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Tuesday, April 29, 2008 | In the days since Friday’s shark attack in Solana Beach, readers of national and international newspapers could be forgiven for conjuring up cinematic images of bearded, half-drunken men loading up rickety fishing boats for a good old shark hunt off the coast of California.
But, as is often the case, the reality is a little less colorful.
For the last three days, helicopters from the United States Coast Guard and the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department have been flying reconnaissance flights up and down the North County coast on the chance they might spot and track the great white shark expected to be the culprit in the attack, which killed 66-year-old Solana Beach resident David Martin.
But the idea that the authorities were somehow engaged in a “shark hunt” was dismissed by local enforcement agencies and experts as entirely inaccurate. There were no reported vigilante shark hunters heading out to Fletcher Cove on a mission to catch the predator, authorities said, and their role for the last few days has been in gathering information, not tracking prey.
“The idea that this was a hunt never even came into play,” said Lt. Jason Shook of the Solana Beach Lifeguards. “It was just that there was a wild beast roaming around and we wanted to know where it was and whether it was near people.”
Shark experts said trying to track a single, migrating animal that swims 24 hours a day is almost impossible anyway.
“It is feasible. You can see great whites from a helicopter, but the likelihood that they’re going to be able to find the shark or even see it is very, very slim,” said Nick Wegner, a researcher on sharks at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.
Helicopters started flying along San Diego’s coastline shortly after the attack, which happened early on Friday morning. The San Diego Sheriff’s Department responded to the call for assistance at 8:15 a.m. said Lt. David McNary, who oversees the regional aerial support program for the Sheriff’s Department.
McNary said the Sheriff’s Department traded off with the Coast Guard, with each agency making flights up and down the coast when it wasn’t responding to an emergency.
Anastasia Devlin, a spokeswoman for the Coast Guard, said the spotters on Coast Guard helicopters are used to looking for small targets in vast areas of ocean, so they were well suited to the task at hand.
“When we’re searching for a person, we’re searching for something the size of a basketball — a human head. So when we’re searching for a fin, it is difficult, but it’s the same technique.”
If they had seen a large shark close to the shore, Devlin said, the Coast Guard spotters would have contacted the local lifeguards and made them aware of the shark’s location.
Wegner said the chances of actually pinpointing the shark that was involved in the attack are so low because sharks are migratory animals that continuously swim. Sharks don’t sleep, he said, and they don’t sit at the bottom of the ocean but are almost always moving.
He said it’s therefore very unlikely that the shark involved would stay in the same area and even more unlikely that the shark would attack a human again. When sharks attack humans, Wegener said, it’s usually a case of mistaken identity and once they realize their mistake, they don’t come back for more.
But though it may be far-fetched to imagine spotters finding the actual shark involved in the attack, the tactic of flying over the area near a shark attack can be very useful to the authorities, said Randy Honebrink, head of education programs for the Hawaii Division of Aquatic Resources in Honolulu.
Honebrink said spotters can look for other indicators that could be attracting sharks to an area, such as dead marine life floating in the water or large groups of seals or other marine mammals that are prey for sharks. He said local governments in Hawaii fly helicopters over beaches after shark attacks before giving the all-clear for swimmers and surfers to re-enter the water.
Honebrink said he envies San Diego for having the resources to fly over the affected area for so long. In Hawaii, he said, such reconnaissance flights are usually fairly short because of a lack of helicopter time available.
“I don’t think what they did was overkill at all,” he said. “I think it was perfectly reasonable, it’s being very safety conscious and very conservative.”
McNary said his department’s techniques evolved throughout Friday as spotters received feedback from lifeguards, the Coast Guard and academics at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The flight crews soon learned that they weren’t just looking for a shark, McNary said, but should be checking for anything unusual such as dead marine life.
“They were looking for all sorts of indicators,” McNary said.
The Sheriff’s Department continues to fly sporadic reconnaissance flights when it has spare flight time, McNary said.
At the Oceanside Harbor, there were no reports of shark fishermen gearing up for a hunt, said Brian Sundberg of the Oceanside Harbor Patrol. Great white sharks are protected under state law, Sundberg said, so he doesn’t expect to see any groups of gung-ho shark hunters any time soon.
And Carl Holt, of Helgren’s Sportfishing in Oceanside, said while he took out his first group of shark fishermen of the year on Saturday night, he doesn’t expect to see too many great whites. The group will be searching for other types of shark, like Mako or thresher shark, Holt said, and if they do see a great white, they’ll leave it alone.
“Last year, I remember one came up to the boat, it was about a 15- or 20-footer,” Holt said. “Those things don’t mess around.”