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Read the article at the San Diego Union Tribune

There's teeth to the shark warnings

By Terry Rodgers 
September 2, 2003 

"Sharks – Really big!" 

Oceanside residents Mike and Janie Brown were heading to the beach at Trail No. 1 at San Onofre State Beach the third weekend in August when they saw those words. 

They were written graffiti-style in ink crayon over an official state parks sign (Warning: Unstable Bluffs) at the top of the beach trail. 

When their children asked about the crude, hand-scrawled warning, Janie Brown told them it was obviously a prank. 

"That's just kids playing around," she assured her offspring. "There's no sharks around here." 

Mike Brown, a 33-year-old seminary student, rolled his eyes, too, before hustling down the beach trail carrying his 7-foot-6 surfboard. 
"I'd just gotten this new board, and I was excited," he recalled. 

The waves were mushy, but trying out a new board is always a magical moment for any surfer. 

As she watched from the beach, Janie saw a rather large gray-black fin in the water near her husband. She was momentarily puzzled by its shape and color. She quickly dismissed it as a dolphin. 

Mike's reverie was broken when surfers nearby shouted at him: "Hey, man, there's a shark near you." 

Alarmed, Brown carefully checked the water around him. 

"I saw this big fin about 10 feet away, and it was cruising right toward me," he remembers. "I spun around and came in." 

Shaken but unharmed, Mike made it to shore and realized how close he'd come to the shark, which had approached him slowly, like a dog wanting a sniff. 

"He was pretty jittery afterward," his wife recalled. 

The next day, after staying overnight at the San Mateo Creek campground, Mike went back to the beach but stayed out of the water. 

Every so often, he and his wife spotted the same dagger-shaped fins they'd seen the day before. It looked as if there were three different sharks cruising the surf line. 

They didn't find out until watching the TV news the next day that the creatures were juvenile great white sharks. Younger white sharks 8 feet or smaller eat fish and are not considered a threat to humans. 

Brown, who has been surfing for 10 years, said he has no qualms about getting back into the water at other surf breaks. 

"I'm just not comfortable going out surfing where there are great white sharks," he said. "There's just no way." 

Juvenile white sharks apparently have been lurking around Trail No. 1 beach for several months, occasionally coming to the surface to inspect surfers. 

State parks officials have posted shark warnings, but have left the beach open. 

Local surfers who frequent Trail No. 1 beach first noticed the sharks approximately nine months ago. They contacted Ralph Collier, a white shark behaviorist, and e-mailed details of the sharks' behavior whenever they spotted the Men in the Gray Suits. 

"The sharks haven't exhibited any aggressive behavior," said Dan Monahan, chief ranger for the Orange Coast District. 

"It's your choice to go in the water or not," he said. "Naturally, some surfers are choosing to go in. These are folks who have surfed there for years and years. And they understand the dangers inherent in the marine environment." 

So far, the sharks' presence has caused a stir in the media but no noticeable change in attendance at San Onofre State Beach. 

Beginning Thursday, 45 of the world's best professional surfers will gather a few miles north at Lower Trestles beach to compete in the Boost Mobile Pro competition. 

Chris Brewster, liaison officer for the U.S. Lifesaving Association, supports the decision by state lifeguards at San Onofre to keep the beaches open but post shark warnings and advise beachgoers verbally. 

"I think sometimes people view the ocean off Southern California as something akin to Disneyland, where all hazards are controlled to the best of the ability of the operators of the amusement park," said Brewster. "In reality, the ocean is a natural environment with all the wonder, beauty and hazards inherent in nature."

- Terry Rodgers

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