The Cambrian

Shark apparently attacks, injures huge elephant seal off Piedras Blancas

A wounded elephant seal is seen Monday at Piedras Blancas. The animal was apparently attacked by a shark.
A wounded elephant seal is seen Monday at Piedras Blancas. The animal was apparently attacked by a shark. Special to The Cambrian

Shark activity off the Central Coast hit close to home for a bull elephant seal at Piedras Blancas, which was injured by an apparent shark bite.

Christine Heinrichs, a Friends of the Elephant Seal docent and columnist for The Cambrian, shot photos of the elephant seal Monday, which had a fresh wound on its tail.

“Monday at Piedras Blancas bluff, I saw things I’ve never seen before,” Heinrichs wrote in an email. “I’ve seen healed scars from shark attacks, but this bull has a fresh wound.”

Such attacks are unusual because big bull elephant seals can be formidable foes for sharks: “They’re massive and have big teeth,” said Brian Hatfield, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey at Piedras Blancas, north of San Simeon.

Heinrichs said the size of larger seals usually discourages sharks from attacking. “Younger seals, juveniles weighing 1,000 to 2,000 pounds, are usually considered more desirable prey, for exactly that reason,” she said. “A big bull can turn around and bite his attacker. An injured shark is effectively a dead shark.”

A big bull can turn around and bite his attacker. An injured shark is effectively a dead shark.

Christine Heinrichs, Friends of the Elephant Seal docent

Hatfield said the incident was “unusual but not unheard of,” estimating that the seal was not quite full grown, but still “a big guy” with “plenty of fat on him” — perhaps 6 or 7 years old and 12 feet long.

Fully mature male elephant seals typically weigh more than 5,000 pounds.

Hatfield said he usually sees two or three such incidents in a year, and no more than four. The shark’s strategy when hunting such an animal, he said, is to “make a big hit or powerful strike, then back off and let it bleed out.”

The number of shark-bitten sea otters has really increased over the past couple of years.

Brian Hatfield, wildlife biologist with the U.S. Geological Survey at Piedras Blancas

Although he hasn’t seen an increase in attacks on elephant seals, Hatfield has documented a rise in white shark attacks on sea otters, which he said indicates an increase in local shark activity.

“The number of shark-bitten sea otters has really increased over the past couple of years,” he said. “It’s now the leading cause of death among sea otters. Over 50 percent of the otters that wash ashore are shark-bitten.”

Fisherman surprised

The elephant seal carcass found Monday was the second apparent shark-related incident off the Central Coast in recent days.

Last Thursday, Dec. 29, a fisherman reeling in a lingcod off Montaña de Oro got a big surprise when a huge shark came alongside his boat and snatched the fish right off his line.

Dave Flack said he was fishing off Diablo Canyon when he decided to go around Point Buchon to Montaña de Oro. He caught a few fish and crabs and was reeling in a lingcod about 2 p.m. when a great white shark came out of nowhere. The shark glided alongside the boat and grabbed the fish.

The 25-foot boat was in about 80 feet of water at the time, Flack said.

“This thing is HUGE!” Flack wrote in a Facebook post.

He estimated it was 22 feet long and more than 2,000 pounds — plus 12 pounds for the lingcod he ate.

“Unfortunately, the quick photo taken does not do this lady shark justice,” Flack wrote. “She’s HUGE.”

Flack said the shark scared everyone on the boat, and he and another fisherman grabbed each other at the same time and pulled each other away from the rail.

The Port San Luis Harbor Patrol was notified, Flack said. They filled out paperwork and said it would be forwarded to the U.S. Coast Guard station in Morro Bay.

Because the shark was so big, Flack said he put a call in to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to see if any experts there could answer some questions. He was wondering how rare it is to see a shark of that size, whether it could have been a release from the aquarium and what the approximate weight of such a shark was.

Mike Brink, who owns Morro Bay Boat Charters, was conducting a coastal charter just south of Morro Rock on Thursday morning, Sept. 8, 2016 — filming a dead dolphin he had come across — when “all of a sudden a shark came right up” to the side of th

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