Years ago I went to a Surfrider talk given by a shark specialist that had been studying Great Whites around the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco for twenty years. He had tons of fascinating information about sharks and left us with some tips on how to know if there is a shark in the water with you when you’re surfing.
The two main tips that I will always remember were that a Great White Shark’s energy is so intense that you will feel it when they are near. Surfers use the word “sharky” a lot. We’ll say, on a dark grey day in a deep water spot with fishing boats outside of us and birds bombing into the water, “It was really sharky out there.” And all the surfers listening will nod their heads knowing exactly what you’re talking about.
The other tip to let you know if there is a shark nearby is that a large boil will form on the surface of the water. This means that there is something large under the water, creating a smooth, gurgling disruption on the surface. “If there are no large rocks in the area you’re surfing” the shark specialist told us, “then it’s probably a shark.”
When I went surfing last Thursday it was sunny and the conditions were calm and not at all sharky with only two other guys out. I had just paddled out and settled on to my board to wait for my fist wave when I saw a large boil on the surface of the water just a few feet outside of me. My blood went cold and adrenaline rushed through me.
“Did you happen to see what animal is causing that boil over there?” I asked the guy closest to me. “Like a whale or something?” I asked hopefully. He just shook his head and kept looking for his next wave on the horizon.
I didn’t want to waste a perfectly clean day of surfing with only a couple of other people out so I watched the boil for a couple seconds more. I had never seen such a big disturbance on the water. It was about 10 or 12 feet in diameter, moving lazily along, sometimes closer to me and sometimes further off.
I’m not too proud to totally freak out and shamelessly paddle in when I think there’s a chance I’m going to have one of my limbs torn from my body. I began paddling back in to shore. But I was in a bad spot, too far inside to catch a set wave that was breaking outside of me and so I got caught up in the white water and it knocked me off my board. I was now in the water, totally vulnerable to the giant predator. It felt like a black shadow passed below me, I screamed like a little girl and slipped the board back under me and paddled as hard as I could until I could stand up in the shallow water.
Safely on shore I searched the line up for any proof of the shark. I couldn’t see anything. It was probably just a beautiful tangle of mermaids frolicking under the waves, laughing at my terror.