Talks with Tim is a weekly Q&A by Tim Grobaty, who has been a columnist in Long Beach for nearly 50 years. If you’d like to suggest an interesting or influential person in Long Beach for this (unconventional) interview, reach him at [email protected].
Chris Lowe is a professor in marine biology and director of the Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach.
Tim Grobaty: Do you have all your fingers?
Chris Lowe: Yep. One of our most important rules at the Shark Lab is “Don’t get bit.” So far we’ve made it 25 years without anyone getting bit by a shark.
Q: I’m fairly OK with sharks, with the exception of hammerhead sharks. Those just seem like overkill.
A: I’ve dealt with a lot of hammerheads, mostly babies and juveniles. As sharks go, they tend to be more calm.
Q: Did you watch “Flipper” when you were young?
A: Sure. Of course.
Q: Seems like a lot of times Flipper was beating up sharks. Do dolphins beat up sharks a lot?
A: They can, but we see dolphins and sharks swimming together quite a bit. Sometimes the dolphins harass the juveniles, but other times they just pass one another like two men walking down the street.
Q: Are you comfortable around sharks?
A: Yes. It’s like growing up with dogs and cats. If you grow with dogs you learn their body language, and what we’ve been learning about sharks is to understand when sharks are upset or agitated. Humans are not as familiar with sharks, but since we coevolved with dogs and cats we have sort of an innate sense of when they’re angry or threatened. Cats’ ears go back, they hiss, trying to look as mean as possible. You don’t have to be a cat to know it’s pissed off. Don Nelson, who started the Shark Lab, was first to study the responses of sharks.
We call it agonistic behavior when one animal sends a signal to another animal in a way to communicate that you’re in another’s space and it feels threatened. Don would chase reef sharks around to elicit threatening behavior.Their pectoral fins drop, they arch their back and raise their snout and it’s this S-shaped swimming behavior that’s the equivalent to a cat arching its back.
Q: But still, people get bitten by sharks now and then.
A: Some people are bit, probably because the shark made a mistake.
Q: Like, sorry. My bad.
A: The way we know we’re not shark food, I tell people, “Go to Huntington Beach and see all the people in the water. There’s probably a white shark swimming among them.” It’s not attacking them because they don’t think of people as food. But occasionally, they might feel threatened and the person doesn’t see it. In most cases, we don’t know why an unprovoked shark will bite a person.
Q: That’s not entirely comforting. Is it true you shouldn’t panic and splash around when there’s a shark nearby? Because I’m gonna panic and thrash around. And does hitting them in the snout work? There’s something counterintuitive about hitting a shark as a way to get them to leave you alone.
A: Splashing around, I don’t think there’s good data on whether that attracts them or not. Hitting a shark on the nose definitely works. If someone hits you on the nose, there’s a lot of nerve endings there. Or you can poke them in the eye. That’s pretty effective. But a lot depends on the motivation of the shark to begin with. If it’s in a defensive mode, it might be provoked, but if it’s in a predatory mode it might decide that it’s not worth it.
Q: Can you find a great white shark whenever you want to?
A: I never thought I’d be saying this. Pretty much any day of the week I can take you out and find a white shark. Back in 1988 I would’ve thought you’re crazy to think you could find one. They were overfished and were gone. Mako, white, thrasher, all were commercially fished and were way more susceptible to be overfished. Things turned around with legislation against gill-net fishing within three miles of the coast, along with the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Sharks benefited from all those.
Q: Do sharks kill sharks?
A: Oh, yes. Sharks kill sharks; the bigger white sharks will eat other white sharks. A lot of people think white sharks are the top of the food chain, but it’s really orcas that are the top. A white shark might be able to kill an orca, but orcas have the advantage of working with other orcas, while white sharks work alone.
Q: What effect is climate change going to have on sharks?
A: That’s the big question. Like marine mammals, sharks can move. So as water warms they’ll go north; they’re already doing it. But the question is what they will eat. We don’t know what’s going to happen.
Q: You’re from Cape Cod, Massachusetts. What brought you to Long Beach?
A: Don Nelson is what brought me to Long Beach. My true interest was in shark behavior and he was “the guy” in shark behavior and a pioneer in using new technology to study sharks. I got my master’s degree in the shark lab and went to the University of Hawaii for my Ph.D. Don died of melanoma in 1997 and I was hired as his replacement in 1988. I’m so honored to keep working in one of the oldest shark labs in the country.