It should have been comforting when I read that the chances of being attacked by a shark were the same as being struck by lightning—but it wasn’t. The reality was I was more likely to be attacked by a shark because I surfed in places where sharks have been spotted. I also spent a lot of time swimming, diving, and snorkeling in and around the ocean. Still, it seemed a remote possibility—yet it was my greatest fear. (During Shark Week on the Discovery Channel my fears were heightened even more.) It didn’t stop me from going in the ocean, but I can’t say I enjoyed it as much as I should. Then it happened . . . twice.
My first shark encounter was at Scripps, a popular beach next to the marine institute with the same name. There are often shark sightings here because there is a very deep underwater canyon just offshore. I was out surfing on a mid-morning summer day with my good friend Harton Anderson. We were on the north side of the pier, all alone. This was around the time I was suffering from extreme high blood pressure, but didn’t know it yet. Shortly after we paddled out my nose started bleeding and wouldn’t stop. It was warm, sunny day and the waves were super fun and I couldn’t bring myself to paddle in—which is what you should do when bleeding in the ocean.
About 20 minutes into the session Harton and I were sitting on our boards waiting for the next set of waves when I was bumped from below. The large shark then swam underneath my friend’s board and out about twenty yards before starting to circle back. Fortunately, a wave came and we both rode it all the way in (on our bellies) and up and onto the sand (we were that freaked out.) I didn’t go back in the water for a week, but as time past I was able to comfort myself by the fact that I was bleeding before, and if it weren’t for that, the shark would have never came in that close.
Until recently, my other shark encounters weren’t really close calls. My friend Bruce Batson and I were snorkeling at Tunnels Beach on Kauai when we both sensed something in our periphery, even though we didn’t see it. A week later Bethany Hamilton lost her arm, to a Tiger shark in the same exact spot. On a surf trip deep in Baja Mexico a buddy and I (Darko Radovanovic) surfed a secluded and semi-secret spot in the middle of nowhere. I wasn’t afraid (at the time) because I didn’t know there were Great White and Bull sharks there. Less than a month after we returned safely home, two surfers were attacked (one died) in and around the same location where we were. During the summer months I started swimming in the ocean when the surf was flat. My favorite place to do so was Fletcher Cove. A swimmer was attacked by a Great White in the exact spot I was swimming days after I had been there.
To combat my fear of sharks (both rational and irrational) I took extreme measures. I went on shark feeding dives—and although these were supposed to be deemed safe, I had two close calls on Huahine, and Moorea in Tahiti. I studied everything I could about sharks to help ease my mind about my chances of being bitten and find ways to avoid times and places where sharks are more prevalent—river mouths and murky water, areas with seals and sea lions, and getting in the water at dawn or dusk. Things were going great until last summer when I went bodysurfing in front of my house (at dusk) and was bumped by something b-i-g and strong. When I pushed it away I could feel the shape of the creature and I felt the thrust of its tail as it went past. I swam in as fast as I could and after I stopped shaking I went to report the incident to the lifeguards, but they were gone for the night.
Am I still afraid of sharks? You betcha. Has it kept me from going in the ocean? Not a chance. If what we want is more powerful than the fear involved in getting it, we can overcome. If I weren’t an ocean enthusiast, I would have quit after my first shark encounter. Now, I feel the fear and go in the water anyway.