa Cruz and spottings off the L.A. coast in recent years, SoCal has been on high shark alert. The Pelagic Shark Research Foundation's Sean Van Sommeran chalks up the perception of increased sightings to social media, camera phones, GoPros and drones, but the region's foremost shark expert, California State University, Long Beach's Chris Lowe, says: "Yes, there has been an increase in the past 15 years." He cites Ventura, Santa Monica Bay, Huntington Beach and Dana Point as hotspots: "We don't really know [why], but it is interesting to note that there are deep-water canyons that lead to shore at these locations." But both experts believe that most of the sharks found close to shore are juvenile — too young to cause any real danger and only biting if provoked —  while adult great white sharks are found mostly offshore, around Catalina and the Channel Islands. In terms of safety, common sense prevails: Always swim in pairs, stay near lifeguard towers and heed warnings. The crowd-sourced app Dorsal, which recently soft-launched in the U.S., reports 92 shark sightings in California for this year alone.

  • Do You Really Have to Shuffle to Avoid Stingrays?

    Sharks may get the most attention, but stingrays — which populate nearly all of L.A.'s beaches, especially in August and September — arguably are the most hazardous marine animal in SoCal. "They'll take out dozens of people over a weekend," says Van Sommeran of the bottom-dwelling fish, which use camouflage as a defense mechanism, but will flick their barbed tails if stepped on, causing minor (but painful) injuries that can require hospitalization and lead to infection or further complications if not treated properly. Stingrays seek out out warm, shallow water, and cover the sandy bottom of the ocean along the coast by the hundreds and sometimes thousands, particularly in calm areas without heavy surf. Experts advise, yes, shuffle your feet along the bottom as you enter the ocean to warn stingrays to move. Soak stings in a bucket of hot water, says L.A. County lifeguard captain Kenichi Haskett, to neutralize venom and ease pain — urine will not do the trick — and follow with an antiseptic.

  • What If There's an Earthquake at the Beach?

    "Angelenos are usually pretty earthquake savvy," says Tom Ford, executive director of The Bay Foundation, based in Santa Monica. “But there is certainly some growing conversation about the status of the San Andreas Fault, which says that we're due for a big one." If a quake hits, he recommends moving to wide, open ground — away from telephone poles, trees, lifeguard chairs, cliffs, seawalls and piers, which can crumble. "Cliffs are especially a concern in Malibu and Santa Barbara, where there are narrow beaches," he says. After the tremor subsides, get moving uphill and away from the beach as fast as possible. And no rubbernecking, says L.A. County lifeguard captain Kenichi Haskett: "People want to see large swells, but you are putting first responders in danger if a tsunami were to occur."


  • Will Plastic Waste Really Outweigh Ocean Fish in 30 Years?

    Yes. The entire ocean, including off the California coast, is destined to be covered in "plastic smog," says Marcus Eriksen, research director at The 5 Gyres Institute. Plenty of the 300 pounds of plastic each American discards annually — plastic shopping bags, drinking straws, water bottles and caps, the filters in cigarette butts and exfoliating "microbeads" in toothpaste and facial scrubs (to be banned in 2017) — ends up in the sea, where it breaks down into smaller and smaller particles, or microplastics, that float just below the surface of the water. (You can do your part not to unleash microbeads — which are often too small to be filtered out by sewage treatment plants — on the environment by steering clear of products that contain them, listed on, including some Crest toothpastes and skin products by such companies as Aveeno, Elisabeth Arden and Neutrogena. Says 5 Gyres Institute co-founder Anna Cummins, “There can be roughly 300,000 microbeads in a single tube of facial scrub.”) Microplastics are becoming so pervasive that the institute has collected water samples all around the planet in recent years and, “only a handful of those have come up clean, near Iceland and off the coast of Chile,” says the Cummins. Not to mention that much of the plastic trash in the ocean entangles and is eaten by animals, accumulates in the food chain, causes visual blights and becomes a magnet for other toxins. To help keep oceans (relatively) clean, vote in November against the bag-ban repeal, a California referendum promoted by the plastics industry to overturn the state's 2014 law restricting the use of plastic bags. "The bags handed out at grocery stores get used on average for 12 seconds, yet they will outlive us all,” says Heal the Bay marine scientist Dana Murray. “Once they are in the ocean, they break down and the more they break down, they look like food for more marine life.”

  • Has Anyone Died From Being Buried in Sand?

    Dry sand is deceptively heavy (about 100 pounds per cubic foot), and a few cases of suffocation have occurred in the U.S. because of collapsed tunnels and holes dug by beachgoers. As a result, digging deeper than 18 inches is illegal in Los Angeles. L.A. County lifeguard captain Kenichi Haskett says you are much more likely to die by getting caught in a rip current, a channel of water that flows away from shore, likened by Haskett to a river that has to go back to sea: "Instinctively, people begin to panic. But the best thing to do is to remain calm and help conserve energy by floating on your back, then swim parallel to shore once you get out." And while rip currents are the No. 1 threat on the beach, inshore holes — trenches in the sea floor caused by large waves that can submerge a full-grown man — are also dangerous. Haskett says to look for the absence of breaking waves or the presence of rough, choppy water as warning signs. Additionally, "never dive into the ocean,” he says, citing neck injuries as a common risk of doing so. Finally, the lifeguard caption advises: "If a wave picks you up and pushes you into the sand, always put your hands above your head — it's better to break a finger or wrist than your neck."

  • What Do I Do if I Find a Marine Creature (Dead or Alive) Stranded Onshore?

    Earlier this summer, a 45-foot-long, 22-ton humpback whale carcass, dubbed Wally, caused a sensation when he kept washing ashore along the Newport Beach coast, despite repeated efforts to dispose of him out at sea. While this example is extreme, smaller marine animals like seals and sea lions — whose population has been impacted by an elevated malnourishment and mortality rate over the last four years — are sadly often found deceased along L.A. county beaches. "A lot of people don't report them," says Jeff Hall, the marine program manager of the California Wildlife Center, a Malibu nonprofit that counts locals Larry Ellison and Pamela Anderson as supporters. "It's so important that we are called so that we can study the cause of death." Although removal is technically the responsibility of the property owner (which in the case of beaches is usually the city), the best cleanup crew is actually the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, which houses the country's second-largest collection of marine mammal specimens in the world and will respond to nearly every request. For live animal encounters, always stay 50 feet away and call a wildlife facility as soon as possible. Says Hall: "Many times, people think a marine mammal needs to be pushed back into the ocean immediately. This could kill a marine mammal if it is indeed in need of rescue and rehabilitation."