This Story isn't really about the Shark February 21, 2020 14:17

I’m no stranger to anxiety dreams waking me up. It was too early on the morning of my 39th birthday. I awoke from the never-quite-getting-to-surf dream that usually manifests itself in me getting sidetracked in every possible manner while my friends are surfing. I have yet to actually surf in any dream, I just get stuck in frustrating sidetrack loops while trying to get in the water. My dream on the morning of May 12, 2019, was no different. My cat assisted my wake up with a gentle paw to the face. I usually go back to bed if I wake up before 7 am. This particular dream, combined with the dawn of my 39th year, inspired me to get out of bed and rally to my favorite local surf spot. Maybe this would be the year I start enjoying dawn patrols…

Spoiler alert: that’s not the lasting outcome of the day.

When I parked for the surf check, I met one of my many local surf sisters gearing up in the parking lot. After a quick peek over the dunes at the mediocre-as-usual beach break, I texted a few other surf sisters. A Mother’s Day morning surf session was about to get underway. One friend was already in the parking lot when I returned to suit up.

I suited up and paddled out, joining the first-in-the-water surf sister, who was already catching shifty shoulders on the edges of the closeout sections. We enjoyed our rides as some of the other locals were a little less successful in avoiding the closeouts. These were some of the few locals who may have moved to the area before I did, but they never dropped the toxic localism they brought with them from their previous surf towns. In my six years of living in our small town, I can only think of three local people who regularly exhibit unnecessary localism. Signs of the unnecessary negativity are in the form of stink faces, drop-ins, and loud smack talking of others’ behaviors or board choices. All three of those people were in the water that morning.

There was the usual fourth woman with them, who stayed on the inside and caught friendly beginner waves. I always appreciate her presence, and she usually surfs on the inside. She rides a lot of waves and doesn’t seem to care about what others think of her lineup choices. We occasionally wave and smile at each other as our wave rides or paddle-out paths pass each other. I try not to hold the behavior of her surf counterparts against her.

It is one thing to protect local lineups from surfers with poor etiquette or dangerous behaviors. It is quite another to have poor attitudes against other locals who catch a lot of waves while following proper local surf etiquette. Our local beach break surf spots rarely give us only one peak to take off from. There are usually many locations of sporadic peaks to enjoy for those who know how to read and navigate shifty beach breaks. Some days, a drop-in directly into a closeout move is the best the beach offers. Having a wide threshold of what kind of surf is “fun” really helps those who persevere at surfing here. Especially since the paddle outs can be punishing to near impossible in some swells. If we were known for high-consequence point breaks or reef breaks, perhaps ego-fueled localism would have more of a place here.

I’ve learned to love mediocre beach breaks with multiple take-off peaks. I love that the majority of our local cold-water surf community prefers to have others in the water with them - whether for company, safety, and/or general stoke sharing. Participation is understandably limited by the cold temperatures and the challenges inherent in shifty beach breaks.

As my surf sisters multiplied in the lineup that morning, we found our own shoulders away from the closeouts occupied by the less-friendly localists. After one ride to the shore, I turned around and saw a harbor seal poking its head out from the wave in front of me. On one of my previous surfs a few weeks before in this area, I had a harbor seal repeatedly check me out from inside and outside the impact zone. On one ride, it swam up and surfed directly under my board in the shallow, crystal clear waters. I couldn’t help but squeal at the thought of my fins possibly cutting the seal as it effortlessly lined up with my shadow. Then the cute blubber torpedo eventually swam away, untouched and unscathed. I decided at that moment that this was my new sea-pet, who would probably await my every surf from there on out. When I saw that harbor seal on the morning of my 39th birthday, it pretty much confirmed my previous sea-pet decision.

With a little glee from seeing my sea-pet peek out from the cloudy water of the morning, I paddled back out to my surf-sister. This was the one who was suiting up in the parking lot when I first arrived that morning. We sat on our boards about 10 feet apart. We were waiting for the next set when something broke the surface no more than 10 feet on the far side of her. Since I had just seen my sea-pet friend, I didn’t instantly react in fear, but my friend did.

