Pity the shark. Ever since the release of the horror blockbuster Jaws in 1975, things just haven't been the same for the fish. Many people have been so scared of being chomped into bits, they've even avoided wading into the ocean.
But there could be a silver lining for the lustrous creatures. At the , which is operated by local nonprofit , an effort is under way to take a bite out of misperceptions about sharks.
"The aquarium's role is to dispel the myths we're seeing in the sensationalized movies," Aquarium Director told Santa Monica Patch during a recent aquarium visit.
"We're creating a paradigm shift," added aquarist Jose Bacallao, who is in charge of keeping the aquarium sharks healthy. "What we've done to conserve and save sharks is change the way people think and view these animals."
Thanks in part to the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, the fish's star has continued to rise. But while the TV program can be informative, it can also misrepresent the creatures. For example, there are more than 350 species of sharks, but "they don't talk about most of them on Shark Week, because they're boring and small," Wawerchak said.
Moreover, in a recent edition of Shark Week, it was claimed that three different great white sharks were documented swimming underneath the , which Wawerchak said may have given the audience a false impression. It's likely that great whites do appear in Santa Monica Bay, but sightings are rare.
Local surfers say they've swam by a great white—which is also nicknamed "whitey" and "the landlord"—near the pier. A off the coast of Redondo Beach told Bacallao she saw a great white.
"She was in awe," he said.
Shark attacks are even less frequent: The only ones Bacallao could remember involved a college student who was fatally attacked off Surf Beach, near Lompoc, late last year; and a triathlete swimmer who was also fatally attacked, off San Diego Beach, in 2008.
In Santa Monica Bay, from Point Conception to Palos Verdes, there have been zero attacks in recent memory, Bacallao said.
While great whites are tagged, captured and released off the coast of California—including near Monterey—it's hard to know exactly how many there are. What is known is that, worldwide, the great white population has been on the decline.
"The shark that we grew up very scared of is one we're trying to conserve," Wawerchak said.
Humans have often killed great whites out of fear or in pursuit of a trophy catch, Wawerchak and Bacallao said. (Look above for a YouTube video of a large shark that was caught and dragged across Huntington Beach Pier this summer.)
Great whites are "a great example of a shark we've targeted for useless reasons," Bacallao added.
The shark population has also suffered due to mass hunting across the globe. Still, there is at least one bright spot for its future: On Friday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill banning the sale of shark fins in California, which is second only to Asia in terms of shark-fin importing. Heal the Bay was one of the organizations pushing for the ban.
"It's going to have a positive impact on shark conservation and population," Wawerchak said of the ban, which goes into effect Jan. 1. "But it's going to take many decades for the population to rebuild itself."
Shark fins are often sought in Asia, where they're used to make the traditional wedding dish shark fin soup. Lobbyists for the restaurant industry, along with politicians including State Senator Ted Lieu, opposed the ban.
It "was a culturally sensitive issue, and [environmentalists] respected that … but there's a resounding change happening across the globe," Bacallao said.
At least 70 million sharks are killed annually, just so their fins can be used, according to Bacallao. The shark is caught, its fins are cut off, and the rest of the fish's body is discarded. Moreover, the long fishing lines that are used to catch sharks often have hundreds of hooks, resulting in the inadvertent catch of birds, turtles and other animals. Some shark species along the East Coast are depleted by up to 70 percent, according to Bacallao.
But in another sign of hope, sharks appear to be gaining some additional allies, beyond seasoned environmentalists: children.
At the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, shark-themed birthday parties are growing in popularity, Wawerchak said, and she often sees kids—who didn't grow up with Jaws—wearing T-shirts with sharks or carrying stuffed animals resembling the fish. The aquarium weekly program is one of its most popular.
"The kids are teaching their parents, who are still scared of sharks," Wawerchak said.
Swell sharks reproduce at the aquarium, and visitors can help with the effort by participating in Aquadoption, an animal adoption program. A swell shark egg can be adopted for $50, a fee that also includes free passes to the aquarium.
Even the faint of heart are unlikely to be scared by the sharks currently on exhibit at the aquarium. There are six horned sharks, five swell sharks, four leopard sharks and one angel shark (in the behind-the-scenes area). All of them are small in size; the biggest is three and a half feet in length.
"It gives people comfort to see that sharks can be docile," Wawerchak said.
And for that, sharks owe the aquarium a meal.
Have you spotted a shark in Santa Monica Bay? Tell us in the comments box below.