White Shark Attacks and The Devil’s Teeth

Young Surfer dies in Fatal Shark Attack

In grade school we learn to look both ways before crossing the street. We know that we share the ocean with sharks.  Why is it such a shock when there is a shark attack when the sharks are frequenting our waters?  It’s a risk, a known risk, yet it still stirs something primal when we hear of a white shark encounter.

It’s Sharktober. Surfers in the red triangle have known for decades that the large white sharks visit our California waters every August through October.  Over 50% of the shark attacks in California have occurred during these months.  Over 50% of the white shark attacks occur in the red triangle, the region encompassing Point Reyes, the Farallon Islands and down to Big Sur.

But statistics don’t ease the actual pain of loss from a shark attack. It is sad that while we are celebrating sharks here in San Francisco a body boarder has just died off the coast north of Point Conception.  The waters along that remote shore are turbid, rich with seals and sea lions, and unfortunately, a body boarder looks too much like the natural prey of the ocean’s top predator.  Like the great majority of attacks however, the shark bit and did not return to bite again, but the victim died from blood loss and shock before he could get aid. My colleague Dr. John McCosker has recently said to the press- “your best chance of survival is to kayak or dive or surf where others can help you.”  That is sound advice, but in this case the surfer's friend could not get aid in time.  

Devils Teeth

Ironically, last night I attended the premiere of Bob Talbot’s film on the Farallones, Sanctuary in the Sea featuring white sharks and a man who has likely had more encounters with white sharks than anyone else in history. 

A beautiful rendition of the short film The Devils Teeth writ large, this HD production features the career of Pt Reyes diver Ron Elliot and his experience diving at the Farallon Islands.  Talbot being Talbot, the film has extraordinary images of wildlife from Common Murres, to Sea Lions to the star, the Great White Shark. Diving alone for sea urchins, Elliot- a local legend- recounts his experiences and his visions of being in the water with white sharks over decades.  Also a cameraman, Elliot’s images of the largest white sharks in the world cruising past in the dim obscurity are ghostly, yet strangely peaceful.  Accompanied by the surf sounds of the Mermen, this film is dramatic, uplifting and motivates us to appreciate sharks and all the wildlife of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary.  The film will be screening regularly at The California Academy of Sciences.

As a shark conservationist associated with the California Academy of Sciences, we have been celebrating sharks in a month long awareness effort called Sharktoberfest. These events have been intended to raise awareness on threats to sharks worldwide from overfishing to shark finning.  On average, five people die of shark attacks each year. On average, humans kill one hundred million sharks.  Those are odds not very favorable to the sharks.

Statistics are statistics. The odds are we wont be attacked when surfing.  The odds are we will survive a white shark attack.  But the odds can’t ameliorate the loss of a fellow surfer. My heart goes out to the family and friends of the young man. The ocean can be a dangerous place, and there is something beautiful, even essential about wildness and wild animals. Just like crossing the street, surfers and other water men and women take their risks willingly when they enter the ocean.  

As the survivor of a white shark attack, my friend and fellow advocate Jonathan Kathrein has an interesting perspective.  “It’s their ocean, we are just visitors.” 

Lets visit the ocean with respect and caution, not just during Sharktober, but all year round.  Tomorrow night at our shark benefit, we will share a moment of silence for the surfer who was unfortunate to become a statistic.