The conversation went something like this:
"I thought you guys went to Tabletops."
"We did, but we saw a huge shark out there, so we decided to paddle out here."
"Yeah, we saw a giant fin and turned around."
My brain had a little trouble working for a minute. I waited for the guy to crack a smile, or laugh, but he looked completely serious. As he related this story to his friend in a matter-of-fact tone, I sat there flummoxed. Dumbfounded. At a loss.
Adding to the weirdness of the whole situation, this guy was apparently surfing with his son and his son's friends, and now we were all sitting there on the inside at Seaside, only 500 yards or so from where they had just seen the mega-shark.
Normally I would have written this episode off as another mistaken dolphin, but there were a few mitigating factors: 1) This guy was obviously a seasoned California surfer and had seen plenty of dolphins in his life, 2) Two multiple-witness large white shark sightings had been reported in this area in the last few weeks, and 3) We were now within a stone's throw of the only Southern California shark fatality in recent history. Just to our left, Dr. David Martin had been attacked and killed by an estimated 17-foot long great white shark just three years prior.
As I came to the conclusion that this guy was probably telling the truth, I had an even weirder realization: I wasn't moving. I wasn't paddling towards shore. I wasn't even saying anything to my daughter to warn her. I was just sitting there.
And then I realized why: The surf was going off.
Apparently my addiction to good surf supersedes my shitless fear of man-eating sharks.
And this thought scared me to the core.
In an instant, I had decided that even if this guy was telling the truth, I wasn't in significant danger. After all, we were inside the surf zone riding a relatively shallow reform tucked inside of some kelp beds. Big sharks don't like shallow water, right? Also, there were plenty of other surfers out. There's safety in numbers, right?
You know your addiction is pretty bad when your denial involves becoming part of a food chain.
My denial has roots in experience, though. I have been surfing and shooting Southern California surf spots on a near-everyday basis for 32 years and have seen exactly one shark, and it was a skinny, puny six-footer. A min pin.
And, as far as I can determine, not one surfer has ever been attacked south of Point Conception by a shark of any significance (The late Dr. Martin had been swimming.)
On the other hand, it can't be denied that the odds of an impending attack on a surfer seem to be growing exponentially with time. The amount of fairly recent near-shore great white sightings in Southern California is off the charts. From Malibu to San Onofre to La Jolla, surfers, fishermen, boaters, and stand-up paddlers are reporting seeing these mini-van-sized carnivores everywhere.
An attack—or attacks—seems like a matter of when, not if.
And a conversation I happened to have with the owner of a swordfish spotter plane didn't help either. She relayed to me that the amount of white sharks the pilots were now seeing in the Santa Barbara Channel was, "getting ridiculous."
So it seems that this is our new reality. We now have to constantly be on the lookout for large triangular dorsal fins with a tracing trailer. Always be suspicious of unusual occurrences of water displacement. Paddle in when we bleed. Try our best not to look like a seal.
And, to be honest, with my rippingest years well behind me, I would be stoically resigned to carry on and live and surf with this new reality, but now my kids are using and loving the ocean, which leaves me kinda pissed. I mean, why now? That was one of the best things about being a Southern California surfer: You didn't have to worry about becoming a human Scooby Snack.
If an attack does occur, I'm sure there will be a call from some people to "cull" the great white population, and to be honest, I wouldn't object. I love nature and animals and I think they should be protected, but I'm willing to make an exception when it comes to mosquitoes and things that can eat you while you're surfing.
For reasons mostly related to the American legal system, I'm pretty sure that this potential cull would never happen, which is why I would like to suggest that we go on the offensive now and start offering a bounty for every successful, video-documented big shark GPS tagging. Then we could get some scientist or oceanographer-type to set up a monitoring system where surfers and lifeguard towers with sirens could be alerted when a big shark is getting close to shore. This is something they're already doing in Australia, actually.
Surfers who live in Northern California will probably laugh at my shark paranoia because it's something that they have had to deal with and accept for their entire surfing lives. But this is a new reality for us Southers, and I gotta tell ya, it's a little unsettling.
To me, surfing is gold at the end of a rainbow: a life of almost unimaginable joy. Every time I surf I feel like a kid again, like I used to feel when I was riding my bike to my friend's house and I knew we were gonna watch cartoons and build forts and throw rocks and play touch football and blow stuff up and eat candy and not care about anything. For me, surfing is a pathway to regaining youth, an E-ticket to Neverland.
But like Neverland's Tick Tock, the hungry sharp-toothed clock-adorned crocodile in Peter Pan, Southern California surfing now has an underlying threat. A source of fear. A dramatic element.
Up until now, surfing with big sharks has been such a distant reality, such an exercise in the abstract, that it verged on fictional—almost cartoonish.
My final hope is this: Like the animated, fictional Tick Tock, the great white posse never finds their man, and we can continue flying through Neverland with the greatest of ease.