A three-foot dorsal fin headed straight for Jim Kakuk and me as we paddled from Point Tomales toward Point Reyes. My mind was electrified as I sat there with mouth agape as the sea monster sped toward us. It would be upon us in one second. What to do? Then the 20-foot predator rushed between our boats and peered up at me with a big blue eye. It was not Jaws. It was some kind of mutant dolphin. It continued on and disappeared; we sighed with relief.
It was not a white shark out to get us, but it could have been. We were treading on a white shark breeding ground and had every right to be nervous. A year before an eight-foot white shark circled my boat as I sat eating lunch near Punta Gorda on the Lost Coast. I stopped eating and paddled five miles to safety, thinking I might be somebody’s sandwich. Nothing happened, but still, I speculated.
Just last week a dude was killed by a giant white shark (the paper reported that it was 20-feet long and weighed up to two tons) at Surf Beach on Vandenburg Air Force Base north of Santa Barbara. Concurrently, a “monster white shark” was spotted at a beach in Australia. Even though it’s true that your chances of being munched by a shark are slim, it still gives me the willies. I respect great whites, tiger and bull sharks, hammerheads—all sharks. But I’m not keen on encountering one while I’m in the water. How about you?
I have never thought it would be “cool” to interact with a big shark from the safety of my boat, unless my boat was a ship. Once, when on the deck of a Navy warship anchored off the island of Tinian, I remember spying a 16-foot tiger shark prowling in a lagoon I had been swimming in alone over the past week. That ended my daily swims. Another time I was in the Philippines and a blue shark was swimming about with me. I was snorkeling and quickly but smoothly swam into shore and got out.
I’ve always hated those documentary films which show divers feeding great whites from boats and shark cages. They remind me of the guy who hung out with grizzlies, right up until he got eaten. It’s not smart to perceive big sharks as friendly to humans. Big sharks are not misunderstood nice guys who had a bad upbringing—they are top predators. Only the orca is higher on the food chain (yes, they also scare me).
Our encounter with the blue-eyed ultradolphin got Jim and me thinking, what would we do should we be attacked by a 20-foot great white—or any big ocean creature, such as a Stellar sea lion or elephant seal (which we had already had scary experiences with)? We Tsunami Rangers spend a lot of time envisioning various maritime scenarios and planning how we will deal with them. Then, when a rehearsed scenario occurs, we do better. Here’s what we came up with regarding how to deal with sharks:
- Avoid paddling in known shark attack areas. For example, we do not paddle at Ano Nuevo (near Santa Cruz, California) since kayaker Ken Kelton’s great white attack experience (he lived, but his boat didn’t). Similarly, I would not paddle along the part of Australia which houses marine crocodiles as Dave Winkworth did. Why look for trouble?
- If you do paddle in known shark-infested waters (e.g., the South African coast), be aware that sharks may attack, because they are either stupid, mad, or hungry, so plan for it (see below). If you can still comfortably paddle, knowing the situation, you will not be caught wholly off guard should a sea monster rear its head. That’s half the battle.
- If you are paddling in shark waters and are bleeding, get off the water. Sharks can smell a drop of blood from a long way off and be on scene quickly and quietly.
- If a shark appears or attacks your boat, paddle smoothly and quickly to shore as you alert your friends of the danger (yelling is okay, but sound in command, as you would to a dog, and not in a panic).
- If your friends are nearby, paddle together in a pod smoothly and quickly to shore. Everyone needs to be focused and determined, not panicky.
- If the shark attacks your body, fight back with everything you’ve got. Yes, you are in deep trouble, but you have a slim chance if you muster up everything you have and defend yourself. Poke its eyes and hit its nose. After the attack, no matter how badly you may be wounded, swim smoothly and quickly to shore. If the shark attacks again, fight back again, then continue to swim to shore. You may die anyway, but at least you have a chance if you keep your mind centered on survival instead of terror. You can worry about fright and post-traumatic stress from your hospital bed.
- If you are in a group, and you see a kayaker get attacked by a shark, paddle aggressively to the shark and ram him if you can (yes, you read correctly), then you and your group should assist the attacked person to the shore, smoothly and quickly. (see #5, above)
- Once ashore, call 911 and administer first aid to yourself and anyone attacked by a shark.
Remember, many people survive shark attacks. You can too. So contemplate the eight steps that Jim and I came up with, and see how it meshes with your ideas as to what to do should you get attacked.
One last story: A few years ago, Debrah Volturno and I were teaching an Open Coast class in Moss Beach on the northern California coast. Deb paddled up to me and said a 10-foot great white was spy hopping and eye-balling us. What do you think we did? Yes, we rounded up the class and smoothly and quickly paddled to shore. After we landed, we told them about the shark. Since they had not seen it, we decided not to frighten them by spilling the beans while they were on the water. The moral of the story: when your kayaking instructor tells you to do something smoothly and quickly, do it; don’t dawdle.