Interview: Chuck Patterson Encounters Two Great White Sharks at San Onofre

Although shark-related fatalities in Southern California are exceptionally rare (according to the Shark Research Committee, only eleven shark attacks in California over the past 58 years were fatal), shark sightings have become alarmingly common. In 2009, at least 49 shark sightings were reported at San Onofre State Beach, and shark expert Ralph Collier believes the local shark population is actually much larger.

On Tuesday, August 10, 2010 around 2:30 PM, accomplished big-wave surfer and Dana Point resident, Chuck Patterson brought that statistic to life by capturing his encounter with one of the two Great White Sharks on a GoPro Camera. After reviewing the pulse-quickening footage, we got in touch with Patterson to find out more.

Chuck, you posted a pretty amazing video on the Internet this morning. Tell us about it.

I actually surfed the day before [at San Onofre]. I’ve seen a bunch of those sharks for a long time, and I’ve been dying to get some footage of them, and finally everything worked out great and just putting it up on Facebook, I was like, “Holy crap, I can’t believe how many people have seen it.” I put it up early this morning before work and I’ve probably gotten about 180 – 200 emails through Facebook or whatever.

But the day before I went for a long paddle and caught a couple of waves [in the same area]. We saw two sharks that afternoon and they kind of messed around with us for ten minutes or so, and I’ve always wanted to get a good shot of them and every time I have a water camera in my pocket, the minute I pull it out, they’re gone.

So finally, I ended up deciding that I’ve got all these GoPro Cameras, so I might as well do something where I maybe can reach out to them and not startle them. So I just went out with the intent to go for a paddle and took it with me with the attitude, “If I see one great. And if not, no big deal.” As luck would have it, within five minutes of being in the water a bigger shark kind of startled me, and then by the time I was getting all my camera stuff, when I was extending the pole it kind of made a lot of noise, and the thing took off. They don’t like that, or at least that one didn’t like the loud metal noise against the board. And then five minutes later, “Boom!” That seven-footer came around out of nowhere and hung out and was really just curious. It kept doing circles around me for about ten minutes.

So you actually saw two Great Whites Sharks while you were out there. But there’s only one on film, right?

Yeah. I had [the camera] at my feet, and the bigger shark came around and caught me off guard …I startled it I guess, because I kind of leaned towards it, and it did a quick turn and hit the tail of my board with its tail and shot away. I was super startled then. I thought maybe this wasn’t a good idea, because that was a much bigger shark than I had expected, and then I fumbled around and pulled the extension on my pole out and kept hammering my board doing a funky noise with it like a paddle hitting the board, and [the shark] came close and then suddenly that noise made it do a wider circle and I never saw it again, which was weird you know?

My heart was definitely racing at that time going, “Maybe I’m in a little over my head,” because I was easy a couple hundred yards from anybody. And I was like, “Maybe I should go…” like comfort in numbers.

The juvenile Great White's Patterson spotted were estimated to be around 6-8ft. Enough to scary most surfers. Photo: Patterson
The juvenile Great White's Patterson spotted were estimated to be around 6-8ft. Enough to scary most surfers. Photo: Patterson

So you were alone?

I was alone the whole time and then a girl came paddling over because she saw what was going on and was curious and I said, “One shark here is pretty big, so be careful,” then the second one came and he was kind of checking me out. He was doing circles around me so I was trying to paddle in a circle as well so I could keep a view on him. So I took a couple of photos with my camera and then switched it to video. And then I was probably messing around with him for about ten or twelve minutes and then he took off and I never saw him again after that.

You said you’ve encountered sharks at San Onofre before?

I talked to a couple of Marine Biologists and they were giving me insight, saying that San Onofre has been a breeding ground and having juvenile sharks for over fifty years. I’ve seen them probably four or five times out of every ten times I go down there and paddle. You see them a lot. I’ve seen a couple of Great Whites, but I see a ton of Makos; they have a different nose and are a lot more slender. I’ve seen one big Great White a couple of times. Maybe a 12 or 13-footer and then a 9-footer, but I hadn’t seen them for a while, until yesterday.

It doesn’t seem like you’re very fearful of them.

Well, I’ve been around them and seen them so much that, I mean, they’re only seven or eight feet. If I was swimming in the water that’d be a whole different story. You know? Or if I was paddling on a shortboard. But being on the standup and seeing them so much, it almost gives you a little false sense of security or at least a good vantage point to be able to be a little more calm and study them. They’re insane creatures; I’ve been chased out of the water when I was a little kid by some big sharks in Northern Cal, so I definitely have a high respect for them, but at the same time I love watching the whole Shark Week thing.

It seems like you didn’t feel very threatened while you were out there.

I didn’t [feel threatened] because you start to understand them a little bit, you know? I understood that they’re there as juveniles. And they’re really big into eating grunion and a lot of the rays and stuff just to get bigger, and once they’re around eight feet, from what I understand, they change their diet and go for mammals and leave that area and go for bigger and better things. As far as being man-eaters and all that, I guess if they were that aggressive someone would have already been hit. They’ve been around San Onofre and Trestles forever. We just never see them, but with a standup paddleboard we see them all the time now. It’s cool when you’re paddling and then, “Woah,” catch you off guard. When you eat it or are surfing without a leash it makes you swim to your board extra fast.

The last still image before Patterson began filming the encounter. Photo: Patterson
One of the last still images before Patterson began filming the encounter. Photo: Patterson

And that was at Dog Patch at San Onofre.

Well, it was at Dog Patch but way over right in front of the power plant.

That’s a great thing about the video. You’ve got landmarks. The nuclear reactors in the background provide a frame of reference that lets you know exactly where you are.

It was funny because I had the photos and guys were like, “Dude, that’s a shot of an aquarium!” and I’m all, “Bro, I wouldn’t drive to the aquarium to go to that trouble.” Then once they saw the video they’re all, “Oh, my God!” Because I didn’t edit it or anything; I just put it up there for fun.

It’s funny because I’m going down with one of my buddies who’s a Marine Biologist and we’re going to go for another paddle and see if we can find that one or a couple of other ones–who knows?