climate in crisis

Climate Change Phenomenon Inspires Santa Cruz White Shark Tours

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When juvenile white sharks began turning up for the first time near the shores of Santa Cruz County about six years ago -- in early spring when even adult white sharks aren't known to visit the area -- it began to reverberate across the tourism industry.

"People started coming out on the whale watches almost specifically to see the sharks," said Megan Peterson, a naturalist and skipper with Stagnaro Whale Watching tours in Santa Cruz.

Drone video shot by fishermen showed the dark silhouettes of the young sharks, basking just beyond the waves in Soquel Cove, between New Brighton and Seacliff State Beaches. Locals dubbed the area "shark park."

To scientists, the sharks' arrival was a strange anomaly -- most likely linked to the unusually warm waters that emerged in the area in recent years which they credit to climate change. To the tourism industry -- it was an opportunity to satiate curiosity with a new business model -- and thus "shark tours" were born. Stagnaro's was among tour companies that modified their currently whale excursions to include regular visits to shark park.

"It’s become a really popular attraction for wildlife enthusiasts and people who have never seen a shark before," said Petersen who often leads the excursions. "When you see one under your feet it’s pretty breathtaking."

In a sense, it's a business born of climate change -- or at the very least an opportunity spun from its collateral impact. Other tour companies have also launched tours of shark territory -- or pass through the area as a sightseeing side-trip.

On boat's like Stagnaro's "Velocity," visitors can lean against the rails looking-on as ten and twelve foot white sharks languish in the waters below, non-plussed by their sudden audience. On some days, the tours encounter more than a dozen sharks during a two hour tour, especially on sunny days when their outlines are more visible from the surface.

"I see more cell phones go in the water on these trips because of the excitement," said Joe Stagnaro, whose family runs the tour company.

Researchers studying the sharks aren't sure where they are born or where they go after leaving the area-- but they've noted the creatures generally eat fish and bask near the surface, enjoying the same warm waters that have traditionally drawn surfers and beachgoers to the area.

For most part - the two co-exist peacefully. But that detente was broken in May of 2020 when it's believed a juvenile white shark fatally bit surfer Ben Kelly at Manresa State Beach, not far from shark park. Stagnaro said the sharks' presence has since impacted beach activity in places like Capitola and Aptos, and near Seacliff's famous sunken cement boat where notices warn beachgoers about the sharks.

"People are aware of it now," Stagnaro said, "whereas three years ago, four years ago, five years ago there’d be 200 people playing in the water."

White sharks are no strangers to the region; adult white sharks normally arrive late summer and stay until early February, feeding off elephant seals and other mammals in the Red Triangle region that runs from the Monterey Bay to the Farallon Islands to West Marin County.

But juvenile white sharks, which arrived in early spring of 2015, had never been seen in the area. Their appearance coincided with a phenomenon scientists labeled as the "warm blob," an unusual mass of warm water that lingered in the Pacific Ocean drawing marine creatures to areas where they wouldn't normally be found.

The blob has since dissipated but the young sharks remain. No one knows if they'll stay or return -- or continue to make a seasonal home in an area where the bay waters are central to a tourism industry that's currently fascinated by their presence.

Stagnaro has a theory; "I think they were just swimming around and said 'hey we found the hot tub of the Monterey Bay."

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