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Heal the Bay Blog

Category: California Sharks

Apryl Boyle, Heal the Bay’s resident shark guru, says that when it comes to apex predators all you need is love!

When people watch the 1975 movie “Jaws” one of two things usually happens. They become completely terrified to go in any body of water, including their bathtub, or they are motivated to learn more about sharks. I am part of the latter group.

I don’t recall exactly when I first watched this classic tale. But I do remember my instant identification with the shark researcher character, Matt Hooper. Richard Dreyfuss plays Hooper as a laid-back, unaffected rich kid fascinated by sharks. He’s the voice of reason and remains calm, which is opposite of the salty boat captain, Quint. He assists protagonist Chief Brody in finding and dealing with the great white shark terrorizing the New England island in the movie.

The film turbo-charged Steven Spielberg’s career and became a worldwide box office hit. It also became a cultural touchstone that catalyzed a global fear of sharks. It sparked sequels, spin-offs, and a “justifiable” reason for people to be afraid of going into the ocean. The filmmakers effectively created a suspenseful thriller by accentuating the fear of the unknown, hidden natural world. After all, who knows what really lurks beneath the waves? The creators tapped into an anxiety that is unmatched by immersion into any other natural environment.

When you swim in the ocean, you cannot see everything underneath or around you. You cannot breathe under water without aid. And the inhabitants of the ocean are far better swimmers than you and I will ever be. For many people this is terrifying, but for marine lovers it’s a source of wonder and excitement—not fear.

From a young age, I have been enamored with all creatures, regardless of their size, shape, or teeth. But the common myths about sharks seemed to always be at odds with my unwavering passion. When I was in college I was actually told that my last words would be, “That shark won’t bite me.”

Fast-forward a few decades.

After receiving my master’s degree in Biomedical Science and working at various aquariums throughout the U.S.,  I’ve become an expert in the shark research field. I’ve been a part of the well-known “Shark Week” programming on Discovery Channel. I’ve been tapped as an expert in the media not only for sharks, but also for marine research.

A great white shark observed by Apryl in Guadalupe Island, Mexico. Watch the video.

In my travels to Fiji, Peru and Mexico I’ve observed beautiful sharks of all types. My trips have even brought me face-to-face with 18-foot great whites, as well as blue sharks, white tips, tiger sharks, nurse sharks, and many more species. I’ve never had an aggressive encounter with sharks over the decades of countless dives.

Now, as the Associate Director of Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, I get to take care of three types of shark and a host of other ocean inhabitants and get paid to do it. This is my job!

I guess you could say that I’ve become a real-life Matt Hooper. And the kid in me is just as excited about sharks as when I first saw “Jaws.”

Apryl speaks at EcoDive Center’s Dive Club to get the group excited for Coastal Cleanup Day, which features underwater cleanup locations in Santa Monica Bay and helps to keep the local marine habitat clean for sharks and other aquatic animals.

The bottom line is that sharks need our protection. As apex predators they keep marine populations stable and thriving. They help regulate the health of the world’s ocean, which is a major source of oxygen on our planet.

Despite these benefits, humans kill an estimated 11,000 sharks every hour (!) and mostly in the horrific practice of finning. A shark is taken out of the water, its fins are cut off for use in shark-fin soup, a supposed “delicacy.” The butchered animal is thrown back into the water, where it can take up to three grueling days to finally suffocate and die.

Slowly, popular culture is starting to replace fear with facts. Peter Benchley, the late creator of the book and screenplay for “Jaws” realized the harm he had done with his product and, together with his wife, spent the rest of his career as a shark advocate. Programming during “Shark Week” has also become less alarmist since its early days. Effective nonprofits have been formed to help protect sharks locally and globally. Legislators have taken action to try and curb the atrocity of shark finning, such as California lawmakers forbidding the importation of shark fins in our state.

I’ve been surfing at El Porto in the South Bay during what I call “baby white shark season” – the time when newborns and juveniles are migrating. I’ve seen juvenile sharks in the lineup and they want nothing to do with surfers. They’re looking for one of their favorite food, stingrays. Young-of-the-year, or infant great white sharks, are born at around 4 feet long. They’re not bullies and don’t try to pick on anything their size or larger (aka humans).

Even 18-foot great whites don’t want to eat humans. We simply aren’t their food. They’re actually picky eaters and prefer the dense fat of seals and sea lions. There is no such thing as a shark “attack” – no great white is out to deliberately stalk and target human beings with some kind of premeditation or vengeance. In the extremely rare case of a shark encounter, it’s usually the case that a splashing swimmer or surfer is mistaken for a shark’s normal prey – a distressed animal.

To underscore how rare it is for someone to be seriously harmed by a shark in the ocean, you may want to remember some of these factoids. More people die each year from eating hot dogs than by shark bites – by far! You are 25 times more likely to be killed by a random strike of lightning than by a shark encounter.

What can you do to help these 400-million-year-old species?

Become a shark ambassador and educate yourself. Speak up for shark-friendly protections. Come visit Heal the Bay’s Aquarium and see our shark nursery and learn why we need to safeguard these special animals.

Sharks are essentially dinosaurs that have survived mass extinctions, but now face such great pressure from the human population that they may not survive for much longer. Whether or not you have a fear of these animals, you need to be concerned about their survival because their survival mirrors the health and biodiversity in our precious seas.

A swell shark lays eggs at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium.

Want to get an up-close view or our local sharks? Come down to the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium for our Shark Sunday programs

 



We are lucky to live in sunny Los Angeles where millions of tourists and locals converge along the lovely shores of the Santa Monica Bay to enjoy paradise. It’s a mixed bag on the beach, where hordes of visitors come to bathe and sun themselves. Why? Well, they know just how good we have it.

