Shark Attack: Is It Safe to Go Back in the Water?

In the waters off Fletcher Cove Park, a popular Southern California beach area in the town of Solana Beach just north of San Diego, David Martin, 66, a retired veterinarian and triathlete, was killed by a shark as he swam with a group of nine others. Martin died from blood loss as a result of deep, violent shark bites to both legs.

In the frenzied aftermath of the April 25 attack, San Diego County officials posted an unprecedented warning for the public to stay out of the water along 13 miles of coastline; U.S. Coast Guard and San Diego County sheriff's helicopters patrolled 17 miles of beach for two days looking for more sharks so they could warn beachgoers. No other sharks were spotted.

During its investigation of the attack, the San Diego County medical examiner's office sought the assistance of shark attack expert Ralph Collier, founder of the Shark Research Committee and author of "Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century: From the Pacific Coast of North America." Collier, who pioneered the technique of measuring tooth impressions to determine shark species and size following an attack, concluded during the autopsy that Martin was killed by a 15-to-16-foot great white.

Collier talked to NEWSWEEK's Jamie Reno about the rarity of shark attacks off the Pacific Coast, this latest attack, and whether it's really safe to go back into Southern California waters. Excerpts:

Is there any way to determine why this shark attacked at this particular time and place?
Ralph Collier:
There are three behaviors when it comes to sharks biting objects: predatory, investigative and displacement. In a predatory attack a shark bites because it is feeding. With investigation, the shark isn't quite sure what the object is and will circle it, use all its sensory systems to figure it out and then take a sample bite, hold it for a few seconds and then release it and swim off. With displacement the shark perceives the object as a potential threat and chases it away. In this particular case I was able to determine during my examination that there were at least four bites and as many as six. The initial bite obviously informed the shark that this was not a seal. However, for whatever reason it continued to attack. It is not entirely clear which of these three things motivated the shark in this case. Dr. Martin was swimming with others and was wearing a wet suit. It was a violent attack, but there was no tissue loss. The most important thing now is interviewing witnesses. Their observations will be very important as far as attempting to understand the shark's motivation, but we may never know.

How were you able to determine the size of the shark?
When we started examining the lacerations, we recovered two small tooth fragments that I determined were from lower teeth in the shark's jaw. We measured the distances between the individual tooth punctures. Taking those measurements and looking at not only measurements taken previously from other sharks of known length but also using my formula, we were able to come up with size of the shark. In this case the tooth dimensions we obtained confirm that it was a great white not less than 15 feet and no more than 16 feet.

David Martin's son and his family, who grew up in and around these local waters, went surfing again in the spot where Martin was killed just days after the attack. What was your reaction when you heard this?
My thoughts and prayers go out to Dr. Martin's family. I think that going back out there is a very intelligent thing to do. If you've grown up in a family that has enjoyed the water your whole life, if this is part of your life, you should not close that off because of this tragic event. Frankly, you are at greater risk driving from your home to the beach than you are in the water.

What did you think of the local officials' decision to warn the public not to enter that 13-mile stretch of beach for four days?
It's the type of decision public agencies make, something they felt was necessary. But most sharks are not sedentary; generally, they don't stay very long in one area. That doesn't mean this shark isn't still out there somewhere, but in my opinion this decision doesn't really matter.

Just how rare are shark attacks off the Pacific Coast of the United States?
Very rare. From 1900 to the present we've had total of 147 shark attacks along the Pacific Coast of North America, including California, Oregon and Washington, and there have been 11 fatalities confirmed, including this latest one.

Still, it's likely this attack will again stir up the public obsession with shark mythology and generate more fear. What do you think of pop culture's take on sharks, from "Jaws" to various documentaries?
I think the documentaries produced by Discovery and by National Geographic, and independent companies as well, have overall been a positive. Not only have they answered questions that the public might have had, they have raised awareness that these animals are not mindless killing machines and that they serve a valuable function in the marine environment. Their removal and our overfishing is of critical concern. "Jaws" initially had a negative impact, especially when attacks occurred after the release of the film. It led to the feeling that the only good shark was a dead shark. After Discovery and others started doing documentaries, it changed that perception. Today fewer people have a "hang 'em high" attitude toward sharks.

When I first moved to California and learned to surf 30 years ago, a friend who was a lifelong Californian and surfer told me, "As soon as you step into the ocean, you become a part of the food chain." Is that a fair statement?
Yes, absolutely. Just like when we venture to the mountains, we place ourselves into the food chain. We might be the apex predator as far as intellect—although, between you and me, I sometimes question that—but as far as common sense is concerned, sometimes we are lacking. Once you get out of your residence and go back to nature, you now have become a part of that ecosystem. A mountain lion or bear is capable of capturing large prey. Same thing goes in the ocean. I personally have observed at San Onofre [a Southern California beach] white sharks swimming between surfers, and they were never even aware of it. Two surfers sitting there and a dorsal fin right there between them; the sharks were hanging around there because of a dead whale buried on the beach, but the surfers paid no attention.

Is there any validity to the old beachcomber adage that if a shark attacks you, punch him right in the nose?
Yes. If a shark is biting me, I'll do whatever I can, and striking a shark is a natural reflex. In some cases sharks have actually released and backed off when struck. However, in other cases it accelerates their aggressive behavior and they return and bite again. In Dr. Martin's case, this was a very forceful bite, a violent attack. The majority of cases on the Pacific Coast are single bites. We do have cases where victims have been bitten multiple times, but most attacks are investigation-oriented: the shark comes toward the surfer or diver or kayaker, takes the object, holds it in its mouth, releases it and swims off.

You've been studying shark behavior for more than 40 years and yet you admit there is still much we don't know. Why is it so difficult to understand this animal?
It's true, we still know so little. This is a very difficult animal to study. We need special equipment to observe them in their natural state. I take a boat out frequently and bring in some white sharks with bait, but I can't assume every behavior I see is natural, because there is a boat there, and that's not natural, and neither is a cage. The noise from the boat, my regulator from my air line, the cameras humming and whistling. None of these things are natural.

What about placing a hidden camera in the water?
I've been trying to get funding for these types of cameras for many years, to get cameras placed in specific locations where we know sharks exist and put tags on sharks that will turn the camera on when the shark comes into range. The camera will then rotate and follow the shark, and the camera is silent and concealed in a black housing dome so it resembles granite rocks. This hasn't been done to this point. Funding is difficult. If you give me the amount of grant money that is spent on just one cruise missile, I'll assemble a group of scientists worldwide and give you, at the end of five years, a great white's life history. In five years we'll give you total picture of what this animal does in life; we'll know more than we have ever known before about the great white shark. But no one wants to fund this research.

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