Something’s not right when you get upset about seeing dolphins in Santa Monica Bay. But that’s exactly what I did during a recent surf session near Tower 26. Shame on me.
A pod of three dolphins frolicked in the surf line, circling and splashing as I waited for a few mushy waves. Suddenly a set came in with some decent shape but I had to hold off paddling as the cetaceans shot toward me.
I was mildly annoyed, but the irritation soon morphed into fear as the animals torpedoed directly underneath me and my board. Dolphins may look like cute Flipper-like creatures on TV or at one of those hideous Sea World-type performances. But in real life, in the wild, they can be downright intimidating. They stretch about 8 feet in length and weight at least 300 pounds. When one starts cruising directly at you in the water, it’s terrifying. You feel like a hapless NBA defender in the paint, the only thing separating LeBron James from a thunderous slam dunk.
I’m a grumpy hack surfer, so I’m used to hating on newbies and boogie-boarders. But cursing at happy dolphins is pretty pathetic. We all should be ecstatic at seeing dolphins returning in such force to the Bay. The presence of these mammals indicates a healthy marine ecosystem.
It’s not unusual for frequent local beachgoers to see dolphins. That wasn’t always the case. In the 1980s, sewage-related pollution and DDT dumps left many dead spots in local waters. Dolphin sightings were few and far between. And many of the poor creatures that called the Bay home suffered from lesions and tumors.
Thankfully, improved water quality has led to a resurgence in our marine life, from brown pelicans to white sharks. Local TV stations recently had a field day about a cluster of juvenile white sharks patrolling near surfers at Sunset Beach in the Palisades. Go to Youtube and search for “white sharks” and “Santa Monica” and you’ll get plenty of results of juveniles circling about. The drone shots make good clickbait, but the reality is that sharks pose virtually no danger.
I’ve even encountered a white shark up-close-and-personal while surfing in the Bay. That may sound frightening at first. But my brush with The Landlord couldn’t have been more uplifting.
My surf buddy Geoff and I bobbed one Saturday morning south of the Hammerland jetty near El Porto. As we thought about women and glasses of beer, a sinewy mass of flesh suddenly shot up from the sea, twisting and glistening in the early morning sun. It was like a mini-missile launched from the depths, spiraling through the ocean surface. Straining briefly for the sky, the fish fell back to the sea with an alarming splash. A 4-to-5-foot juvenile white shark had just breached a mere 20 feet away from us.
I’m accustomed to seeing other kinds of small sharks while surfing. I’ve had to dodge leopard sharks skittering in the clear, warm shallows. Looking for sand crabs, their mouths the size of a quarter, these sharks are completely harmless. But I still get the willies when my feet accidentally bump against their wriggly, squishy bodies.
But white sharks – no matter their size – are a different kettle of fish. When I tell friends about the sighting, many ask why I didn’t get out of the water immediately. Seeing the pup, my mind and heart raced, but I had surprisingly little worry.
At this point of their lives, the great whites scour our sandy bottoms in search of the smaller fish that make up their diet. As they grow, the sharks see their appetite switch to larger marine mammals and they migrate up the central and northern coasts, where more seals and sea lions can be found. Some theorize that any circling and jumping done by the juvenile sharks down here is their way of practicing for the hunt that will soon dominate their lives, like a puppy playing with a soup bone.
Maybe I’m whistling by the graveyard, but the sharks don’t scare me at all. I’m actually more fearful of the dolphins! The great white I saw was about as wide as my thigh. Nonetheless, as my feet dangled in the water for the rest of the session, I couldn’t help but think that my toes might be tempting to my new friend.
It’s a blessing to recreate in an ocean teeming with life, but great whites face tremendous pressure, despite the recent sightings. There are roughly 300-3,000 adult great whites in the Northeastern Pacific, according to varying studies. Regardless of the exact number, pollution, incidental catch by net trawlers and other stressors threaten this critical apex predator. Sharks need our protection, not our irrational fear.
Before summer ends on Sept. 22, try and get in the water. You’d be amazed at what you might encounter.
Matthew King grew up on the beaches of Santa Monica, where his father served as a County lifeguard for 30 years. He sneaks away from his communications and marketing consultancy as often as he can to surf Bay Street and other local breaks.