Sharks may be closer than you think

Image: Carlos Gauna

Researchers in the US have confirmed that sharks and humans can share the ocean peacefully – and often in closer proximity than sea-goers may realise.

A study by California State University, Long Beach, used drones to track juvenile white sharks along the Southern California coastline and document how close they swim to humans in the water. It is close – often within 45m of the wave breaks, closest to surfers and paddle-boarders, with some spotted as close as 2m from the break.

The reassuring news is, according to the study, there were no reported shark bites in the 26 beaches surveyed between January 2019 and March 2021.

"Most of the time water users didn’t even know the sharks were there - but we could easily see them from the air.”

Patrick Rex, California State University

The two-year study was led by graduate student Patrick Rex and the university’s Shark Lab, using images from 1,500 drone flights. He found that juvenile white sharks mostly grouped together in two locations – known as aggregation sites - in southern Santa Barbara and central San Diego. Adults are generally more solitary.

Rex said, “At aggregation sites, water users were found in proximity to sharks 97% of the days surveyed. Most of the time water users didn’t even know the sharks were there but we could easily see them from the air.”

The Shark Lab runs the State of California Shark Beach Safety programme, dedicated to studying sharks and educating the public on how to have a safe day at the beach.

Christopher Lowe, professor of marine biology and Shark Lab director, said, “This information is valuable to lifeguards especially at beaches with aggregation sites so that they can best advise the public on safe ocean use.

“Our goal was to determine how often water users were interacting with white sharks across southern California so we could begin to determine if these sharks pose a significant risk to beach goers, something never before done in the US.

The study was led by Patrick Rex and Shark Lab using images from 1,500 drone flights. Image: Shark Lab

“I think people will be shocked by these findings, we never expected to see so many encounters every day with no incidents."

This method of surveillance using drone videography can be used for future approaches for research, education or beach safety purposes. The findings are applicable on a global scale, providing confirmation of sharks and humans peacefully coinciding in the same location.

Image: Carlos Gauna

Lowe said, “It’s not just about sharks, it’s about people. This study may change people’s perception of the risk sharks pose to people that share the ocean with them.”