‘Alta Live’ Recap: Great White Sharks Are the Pacific’s Comeback Kids

Dr. Chris Lowe says the waters are much safer than Jaws would have you believe.

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An image of a great white shark jumping from the water, jaws open, can prompt terror in many people. But what does Dr. Chris Lowe see in the sharp teeth? “That’s the smile of joy,” he told Alta Live host Beth Spotswood. Lowe, a shark researcher, joined Spotswood on Alta Live to debunk a few myths about sharks and to explain why it’s good news that sightings in California are on the rise. “To have a population come back like white sharks is so exciting,” he said. “It means conservation is working.”

Lowe is the director of the Shark Lab, a research group at Cal State Long Beach that uses technology and observation to track sharks and predict their behavior, especially in areas popular with human surfers, kayakers, and swimmers. Lowe, who was a student of Shark Lab founder Don Nelson, has led the team since 1998. As the number of shark sightings has risen in Southern California, the Shark Lab has turned to cameras, robots, and acoustic tags and receivers to study these mysterious creatures. “Why do some baby white sharks like to hang out at public beaches? To [understand that], we need to figure out how they make decisions,” Lowe said.

When he started at the Shark Lab, over 20 years ago, Lowe was worried. “I was truly afraid that an entire generation of Americans would get in the water and never have an opportunity to see a shark in the wild.” At the time, he explained, shark populations were falling owing to lack of protection and overfishing of their prey. State lawmakers didn’t pass legislation to protect them until 1994, and the hysteria created by the movie Jaws (1975) didn’t help. Since then, beachgoers have begun learning to coexist with these fascinating animals.

Lowe referenced Carpinteria, an ocean community near Santa Barbara that is home to about 40 juvenile white sharks. Human visitors there have developed a simple system for warning swimmers and waiting out a shark’s approach on the beach. “Here we are, 20 years later, and I see this community that has basically come to grips with how to live with a white shark nursery, and they do that on a daily basis,” Lowe said.

Spotswood asked Lowe to bust a few myths about sharks’ relationship with humans and discuss how the oceans can become safer for both species. Lowe said that “shark attack” is a misnomer and that he prefers “encounter” or “incident,” since “attack” implies aggression. If a curious shark attempts to bite you, Lowe suggested, punch its nose or eyes. He also advised against shark repellent. And since these predatory animals rely on surprise when hunting, if you do spot one, make eye contact and track it by moving your head or following it with the tip of your surfboard. Letting a shark know it’s been seen might be enough to warn it off. Lowe said that despite their tough reputation, sharks are far from the biggest risk to humans in the ocean. People are far more likely to be injured by a stingray off the coast of California.

Lowe and the Shark Lab also focus their efforts on education, teaching beachgoers to be respectful of sharks when in the ocean. “The reality is, all these animals are coming back because we’re doing a better job at cleaning up our coastal oceans and protecting animals that are essential,” Lowe said. “Now that they’re coming back, we have to learn to live with that. And we always have to remember, it is their home, and we are guests. So be a good guest.”•

Alta Live is a weekly event series hosted by Alta Journal’s digital editor, Beth Spotswood. Each week, Alta invites innovators, academics, change makers, and artists to share their work with our readers in this free virtual series. Join us next Wednesday for Alta Live: Street Art Goes Corporate.

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