Yep, they want a piece of the Angeleno culture, and the beach, and our Bay. If you haven’t been out to the beach yet, well may I suggest you hop on the Metro, or your bike, or drive down for a visit. You’re not going to regret it, especially since we have so much happening underwater too. On your next visit to the beach you may be lucky enough to encounter a local that most people miss altogether.

Sharks are swimming along the shores of this Bay and they are swimming alongside you and those fine visitors that come to live the California dream. In fact, there are more than 20 different species of sharks1 that inhabit or visit these waters. One of my favorites sharks to see in the summertime is the leopard shark. An elegant fish, the leopard shark is gray with spots and saddle-bars, usually reaching a length of five feet or so. They like to school with their kin and other sharks like smooth greyhounds, eating small fish, octopus and crustaceans along the shallows.

A leopard shark swims through kelp.

Another favorite is the horn shark. You might see these sharks if you are snorkeling around the rocky shores of Point Dume or off of Palos Verdes. At three and a half feet long, this squat nosed fish has two pokey spines (not venomous) at each dorsal fin – an adaptation for protection. Since they hatch from an egg, measuring a mere six inches, those spiny horns protect this cute little shark from halibut and other marine predators. To be honest, they are so cute that sometimes when I see them diving, I cannot resist reaching out and giving them a kiss for good luck. Another local favorite is the swell shark, a small shark that protects itself by swallowing an enormous amount of water to protect itself from being swallowed – like a swimming watermelon! Their eggs are sometimes found washed on shore but if you want to get a close-up look, I invite you to visit Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. The Aquarium has several eggs on display where you can witness the tiny embryos growing into tiny shark pups.

A horn shark swims along the ocean floor. Photo by Scott Gietler.

One of my favorite sea animals to see is the white shark, lovingly known as “the Landlord.” I have been lucky enough to swim with and surf with a few small white sharks and it seems like each year we are seeing more and more of them. Why are there white sharks in SoCal and why so many? Well, we are probably witnessing something really special because the coast of southern California is like a nursery. These white sharks are here because food is available and they like to eat small fish, like stingrays. We have been working hard to protect white sharks and maybe this is the positive result of all of our conservation efforts. Let’s hope so because this fish is a very important indicator of how well our oceans are faring. As a top predator, we expect that their recovery is indicative of an improving food web and ecosystem. It is still early to be absolutely sure but I do hope that we continue to see improvements in their population and in the health of our fisheries.

I am proud to work for Heal the Bay because I know that the work we have done over the past three decades has improved the life of our local sharks and is helping to restore and protect our unique and fragile ecosystem. We started our work in the 1980s by improving water quality in our watersheds and our Bay. That work continues daily, and we have expanded healing efforts by supporting and ushering in a network of Marine Protect Areas (MPAs) all along our coast. MPAs function like underwater parks, where marine life can live free from fishing pressure, promoting more growth, reproduction and species diversity.

We’ve worked alongside many of our colleagues and communities to pass a statewide ban on the possession and sale of shark fins. Shark finning is a cruel and destructive practice that is decimating shark populations worldwide. At our Aquarium, we teach tens of thousands of students and visitors about sharks, debunking the myths and providing the facts so that everyone can do their part to help sharks.

We still have a great deal of work to do. We need to keep eliminating plastics and other pollution from our ocean, we need to continue to educate our communities on how to be healthy in order to keep our seas and beaches healthy and we need to continue our love affair with nature. All this starts with you. Join us at Heal the Bay as a volunteer or a member, and join us in the fight to protect our environment.

You, your family and friends need a good day at the beach. If you’re lucky, maybe you will see a shark. Regardless, you live in paradise and it is right outside your door. I hope to see you out there. Even if you can’t make it into the water, you can still visit us at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium!

1http://content.cdlib.org/view?docId=kt938nb3cq&&doc.view=entire_text



Update: The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has issued a reminder that White Sharks are a protected species under both state and federal fisheries laws and regulations.

An increase in shark sightings in Southern California – and even some beach closures – have raised long-standing concerns among many ocean users. Here staff scientist Dana Murray Roeber separates fact from fiction.

Why are we seeing reports of white sharks in the Bay?

Santa Monica Bay is home to dozens of species of sharks and rays. Many of them are small, like the swell shark and horn shark, and live in kelp forests and rocky reefs. Juvenile great white sharks are seasonal residents of Southern California’s coastal waters, likely congregating in Santa Monica Bay due to a combination of abundant prey and warm water as summer comes. White sharks are frequently spotted by boaters, pier-goers, surfers and paddlers – especially between the surf spot El Porto and the Manhattan Beach Pier. Juvenile white sharks, measuring up to 10 feet long, prey mostly on bottom fishes such as halibut, small rays and other smaller sharks. Progress to protect marine species has advanced over the past 50 years, including protections for marine mammals, an important food source for adult white sharks. These protections have likely led to a healthier and growing population of white sharks and marine mammals alike, which is a good sign for our oceans.

Is it a good or bad thing there are so many of them in the water?

Sharks are at the top of the food chain in virtually every part of every ocean. They keep populations of other fish healthy and ecosystems in balance. In addition, a number of scientific studies demonstrate that the depletion of sharks can result in the loss of commercially important fish and shellfish species further down the food chain, including key fisheries such as tuna.

Where are they coming from and where are they going?

White sharks usually migrate south in the winter when California’s coastal waters drop below 60 degrees. However, our local ocean waters stayed warmer in 2014-16 due to El Niño-like conditions and climate change. Again this winter, it is believed that most of the juvenile white sharks didn’t leave Southern California.

What are the popular spots from them in So Cal?

White sharks are congregating in shallow waters off Huntington Beach, San Onofre, Long Beach, Santa Monica Bay and Ventura.

