By Pete Thomas
When a large humpback whale washed ashore dead at Dockweiler State Beach on June 30, there was concern that the carcass would attract sharks.
Keith Poe knew it'd attract sharks, so when the whale was towed offshore for at least the third time last week – it kept drifting back in during previous attempts – the renowned shark tagger found the carcass 10 miles out in the hope of tagging and releasing sharks for science.
But the sharks ended up tagging Poe. Great white sharks, including one measuring about 18 feet, slammed his 24-foot boat sporadically over a three-day span, and one strike shoved his vessel several feet across the water.
“Words cannot describe how loud the impact was around my head [while I was] inside the boat’s v-berth,” Poe stated Saturday in a Facebook description of his extraordinary encounter. “The boat was full-on attacked 7 different times… usually at sunrise or sunset.”
The hull of Poe's vessel, Shark Tagger, is etched with scrapes caused by shark teeth (see the accompanying video).
Poe, who was operating with a tagging permit from the Marine Conservation Science Institute, arrived at the bloated whale carcass at sunset last Wednesday. Over the next two days he counted at least seven individual white sharks, most of them huge females.
The most violent attack occurred Thursday night at 7 p.m., as Poe was trying to nap inside the v-berth at the bow. The strike occurred very close to Poe’s head, and it jarred him awake.
“I thought a sailboat slammed into me because I didn’t hear a motor,” Poe said. “I was sure the fiberglass was broken through, then I saw the teeth marks and was blown away. It scared the hell out of me.”
The other attacks were more subtle. The sharks, somewhat frenzied, might have confused the hull of Poe's boat with the whale carcass. But these could simply be the actions of territorial apex predators.
He was concerned, but confident that the boat could withstand the shark attacks, and kept baits out in the hope of reeling in and tagging a shark or two.
“I only hooked up two, and lost them,” Poe bemoaned.
When he returned to port Saturday afternoon, after the sharks had abandoned the increasingly putrid whale carcass, Poe discovered the bite marks on his hull.
On Sunday, Poe said, a friend inspecting the bow of his boat discovered part of a shark’s tooth “wedged in there tight, about a half-inch deep.”
Poe, who has tagged thousands of mako sharks and was featured recently in an episode of "Shark Week," is among experts who believe that populations of large shark species Southern California are increasing.
As for humpback whale, an adult female nicknamed Wally, she was towed to sea yet another time Sunday, after drifting into Orange County waters. The cause of Wally's death is not yet known.
–Great white shark images are courtesy of Keith Poe. The humpback whale image, captured Sunday, is courtesy of Mark Giradeau/Orange County Outdoors