The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Great white sharks off L.A. beaches? Yup. Now they're on TV

August 1, 2011 |  6:28 pm

White sharks at one of Los Angeles’ most popular surfing beaches? Yes.

They’ve become such a familiar site at Sunset Beach in Pacific Palisades that regulars have become almost, kind of, sort of comfortable with their presence. Sometimes the humans don't even tell lifeguards or researchers about seeing the predators.

That’s one of the revelations of “Great White Invasion,” one of several new programs debuting this week on the Discovery channel’s 24th annual “Shark Week.” The television event has been a hit for Discovery since it debuted in the 1980s, routinely attracting 20 million viewers a year. "Shark Week" topped more than 30 million viewers in 2010.

“Great White Invasion” describes how sightings of great whites have multiplied in recent years at Sunset—the surf break near where Sunset Boulevard empties on to Pacific Coast Highway—and at other beaches around the world.

The shark appearances here gained particular notoriety in 2009, when surf shop owner Randy Wright captured photos and video of the creatures jumping out of the water. The “breaching” photos--sizable sharks soaring out of the water--became a sensation on the Web.

The producers of “Great White Invasion” tried to secure some of Wright’s video, but the videographer had his own ideas for disseminating the information, though where it will be shown is not yet clear. Among the footage: shots of a shark perhaps 10 feet long jumping clear of the ocean's surface, video that a prominent shark researcher called “phenomenal."

Unable to secure Wright’s video, the “Great White Invasion” creators made due with interviews with  Sunset surfers about their shark encounters. They paired the Los Angeles segments with dramatic footage from white shark breaches in other locales, like Australia and South Africa.

Ralph Collier, the veteran researcher who founded and runs the San Fernando Valley-based Shark Research Committee, said he thinks “Great White Invasion” gives a fair account of white shark episodes locally. Collier appears in the documentary and comments on the recent proliferation of white shark sitings.

 “There has not been one surfer who was bitten or bumped or harassed at Sunset,” Collier said in an interview with the Big Picture. “There have been numerous reports of sharks coming up, usually on the starboard side of a surfer and rotating and then looking them over, before leveling out and swimming away. We are not really anything of special interest to sharks.”

The reasons for infrequent shark attacks on humans in Southern California are not entirely understood, Collier said. A teenage body-boarder was killed off Vandenberg Air Force Base, north of Santa Barbara, last fall. A veterinarian died while on a training swim off Solana Beach in the spring of 2008.

With millions of people entering the water, there have been only a handful of other fatalities in Southern California in the last half-century. Collier said there are some common sense precautions to be taken by those who enter the shark’s domain. Swimmers and surfers should avoid the ocean when marine mammals or a lot of bait fish are nearby. They should not wear flashy jewelry, swim suits or even nail polish that might attract a shark’s attention, Collier said. Though it’s not understood exactly what color range white sharks can see, better to go low-key.

“Great White Invasion" replays frequently this week, along with a host of other shark-umentaries. One other Discovery offering features "Chief Shark Officer" Andy Samberg, celebrity host for the  week's offerings. The "Saturday Night Live" comedian takes a look, and gets really scared, about sharks off the Bahamas.


Andy Samberg of 'Saturday Night Live' named Discovery Channel's Shark Week host

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: White sharks star in the Discovery channel program "Great White Invasion." Surfers in Los Angeles talk about seeing the predators off Sunset Beach. There have been no attacks on humans at the popular surf spot. Credit: C & M Fallows /