Five Weird Ways To Go

It's not all sharks and headfirst trips to the bottom that should worry you while surfing

If a wipeout doesn't get ya, here are five other things to be afraid of in the water. (Travis Watanabe survived) Photo: Noyle

While surfing is not particularly dangerous, spending lots of time in an unpredictable ocean, with Lord knows what swimming below and around you, and reefs, rocks, sandbars, and sharp, pointy surfboards all in play, the possibility of an unpleasant death always lurks. Here are five weird ways that your next session could be your last.

Jellyfish Sting
The box jellyfish, with sub species all over the tropical and sub-tropical oceans, belong to the unfortunate list of the most deadly animals on earth. Dozens of people are killed every year by these gelatinous beasties, which, unique among jellyfish species, actually swim rather than merely drift. Also called “sea wasps,” box jellies can sprout as many as 15 tentacles from their bell-shaped body, each of which can be 10 feet long, and each fitted with thousands of stinging nematocysts that deliver some of the most toxic venom known to science. One ounce can kill 60 people. Death comes by way of cardiac arrest, which can occur in as little as two minutes. Survive the stings? You’ve got tentacle-shaped scarring for life.

Bacterial and Viral Infections
Hepatitis A. Staph infections. Flesh-eating bacteria. Leptospirosis. Encephalitis. Vibrio Vulnificus. Depending on where in the world you’re surfing, paddling out after a rainstorm or a sewage spill (often, sadly, the same thing in populated areas) exposes you to a host of nasty infections. Most of the time, you’re just in for an uncomfortable and intimate experience with a toilet. But in extreme cases, your life can be on the line. Staph and Strep infections among surfers have resulted in amputations, even in Southern California. British rowing champion Andy Holmes died in 2010 after contracting Leptospirosis. A Honolulu man died of Vibrio Vulnificus after falling into the Ala Wai harbor after a sewage spill. So, maybe it’s best avoid the surf for three days after a rain spell after all.

Lightning Strike
“When thunder roars, go indoors!” charmingly warns the lightning safety section of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website. But lightning is no joke. More than 100 people are killed in the U.S. each year by lightning, more than half of whom are involved in outdoors recreation. Not surprisingly, warm, moist climates with lots of humidity are prone to lightning storms. Unfortunately, they’re also where you want to surf. People walking on the beach and boating are killed by lightning somewhat often; surfers specifically are killed at a less frequent clip, but it does occur. Twelve surfers at Tokyo’s Shonan Beach were simultaneously hit by a bolt of lightning in the 1980s, killing half of them instantly. An 18-year-old surfer was struck dead by lightning in North Carolina in 2008. Saltwater and humans both conduct electricity, and while surfing, you’re generally the tallest object around. Not good.

Seal Attack
Depending on where you surf, seals can be: non-existent; small and cute; or huge and terrifying bags of muscle, whiskers, and teeth. Representing the latter group are the menacing leopard seal, native to Antarctica, but often spotted in Australia, New Zealand, and South America; and the elephant seal, both northern and southern varieties. Unafraid? In 2003, a leopard seal dragged a researcher underwater to her death in Antarctica. In 2007, a particularly surly elephant seal nicknamed “Nibbles” bit a surfer in California’s Sonoma County during a rampage that also saw Nibbles attack harbor seals and the occasional beach dog.

Drowning
Don’t think this one’s weird? While a huge set looming outside with you sitting feebly in the impact zone may induce panic, deaths from drowning while surfing are exceedingly rare. Statistics are difficult to come by, but it’s safe to say that less than 100 surfers worldwide drown each year. This out of a world surfing population that is estimated at around 23 million. That’s millions and millions of sessions each year, resulting in only a few dozen drownings. The vast majority of ocean-related drownings occur among people who are inexperienced beach swimmers, whether on a surfboard or not. This doesn’t mean that you should paddle merrily into a situation that’s beyond your ability. But maybe keep it in mind next time you’re losing your shit when an eight foot mushburger cleans up your local beachbreak.