What are the real dangers to humans?

There is always a risk when entering the habitat of a large predator – whether in the ocean, or the African savanna, or Kodiak Island. Poor water quality, powerful waves, strong currents and stingrays pose a greater threat to local ocean-goers than sharks.

How can I avoid sharks in the sea?

According to the Department of Fish and Wildlife, there have only been 13 fatal white shark attacks in California since the 1920s. Eating a hot dog poses a greater danger to life and limb than any shark. If you’re still concerned, here are some quick tips to avoid run-ins with fins:

  1. Avoid waters with known effluents or sewage.
  2. Avoid areas used by recreational or commercial fishermen.
  3. Avoid areas that show signs of baitfish or fish feeding activity; diving seabirds are a good indicator of fish activity.
  4. Do not provoke or harass a shark if you see one!

What should you do and what shouldn’t you do if you think you see a shark?

First, assess the risk. If you see as small horn shark or thornback ray, it is safe to swim in the area. But keep your distance from the animal. If a larger shark is spotted, it is best to evacuate the water calmly, trying to keep an eye on the animal. Do not provoke or harass the shark. Report your shark sighting, with as much detail possible, to local lifeguards. If you or a companion are one of the very, very few people each year bitten by a shark, experts advise a proactive response. Hitting a shark on the nose, ideally with an inanimate object, usually results in the shark temporarily curtailing its attack.

Why are many species of sharks protected?

Despite popular perceptions of sharks being invincible, shark populations around the world are declining due to overfishing, habitat destruction and other human activities. It is estimated that over 100 million sharks are killed worldwide each year. Of the 350 or so species of sharks, 79 are imperiled according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. There are several important spots for Northeastern Pacific white sharks in California, yet they are vulnerable to ongoing threats, such as incidental catch, pollution and other issues along our coast. White shark numbers in the Northeastern Pacific are unknown but are thought to be low, ranging from hundreds to thousands of individuals. They’re protected in many places where they live, including California, Australia and South Africa. It is illegal to hunt, pursue, catch or kill a great white shark in California, with anyone caught causing harm liable to criminal prosecution.

Can I fish for white sharks in California?

Federal regulations implemented in 2004 prohibit white shark retention in California, requiring their immediate release if caught. Additionally, in 1994, white sharks received special protected status in California State law, which prohibits take of white sharks except by special permit and some commercial incidental take allowances. State of California regulations also protect white sharks from recreational fishing. Under these protections, it is illegal to fish for or pursue white sharks, and they must be released immediately if caught inadvertently while fishing for other species.



Sept. 30, 2016 — This Saturday, October 1, marks the opening weekend of the recreational lobster fishing season in California, officially beginning at 12:01 a.m. This is one of the busiest weekends on the water in Southern California, and it’s important that people stay safe and know the rules. So, here’s Heal the Bay’s cheat sheet to the recreational lobster regulations.

On the resource side, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife recently adopted California’s spiny lobster fishery management plan (FMP) to ensure that the fishery is sustainable for both the commercial and recreational sectors, while keeping the Southern California lobster population healthy and thriving. New regulations associated with the FMP won’t take effect until next year’s 2017/2018 lobster season. Heal the Bay participated as the environmental stakeholder on the advisory committee for the management plan.

Spiny lobster play an important role in our kelp forest and rocky reef systems, keeping things balanced by feeding on sea urchins, mussels, and other invertebrates. And, it’s not just people that enjoy rich, sweet taste of lobster, California sheephead, cabezon, horn sharks, and other animals also eat lobster. The good news is that lobster populations are generally doing pretty well in Southern California, especially with the implementation of marine protected areas in 2012.

There has been a commercial fishery in California for spiny lobster since the late 1800s, and now California’s lobster fishery is consistently one of the top five in the state. It is almost entirely based in Southern California. The commercial fishery season typically opens about 5 days after the start of the recreational lobster season.

Because lobster are most active at night, recreational fishing also largely occurs in the dark. Conflicts between boats, divers, and hoop-netters are not uncommon during opening weekend. Here are a few tips to stay safe while lobster fishing, especially during the busy opening weekend:

  • Never dive alone. Always dive with a buddy, and keep him or her close. Divers who are dozens of feet apart may not be quick enough to respond in an emergency situation. When free-diving, one buddy should remain on the surface while the other dives in case of a shallow water blackout situation.
  • Don’t dive in areas you are unfamiliar with. If you’d like to try a new spot, check it out in the day first to familiarize yourself before heading out at night.
  • Watch the weather and ocean conditions. Winds and surge can threaten boats and divers, especially near rocky areas and close to shore.
  • If you are setting hoop-nets, be aware of your line. The polypropylene line can get tangled in your boat prop if you are not careful and may disable your boat.
  • Keep a back-up flashlight or headlamp aboard your boat. Divers should also carry a back-up dive light.
  • As a diver or boater, avoid encroaching on boats that have staked out a spot.
  • Inform someone at home of your dive plan or boat plan before you head out on the water.
  • When driving your boat at night, watch the water closely for lights and bubbles from submerged divers and avoid those areas. If you end up too close to divers, put your boat into neutral until you pass them to avoid an unsafe encounter.

