The dark brown cliffs at the end of Trail One, a half-mile south of San Onofre nuclear power plant, are carved from the earth jaggedly, as if clawed out by very large beasts. With a low-hanging mist and the brilliant-blue backdrop of Southern California sky, the palm-topped cliffs elicit a sense of the land before time.
Across the sparsely populated beach and a short swim out to sea, two living relics-white sharks, whose lines have been around for 350 million years-bask in the summer sun, looking for fish. They've reportedly been nicknamed Fluffy and Sparky by local surfers.
Surf Watch, the California Lifeguard boat, slowly prowls behind the pair while jet skis roam the periphery looking for others.
Most surfers have turned away, leaving a day of steady, ride-worthy waves to the sharks. In the wake of the hype created when Time magazine deemed the summer of 2001 'Summer of the Shark,' and a recent shark-related fatality in Central California that's re-ignited the general anxiety stigmatizing the great white, the San Onofre sightings have managed to draw spectators and repel water-goers.
According to shark researchers, the fears are exaggerated and the media attention unwarranted.
Marine experts with the International Shark Attack File, which keeps global shark statistics, indicate a person in the coastal United States is 359 times more likely to be struck by lightning than attacked by a shark. The file also shows that of 168 lifeguard agencies reporting incidents in the year 2000, 132 people drowned or succumbed to other beach-related deaths; there were 23 unprovoked shark attacks and one shark-related fatality in that time. In the 1990s, 9,361 Americans died in bicycling accidents; eight died from shark attacks.
Despite statistics and the fact that most attacks result from misidentification, sharks remain one of the most feared predators in the human psyche.
They don't scare 5-year-old Daniel Kinser though. 'I'm not afraid of sharks,' the Huntington Beach resident says. 'Maybe I'm afraid of a T-Rex, 'cause a T-rex could maybe step on me, or eat me.'
'Not sharks,' he says after a pause, shaking his head, digging in the sand.
Ariel Lissaver, on the other hand, doesn't want anything to do with them. Slightly older than Kinser, she stands with her parents among the clutter of news cameras and gawkers at the top of the cliff, waiting for the first Fluffy and Sparky sightings of the day. When asked to hold the open jawbone of a similar-sized great white, she becomes reticent and walks away; she wants nothing to do with a shark, dead or alive.
Jim Serpa, the supervising park ranger at Doheny State Beach, has brought the jawbone-more than a foot wide, when open-to give onlookers an idea of the size of the juvenile white sharks that have been frequenting the waters around San Onofre for more than a month.
After showing the jaw and the inch-and-a-half teeth it sports, Serpa pulls a tooth from his pocket that covers the better part of his palm. 'This is what an adult tooth looks like,' he says. 'Like the big one that's been spotted around here a couple times.'
Before Fluffy and Sparky make their appearance, with three surfers in the water, Serpa explains the area is under an advisory. If the sharks are spotted, lifeguards will warn surfers and possibly call them to shore for a briefing. No beaches have been closed yet.
Though surfers have reported spotting the sharks for months (mako and blue sharks are common in the area), the spotlight has become more focused lately with the Central California attack-the great white responsible is believed to be a full-sized adult, 15 to 18 feet long.
Great whites are considered juveniles until they reach the 10- to 12-foot range and begin feeding on sea lions and seals. Fluffy and Sparky are both 8-footers and still feeding on fish-the likely attraction to the spot near Trail One.
The idea the sharks have been drawn to San Onofre by the scent of a whale buried there two years ago, a widely held theory when the media frenzy began nearly two weeks ago, is slowly losing credibility.
Eighteen-year-old San Clemente native and avid waterman Blake Byrd wonders why the sharks didn't materialize last year if whale-scent is the lure. 'These are young ones,' he says. 'I think they're in this close for protection, waiting till they get bigger and can make it out deeper. They're following their food source, too; all the schooling fish are coming in close right now-we've got unheard [of] amounts of yellowtail and bass.'
Byrd stands on the beach with Rocky Booth. Their attention wandering between the media circus at the top of the cliff and the Surf Watch boat-captained by Booth's father-floating lazily, less than a football field away. 'We wanted to swim out to the unit [to get a better view of the sharks], but my dad radioed back in and said it's too dangerous now,' Booth says.
'I wouldn't hesitate on a long board,' Byrd adds.
Statistics show he has a 325 percent greater chance of being killed by a deer than by Fluffy or Sparky.