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California shark attack: Why so many great white encounters this year?

A California surfer was killed Tuesday, almost certainly by a great white shark. The attack comes in a year when sightings of white sharks are up on both coasts. Scientists are trying to find out why.

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A fatal shark attack off the coast of California Tuesday is raising fresh questions about an uptick in encounters between white sharks and humans along the West Coast and beyond.

Officials are investigating the bite marks in the torso of a man killed at a popular swimming spot near Vandenberg Air Force Base to determine the species of shark in the attack, but experts have suggested that it is almost certainly a great white.

The death is the 13th in California waters since 1950, but the fifth since 2003. That increased rate of fatal attacks, combined with an increasing number of great white sightings this summer on both coasts, has led to speculation over what is behind the increased interface.

The answer is, for now, unclear. Some scientists say better management of the commercial fishing industry has led to a substantial increase in the white shark population. Others suggest that the increasing number of people surfing, swimming, and kayaking has created new opportunities for white sharks and humans to cross paths.

But many experts agree that smartphones are giving people unprecedented ability to record white shark encounters – adding to the attention these encounters receive – and they say the pattern of attacks and sightings fits well into their understanding of the shark's seasonal migrations.

Above all, they agree that data show white shark attacks remain exceedingly rare, and the threat posed by them is small.

The issue first gained attention in July, when a white shark bit a kayak off Santa Cruz, Calif., throwing the man out of his boat. He was unhurt. The same week, a white shark was photographed trailing a kayak off Cape Cod, though it never attacked.

The Cape saw a record number of white shark sightings this summer. Likewise, officials in Santa Barbara, Calif., have been surprised at the number of white-shark sightings.

“It’s very unusual to see this many white sharks in our area,” Mick Kronman, harbor operations manager with the city’s Waterfront Department, told Noozhawk, a local news website. “They’ve been really close.”


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