A shark that bit a chunk out of a surfer’s board Saturday was likely 11 to 12 feet long and could take residency in Morro Bay for a while, a shark expert said Wednesday.
“Hopefully, this animal is not going to continue this behavior,” said Ralph Collier, a renowned shark expert who founded the Los Angeles-based Shark Research Committee.
Saturday morning, Elinor Dempsey, 54, of Los Osos, was sitting on her 9-foot surfboard in the water at Morro Strand State Beach when a shark breached the surface and bit a 13 1/2 –inch chunk out of her board. Dempsey was uninjured and made it to shore safely.
Collier said a shark had harassed a couple of surfers closer to Morro Rock earlier that morning. And surfers reported seeing a shark again near the Rock on Wednesday morning.
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“The mere fact that these things are occurring tells me you have something unusual going on here,” Collier said.
Collier came up to inspect Dempsey’s board Wednesday afternoon. Using a scalpel, he collected samples of foam while Peter Howorth, director of the Santa Barbara Marine Mammal Center, took photos of the board as it lay on Dempsey’s front lawn.
“It’s a beautiful bite,” Howorth said. Then, to Dempsey, he joked, “What do you think – is it a beautiful bite, Elinor?”
“Well, yeah,” she answered, then added, quietly, “It’s still unreal.”
Collier measures the size of a shark by the size of its imprint and the spacing of its teeth.
“The greater the spacing, the larger the shark,” he said as he examined the board.
White sharks typically have 26 teeth in their upper jaw and 24 in their lower jaw, he said. The bite mark on Dempsey’s board showed about 60 percent of the teeth.
Collier also was hoping to get a possible DNA sample.
“I think we have something really good here,” he said, scraping pieces of foam into a plastic vial. “I think it’s blood from the shark.”
Certain family groups of sharks return to the same place — sometimes at the exact same time — every year, he said. Other family groups might return in two-year cycles. A DNA sample from this shark, compared to samples taken from other sharks, might help Collier determine if this shark is the type that makes repeat visits.
Less than an hour before Dempsey was attacked, Collier said, two other surfers – both with red boards, like Dempsey – were harassed. The shark bumped one surfer, spinning him around, then returned for more.
“It came back and hit him again and came back at him another time,” said Collier, a frequent source for “Shark Week” shows on the Discovery Channel.
Given the behavior patterns, he doesn’t think the incidents were predatory – specifically, that the shark was seeking food.
Some researchers have suggested that sharks attack surfers because they mistake them for their primary prey — sea lions and seals.
"I don’t think this animal for a minute assumed this was a pinniped,” Collier said, looking at Dempsey’s board. “He could have felt threatened or he’s defending a territory.”
If that’s true, he added, the shark might take residency for a while and possibly continue to harass surfers until it leaves the area.
When asked what might have happened had Dempsey been lying on her board instead of sitting on it, Collier said, “Only God knows.”
Then he added, “She does have an experience that she can relate to people the rest of her life.”
Dempsey said the first couple of nights after the attack, one vision stuck in her head: a large dark object swimming under the water. But she hasn’t had nightmares at this point.
“I think I’m still in shock,” she said.
She plans to keep the board.