Close encounters galore as great white shark tour debuts off SoCal; photos, video

Great white shark surfaces in murky water just a few feet from the boat. Photo: ©Pete Thomas

Adding to the mystique of great white sharks is that you can't always see them, even when they're almost certainly there.

This became evident Saturday for those aboard the Ocean Adventures, during what was billed as a first-of-its-kind great white shark viewing tour, operated by Dana Wharf Whale Watching in Dana Point, Calif.

The vessel had spent 90 minutes along the San Clemente coast, where multiple great white shark sightings had recently generated national headlines, without any sign of the planet's most notorious apex predators.

But they were present, and suddenly, when hope seemed lost, a dark figure materialized in the murky green water, and began to swim like a shark. Another shark appeared moments later, and soon there'd be others.

Passengers who had been lulled into a listless complacency were whipped into a frenzy as they scrambled for a better view, while Capt. Frank Brennan maneuvered the vessel.

"I see a big one," a kid loudly informed. Which brought this response from his mother: "Don't you dare climb [onto that rail]."

Great white sharks in living color – starkly more impressive than on the TV news, even as juveniles measuring 10 feet or less.

Todd Mansur, a second captain and veteran naturalist, described the moment as "historic," explaining that this was the first great white shark coastal viewing tour in Southern California.

"I've seen and done a lot of things out here over the years, but I've never seen that," Mansur said, pointing to the sharks, as children played on the beach 100 yards away. "This is way out of the ordinary."

A 10-foot great white shark materializes a few feet beneath the surface. Photo: ©Pete Thomas

This was Dana Wharf's inaugural "Shark Search," made possible by what seems an unprecedented number of juvenile great white sharks gathered close to shore off Capistrano State Beach, just south of Dana Point Harbor.

The the landing plans to run the two-hour expeditions every Saturday – at a cost of $45 – for as long as there's demand, and as long as sightings continue.

Mansur credited a recent grunion run for luring the sharks toward the beach; the grunion, perhaps, having attracted the sharks' favorite prey: stingrays and other bottom fishes.

Christopher Lowe, who runs the Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab, said recently that the great white shark population off Southern California has been growing, largely because of long-standing protections, including the banning of gill-nets in coastal waters.

Another factor is a burgeoning population of California sea lions, which provide forage for adult white sharks.

Southern California coastal waters are believed to represent a pupping zone for adults, and a feeding area for juvenile sharks, until they reach about 12 feet and migrate elsewhere to forage on sea lions and elephant seals.

While the presence of white sharks so close to shore is a concern for lifeguards, and swimmers and surfers, the hype has inspired some shark-themed enterprise.

According to the Orange County Register, one local restaurant has ceased a drink called the "Capistrano Beach Shark Bite," which includes a rubber shark with a fish gummy in its mouth.

The hype isn't necessarily good for the sharks. During Saturday's trip, a yacht cruised across the Ocean Adventures' wake towing several large seal decoys, hoping to inspire an ambush attack by an adult white shark. If this catches on, it’s sure to become controversial.

More stories about the recent shark activity in Orange County

Paddleboarder told to exit water after officials spot 15 great white sharks

5 possible reasons for the increased shark activity in SoCal