And, here’s a recap of the CA Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW) recreational lobster fishing regulations. Check the DFW website or sport-fishing guide for detailed regulations:

  • All recreational lobster fishermen 16 years old and older must have a valid sport fishing license.
  • All recreational lobster fishermen (regardless of age) must have a spiny lobster report card in their possession while fishing for lobster or assisting in fishing for lobster. Report cards must be reported online at wildlife.ca.gov/reportcards by April 30, following the close of lobster season.
  • A $21.60 non-return fee will be charged when purchasing a spiny lobster report card if the previous year’s report card is not returned or reported by the April 30 deadline. To avoid the fee, you may either return or report your card by the deadline, or skip one lobster fishing season. After skipping one season, you can purchase a spiny lobster report card the following season at no extra cost.
  • The recreational catch limit is seven lobster, and no more than one daily bag limit of seven can be taken or possessed at any time. (You cannot have more than seven lobster per angler at home at any given time).
  • Minimum size limit is 3.25 inch carapace length (measuring from the rear of the eye socket between the horns to the back of the body shell, or carapace). You must carry a lobster gauge to accurately measure catch. All undersize lobster must be released immediately after measurement.
  • Do not tail your lobster. Separating the tail from the head makes it impossible to determine whether the lobster is legal size or not, so the lobster must be landed whole.
  • Open lobster recreation season runs from the Saturday before the first Wednesday in October, through the first Wednesday after March 15. The 2016-2017 season runs from October 1, 2016 – March 22, 2017.
  • Lobster can only be taken by hand or hoop net, and recreational fishermen are limited to no more than five hoop nets/person and vessels may not carry more than 10 hoop nets. When fishing from land, fishermen are limited to two hoop nets.
  • Interference with commercial traps or recreational hoop nets is prohibited.

Both commercial and recreational fishing are part of California’s coastal culture. And, charismatic lobster are also a favorite species to spot for non-consumptive divers, making great photo subjects as well. Be safe and have fun this lobster season!

More information is available on the Department of Fish and Wildlife website and through this tip-card.

Spiny lobsters are most active night, posing some challenges for divers.



May 6, 2016 — With summer just around the corner, our staff experts offer ten tips on how to make your next stay at the beach as safe as possible. From minor annoyances like sunburns to major dangers such as bacterial pollution, we’ve got you covered. If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to contact us. We also welcome any suggestions for this list!

Bacterial pollution can come from storm drains.BACTERIAL POLLUTION

The good news is that water quality at local beaches continues to improve, with 95% of L.A. County beaches receiving an A or B grade in the summer in our last annual report – but bacteria polluted hot spots remain. We advise you to stay at least 100 yards from beach storm drains and creek/river mouths (about the size of a football field). And don’t forget to check the Beach Report Card for the latest grades! They can help you make a decision about which spots are best for you and your family.

 

Be wary of sneaker waves!BIG SURF

Summer brings south swells to Santa Monica Bay, which can trigger pounding surf and very dangerous rip currents at local beaches. If the surf looks dangerous to you or your family, it probably is, so play it safe and stay close to shore. If someone in your party can’t swim, keep them safely away from the water’s’ edge – sneaker waves can grab them. If you have any concerns about the safety of the water, make sure to talk to a lifeguard first. If you are a surfer, admit your limits and don’t put yourself needlessly in danger. One tip for swimming in surf (even on smaller days) is to dive underneath the waves instead of trying to swim through or jump over them.

 

Watch out for rip currents!RIP CURRENTS

If you are caught in a rip current, don’t fight it. Instead, swim parallel to shore for a few yards until you are free from its grip. Then you can safely swim to shore when you reach calmer water. Many people exhaust themselves flailing in place trying to swim directly to shore, necessitating a guard rescue. To identify rips, look for unusual gaps as waves break and create whitewater. The water is usually discolored near the shore and the surface of the sea is unsettled and choppy. The L.A. County lifeguard division has assembled a video that shows how to identify troubled waters.

 

Jellyfish should be avoided both in the water and on the sand!JELLYFISH

Some species of jellyfish in the Bay can ruin a day at the beach. Jellies float through the ocean carried by currents, so they don’t really seek human contact. When swimmers do bump into them, venom stored in sacs on their wavy legs can cause significant irritation. Wearing a long-sleeve rash guard may offer protection. If you are stung, an application of basic white vinegar can help denature the toxins released by the animals. And don’t let your kids play with dead jellyfish on the shore – they can still sting!

 

Be careful not to step on stingrays!STINGRAYS

Stingrays are actually members of the shark family, and are attracted to the warm shallows of the Bay during summer. If you step on or get hit by the barb of a stingray the animal will pump venom into the wound, much like a bee.  The sting is highly painful and the only relief comes from soaking your foot in very hot water to disperse the toxins. Doing the stingray shuffle – sliding your feet on the ocean floor as if on skis – is the best way to shoo away potential dangers.

 

White sharks, though uncommon, have been spotted in the bay.SHARKS

Yes, there are white sharks in the Bay. No, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever see one or be bothered by them. Most of the whites spotted in our waters recently have been smaller juveniles swimming in the South Bay, feeding on bottom fish not mammals. There have only been 13 fatal white shark encounters in all California since the 1920s, so statistically eating a hot dog is more dangerous than taking a swim in the ocean! It’s advisable to avoid swimming in waters used by fishermen, however.

 

Always wear sunscreen, even on cloudy days!SUNBURN

Don’t be fooled by hazy days at the beach. Some of the worst sunburns come on overcast days, when beachgoers are lulled into a false sense of security. Harmful UV rays have no problem penetrating hazy cloud cover and wreaking havoc during the summer, when the sun’s rays are closest to earth. It’s also a good idea to put on sunblock at home – applying sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure helps it bind to your skin, plus you are less likely to forget with the distractions of the shoreline. And super-high SPF sunscreen isn’t a must – SPF 30 blocks 97% of harmful rays. Don’t forget to reapply every few hours!

