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Great white sharks: Are they becoming a scary nuisance off Southern California?

March 17, 2009 |  6:45 am

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If a lot of angry citizens knew what I know, they might suggest an appropriate retreat for AIG executives exacting million-dollar bonuses from bailout money: a long-distance swimming race with no lifelines, originating two miles off Newport Beach.

Here's what I know: This is the season for increased shark sightings off Southern California. More people are venturing into the ocean and juvenile white sharks -- before they become great white sharks -- utilize local waters as a nursery area during the spring.

The fatal attack on a swimmer off Solana Beach last April remains fresh in the minds of some. And two fishermen last week saw what they estimated to be an 18-foot shark, five feet wide, swimming with the confidence of an apex predator two miles beyond Newport Beach.

Steven Lockhart and Aaron Hix reported the sighting to Ralph S. Collier, who runs the Shark Research Committee, which keeps track of attacks and witness accounts off the Pacific Coast of North America.

There's more:

--A surfer over the weekend reportedly was rushed by a large shark off Carlsbad, which is about seven miles north of Solana Beach. This has not been confirmed.

--A beachcomber off Bolsa Chica State Beach on Monday discovered a headless sea lion with other wounds. Perhaps this serves as evidence that adult great whites, which generally prey on much larger elephant seals off Northern California, are utilizing an increasingly dense sea lion population off Southern California.

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--A swimmer and stand-up paddleboard surfer in the Pacific Palisedes area on Saturday reported sighting estimated seven- and eight-foot sharks, 15 minutes apart around 8 a.m. The swimmer said there were two sharks, and that one of them leaped, or breached.

--Three people atop Balboa Pier in Newport Beach on Saturday reported sighting an estimated eight-foot shark, which also breached.

If all of these predators were notorious white sharks, it should not be alarming. For years they've frequented local waters to prey on fish and other small critters before the call of nature drives them north to island elephant seal rookeries. That generally occurs when they reach about 12 feet.

The only odd circumstance is that we're barely crawling out of winter and into spring, so consider this an early shark warning. Keep an eye peeled and enjoy the waves with friends -- and please drive safely because the freeways still remain far more dangerous than any Southland surf spot.

--Pete Thomas

Photo of white shark by Tim Rock/Lonely Planet Images. Second photo shows sign warning swimmers and surfers after a fatal attack last April off Solana Beach. Credit: Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times

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