Great white sharks are thriving in Monterey Bay, study shows

If you’re going to Monterey Bay this summer, you’re going to need a bigger boat.

Great white sharks are on the rise in the region, and warming waters caused by climate change are playing a big part, according to a study recently released by the Monterey Bay Aquarium that tracked great white shark migration patterns over two decades.

The extensive data, part of the aquarium’s White Shark Research Project, tracked the seasonal travel patterns of 79 young sharks using electronic tags and showed that the apex predator has not only adapted to, but within, the dangers of a warming planet thrives.

“These complete sets of metadata can provide fisheries managers and other scientists with a great deal of useful information,” said John O’Sullivan, collections director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and lead author of the study.

A man looks at a portable screen showing a shark from above

Drone photographer Carlos Gauna views a great white shark on his monitor as he records video along the Santa Barbara County coast in April 2021.

(Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

In 2015, the study took a dramatic turn when significant changes in weather patterns led scientists to a new discovery: A booming population of juvenile great white sharks was growing right in their backyard, in the heart of Monterey Bay.

“We started to see the post-2014 heat wave, and that warmer water temperature along the coast opened up a 400-mile swim corridor from Santa Barbara all the way up to Monterey Bay,” O’Sullivan said. “It was one of the aquarium’s first examples of how climate change has affected the marine animal.”

And warming waters off the coast of Santa Cruz created the perfect environment for a shark nursery.

Though many of the shark sightings reported near the bay early in the study were adults who returned to feed on seals and sea otters during the fall and winter, O’Sullivan said, later sightings were what was after scientists had been looking for all along: hatchlings.

Since those 2015 sightings of juvenile sharks, the Monterey Bay area appears to have become an ideal home for great whites, who typically prefer the milder waters of the Southern California and Central California coasts.

For over a century, the Great Whites have faced the dangers of food shortages, burgeoning fishing practices, and illegal trophy hunting and trading. Laws regulating and restricting fishing practices have enacted over the years, but it’s difficult for scientists to determine exactly why or how great white sharks migrated to the Bay Area, O’Sullivan said.

And while warming water has been favorable for great white sharks in Monterey Bay, the long-term effects of climate change on the shark population are unclear.

“These 20 years of data focused on central Baja and central California. Now that these animals have migrated to Monterey Bay, we cannot assume that our historical dataset is the same as what these animals will do in the same region,” O’Sullivan said. Great white sharks are thriving in Monterey Bay, study shows

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