 

Algal blooms cause red tides.RED TIDE

Algal blooms that pop up in the Bay during warmer months turn the normal blue-gray color of the sea to rust or mossy green tints. The water isn’t polluted – it’s just filled with millions of phytoplankton. Some species can produce toxins that can harm local marine life or poison shellfish (thus the advice to avoid mussels and clams during summer!). While not toxic to humans, some people complain of eye and skin irritation from swimming in local waters with algal blooms. The water can also take on a fishy smell due to the dense phytoplankton. Our advice if you see a bloom? Pick a different swim spot.

 

Don't step on tar balls!TARBALLS

We’ve all seen black sticky clumps of oil on the beach. These blobs are usually from natural oil seeps that wash onshore as a result of geological activity and shifts on the seafloor. On average, about 420 gallons of oil from local seeps reach the sea surface daily in Santa Monica Bay. While they are natural, they can be a pain when stepped on. The best way to remove beach tar from the bottoms of your feet is to rub a little olive oil on them – skip the toxic gasoline or other solvents.

 

Make sure your catch is safe to eat!EATING LOCAL FISH

Several areas off our coastline continue to be plagued by high levels of DDT and PCBs. These chemicals, a result of industrial dumping in the post-war years, have unfortunately made their way into the local food chain. So experts say that certain local fish shouldn’t be eaten at all, such as white croaker, barred sand bass, black croaker, topsmelt and barracuda. To be safe, it’s advisable to only eat the skinless filet of other species caught locally just once a week.

 

Don't forget to bring your bicycle lock!PETTY CRIME

Thieves often prey on unsuspecting beachgoers who leave valuables unattended. Lifeguards suggest leaving belongings close to the tower. As a precaution, bring as few items as possible onto the sand. Conceal personal electronics and car keys in a sports bottle or old sock. Be particularly cautious about leaving valuables on remote stretches of PCH up north, where thieves (targeting cars or abandoned beach belongings) can operate with little scrutiny. And never leave a bike unlocked on a path or boardwalk – not even for a minute!



From minor annoyances to major dangers, we offer some tips on how to stay safe at the beach

BACTERIAL POLLUTION

The good news is that water quality at local beaches continues to improve, with 95% of L.A. County beaches receiving an A or B grade in the summer in our last annual report. But bacteria-polluted hot spots remain — especially enclosed “mothers” beaches near marinas and harbors. The best advice is to stay at least 100 yards from beach storm drains and creek/river mouths (think the size of a football field). And check the Beach Report Card on our website for the latest grades. They can help you make a decision about which spots are the best for you and your family.

RED TIDE

Algal blooms that pop up in the Bay during warmer months sometimes turn the normal blue-gray color of the sea to rust or mossy green tints. The water isn’t polluted – it’s just filled with millions of phytoplankton. Some species can produce toxins like domoic acid that can harm local marine life or poison shellfish (thus the advice to avoid eating California mussels and clams during summer blooms!). While not toxic to humans, some people complain of eye and skin irritation from swimming in local waters with algal blooms. The water can also take on a fishy smell due to the dense phytoplankton.  Our advice if you see a bloom? Pick a different swim spot.

BIG SURF

Summer brings south swells to Santa Monica Bay, which can trigger pounding surf and very dangerous rip currents at local beaches. If the surf looks dangerous to you or your family, it probably is. Play it safe, know your limits, and swim near a lifeguard stand close to shore. If someone in your party can’t swim, keep them safely away from the water’s’ edge – sneaker waves can grab them. Always talk to a lifeguard before going into the water if you have concerns. If you are a surfer, admit your limits and don’t put yourself needlessly in danger. One tip for swimming in surf (even on smaller days) is to dive underneath the waves instead of trying to swim through or jump over them.

RIP CURRENTS

If you are caught in a rip current, don’t fight it.  Swim parallel to shore for a few yards until you a free from its grip. Then you can safely swim into shore when you reach more calm water.  Many people exhaust themselves flailing in place as they try to swim directly to shore, necessitating a guard rescue. To identify rips, look for unusual gaps as waves break and create whitewater. The L.A. County lifeguard division has assembled a video that shows how to identify troubled waters. The water is usually discolored near the shore and the surface of the sea is unsettled and choppy.

JELLYFISH

Some species of jellyfish in the Bay can ruin a day at the beach. Jellies float through the ocean carried by currents, not intentionally seeking human contact. When swimmers do bump into them, venom stored in sacs on their wavy legs can cause significant irritation. Wearing a long-sleeve rashguard may offer protection. If you are stung, an application of basic white vinegar can help denature the toxins released by the animals. And don’t let your kids play with dead jellyfish on the shore – they can still sting!

STINGRAYS

Stingrays are members of the shark family, and are attracted to the warm, sandy shallows of the Bay during summer. If you step on or get hit by the barb of a stingray the animal will pump venom into the wound, much like a bee.  The sting is highly painful and the only relief comes from soaking your foot in very hot water to disperse the toxins. Doing the stingray shuffle – sliding your feet on the ocean floor as if on skis – is the best way to shoo away potential dangers.

SHARKS

Yes, there are white sharks in the Bay. But it’s highly unlikely that you’ll ever see one or be bothered by any type of shark. Most of the whites spotted in our waters in recent years have been smaller juveniles and pups swimming in the South Bay, feeding on sandy bottom fish, not mammals. In the past 100 years, there have only been 13 fatal white shark encounters in all California, so statistically, eating a hot dog is more dangerous than taking a swim in the ocean. One prudent idea is to avoid swimming in waters used by fishermen.

SUNBURN

Don’t be fooled by hazy days at the beach. Some of the worst sunburns come on overcast days, when beachgoers may be lulled into a false sense of security. Harmful UV rays have no problem penetrating hazy cloud cover and wreaking havoc during the summer, when the sun’s rays are closest to earth. It’s also a good idea to put on sunblock at home – applying sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure helps it bind to your skin, plus you are less likely to forget with the distractions of the shoreline. And super-high SPF sunscreen isn’t a must. SPF 30 blocks 97% of harmful rays. Don’t forget to reapply every two hours, and after swimming, as the sunscreen’s effects don’t last all day.

