Zhadi's Den

Random essays on wine, writing, moving to San Francisco, surfing, cats (exotic and otherwise) and zombies...depending on my mood.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Sharks and Surfing - CAUTION: GORY PHOTOS!

I was walking my dog Boska on the beach yesterday late afternoon, and came across what I first thought was a large dog sleeping on the beach. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a large dead seal with substantial chunks missing in places and what definitely looked like bite wounds on the parts that were left.

(To the right and the left is what it looks like when a shark attacks. The lucky man on the left survived.)

Aside from the fact that it was grimly fascinating (I had to discourage Boska from closer examination), the discovery brought home a reality that I'd acknowledged in a half-assed, theoretical kind of way: there really are sharks out there. Big ones.

I learned to surf at Pacific Beach in San Diego (an adventure detailed in a previous blog), and while I was afraid of many things (waves over two feet high and surfboards, including my own, topping the list), sharks were never really a consideration. Sure, they were out there. In 2003, there were at least three Great Whites spotted swimming off of San Onofre Beach, a popular surfing spot south of San Clemente. The local surfers didn't seem too fazed by the sightings or ensuing warnings. Hey, if they weren't worried, why should I care? From all reports, these sharks had staked the waters of San Onofre as their home turf. Pacific Beach was at least 60 or so miles south.

When I moved up to San Francisco, I took my surfboards with me. I now live off of Ocean Beach, a popular spot for surfing, so I figured that once I could afford a heavier wetsuit (the water is COLD up here!), I'd start by practicing my skills in the white water before paddling out beyond the break. I was excited at the thought of surfing new territory. I talked to local surfers, watched them out in the water, and checked into wetsuit prices.

My enthusiasm was somewhat diminished by signs posted along the beach that sited rough surf and very heavy undertows, as well as "People have drowned while attempting to swim and wade here." Hmm.

I also was somewhat deterred by the fact that I didn't have a surfing buddy. Gayle wanted to learn, but I had doubts as to whether I was good enough to teach her, let alone keep either of us safe in what sounded like dangerous conditions. Sure, I can swim and I have enough smarts to paddle parallel to the beach if caught in an undertow, but I'd also always been in the water with people much more experienced, in much kinder conditions. I didn't feel prepared to take responsibility for someone else's safety.

And finally, Ocean Beach was close to the Red Triangle. To quote a PBS website:

"Lying between San Francisco and Monterey, the Red Triangle includes beaches where elephant seals go to molt, and offshore sites where great whites feed on unwary prey. When not prowling the Red Triangle, great white sharks search the kelp forest for sea lions, or roam the open ocean. Their migration is predictable. Each year they turn up at the same place at the same time, occasionally crossing paths with humans who still swim and surf in these dangerous waters."

If anyone has seen the PBS special on Great Whites (some up to 30 feet in length) that actually launch themselves out of the water when hitting their prey, you'll understand why being anywhere near the Red Triangle would make a person stop and think before wading out to sea. Still, the concept of shark attack never seemed the least bit possible to me until Boska and I found that dead seal.

I decided to do some online research about shark sightings in California waters and all I can say is, yup, there are a lot of 'em out there. One of the accounts reads as follows:

Ocean Beach — On May 1, 2005, Sven Vahsen and Tobias Golling were surfing Ocean Beach near Noriega Street, San Francisco. It was about 8:15 AM and they had been in the water for 90 minutes. The sky was clear and the water glassy with the faces of breaking waves ranging from 1– 9 feet. The depth of the water was about 9 feet with visibility limited to only a few feet. Vahsen recalled; “My friend and I were sitting on our surfboards waiting for waves. We were sitting in a location where the 2 meter and larger waves would break. I think we can infer from this that there must have been sandbanks about 2-3 meters under the water to cause the breaking waves, with deeper water in between. My legs were hanging in the water. We were quite far out for surfing, perhaps 150 meters. A third friend and two other surfers were in the same area, but closer to the beach. I suddenly noticed a shark fin outside of where I was sitting, about 15 meters away from me. The shark was moving very slowly, if at all, towards the north. It did not appear interested in us. I was looking for incoming waves when I spotted the fin. It submerged after a few seconds, and I did not see it again. I consulted with my two friends and one of them had also seen the fin briefly. We decided to paddle in. We paddled towards the beach calmly, and rode the next suitable waves towards the shore. We warned another surfer who did not seem very concerned. Once I described the fin he seemed to believe perhaps it really was a shark, but he stayed out in the water. The fin was triangular in shape, almost black in color, and about 1.5 feet tall. It was only slightly asymmetrical in shape. I noticed that the fin had some 'structure' on the trailing edge of the fin. It looked like there were streaks, almost like the hairs on a paint brush. That end of the fin looked soft. After browsing pictures of shark fins on the web, I think we saw a great white shark.” White Sharks are known to frequent this area. Caution should be exercised when utilizing this location for your ocean water activities. Please report any shark sighting, encounter or attack to the Shark Research Committee.

I live seven blocks from the stretch of beach in question.

I then looked at shark attack statistics and discovered that 38 percent of shark attack victims on the Pacific Coast are surfers. Divers are the unlucky popular target of choice at 46 percent, while swimmers (11 percent) and kayakers (a measly 5 percent) seem relatively safe. The majority of shark attacks were done by Great Whites, the same species made infamous in JAWS.

For those interested in learning how to minimize the risks of being shark bait, check out this website for the Florida Museum of Natural History My favorite bit of advice? Never harass a shark if you see one. The fact that it needs to be said proves that there really is a reason for the yearly Darwin Awards...

From a San Diego Union-Tribune article from August, 2003

San Diego Lifeguard Lt. Brant Bass said the white shark sightings at San Onofre have piqued the public's interest and many are asking if local waters are safe.

"We tell them that sharks are out there and there are no guarantees," Bass said, adding that humans have an edge.

"The statistics are in our favor," he said.

My boards are back in San Diego, after a recent road trip to visit friends and family, housed quite happily with my buddy and surf guru, James. I'm looking forward to the next trip down and some serious surf time in familiar territory.

Will I surf up here? Probably. Until then, I'm happy to keep those statistics in our favor.


  • At 3:49 PM, Blogger FreeThinker said…

    Whoa, dude! Those are some gnarly photos of shark attacks! (well, I shouldn't be squeamish: I have photos of dead people on my blog!)

    We must beware of sharks in the courtroom and the surf!

    But if you hear a knock on your door and a voice saying "land shark" have no fear.
    Unless your name is Gilda.

    ;-)~ FreeThoughtGuy

  • At 8:28 AM, Blogger zhadi said…

    I was very pleased with myself for figuring out how to use photos from other websites...and they ARE gnarly, aren't they?

  • At 2:56 PM, Blogger Other Lisa said…


    Now all you need is a zombie shark. But a zombie fighting one is pretty dang close!

  • At 3:15 PM, Blogger zhadi said…

    Well, since the zombie bit the shark, by all zombie disease legend/theory/science, that shark should sicken, die, and join the ranks of the walking...er...swimming dead.

  • At 8:52 AM, Anonymous Dave said…

    Holy crap... It realy brings it home when you see what a bite they can take out of you. I'm glad that statistics are in our favor -doesn't that make you feel safe? Mmmm...no, not really...


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