Watch "Sea of Change: The New Sharks of SoCal" Saturday at 10:30 p.m. on ABC7 and wherever you stream.
LONG BEACH, Calif. (KABC) -- The population of Great White sharks is exploding off the Southern California coast.
Researchers from the Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab said there can be as many as 40 juvenile white sharks just 50 feet from shore at some of the most popular beaches in SoCal.
Researchers call it a shark nursery, one of several along the Southern California shore.
Eyewitness News visited the area with a team of researchers from the Cal State Long Beach Shark Lab. Our boat left early in the morning from San Diego for the two-hour trip north to this new shark gathering spot, just feet from the shore.
"The first time I saw white shark near a beach, a baby white shark near a beach, I just couldn't believe it," said Chris Lowe, the head of Shark Lab. "I've been working on and off in California for almost 35 years. When I was a grad student here back in the late 80s, it was rare. I mean, I've never heard of that. Then suddenly, these small sharks started popping up at these beaches, and I could remember going out and seeing the first one, looking down going, 'That's a white shark. That's the shoreline. This is amazing.' Then it went from one to five, and to 20 and to 40, and when you see all the sharks in one area, and you go, 'Those are white sharks at one of the most busiest beaches in the world. You're like, 'How did this happen?'"
That's exactly what Lowe and his team of researchers are trying to figure out. Why are the juvenile white sharks drawn to these hot spots and how long will they stay?
Southern California surfers and swimmers are now sharing the waves with more white sharks than ever before. Plus, drone footage is giving the world a bird's eye view of what is lurking beneath the surface, often unseen by those in the water.
Lowe said the juvenile white sharks are gathering at new shark nurseries to stay safe. As soon as white sharks are born, they are on their own and have no parental care. They head to these nurseries to hide from predators and to feed on the abundant supply of stingrays.
Lowe said two main factors have contributed to the surging number of sharks: conservation and the changing climate.
Great White sharks were nearly hunted to extinction, but they are now a protected species.
Then, after 2015, a strong El Niño created a so called "blob" in the Pacific, raising ocean temperatures and pushing juvenile white sharks from Mexico north to the safety of the warming waters along the Southern California coast.
Eyewitness News reporter Leanne Suter took to the water and paddleboarded right next to the mysterious marine animals, just inches away from one of the most feared creatures on the planet.
The sharks were nearly the size of her board.
"Most of the sharks that we see are 6 to 8 feet long," said Lowe. "They're toddlers, they're three, four years old. The biggest ones we see in the nursery might be bucking 10 feet, but we just seem to pass through. They don't stay."
So what would they do? Were we invading their space, possibly triggering them to react?
Instead, we witnessed what researchers are learning: These predators wanted nothing to do with a human.
"Despite the fact that the population is going up, and more people are using the ocean than ever before, bite rates aren't dramatically increasing," said Lowe. "So that tells us we're clearly not on the menu. As long as we leave them alone, they're generally leaving us alone."
According to a Stanford study, you have 1-in-17 million chance of being attacked by a shark in California. You are more than 1,800 times more likely to drown.
Since 1950, just over 200 people have had a shark encounter in California, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
As of 2022, 15 have been fatal - all involving Great White sharks.
With more and more juvenile white sharks in the water so close to the coast, experts say the No. 1 rule to staying safe in the water is to never go in alone.
"Stay in groups. We know statistically that your chances of being bitten by a shark go down if you're in a group," said Lowe. "So swim with a friend, with a group of friends, swim together. We know that those things will keep you safer."
Also, avoid areas where you see any dead animals in the water as that could bring in sharks to feed.
Lowe said as climate change continues to fuel the warming pattern in the Pacific, white sharks will be on the move.
The rising temperature of the ocean is pushing the predators to places they've never been before.
"We're now seeing nurseries shift. We have a nursery up in Monterey that we've never seen before," said Lowe. "As time goes, as things warm, Oregon might start having those. As the ocean warms, they're getting pushed further and further north. So the bottom line is the ocean is changing. We as scientists are trying to figure out what those patterns are."