TARBALLS

We’ve all seen black sticky clumps of oil on the beach. These blobs are usually from natural oil seeps that wash onshore as a result of geological activity and shifts of the seafloor. On average, about 420 gallons of oil from local seeps reach the sea surface daily in Santa Monica Bay. While they are natural, they can be a pain when stepped on. The best way to remove beach tar from the bottoms of your feet is to rub a little olive oil on them. Skip the toxic gasoline or other solvents.

PETTY CRIME

Thieves can prey on unsuspecting beachgoers who leave valuables unattended. Lifeguards suggest leaving belongings as close to the tower as possible. As a precaution, bring as few items as possible onto the sand. Conceal personal electronics and car keys in a sports bottle or old sock in your beach bag. Be particularly cautious about leaving valuables on remote stretches of PCH up north, where thieves (targeting cars or unattended beach belongings) can operate with little scrutiny. And never leave a bike unlocked on a path or boardwalk – not even for a minute!



Local shorelines already impacted by climate change are now bracing for El Niño. The picture may not be pretty, says Heal the Bay’s Dana Murray, but there are things we can do to prepare.

What will El Niño’s footprint be on our beaches this winter? No one can say for sure, but the expected heavy precipitation and storm surges in California this winter will certainly take their toll on our local shorelines. Couple that with already rising sea levels due to climate change and the outcome could be seriously destructive and dangerous for coastal life.

Based upon historic El Niño events like 1982-83 and 1997-98, much of Southern California’s beach sand may disappear, coastal bluffs will suffer serious erosion, and some homes and businesses will flood. The suite of impacts associated with both El Niño and climate change is also a serious stressor to ocean life.

It’s important to note that El Niño is not climate change. Rather, it’s a natural cycle on Earth that occurs every 7-10 years. What remains to be seen is if our coastal ecosystems can recover and survive climate change-intensified El Niño events.

This makes strong coastal and ocean policies even more important, and Heal the Bay staff are busy advocating for such management measures. By creating marine protected areas and reducing the ocean stressors that we can control, such as pollution, inappropriate coastal development and overfishing, we are helping to buffer coastal and ocean environments from harm associated with strong El Niño events.

The eastern tropical Pacific typically averages about 10°F cooler than the western Pacific, making it more susceptible to heat-induced temperature increases, as well as creating conditions ripe for global warming to usher in Godzilla El Niños.

Scientists predict that super or “Godzilla” El Niño events will double in frequency due to climate change. This is not to say that we will have more El Niños, but rather, the chances of having extreme El Niños doubles from one every 20 years in the previous century to one every 10 years in the 21st century.

Although ocean temperatures are the common measure to evaluate El Niño intensity, sea level heights also provide an important glimpse into the strength of an El Niño. In some areas of the Pacific, particularly along the eastern side, sea levels actually rise during an El Niño. Currents displace the water along the equator, and warmer waters expand, which results in higher sea levels in the eastern Pacific and lower levels in the western Pacific. It’s important to remember that a rise of just a few inches in sea-level height can contribute to El Niño impacts.

Marine Life Impacts

During an El Niño, marine life has to contend with stress due to extreme fluctuations in sea level, as well as warming ocean temperatures and ocean acidification due to climate change. In the tropical western Pacific, climate change will more than double the likelihood of extreme changes in sea levels that could harm coral reefs. Extreme sea level drops in the western Pacific will also last longer, putting coral under even more stress. During the 1997-98 El Niño, sea levels dropped up to a foot in the western Pacific, leaving coral reefs high and dry. 2015’s El Niño has already caused the sea level to drop seven inches in the western tropical Pacific Ocean.

Back in California, El Niño also quashes the usual upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich seawater along our coastline. The cold California current supports our oceanic food chain: from plankton and fish species, to kelp forests and marine mammals. Fish have responded to warming ocean temperatures this year by migrating north or out to sea in search of cooler waters. Consequently, sea lions have had to venture further from their young to look for those fish as their primary food source. This has had a cascading effect on California sea lion populations, leading to an unusual mortality event for sea lions this year. Following the warm ocean water, an influx of southern, more tropical marine life have moved up along California this year, such as whale sharks, pelagic red crabs, and hammerhead sharks.

Riding the warm ocean currents across the Pacific and Indian Oceans, the only sea snake that ventures completely out to sea has been spotted in Southern California waters and beaches as far north as Oxnard for the first time in 30 years. The Yellow-bellied Sea Snake has some of the most poisonous venom in the world, and is a descendant from Asian cobras and Australian tiger snakes. This sea snake is a harbinger of El Niño–it typically lives in warm tropical waters. The last time the yellow-bellied snake was spotted in California was in the early 1980’s during an El Niño. Scientists are calling for the public’s help to confirm occurrences of these sea snakes in California and your sighting could be published in scientific journals. A recent sighting took place in the Silver Strand beach area in Oxnard. As the yellow-bellied sea snake is highly venomous, the public should not handle it. Instead, take photos, note the exact location, and report any sightings in California to iNaturalist and Herp Mapper.

Shoreline Impacts

Storm Surge Beach HouseEl Niño-caused sea level rise, coupled with sea levels rising from ice sheet melt associated with climate change, is projected to lead to more coastal flooding, shrinking beaches, and shoreline erosion. This year’s El Niño has western U.S. cities planning for coastal flooding. Higher sea levels, high tides and storm surges that force waves well past their usual reach pose very real threats. And when these forces coincide, such as during an El Niño, significant inundation can lay siege to coastal communities, freshwater supplies, wastewater treatment plants, power plants, and other infrastructure — not to mention public health and the environment.

