The Red Triangle

Where surfers are bait

Researchers encounter great whites every 1.9 hours while trolling in the Red Triangle. Photo: Anderson

Certain spots are sharkier than others. The Red Triangle, a hazy region of fear, is defined by that notion, stretching along the California coast from Monterey to Bodega Bay. If you want to know what classifies a spot as sharky, Royce Fraley is a good person to ask. He's not an expert on white sharks, but his experiences speak for themselves: In 1997 he was "torpedoed" by a white near Bodega Bay. The shark hit him hard enough to launch him into the air, but did not bite. In 2002, Royce applied pressure to the femoral artery of a local who had been bitten down to the bone at their home break. And in December of 2006, Royce was attacked by a 15- foot great white and dragged beneath the surface while I watched from a hundred yards away.

Conventional wisdom dictates that the odds of Royce experiencing multiple shark encounters are astronomical—akin to a man getting struck by lightning twice. But after watching Royce's attack I began to wonder. It was far from the first encounter I'd had with a white shark. At 16, I'd been circled by a dorsal fin as my horrified parents watched from the cliff. I'd seen a friend get knocked off his board by a white. Years later I'd seen dorsal and tail fins rise up beside me, and I'd seen a shark as wide as a car slowly pass beneath me in clear, calm water. Finally, after helping Royce to the beach post-attack, I began to wonder if the game was rigged. Royce was my fifth friend to be hit by a shark. Perhaps they were getting "struck by lightning" because they were holding metal poles up in lightning storms.

The research, regrettably, backs up this assertion. Scot Anderson has been studying white sharks for more than 25 years. In the '90s, he spent many a glassy fall day trolling for whites off the northern tip of Point Reyes, using a surfboard as bait. On average, it took six hours for a shark to "investigate" the board. Later, Anderson began using a seal silhouette instead of a surfboard. By 2004, his incident rate had increased to every 1.9 hours—on par with the Farallon Islands, where conventional wisdom dictates entering the water is suicide.

Every 1.9 hours. That's once a session. "The sharks are obviously there, and the local guys know about it, but it's not going to stop them," Anderson explains. "People love surfing so much," Royce agrees. "It has to be the greatest thing on this entire planet, as far as I'm concerned. So you don't want to believe you can get hit by a shark—there's a shark denial." Anderson has spotted a few of the same individual sharks coming to Point Reyes for more than 20 years, and he's seen the same hardcore locals surf nearby for just as long. "You hear these statistics about how unlikely shark attacks are, but the reality is if you take the core group of guys who surf up here, the odds of them getting attacked goes way, way up. They might have a 1 in 100 chance of getting attacked."

So what can Norcal surfers do to minimize risk? "My main thing about shark safety is you should stay out of the water in places where there are known sharks," Anderson explains. "But if you're gonna surf anyway, know first aid—how to stop bleeding is critical. Have a radio or cell phone, and use the buddy system."

Anderson attributes the abundance of sharks in Point Reyes to large populations of five pinniped species. Recent studies estimate the population of whites in the Red Triangle to be 215. Anderson feels this number is surprisingly small. Surfers' significant others will likely feel this number sounds surprisingly large.

Tracking data suggests white sharks don't wander the coast—instead they return each fall to "coastal aggregation sites" like Tomales Point, Ano Nuevo, and the Farallones. Perhaps worst of all, locals near these hotspots are usually entering the food chain for cold, lonely, sloppy waves of poor quality.

For Royce, the danger itself was always an element of the appeal. "It's part of the adrenaline rush. I hate to say it, but people get off on it…you're with your friends, it's absolutely beautiful, and yeah, it's sharky. But for a lot of people that adds to it." Royce escaped his attack relatively unscathed. His board took the biggest hit. Afterwards, he refocused on family and found himself reappraising his priorities. He never quit surfing, but he does avoid surfing particularly sharky local spots far from help. "Sometimes I totally get wigged out, and other times I'm fully comfortable," he explains. "But there's nothing like the feeling of an animal wanting to eat you…until you have it happen, you don't know how you're going to react."