I watched as the shape that broke the surface turned into the classic, dark, vertical dorsal fin shape. It rose slowly, in a way only possible by vertical tail propulsion, not the more playful horizontal tail propulsion of dolphins and porpoises. Sure enough, the triangular vertical tail tip slowly showed up 3 to 4 feet behind the dorsal fin. They were lined up, pointing directly at my friend while she was already starting to paddle towards the shore. It became obvious to me that the shark was slowly checking her out. The fins seemed to stay there for a long time as I watched, though I’m aware that time seems to slow down during emotionally heightened experiences.

I have spent almost two decades leading sea kayaking trips and surfing in great white territory. Because of this, I have read and researched multiple great white shark studies to help me confidently share my ocean office and playground with these top predators. I’m aware the statistics show that I’m much more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the surf break than by a great white shark encounter in the ocean. I know that humans aren’t worthwhile food sources to great whites because our relatively low body fat contents are essentially a waste of their energy. At mature ages, they need the blubber of a cold water mammal to sustain their system in cold water. Those unfortunate surfers who have been investigated and tasted by great whites have only died when they were decapitated or bled out from their injuries. I often say at least it’ll be a good story for me (or whoever gets to tell my story) if I ever become a rare, unfortunate great white statistic. I’d personally rather deal with the extremely rare and misdirected great white attack in cold water than the more productive attacks of tiger or bull sharks in warm water. I’d definitely take a relatively quick great white death over a long, drawn-out battle against a terminal illness in hospitals (and the financial debt that ensues in my country), but that’s another topic entirely.

I’m aware that young great whites are more likely to investigate and bite surfers. They are more likely to waste energy on unworthy targets than their older, more experienced counterparts. I regularly declare that one of the reasons I love surfing is that it puts me in my proper place in the food chain. This place is humbling yet appropriate to my significance on the ocean and the planet. On the morning of my 39th birthday, mother nature gave me the food chain experience I was overdue for.

Time slowed down as I watched the two triangular shapes line up on the far side of my friend. They stayed there, as I judged their size and relative distance from each other, hinting at a 6 to 8-foot creature otherwise hidden below the clouded water. Relatively, older and experienced great whites are closer to 15 - 20+ feet. I know of no local shark breeds, besides great whites, that would investigate a 7+ foot surfboard in that manner. This was no dolphin or porpoise, as it showed its vertical tail and the movement that only a vertical tail could propel. It hung out on the surface long enough for me to forget all about my sea-pet. My mode of awe-full observation changed to one of slow-moving confidence telling my friend that we were ok and that we were paddling in, staying on our boards. My friend was already ahead of me on that plan. I mentally prepared myself to punch the shark in the nose if it attacked - that’s what experts recommend. My mind was playing through all possible contingency plans.

One plan that was already abandoned was “don’t retreat from predators, because it will trigger their predatory instinct.” That plan makes sense in theory, but in reality, when the prey instinct has already caused someone else to retreat, the default plan becomes to not be the lone slowest one to retreat. I once had a taste of this reality on land, years ago while hiking with a friend, a random wandering dog, and a black bear. The dog found the bear first, then it became the fastest retreater. Fortunately, the bear gave up quickly. I think we scared it off with our loud screams and my yelling, “We’re not supposed to run!” while we ran away behind the dog.

Anyway, back to the water retreat. We paddled towards shore next to each other, as I somewhat hoped the size of my 9’2” longboard would make the shark loose interest in my friend’s board. Between every few strokes in the water, I tried to throw up the hand-as-fin-on-my-head shark signal while yelling to my neighbor and her son who were surfing a peak down the beach. My friend and I reached the shore together and, of course, hugged each other after we were safely out of the water. My neighbor, her son, and the other nearby surfers got out of the water and walked over to check in.

My neighbor and her son quickly decided to call it for the day. I’d later discover that my neighbor watched the dorsal fin and vertical tail shapes follow as my friend and I had paddled to shore. I was glad I didn’t see that while I was trying to stay calm. However, it was reassuring that my neighbor was able to verify our experience of being checked out (and followed) by a 6-8 foot shark. (Two days later, there were multiple reports from people seeing a shark actually eating something offshore in the same location. Hopefully, it got its fill; hopefully, it wasn’t my sea-pet.)

