Close Encounters Man vs. Nature

‘Shark’ that photobombed two children playing in the surf probably was a dolphin

Experts who examined the viral image, captured in California, say the shape of the tail fin strongly suggests that the critter was a bottlenose dolphin

Sharkinwave

Photo courtesy of ©June Emerson

An alleged shark that appeared in a Manhattan Beach, California, wave Friday as two children played in the water nearby was most likely a dolphin, according to experts who have examined the image (see top photo).

The unusual “photobomb” story went viral on Sunday and Monday, with some reports stating that the critter was, in fact, a shark, and most other reports strongly implying that it was a shark.

This is somewhat understandable. There were several shark sightings in Manhattan Beach in late summer and fall, mostly from the pier or from the air. Juvenile great white sharks feed in Southern California coastal waters and are seen sporadically into early winter.

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Illustrations showing bottlenose dolphin and great white shark are via Wikipedia

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However, if you look closely at the photo, the tail fin is horizontal, like that of a dolphin. Also, there is no sign of a second dorsal fin, which sharks possess (see illustrations).

Plus, bottlenose dolphins are frequently seen surfing in the faces of waves, while sharks are not. If this still looks more like a shark than a dolphin, water distortion could be the reason.

Stated Kera Mathes, a naturalist with the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, on her Facebook page:

“I know there has been a lot of concern over this news story, but just wanted to let everyone know this is a dolphin. A couple of us (mainly Julien Jordan haha) have been emailing in to the news. I couldn’t agree more Julien, the news needs to check the photos and facts before you go scaring everyone! I hate that the poor sharks are getting a bad, scary rep for this when it’s a coastal bottlenose dolphin.”

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Diane Alps of the Los Angeles chapter of the American Cetacean Society commented on my Facebook page: “Sure looks to be a bottlenose dolphin! Single falcate dorsal fin, horizontal flukes. General body shape looks dolphin-esque too.”

Florida-based shark expert David Shiffman is quoted in multiple stories saying the creature is a dolphin, based on its flat tail fin. He stated on Facebook:

“I asked about a dozen shark scientists and a handful of dolphin scientists (yes, I know dolphin scientists) to confirm my suspicion that it was a dolphin, and 100% of them identified it as a dolphin. It doesn’t have a second dorsal fin and the tail is flat. Dolphin.

“It took me only a few minutes to do this. And yet, the media ran with the inaccurate and fear-mongering story without reaching out to any scientists.”

This is not the first case of likely mistaken identity (we cannot state as fact that the Manhattan Beach photobomber is not a shark, and Eric Martin, co-director of the Roundhouse Marine Studies Marine Lab and Aquarium at the end of the pier is among those who still thinks it’s a shark).

In September of 2012 at the Hurley Pro surf contest at Lower Trestles near San Clemente, California, Kolohe Andino was photographed riding a wave while what was first thought to be a shark appeared in the wave face (middle photo).

It was identified as a bottlenose dolphin by ACS researcher Alisa Schulman-Janiger, based on the shape of its dolphin-like fluke.

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In 2011 at Swami’s in north San Diego County, surfers were sure that a large critter photographed in a wave was a large great white shark. The tail of the animal even looked vertical, like that of a shark. But that, too, was most likely a dolphin turned sideways as it swam through the wave (bottom photo).

Said Salvador Jorgensen, a white shark expert from Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station: “It doesn’t really look like a shark tail more than, say, a dolphin sideways in the wave. But it’s impossible to say for sure from the picture alone.”

Christopher Lowe, a white shark expert who runs the Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach, also said the tail looked more like that of a dolphin.

So apparently, the two kids playing in the waves at Manhattan Beach on Friday were photobombed by a bottlenose dolphin. Still a fun story, but one that would not have gotten nearly as much attention (or website traffic) had it been reported as such.

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