Locally we have several communities that are particularly susceptible to coastal flooding and erosion (photo on right shows home on Malibu beach). Venice Beach, San Pedro, and Wilmington are some of the most vulnerable local communities to flooding, according to a USC Sea Grant study examining sea level rise impacts for coastal communities in the City of Los Angeles.

Sea level rise in Los Angeles may reach 5.6 feet by 2100, which may be further exacerbated by El Niño storm events, high tides, and storm surge – especially when big wave events occur at or near seasonal peak high tides, or King Tides.

Some sandy beaches in Malibu are already eroding away with each wave that crashes on armored sea walls. Beach parking lots and playgrounds in Huntington Beach become inundated after a winter storm, as storm surges push seawater deeper into the built environment.

At Heal the Bay, we’re committed to advocating for environmentally sound climate change adaptation methods through participating in local stakeholder groups such as Adapt-LA, analyzing and commenting on proposed plans and policies, and educating the public about the coastal threats associated with climate change. We want to help everyday people understand how they can support sound solutions that protect our critical natural resources.

It’s imperative that coastal communities invest in environmentally sound adaptation solutions to be resilient in the face of climate change, especially during an El Niño year. The environmental, economic, and social impacts of sea level rise in California emphasize the importance of addressing and planning.

Preparing for El Niño and climate change requires time, money, and planning, but by investing in the long-term health of our coastal communities, we can foster resilience to coastal climate change. Protecting and restoring marine and natural coastal areas like wetlands, kelp forests, and sand dunes will leave both us and the environment better prepared and protected as we brace for the impact “Godzilla” El Niño and climate change traipsing down our beaches this winter.



August 11, 2015 — Communications Manager Nick Colin stepped away from social media one morning for an unforgettable boat trip to Palos Verdes.

I’ll never take seaweed for granted again.

This is what I repeated to myself as I held on to the gunnels of our speeding, swell-hopping cruiser. It was 7 a.m. when we left Redondo Beach’s King Harbor, bound for Palos Verdes to collect seaweed for the Aquarium. Before, I had assumed our seaweed rations were replenished by mail or procured at a local seaweed shop. Turns out, one must embark on a lusty maritime expedition every week to feed the fishies.

At the helm: two salty cubanos: José Bacallao, our longtime Aquarium operations manager, and Lazaro Serrano, his fellow aquarist. They were born with sea legs, and thus had no problem singing and dancing to a medley of top 40 hits while also captaining and navigating. I wanted to join in, but didn’t want to go overboard…literally.

After about an hour, we reached a site known for top-shelf aquarium fare like Macrocystis (kelp), Egregia and Plocamium. Laz dropped anchor and we began suiting up. Not only was the water wintry at 58 degrees, but José cheerfully announced that the surge was strong and underwater visibility was next to nil. I hoped my wetsuit was thick enough to conceal my pounding heart. I thought fondly of my cubicle.

José and Laz slipped into the water with a casualness I’d never known; I had to be coaxed in like a reluctant toddler. I managed a clumsy back-roll into the churning waves and gave the requisite “I’m ok” signal–which was only partly true.

Once I got my bearings, I began looking. Up at the golden cliffs of Palos Verdes, down into the emerald-turquoise depths, around at the vivid blue wildness. I found myself in a Whitmanesque rapture, making peace with sharks and guessing the Pantone color of the waves. But while I dithered, José and Laz had already set to work harvesting seaweed with an automatic elegance. I snapped out of my reverie and dog-paddled fast through thick snarls of kelp to catch up.

Breathe, dive, cut, surface. Repeat until exhausted. I thought I would take a stab at it, but came up empty-handed. Not 35 pushups hard, but I’m really not sure my body can do this hard. I resigned myself to documenting José and Laz’s labor as best as I could.

Once they’d collected about 20 lbs. of seaweed (and I’d snapped about 100 blurry GoPro photos) we lumbered back aboard. José was satisfied with the haul and charted a course for home. We idled over a particularly lush kelp forest, dragging our nets along the surface to collect tiny mysid shrimp–a special treat for aquarium omnivores. José said he’d never netted so many before and attributed the bounty to my good shrimping juju. I swelled with pride.

The cruise back to Redondo felt quicker than the journey out. I peeled off my wetsuit and air-dried on the deck, tracing our wake until it disappeared into the waves.

Nick Colin diving for seaweed at Palos VerdesJosé and Laz ready to collect seaweed at Palos VerdesJose with plocamium

Jose diving for seaweed at Palos VerdesLaz with mysid shrimp for the aquariumThe S.S. Dorothy anchored at Palos Verdes

Clockwise from top left: Author Nick bobbing blissed-outedly; Laz and José; José with a handful of Plocamium; the S.S. Dorothy anchored off Palos Verdes; Laz with a netful of mini mysid shrimp; José surfacing after a dive for kelp.



Marketing/Communications Intern Darrin Moret got a behind-the-scenes peek at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium’s newest exhibit. An LMU class of ’13 alumnus, Darrin is a writer and enjoys the beach, surfing and travel. 

Close-up of moon jelly at Santa Monica Pier Aquarium

There’s more to see than what meets the eye at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium these days. It’s the little guys that are the stars of the show at “Catch of the Day”—a refreshing new exhibit utilizing cutting-edge digital imaging technology to shine the spotlight on some of the Bay’s smallest critters. Tanks filled with sea stars, snails, hermit crabs and California killifish now await visitors along with the Aquarium’s more established eel, ray and shark residents.   

