By Matthew Bian
Sunday, June 14, 1959, was a slightly overcast day, with a mild temperature of 70 degrees. It was also a bad day to be in the water.
Nevertheless, 33-year-old Robert Pamperin and his companion Gerald Lehrer were free diving for abalone in about 40 feet of water, at Alligator Head off the west end of La Jolla Cove at around 5 p.m. The two began to slowly drift apart, until separated by about 30 feet, Lehrer heard his companion cry out, “Help me!”
Lehrer whipped around quickly, to see his friend unnaturally high out of the water, missing his dive mask. He glanced under, to see Pamperin thrashing with his lower half in the jaws of a twenty foot great white shark, dragged under the surface in an ominous cloud of crimson. Lehrer took a breath of air, and dived. The shark, which he first mistook for an orca, was lying on the sandy bottom, jerking its head from side to side, in what Lehrer later described as either an attempt to swallow or spit out Pamperin. He returned to the surface and dived down again, waving his arms frantically in attempts to scare the shark off.
Realizing his actions were inconsequential, Lehrer swam towards the shore to alert lifeguards. Ten divers spent around two hours searching the attack site for Pamperin’s body, with no results. A helicopter observed Pamperin’s blue swim fin floating on the surface, along with a dead pinniped, but not the shark itself. Several hours later, his burlap sack containing two abalone washed up at La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club.
Hours before the attack, blood from speared yellowtail and a sailor who cut himself on the rocks was released into the area. Second, and perhaps most significant, a dead whale had washed up onto La Jolla shores the night before. Surface currents and overnight winds dispersed the scent, likely drawing the shark in.
A year later in November, three geologists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography found a skeleton that roughly matched the profile of Pamperin, 650 yards off the coast. And so ends the story of the La Jolla shark attack of 1959.
If this historical event is making you reconsider going to the beach, there’s still no reason to be fearful. Despite the myths perpetrated by Hollywood, there are on average four fatal shark attacks per year, compared to the 100 million sharks killed due to human activity annually. Great whites are less common now than they were in the 1900s, and statistically speaking, you’re more likely to be crushed by a vending machine, or die falling into a hole at the beach, than you are by a shark attack.
But why is it that shark attacks manage to incite concern, terror, and attract attention to the magnitude that they do? Why do they grab our collective attention and lurk in the darkest, most apocalyptic thoughts of those who frequent San Diego beaches, despite being one of the most unlikely ways to die?
While certainly a portion of the buzz and sensationalism can be attributed to the movie Jaws, stories of animal attacks and maulings also invoke a primal and innate fear inside of us. That fear is reminiscent of a time when people and other animals were locked in a battle for survival. However, nowadays, the relationship with our former competitors is worth unpacking.
From the California grizzly bear to the Javan tiger, grey wolf, Barbary lion, and many more, we have shot, trapped, poisoned, and deforested our way to the top of the food chain, causing terrestrial mammal populations to have decreased by an average of 83%. Marine predators haven’t fared much better. Large carnivores have historically been seen as pests, vermin, and roadblocks to progress and industrialization. By preying on cattle and other game animals, they were thought to serve no ecological function, and became the victims of wholesale slaughter.
As the tide of human influence swells, apex predators are left in peril, becoming a vestigial remnant along with their disappearing homelands. They are left to embrace the fast moving pace of environmental change or to suffer in its wake. With the projected growth of both the human population itself and per capita resource consumption, an additional area the size of Canada will be needed for agriculture by 2050. Urban centers are expected to cover three times as much land in 2030 as they did in 2000. The land for both these expansions will likely come at the expense of what wild areas remain.
Grizzlies occupy about 2% of their historic range in the United States, tigers occupy 4%, and lions come in at a relatively healthier 10%. Increasingly out of place, large carnivores have begun to retreat to what corners of the wild are left, leaving them with an uncertain and insecure future in the the modern age. Perhaps that future will be behind the bars of zoos.
When an animal attacks a human, we become surprised, shocked, and sometimes fearful. It challenges our position at the top of the food chain, and reminds us that we are no more superior than other prey animals. To a large extent, we have removed ourselves from our environment, enough to fool ourselves into thinking that we are separate. When we are reminded that idea is nothing but an illusion, it scares us. It is a cold shock of the indifference of nature.
Humans feel entitled to life, yet forget that just like any other animal, we are entitled to nothing. Even with the decline of large carnivores, a new competitor has emerged, in the form of a virus. Try as we might to control the natural world, we are still at its mercy, just like every other living thing on earth.
Matthew Bian is a sophomore at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla.