The stretch of beach in north San Diego County where a 35-year-old woman nearly lost her life in a shark attack last weekend lures surfers with its legendary waves and wealth of surf breaks.
But something about it also draws great white sharks, experts say.
Chris Lowe, a professor of marine biology and director of the Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach, said his research confirms what surfers have long noticed: San Onofre is one of Southern California’s white shark “hot spots.”
Tagging data, fishermen’s catch and eyewitness observations seem to bear that out. San Onofre — along with Ventura, Santa Monica Bay and Huntington Beach — is a nursery for the ocean predators.
It was near San Onofre’s popular “Church” surf spot that Leeanne Ericson of Vista was attacked about 6:30 p.m. Saturday. A shark believed to be a great white bit off the back of her right leg, down to the bone, and pulled her beneath the waves.
On Monday, she remained in critical condition at Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla, authorities said.
Ericson had been swimming near the surf line while her boyfriend surfed nearby, witnesses said. When she disappeared under the water, he dove in after her and pulled her onto his board.
A group of people on the shore saw the commotion and rushed in to help. Those quick actions likely saved Ericson’s life, her family has said.
Though shark attacks are rare, six out of the 12 that have taken place in San Diego County since 2004 were at San Onofre, according to figures from the Shark Research Committee, a nonprofit organization that tracks shark attacks on the West Coast.
Other reports from San Onofre and surrounding areas confirm that white sharks are regular visitors there.
Recent videos showed sharks breaching in the water beyond the surf break, and in 2010 a paddle boarder captured GoPro footage of a baby white shark circling his board. In nearby San Clemente, at least three fishermen landed white sharks from the shore or pier between 2013 and 2016.
Lowe said it’s not clear why the sharks linger there, but that San Onofre’s abundant food supply could be part of it.
“It’s a very productive habitat, (with) stingray, halibut, croakers and barred sand-bass, usually species that are living on the bottom,” Lowe said. “These are species that are easy for them to catch.”
On Saturday evening, six friends were playing Frisbee on the shoreline at San Onofre and thinking about surfing when they heard someone yelling “shark.”
One of the group, Hunter Robinson, spotted the injured Ericson and her boyfriend and started heading toward the couple, running increasingly faster over the punishing cobblestone reef that covers the shallow waters along the beach.
“At first we were just going to help out,” said the 34-year-old San Clemente resident. “We didn’t know what was going on until about 50 feet away (when) the waves cleared up and I saw her leg.”
Right beside Robinson was his friend, Thomas Williams, with Grant Parker and Wade Nevitt following close behind. A nearby Marine who saw what was happening rushed to help as well.
When the men reached Ericson and her boyfriend, Ericson wasn’t moving but was still conscious.
“At that point it sunk in,” said Williams, a Navy veteran who took an EMT course in September in hopes of getting a job with an ambulance service. “We were looking at the wound and you knew you had to tourniquet it, but I didn’t know what to use. Then Hunter said ‘grab the surf leash.’”
Together they worked carefully to lift Ericson and loop the plastic line around her leg before tying it off. They continued the brutal slog over the slippery cobblestone rocks, carefully carrying the surfboard so Ericson didn’t spill into the water.
As alarming as shark encounters may seem, they’re rarely a threat to people, said Nicole Nasby Lucas, a researcher with the Oceanside-based Marine Conservation Science Institute.
Mature white sharks prefer the open ocean, or marine mammal rookeries at the Farallon or Channel Islands. The younger sharks feed exclusively on fish and don’t start hunting seals or sea lions until they’re about 10 feet long, scientists said. So it’s unusual for one to bite a human, as it did on Saturday.
“Generally it’s not a threat for people, because they only eat fish,” as juveniles, she said. “It could be the only time there would be danger from a juvenile would be if you are swimming in a school of fish.”
Young white sharks tend to swim just outside the surf break, but sometimes come closer; Lowe said he has caught them in water ranging from 12 feet to just three feet deep.
“Smaller sharks can definitely get into that shallow water,” he said.
While the baby sharks favor the three northern beaches, he said juveniles from 1 to 3 years old — about six to nine feet long — often gravitate to San Onofre.
“If those other places are the nursery, let’s think of that as preschool for white sharks,” he said.
As seals and sea lions have recovered from near extinction, white sharks, which hunt marine mammals as adults, have also flourished. Jellyfish, a favored prey of juveniles, are also on the rise, Lowe said.
“It seems like the number of juveniles is going up, so from everything we can tell, the population is healthy and increasing,” Nasby said.
With sharks swimming alongside people, beachgoers should be “predator smart” and avoid remote locations, murky water and river mouths, which can deposit decaying animals that may attract sharks, Lowe said.
“Millions of people go in the water each year without incident, so they need to be aware, but they don’t need to be afraid to go in the water,” he said.
As Ericson’s rescuers were getting her ashore, they spoke to her, trying to keep her awake. She responded faintly, saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’”
Once on shore, they applied towels to her leg to try to slow the bleeding and continued to move her on the surfboard as quickly as possible to the parking lot to meet an emergency crew.
Thomas was checking her pulse, and within minutes an ambulance pulled up.
The medics wrapped Ericson’s leg and put her in the vehicle while her boyfriend tried to comfort her. She was then airlifted to the hospital.
Her mother, Christine McKnerney Leidle, wrote on a GoFundMe page that her daughter is expected to undergo several surgeries and that her recovery will be lengthy.
On Monday, she told NBC 7/39 that Ericson, a single mother of three, was in a medically induced coma.
“I can’t imagine my daughter being in that water and the shark taking her under,” Leidle said in the interview. “She must have been so scared, so scared.”