‘Sharks and the City’: Why Great Whites Are Headed to L.A. — and N.Y.

Mandi Bierly
Deputy Editor, Yahoo Entertainment

Tuesday on Discovery’s Shark Week is all about sharks and the city: At 9 p.m., Sharks and the City: Los Angeles sets out to uncover why a record number of great whites are being sighted in Southern California, while Sharks and the City: New York (10 p.m.), narrated by Chris Noth, explores the reasons the New York Bight could one day become a new great white hot spot. Here’s a preview.

Sharks and the City: Los Angeles

For 30 years, Chris Lowe, director of the CSULB Shark Lab Right, has lived and worked in California. He never thought he’d see the day when he’d be able to go out and tag baby white sharks in his front yard. But he knows the increased numbers that have been amazing for him have also been startling to the public. Sharing the information his team is learning, he hopes, will help change perspectives. “I think it’s a good thing,” he says, “and people always look at you odd when you say that. … This is something that I don’t think many people expected because we hear bad news all the time about the environment, overfishing, and things like that. They’re not used to somebody coming and saying, ‘Guess what. These things are coming back.’ So I think that’s an important part for people to see that conservation can work.”

It’s also important, he believes, for people to see how the science is done and why answers take time. In this hour, the investigation leads him to Guadalupe, Mexico, where a growing seal population is bringing in more great whites. “They’re seeing more and more juveniles than they’ve ever seen before, and that’s an interesting part of the puzzle. Historically, they only have seen big animals out there, that’s typically what you see at these aggregation sites. And when smaller animals start showing up, things are getting a little crowded,” Lowe says. “It’s kind of like going to a barbecue and having it open and seeing who shows up. You start to see people competing for ribs that may be coming out. You see how sharks react around each other in that case. The reality of it is that’s kind of a dangerous place for those younger animals to be, because if you get in some big white shark’s way, there’s a good chance you’re going to get scolded. And a scolding from a big white shark could really be the end.”

As you see in the video above, the team observed how larger, older sharks intimidate the smaller, younger ones with parallel swimming (after sizing one another up, the smaller shark gives way) and gaping (the larger shark repeatedly opens and closes its mouth as a warning). It’s Lowe’s hypothesis that the smaller sharks that can’t compete for food at Guadalupe are the ones heading up to L.A.

“Those 9- and 10-foot size sharks are the ones that they see occasionally out at Guadalupe, and they’re the ones being pushed out. Everybody’s gonna defend their plate full of ribs, and they don’t want these youngsters coming in and trying to steal their food. So those youngsters have to find new places to hunt, and Southern California may be the best place because our marine mammal populations, especially on the offshore islands, have just shot up,” Lowe says. “So if I was a white shark and I was looking for a new barbecue place, Southern California would be it for me.”

While he still needs to tag sharks around the Channel Islands to help confirm his theory, he wants to reiterate this message: “Just because there are more sharks, that doesn’t mean people are at greater risk. What it does remind us is that it’s their home. We’ve spent a lot of time and money bringing them back. We pretty much got rid of all the big predators 50 years ago. And we’re now just starting to get used to how to act around them, whether it be seals, sea lions, dolphins, whales, or sharks, it doesn’t matter — they’re all wild animals. They can all be potentially dangerous. But we have to recognize that we’re kind of guests in their home, and we have to learn how to behave that way.”

His best advice: The safest place to be is at the most popular beach. “The reason why I say that is because it’s rare for people to be bitten at really popular beaches. My best guess is that sharks avoid those places. People are loud or smelly; we chase away all their favorite food,” he says. “If you’re not at a popular beach, the next safest thing to do is stay in a group. Surfers that are bitten are most often by themselves, and if you’re in a small group, that reduces your chances. It you’re an ocean swimmer, swim in a group, swim with friends. Statistically, that’s what the numbers are telling us.”

Sharks and the City: New York

You’ve never seen anyone more excited on Shark Week than marine biologist Craig O’Connell when his camera traps capture footage of a great white taking bait off Montauk, Long Island. “The goal was just to see a white shark, but I knew from doing about five years of research prior to that, that seeing a white shark was a very tough task. I caught one white shark over the span of five years, and so I knew that having to do it while a camera was there would be near impossible,” he says. “The way it works is you look at all the footage at the end of the day. We saw that silhouette of a white shark, and we just lost our mind because of the amount of work that we put in just to get that moment. It was part of something much bigger. To me, that is what the exciting part was —  we proved at last that they’re there, and that they’re there quite frequently. The next step is to continue doing the work and find out why they’re here, what they’re feeding on. We need to learn as much about these animals as possible so we can continue to protect them.”

Sharks seem to have a New York state of mind. #SharkWeek pic.twitter.com/fCMFgmlCUd

— Discovery (@Discovery) July 25, 2017

It’s another conservation success story: the water of the New York Bight, which runs from Montauk to Cape May, N.J., is cleaner, which leads to the presence of more prey, like seals, which have been protected since the ’70s. “I’ve actually lived in New York my whole life, and I’ve never seen a seal until we were filming this episode and we go to this one site and see 20 of them just hanging out. That’s a direct correlation with the fact that we’re protecting these animals,” O’Connell says. He looks at what’s happening in Cape Cod, where a colony of 20,000 seals has brought big white sharks into the area, or in Cape Town, South Africa, which has a famous population of 60,000 around Dyer Island. “I’ve spoke to a lot of seal researchers who’ve said that it’s quite possible that some of the seals can start residing in New York waters over the summer,” he says. “If that’s the case, we could potentially see some of the larger white sharks here too, because that’s what these large white sharks are feeding on. New York isn’t quite at the point where South Africa is at, but it could be one day if we continue to do all the right things.”

For now, it’s white pups that are frequenting the waters. O’Connell identified nine in Montauk, catching one and bringing it on board to tag it (another enthusiastic sequence). What he learned: these young whites are swimming down to Coney Island. “That’s the thing that I think is very intriguing about the whole episode, is that we reveal where these animals are going. They’re going to places where there’s a lot of people going into the water every day, and they’re not bothering the people,” he says. “It’s important that people recognize that if they did go in the water in Montauk, or Coney Island, or Jones Beach, they’ve most likely already been in the water with these animals. And the fact that they came out unscathed should be a direct indication to them that we’re not on these sharks’ menu. We need to respect the fact that it’s the shark’s environment and the fact that the sharks are there is a sign that the environment is getting healthier. So it’s a very good thing. If you get to see one, embrace the sighting. You should feel privileged that you got to see it. Be happy and consider yourself lucky.”

Shark Week continues through July 30 on Discovery.

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