This dynamic exhibit highlights species of local marine life often overlooked in traditional aquarium displays, using a high-definition digital microscope camera and monitor to allow patrons to view these creatures at a level of detail not possible with the naked eye. “You really get a close look at little things most people miss,” says José Bacallao, the exhibit’s designer and the Aquarium’s Senior Aquarist and Operations Manager.

Aquarist Akino Higa shows off the new exhibit at Santa Monica Pier Aquarium

While small, many of the species featured in the exhibit form an integral part of the food web in the local marine ecosystem. Some of the fish that may be found in the tanks, including juvenile black surfperch, are important gamefish that support a thriving recreational fishery and are commonly caught by anglers off the Santa Monica Pier.  

Nestled under the Pier’s wooden deck and beneath the historic carousel, the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium could easily be missed by anyone visiting the more conspicuous attractions topside. However, for those who make it inside, this aquarium provides a unique opportunity to learn more about the marine ecosystem that thrives just offshore. Patrons young and old take delight in getting an up-close look at horn sharks in an open-top tank, initiating staring contests with moray eels and touching (gently, of course) a variety of invertebrate species in the touch tank. In an effort to keep their exhibits fresh and exciting for visitors, José and his team periodically update the tanks with newly collected specimens for viewing.      

Touch tank sea stars at Santa Monica Pier AquariumWhile it may be the fish that draw most of the attention, it is the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium’s dedicated team of aquarists and volunteers that really make this place special. In addition to maintaining exhibits and informing visitors about marine life, they share a passion for helping protect the ocean by stressing the importance of environmental stewardship. José says his love for working with animals and his staff at the Aquarium is the most exciting thing about his job, his enthusiasm for which is apparent to anyone in his presence.  

 

For a closer look at the “Catch of the Day” and other exhibits, drop by the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium Tuesdays through Fridays from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m., and weekends from 12:30 to 5:00 p.m. Admission is free for kids 12 and under and $5 for visitors 13 and older. In 2015, the first Wednesday of every month is free, thanks to the generous sponsorship of Wells Fargo.



Frankie Orrala, our Angler Outreach Program Manager, and staff scientist Dana Murray report on Heal the Bay’s efforts to educate anglers at local piers about sustainable fishing techniques and protecting sharks.

Jan. 27, 2015 — Fresh, salty air whips our faces as we approach a middle-aged man angling on Venice Pier. His eyes are on the water as he reels in his catch. The excitement heats up, as the man uses all his strength and skill to haul in what is turning out to be a big fish.

Encouraging remarks in both Spanish and English come from surrounding anglers on the pier: “Puedes hacerlo!” “It’s so strong!” “You’ve got it!” Helpful hands from other anglers assist the man in catching his 18-inch long kelp bass after a five-minute tussle. If this had been a halibut, it could take 10 minutes to land a good-sized legal catch, and up to 20 minutes to land a prized thresher shark. But most of the time when pier anglers do catch a shark, they throw the animal back in the ocean, followed by cheers from the gathering crowd.

“Oh, that’s a nice fish!” we say as we congratulate the angler on his catch. “What are you going to do with it?” He doesn’t skip a beat, saying with a smile ear-to-ear, “Gracias! I will feed my family with this fish tonight, and share some with my friends.” The subsistence angling community is commonly generous with good catches, parceling out pieces of a large fish to buddies on the pier, or handing over several bonita or mackerel to others who haven’t been so lucky that day.

Angling on Venice Pier

After the white shark bite incident in Manhattan Beach last summer, Heal the Bay decided to build upon our existing Pier Angler Outreach Program, by creating a pilot program to educate pier anglers of Santa Monica Bay about local shark populations and sustainable fishing techniques. Program partners and funders of the pilot project stepped up, including the City of Manhattan Beach, City of Santa Monica, County of Los Angeles, City of Hermosa Beach, and the City of Redondo Beach.

For several months this past fall, our Shark Ambassadors approached anglers, much like in the scene above, to educate fishermen and collect survey information. Through our outreach, we shared newly developed educational materials focused on responsible fishing techniques, how to avoid catching large sharks and what to do if a shark is caught. Through survey questions, we also collected information on demographics, targeted species, caught species and other recreational activities at all Santa Monica Bay piers.

Besides fishing, our study also looked at many other recreational activities that occur near the piers. According to our research, Manhattan, Hermosa and Venice piers all have a high potential for interaction among anglers, surfers and swimmers. While studying piers from September to December 2014, we found that Venice Pier attracts the most anglers to fish in our Bay, followed by Santa Monica and Redondo Beach Piers. Some 86% of the people we talked to identified themselves as subsistence anglers and 14% as sport anglers. Municipal piers are popular for subsistence anglers who fish to feed themselves and their families. This is because piers are easily accessible and are one of the only places in California where people do not need a fishing license, which makes it more affordable.

We also found that the only piers with sport anglers targeting sharks in our study were on Malibu and Venice Pier. Venice Pier anglers are represented by both subsistence and sport anglers targeting sharks; whereas Malibu Pier’s anglers targeting sharks are entirely sport anglers.

It may be surprising that our outreach team didn’t encounter any sport anglers targeting sharks on the Manhattan Beach Pier, where the issue originated. However, this could be because we did not survey piers at night due to safety, and our data presents the voluntary survey responses as given by the anglers. There may be truly fewer anglers out there targeting white sharks, given the high profile white shark incident. Or perhaps not all anglers disclosed their catches. Regardless, it stands that the incident in Manhattan Beach over the Fourth of July weekend in 2014 is likely a singular incident. And one that we hope we don’t see again in our Bay.

If you want to dive in deeper with the details of this program, please read the results of our Shark Ambassador Program pilot program in this report.

Shark Ambassador ProgramOur Shark Ambassadors talk with an angler at the S.M. Pier.