'Catastrophic': The Australian surfing legend wading into California's shark problem
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'Catastrophic': The Australian surfing legend wading into California's shark problem

San Diego: Personal trainer Maria Korcsmaros had almost finished the first loop of her ironman swimming training at Corona del Mar when terror stuck.

The water at the beach in southern California was deep and murky so she didn't see the 2.8-metre juvenile great white shark until its jaws were around her torso and one of her triceps had almost been ripped off.

"It just came out of nowhere and then it was gone in a flash," she says. "I knew I needed to get out of the water, I was kicking furiously in case it came back. My body was literally being held together by my wetsuit. But I got lucky, there was a lifeguard boat close by and they got to me within 20 seconds and saved my life."

Maria Korcsmaros in hospital after a shark attack in June 2016.

Maria Korcsmaros in hospital after a shark attack in June 2016.

It was the first shark attack on record for the city of Newport Beach, a 16-kilometre stretch of coastline in California's famous Orange County. But it would not be the last for southern California.

A year later, in April 2017, and about 50 kilometres south, Leeanne Ericson was attacked as she swam at San Onofre State Beach with her boyfriend. That day alone, 27 sharks were spotted in the Los Angeles and Orange counties.

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It preceded what local media dubbed the "sharkiest" summer ever; the west coast had nine authenticated, unprovoked shark attacks in 2017, twice as many as the previous year.

Maria Korcsmaros wears a necklace made from the 161 staples that held her together after a shark attack.

Maria Korcsmaros wears a necklace made from the 161 staples that held her together after a shark attack. Credit:AP

"After second shark attack in a year, should we be freaking out?" the Orange County Register asked.

In a phenomenon that is confounding experts, southern California, which attracts 160 million visitors a year, is in the midst of a shark boom after decades of few sightings.

Now, an Australian surfing legend has entered the fray with what he believes is the solution. But not everyone is on board.

"This is so clearly going to turn into something catastrophic," says Ian Cairns, a former world champion who helped establish the professional surfing circuit in the '70s.

"When you have this many sharks with this many people going to the beach, you’re coming into some sort of calamity and someone needs to do something."

Cairns was born in Kew, Victoria, and raised on Sydney's northern beaches before moving to Western Australia. There he forged a legacy as the premier "power" surfer of his era and put Margaret River on the map as a world-renowned surf break.

Former Australian surfing champion Ian Cairns at Laguna Beach in southern California, where shark attacks are increasing.

Former Australian surfing champion Ian Cairns at Laguna Beach in southern California, where shark attacks are increasing.Credit:Rachel Olding

He has watched as shark attacks have risen in Western Australia (since 2000, 15 people have been killed) and on the NSW Mid North Coast, where his mother lives. Following a spate of encounters in 2014 and 2015 that closed some NSW beaches for weeks, tourism operators reported crippling drops in business and local surfers took the unprecedented step of advocating cullings.

Cairns, who moved to Califonia's Laguna Beach in the '90s, believes he's seeing the same trend emerge in his adopted homeland.

Ian Cairns, pictured in 1976, was one of the greatest surfers of the era.

Ian Cairns, pictured in 1976, was one of the greatest surfers of the era.

He grew so concerned that he approached Australian company Smart Marine Systems and is working for it by lobbying for its "clever buoy" technology to be implemented at southern Californian beaches. The buoys use sonar transponders to scan the ocean floor, detect shark movement and then send warnings to lifeguards.

"I've surfed in sharky areas my whole life, I actually love that feeling of going into the wilderness where it's dangerous. I just don't want my kids to get eaten," says the father-of-four, who has seen sharks while out surfing and stand-up paddleboarding with his children on three occasions recently.

There are signs that concern is growing among residents too. Information sessions are being organised and lifeguards have started to run "shark watch" web pages and use offshore beacons that ping when one of a small handful of tagged sharks swims by (although downloading the beacons' data can take weeks).

But, while local and state governments in WA and NSW swiftly rolled out drumlines, shark nets, drones and helicopter patrols, Californian authorities have shown less enthusiasm.

Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, a keen surfer, and Newport Beach mayor Kevin Muldoon announced a trial of clever buoys at Corona del Mar but no one will cough up the $US1 million ($1.3 million) it costs to install and run the six buoys for at least a year. The company is crowd-sourcing funds and will most likely pay the rest itself.

A sheriff's helicopter detected a great white shark off Dana Point in Orange County in May 2017, and alerted surfers.

A sheriff's helicopter detected a great white shark off Dana Point in Orange County in May 2017, and alerted surfers.Credit:Orange County Sheriff's Department

At a shark information session in November run by California's Ocean Protection Council, Cairns says not one bureaucrat spoke about the possibility of people dying.

"These guys don’t want to admit they’ve got a mega-problem," he says, adding that it's not only "bureaucratic inertia". Even his wife, a former pro surfer, refuses to admit that sharks are becoming an issue, he jokes.

Chris Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at California State University in Long Beach, says he is not convinced the danger is as high as Cairns suggests.

Chris Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach, analyses the mangled wetsuit Maria Korcsmaros was wearing when she was attacked.

Chris Lowe, director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach, analyses the mangled wetsuit Maria Korcsmaros was wearing when she was attacked. Credit:AP

He says the shark population has exploded in southern California due to decades of environmental protections and, possibly, increasing water temperatures. Last year he had so many shark sightings that he ran out of tags (and money) to monitor them.

But, unlike in Australia, sightings are not translating into increased attacks.

Hot spots emerging in southern California are actually nurseries for juvenile sharks; the younger animals are possibly attracted to the safety of the coastline's shallow, warm waters with abundant sting rays.

The adult sharks, which pose more of a threat to humans, do not seem to hang around, instead leaving for far-off feeding sites and seal rookeries, Lowe says.

Even if human injuries started to increase, he thinks Californians would baulk at anti-shark measures.

"I just can't see California doing the same as ... Australia. California is a progressive state, we're very ecologically conscious."

He says researchers still don't have an accurate picture of what's happening, and why, and he would prefer money went to research and monitoring rather than technology with no proven effectiveness.

To that end, he provided testimony to the Californian State Assembly last month in support of a proposed bipartisan bill titled the White Shark Population Monitoring and Beach Safety Program. It would provide funding for further academic research, including the Shark Lab's tagging program.

"We must be willing to invest in those who are doing the work," Democrat Patrick O’Donnell, who authored the bill, says in reference to academic researchers. "This is a human, environmental and economic issue."

In a state that wants to legislate surfing as its official sport, the human, environmental and economic implications are undeniable.

Thousands of Memorial Day beachgoers, including Gabriel Cordromp, 8, were ordered out of the water at Corona del Mar beach as authorities searched for the shark that attacked Korcsmaros the day before.

Thousands of Memorial Day beachgoers, including Gabriel Cordromp, 8, were ordered out of the water at Corona del Mar beach as authorities searched for the shark that attacked Korcsmaros the day before.Credit:Cindy Yamanaka/The Orange County Register

It's not just reputation and local economies at stake, but also the lives of those unlucky enough to be on the end of a shark's bite.

"Even two years on, my emotions are still raw," says Korcsmaros, who struggled to return to her fitness training business and her main passion of triathlons.

"There are days where I literally cry. I still have anxiety sometimes but, what I mostly have, is those emotions that go with surviving and being able to move forward and be here with my family and say, 'Life is precious.' "

Rachel Olding is a Reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age based in the United States.