There’s Been An Insane Number Of Shark Sightings In SoCal This Week, So How Do We Calculate The Risks?

It’s shaping up to be a very sharky spring in Southern California. There was a near-fatal attack on April 29 that grabbed national headlines. Then there was a hotly-debated “non-attack” — in which a surfer thought maybe she was attacked by a shark, but the evidence (though gruesome) doesn’t support her view. Outside of those two national stories there’s been an unheard of number of sightings between Los Angeles and San Diego in the past week.

On Sunday, a shark leaping wildly into the air was caught on the Surfline camera at Upper Trestles, then, on Wednesday, May 9th, there were 27 separate sightings in Orange County alone.

Indeed, Corbin, 27 does seem like too many sharks. It was also too many for the OC Sheriff’s Department, who made this announcement at Capistrano Beach:

Attention in the water, this is the Orange County Sheriff’s Department. Be advised, State Parks is asking us to make an announcement to let you know that you are paddleboarding next to approximately 15 great white sharks. They are advising that you exit the water in a…uh…calm manner. The sharks are as close as the surf line. Thank you for your cooperation.

Just put yourselves in the wetsuit of that paddle boarder for a second. It’s now three days later, you think he’s still shaking? I would be. I’ve seen a massive shark in the lineup and had to evacuate. It’s deeply unnerving. But mine was one shark. This was 15. Great freaking whites!

During this “SoCal Shark Week” we’ve also seen GoPro footage in Long Beach of sharks, reports of sharks in the lineup in San Diego, and even one complete beach closure. The shark panic is real. Which means we’ll probably get a few hundred #TeamDryland tweets and then a mega-viral post about how shark attacks are more rare than selfie deaths. Or falling down stairs. Or lightning. Or choking-while-sneezing. Or…

Lots of stuff fits under this heading. And while these quasi-stats, published by everyone from NatGeo to Newsweek, are technically true, they’re also fundamentally ridiculous. The numbers of people who drive, eat, or talk on cellphones, can’t compare to the number of people who go in the water in shark territory at dusk. Also, just as the amount of time you are alive correlates with cancer risk, and the hours you spend in traffic correlate with car wreck risk, the number of hours you spend in the water, logically, correlates to shark attack risk.

Since there aren’t good stats on that, the best anyone can do is compare astronomically different sample sizes. The chances that you get mauled by an enraged gorilla are also very low. If you work at a zoo, they increase. If you work with the gorillas at said zoo, they increase more. Stats are weird because they so rarely happen in a vacuum.

On the day of the attack at Church’s in San Onofre, there were probably pretty close to 2,000 people surfing or swimming in the water in Orange County. That’s estimating roughly 20 surfers at each of the 40 standout surf breaks, plus another 400 surfers at crowded breaks and small breaks, plus 800 waders and swimmers.

1/2,000? If you take that day alone, that doesn’t seem like a risk worth taking. But when you look at shark attacks per year or per decade, it’s easy to put the attack in perspective. Still… when the attack just happened and with so many sharks swirling around, it’s natural to be spooked.

Which is all to say: There have been an insane number of shark sightings this week. And though the risk when using the entire global population as a sample size feels very small, for the community of surfers in Southern California it’s a little nerve wracking.

Enter the water accordingly: