Mike Estrada sat on his surfboard at Lower Trestles on Tuesday, May 19, when he saw the dark gray fin, not the dolphin kind, sticking out of the ocean’s surface, slowly passing not far from where he and others waited for waves.

The following day, advisory signs were posted near the San Clemente Pier warning beachgoers a shark had been spotted.

On Thursday, May 21, photographer Matt Larmand hovered his drone over a shark near the shoreline, larger than the typical juveniles he usually sees this time of year near his home in Capistrano Beach.

That same day, a great white was filmed just off the Roundhouse Aquarium on the Manhattan Beach Pier.

hark season in Southern California is officially here.

The spring season is when the water starts to warm and younger sharks start to hang around, spooking surfers and swimmers who share the ocean with the mysterious sea creature – but as experts learn more about the great white sharks, the more they are finding sharks, for the most part, don’t care much for humans.

“We have to remind people they need to share the waves with the locals,” Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab Director Chris Lowe said. “And the locals are really those sharks.”

The Shark Lab has been ramping up its research along the coastline, tagging shivers of sharks hanging out in recent months and gathering data from above to learn more about the species.

This year has had its challenges with coronavirus restrictions, halting fieldwork until researchers could be deemed essential personnel to continue on-the-water work.

Last year, the Shark Lab launched pop-up tents called Shark Shacks at various Southern California beaches, an educational program to teach beachgoers about sharks and other sea creatures such as stingrays, but the program is on hold this summer. Instead, the Shark Lab will launch virtual shark shacks online in June.

Student researchers recently have been tracking aggregations, or “hot spots,” of sharks, mostly 5-foot newborns and a bit older, in the 7- to 8-foot range, with the occasional report of 9-footers off Southern California.

Early season reports of juvenile shark hot spots have been reported mostly in Santa Barbara and Ventura – there haven’t been many further south so far this year, Lowe said. That is a drastic difference from the El Nino years that brought large groups of sharks to the South Bay, Long Beach, Huntington Beach and San Clemente a few seasons back.

One possible reason could be the recent red tide that lingered for about a month off Southern California. But now that it has cleared, the sharks are making their presence known off local waters.

Harbor Breeze boat captain Eric Martin on Thursday morning spotted that great white off the Roundhouse Aquarium in Manhattan Beach, shooting video from a drone above as he watched dolphins frolicking near the shark.

That same afternoon, Larmand launched his drone up near his Capistrano home in Dana Point quickly finding one hanging out about 30 yards offshore.

“I think I’m one of the few who enjoys seeing them around,” he said. “I think it’s fascinating to watch them and see how they behave.”

He’s been documenting the sharks in the known hot spot for years, but on Thursday he witnessed something new.

“All of a sudden, he turned around 180 degrees and took off 25 miles an hour. He was swimming so fast, he was almost coming out of the water,” Larmand said. “It was the most unbelievable thing I’ve seen. It’s insane.”

He also watched as the shark, larger than the younger ones he typically sees, swam next to a surfer in the distance, too far to yell out with caution but able to watch the moment with the drone hovering above.

“He was right underneath him, almost,” Larmand said.

That happens more than most people realize, said Lowe.

The Shark Lab recently launched a two-year study of shark behavior and how it relates to beach users in the water.

Researchers are gathering video and images from drones and helicopter operators, collaborating with Fullerton College drone students, local lifeguards and police agencies.

When footage shows sharks near a swimmer or surfer, students measure distances between the shark and ocean users, along with the distance from where the wave is breaking and the shoreline.

Sharks come closer to shore when it’s flat. When there are waves, they tend to stay outside of the wave break, Lowe said.

“When surf is up, there’s a higher likelihood of a surfer encountering a juvenile white shark,” he said. “When it’s down, and there’s more swimmers and waders, they are more likely to encounter a shark.”

The hope is to use environmental conditions to predict what water user might most likely interact with sharks, he said.

“The goal is to get enough data to make those correlations,” he said. “When are there sharks and people in the water at the same time? And can we predict that?”

For the most part, the sharks seem to not care about the humans, Lowe said.

“We’ve had probably 100 interactions so far,” he said. “Over 90 percent of the sharks just don’t care. They just avoid people or just keep moving in a path that is the opposite direction of people.”

What does that tell Lowe? That there’s no good data showing sharks are actually dangerous.

“We are getting data to suggest sharks and people are interacting more than we thought,” he said. “Our data, so far … as long as people aren’t bothering them, they don’t seem to care.”

That’s good news for Estrada, who was spooked out of the water by the shark passing near him.

“We all know what dolphins swim like,” the lifelong Costa Mesa surfer said. “This thing was stealth cruising in the lineup, about 15 feet beyond us.

“It was just cruising, not aggressive or anything,” he said. “We all just started paddling in, we all just high-tailed it to the beach.”

But some encounters can turn deadly.

Surfer Ben Kelly, who grew up surfing San Clemente, died two weeks ago from a shark bite off Santa Cruz.

A group of juvenile white sharks moved into that same stretch of Monterey Bay back in 2015 and have been coming back every spring.

Lowe said tests came back estimating the size of the shark to be between 10- to 12-feet long based on tooth fragments and bite marks in the wetsuit. DNA tests confirmed it was a great white shark.

“That size is constant with a large juvenile, possibly at the transition state where they start trying to feed on marine mammals, but maybe not exhibit adult migratory behavior,” Lowe said. “It is a bit unusual for this time of year, but with climate change driving rapidly changing ocean patterns, nothing is that surprising anymore.”

Likely these incidents are mistakes, he said.

Southern California has had its share of shark bites, including a swimmer off Manhattan Beach in 2014, followed by a 10-footer that bit into Maria Korcsmaros as she swam off Corona del Mar. The next year, Leeanne Ericson was bitten by a great white off San Onfore State Beach on April 29, 2017.

But Lowe cautions the number of attacks, when compared to the number of beach users, remains very low.

“I’m not going to say no risk, but the story is not complete,” he said. “But when it does occur, it is rare, considering the number of people. They seem to be mistakes.”

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