Shark Will Almost Certainly Not Eat You, Expert Assures

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Callaghan Fritz-Cope/Pelagic Shark Research Foundation
You likely won't be attacked by a shark. But this seal...
Following Monday's bloody Pacifica shark incident -- in which locals gawked as a Great White tore a hapless sea lion to shreds -- a number of observers were shocked at how quickly surfers returned to the water.

Crass stupidity? Cavalier disregard for safety? Neither, says Sean Van Sommeran, the founder and executive director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation. "These animals can travel 100 miles in a day," he says. "But we've also seen them orbit an area for weeks on end." In other words, if you go in the water, you may be attacked by a shark -- period. But, notes Van Sommeran, the odds of this happening are preternaturally low.

Van Sommeran said the 48-hour shark warning posted by Pacifica Police was a good idea -- but has less to do with safety than public relations. Area surfers, he says, have come to terms with the fact that sharks share the waters with them. But not everyone feels that way.

"The concern is, people visit from out of the area, have a wonderful day, and when they're eating at the Taco Bell, someone tells them they saw a big shark," notes the shark researcher. "And they say, 'Why didn't anyone tell me? I had my kid in the water!'"

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Callaghan Fritz-Cope/Pelagic Shark Research Foundation
A shark devours a sea lion near Año Nuevo State Park in San Mateo County
Van Sommeran likened a shark sightling like this week's to incidents of spotting mountain lions or bears in popular hiking destinations. And while shark attacks are rare in California, you need not suffer a physical injury to be traumatized.

Van Sommeran is best known for his work tagging great whites with tracking equipment, which has helped make the case the sharks are open sea animals and do not live out their lives close to shore. Since the 1920s, he says, slightly more than 100 shark attacks off California have been verified. Only a dozen of those were fatal.

The shark researcher suggested surfers never go out alone -- "the joke is, you don't have to paddle faster than the shark, just faster than your buddy." Seriously, however, incidents of sharks carrying off swimmers are exceedingly rare. Most attacks involve the shark biting a human and then swimming off -- and, in such cases, a companion would be most valuable.

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