That morning, however, the less-friendly localists were quick to try to invalidate our experience. The less-friendly woman of the trio immediately asked my friend if she saw the shark. My friend, who was visibly shaken from the experience, said yes, she saw it. The less-friendly woman then tried to tell us it could have been a dolphin. I was quick to describe the difference between the shape and motion of a horizontal dolphin tail vs. a vertical shark tail, like the one we both just saw. I realized it was a waste of breath as she continued to discredit our experience. She obviously wanted to go back and catch shoulders she hadn’t yet been catching.

From the beach, looking past where we had seen the shark, I noticed the offshore bait bomb. Sea birds circled above, taking turns diving into a feeding frenzy on the school of fish below them. I hadn’t noticed the extent of the activity while I was on the water. Combined with the cloudy water that day, these were textbook conditions for misguided great white attacks. I did not need to catch any more waves that day.

So instead of wasting our time on those who didn’t want to believe us, my friend and I hurried off to alert our other surf-sisters still surfing further down the beach. Those who discredited our experience went back out to surf in the murky water. Three of the four people that paddled back out were on shorter boards than my friend and I had been on. Some people believe their own realities no matter what the evidence and scientific support to the contrary may be. Others interpret external information, combine it with known scientific backed research information, then make their best decision balancing the risks with rewards. I believe the latter tend to make better surfers and people in general.

That day, five surf-sister friends got out of the water because they saw or believed our shark encounter. I walked back to the parking lot with two nurses, one teacher, a city planner, and one teacher-in-training and artist/massage therapist. Three of them are mothers, and all of them work altruistic jobs and volunteer for causes that improve others’ lives and well-being. We trust and believe each other’s experiences because we know that none of us have ill intentions towards each others’ success in life. We are all empowered by our time on the ocean, and sometimes we get to share that time together.

In my rural community, I can personally think of over 20 local women who fit the mold of mother and/or community serving-and-improving professionals who all enjoy surfing together. I have only interacted with one woman who didn’t treat me with the open, un-threatened attitude that almost all of the local surf women portray. Fittingly, this one was the woman who instantly tried to discredit my shark encounter on my 39th birthday. This woman, not the shark, is the antagonist of this story.

Together we surf, together we rise. Together we believe each others’ narratives that allow us to learn, help, and improve us all by sharing each others’ experiences. Together we can gain strength, whether we’re hooting and hollering for each other on killer rides or backing each other up during potentially life-threatening situations.

To women who haven’t discovered the benefit of enjoying the company of supportive women, and to the women who choose to doubt the narratives of other women - you are missing out. You are missing out on a sisterhood of women who would rather support and cheer for each other instead of cutting each other down. You are missing out on collective knowledge and strength. You are choosing to dwell in negativity when other women succeed instead of gaining inspiration from other women succeeding.

If my 39th Birthday and Mothers’ Day shark encounter can teach you or me anything, I hope those lessons include:

1. Don’t be the one who chooses to lose out on a supportive community that believes each other, supports each other and lifts each other up.

2. Do your homework and gather scientific evidence so that you can interpret the present and prepare for the future in the most successful ways possible.

3. If sharks terrify you, learn more about them. In the ocean, you’re the one choosing to recreate in their habitat. Respect these actual locals accordingly.

I will be forever grateful for my anxiety dream that catalyzed that morning. I am also perpetually thankful for my surf sisters and my sea-pet (who hopefully survived). Believe it or not, I’m also grateful for the larger-than-me shark who gave me an overdue, endorphin-fueled, permanent memory of my 39th birthday. Thanks, shark, for not biting my friends. Thanks for letting us play in your territory for all these years.
Please don’t eat my sea-pet*.

-Leslie Palotas

*I’ve surfed with many “sea-pets” in the months since this encounter.  I am aware of their place in the food chain. I realize asking the shark not to eat my sea-pet is unrealistic, and it’s been used here as comic relief. That being said, you may have similar thoughts after you have a super cute sea-pet surf a wave directly under you.


Dyed Harbor Seal by Ocean Dyenamics


Dyed Shark by Ocean Dyenamics