Jun 222008

Off shore oil rigs stretch from Long Beach to Santa Maria on the coast of California. Some are decommissioned, but most are still in active operation. These rigs are in deep water; their support structures rise from depths of 600 feet. These pillars and cross beams act as an open water oasis – a home for reef & wall critters, and a resting/feeding stop for open ocean species. These rigs are also no-take zones, which mean there is no fishing or harvesting allowed near them.

Some of these rigs allow dive boats to bring out scuba divers to explore the bits of life that now call the support structure home. The Eureka Oil Rig off the coast of Long Beach is one of those rigs. I signed on with three other divers to explore the rig and then chum for sharks in the Avalon Channel with the Psalty V out of San Pedro.

We were lucky and caught 60 foot visibility on the rig that morning. Sea lions barked from the catwalks above, but didn’t get in the water to play. The supports are covered in anemones, scallops, and invertebrates. In parts the supports are at angles, in other parts, vertical in groups, like Greek columns. Reef fish like sheephead, calico bass, and garibaldi buzzed around us as we explored. In open ocean away from the structure I found several types of salp – barrel shaped filter feeders. It was a gorgeous dive.

Next up we chummed for several hours in hopes of finding some blue or mako sharks in the channel. Unfortunately, nothing showed up. Another unfortunate indication that shark populations are decimated. It used to be a sure thing to find sharks in the channel, now sightings are very rare. With time and proper legislation and enforcement, some day it may be a sure thing again.

Apr 282008

TIME has a great story up by John Cloud called Shark Frenzy in Solana Beach. It has some great quotes:

The media was fascinated because shark attacks are sickeningly grisly and cosmically rare. Your chances of being killed by a shark in any given year are about 1 in 280 million, according to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. Your chances of dying in a car accident are about 1 in 6,700. In other words, you would have to swim in the ocean 41,000 times a year (or 112 times a day, or seven times every waking hour) before swimming in shark habitats became as dangerous as driving your car a single time…

That’s one reason local officials’ response to Martin’s death was so transparently silly. For 72 hours, they banned ocean swimming along a 13-mile swath from South Carlsbad State Beach to Torrey Pines State Beach. That’s like a ban on leaving your home after a thunderstorm. Actually, statistically speaking the latter ban would make more sense: Your chances of dying after being struck by lightning are 1 in 3 million, about 93 times more likely than dying after an altercation with a shark.

He also brings up an interesting point – this may influence the Children’s Pool debate in La Jolla. Some may argue that having a beach full of plump seal treats near public beaches is tempting fate. I think that statistical chance is still so remote that it doesn’t play into the debate. But who knows, people can be emotional, facts can be sensationalized. I think the family handled the press pretty well:

…a reporter asked whether the family would stop swimming in the ocean, and Jeff Martin said quickly: “No.”

“Can you elaborate on that?” the reporter asked.

“I went surfing yesterday. Does that help?” Martin said, a bit sharply. “I’m taking my boys out tomorrow.”

Apr 252008

A triathlete in training swimming with 10 others at Fletcher Cove was bitten once on the legs by a shark, and died from blood loss this morning. My heart goes out to relatives and friends. Hopefully this incident will be portrayed respectfully and accurately in the media. This was an unfortunate incident, but it is important to remember that it is also extremely rare – there was only 1 death world wide last year from sharks.

Update from one of the dive lists I’m on: A group of research divers from Scripps was in the same location this morning and noted very bad visibility because of plankton blooms. The few shark bites that do happen are frequently in very low visibility situations – the shark can sense there is a mammal near with electroreception and lateral lines but mistakes the victim for a normal prey animal, like a seal or sea lion. This is why most attacks are just bites – once the shark realizes that it bit something it wasn’t expecting, it releases and usually doesn’t bite again. Unfortunately because of the size of great whites, one exploratory bite can enough to cause death by blood loss.

Apr 242008

I had heard about Sharkwater on the film festival circuit for a year, but wasn’t ever in a place where it was showing. It came out on dvd last week and I finally watched it last night. Sharkwater is really three movies in one. Part nature documentary on sharks, part educational documentary on shark finning (mostly for sharkfin soup aka fishwing), and part docu-drama. Rob Stewart has some beautiful underwater footage in the movie, and one could see how that was how the movie started out. But the hook of the film is the drama they encounter in Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Ecuador.

That drama ties into explaining the sharkfinning industry, and just how dangerous it is to the ocean – our lungs. The movie doesn’t hold back in terms of imagery. In addition to finning sharks, the viewer is shown exactly what longlines are, and just how wasteful and brutal they are for large fish species. Today, it is estimated 90% of shark populations are gone from our seas. The removal of this top predator from the oceans will have a huge impact on an already off-balance ecosystem.

Though parts of the movie are hard to watch, I think it is a very important film to get into the public consciousness. Unless laws and enforcement change, most species will be gone within a decade.

Watch the Sharkwater trailer here: