A 35-year-old San Francisco man required medical attention after he was bitten by a great white shark at Gray Whale Cove State Beach on Saturday morning. The harrowing incident resulted in the closure of the beach for a time.

The San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office said the man, later identified as Nemanja Spasojevic, was able to swim back to shore on his own after being bitten in his right leg while snorkeling. Spasojevic told authorities he was bitten by a 6- to 8-foot shark at 9:15 a.m. on Saturday. He received medical aid on the beach and was transported to Stanford Hospital in serious condition, according to the Sheriff’s Office.

Media reports indicate Spasojevic was released from the hospital and was able to walk less than 24 hours after he was bitten.

First-responders from the Sheriff’s Office, Cal Fire, Coastside Fire Protection District, North County Fire Authority and California State Parks answered the call. Authorities closed the beach after the incident.

Most research suggests shark attacks are chance accidents, usually initiated by younger sharks that attempt to find food and mistake the silhouette of a human for prey such as a seal. Based on the reported size, the shark at Gray Whale Cove was likely a juvenile. Mature white sharks can grow to be 17 to 20 feet. Their diet consists primarily of sea lions and other marine mammals. In Northern California, adult white sharks are normally seen during the fall and winter seasons when they return from the middle of the Pacific Ocean to feed at popular marine mammal gathering sites like the Farallon Islands and Año Nuevo State Park.

But it’s not uncommon to have sharks year-round in the waters off California’s coast as younger sharks prefer to hunt in warmer, shallower waters. In California, spring is typically when mature females return to the coast to give birth to pups. Juveniles usually leave the state in the fall for warmer feeding grounds in Mexico before returning northbound in the spring.

The University of Florida and the Florida Museum of Natural History publish yearly reports on shark attacks worldwide through their International Shark Attack File. According to the 2020 report, last year there were 57 unprovoked attacks worldwide. These are defined as incidents with no human provocation. That’s a drop compared with 64 bites in 2019 and 66 in 2018, according to the annual summary.

There were 10 unprovoked fatal encounters worldwide in 2020, an increase from the annual global average of four unprovoked fatal attacks per year. The Florida researchers indicate that surfers and other board sports enthusiasts made up the majority of victims at 61 percent, while swimmers and waders were victims 26 percent of the time.

But while fatal encounters remain rare, the attack at Gray Whale Cove comes as more research indicates white shark populations are trending upwards in California. Chris Lowe, the director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach, believes the population increase is due to a combination of factors, primarily government protection, stable food sources and warmer water temperatures.

Much of the lab’s research examines sharks in Southern California. But Lowe has observed tagged sharks traveling farther up the coastline in search of food as their population grows.

Now, as ocean temperatures rise, so does the territory for younger white sharks. Compared to a few decades ago, much of the California coast is now a viable nursery for sharks, Lowe said.

“We’re now seeing sharks further north than we’re ever seen them, and a lot of that has to do with the fact that the water’s warmer,” he said.

While California’s coastal waters may be increasingly hospitable for sharks, Lowe and many scientists reiterate that the odds of being attacked are still very slim. Even with more people in the ocean fishing, recreating and documenting sharks than ever before, bites are very rare, Lowe said.

“The probability of being bitten is crazy low,” Lowe said. “And the probability of being bitten by a juvenile up where (the victim) was is even lower. But that probability may be changing because the environment’s changing and the population’s growing.”

Lowe’s shark lab has documented hundreds of hours of drone footage of people on Southern California beaches unaware they were in close proximity to sharks. Lowe said based on preliminary analysis of an ongoing study, sharks “just don’t care” about the humans in close proximity to them. Experts advise the best way to reduce the risk of a shark encounter is to stay in a group, stay close to shore, avoid the water around dawn or dusk, steer clear of schools of fish, and not to wear reflective jewelry. If you do see one while in the water, don’t splash or panic and try to calmly distance yourself from the shark.

“If you think about the number of people who are bitten in the ocean relative to the number of people who spend time there, when bites occur they’re so rare that the best we can figure is some shark made a mistake,” Lowe said. “If that’s the rate they make mistakes, they don’t make them very often.” 

August Howell is a staff writer for the Review covering city government and public safety. Previously, he was the Review’s community, arts and sports reporter. He studied journalism at the University of Oregon.

(1) comment

John Charles Ullom

"Expert says great whites may be expanding territory north"

I say build a wall. Way too many whites in these parts.

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