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Image 1 for Like the ‘Loch Ness Monster’: Basking sharks return to California waters

Welcome back! Passengers aboard an Island Packers Cruises boat watch a basking shark. Pics: Lotti Keenan / Island Packers Cruises

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A basking shark with its mouth wide open feeds off the coast of Santa Cruz Island

Like the ‘Loch Ness Monster’: Basking sharks return to California waters

8 May 19

Ryan Lawler saw the dorsal fin in the distance, swaying slowly side to side, and assumed it was a great white shark. As his boat got closer, he saw the massive fish’s snout sticking out of the water, its mouth wide open.

Without fear, Lawler jumped in — to swim with the elusive basking shark.

“It was something we’d been dreaming about,” Lawler said. The owner of Pacific Offshore Expeditions had heard of basking sharks showing up recently along the Channel Islands and gone in search of one, as a kind of marine life bucket list item.

With some measuring more than 30 feet long, basking sharks are second in size only to whale sharks and are completely harmless. They have tiny teeth, and feed on copepods such as krill and plankton.

In the early to mid-1900s, the huge fish were abundant along the West Coast, numbering in the hundreds and possibly thousands, said Heidi Dewar, a research biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Around the 1960s, the fish all but disappeared, possibly because they were harvested for their valuable fins and livers, or eliminated after interfering with salmon fishing in Canada, Dewar said.

Starting in 2009, NOAA included basking sharks in its “species of concern” program and started asking for the public’s help in spotting them. In the last few years, there have been only occasional sightings.

Now, the animal appears to be making a comeback.

Recent reports indicate that groups of 10 to 20 sharks have been swimming in the Santa Barbara Channel, and individual sightings appear to have increased as well.

Scientists know so little about the sharks that they find it difficult to explain why they apparently have returned — and whether they might stick around.

The excitement began in mid-April, when an Island Packers Cruises boat arrived at Santa Cruz Island. Disembarking passengers chattered excitedly about a group of about 15 giant sharks, which had been swimming lazily around their boat. NOAA was immediately notified.

“They came in raving about it,” said Cherryl Connally, co-owner of Island Packers Cruises. “The crowd of people was ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing.’ There were so many of them!”

Recently, people have spotted the sharks off Santa Cruz Island every other day, Connally said. Though most sightings have been in the Santa Barbara Channel, there also have been reports of basking sharks in Ventura, Santa Monica and Long Beach waters.

Dan Salas, chief executive and founder of Harbor Breeze Cruises in Long Beach, said passengers have seen seven or eight basking sharks on their excursions since the beginning of the year. Salas said he has seen five in his lifetime — and three of those were this year.

“They’re like the Loch Ness Monster,” he said. “You hear these stories of them, but it’s really hard to get a picture.”





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