SAN LUIS OBISPO - My friend Dan noticed the sudden change in my expression.
"Are you OK?" he asked.
As I sat on my surfboard, I continued to stare at a patch of water roughly 35 yards out.
"Did you see something?"
Twice, actually. But I didn't want to rush to judgment and be the Guy Who Panics. Then I saw it a third time: a large triangular fin, slicing through the water.
"I think so," I said.
"What - a shark?"
Ack! He said it. Even on shore we avoid the word, preferring nicknames like The Landlord, Bruce and Whitey.
"Yeah," I said quietly - so as not to alert the you-know-what. "I think so."
The others didn't believe me at first. "Probably just a dolphin."
I wanted that to be true. Then my buddy Clam saw it - and he's a biologist.
"Oh, yeah," he said, matter-of-factly. "That's a shark."
Surfers never want to confess to a fear of sharks, which is why we tell people, "You have a greater chance of getting killed in a car crash going to work."
But while cars pose a greater threat to our longevity, the prospect of sharing space with a dinosaur-sized predator that can literally bite your head off - that's disturbing.
Whenever I tell my boogie boarder friend that we invite him to surf just because he's more appealing to the sharks, I follow with a chuckle. But there is that small part of me that thinks, As long as Mokie's here, I'll at least get a head start when Whitey comes.
Twisted, I know. But in my defense, he chose to be a boogie boarder.
Of course, every time there's a shark attack in California, I can expect a phone call from my mother, saying, "You need to quit surfing!"
"Mom," I say, "I have a greater chance of getting killed while driving to work."
The surfer's best weapon against shark attacks is numbers. When a Midwesterner friend came to visit in 2003, I told him fearing sharks is nonsense.
"There hasn't been a fatal shark attack here in close to 50 years," I told him.
Morro Bay, 1957. A Cal Poly student from Brooklyn nearly drowned. Then - making a bad day epically bad - as his friends were rescuing him, he got snagged by a great white.
And Peter Savino was never seen again.
I omitted that info when goading my friend into the surf. And when we were back on land, I boasted, "See? No problem."
But when we took his rental back to the board shop, the guy working there told us there had been an attack in nearby Avila Beach. The death of a swimmer there would garner national headlines - and a call from my mother.
"That lady was swimming with seals!" I said.
That's another thing about surfers: We blame the victim.
He was surfing at dusk. That place is Shark City. He probably looked like a sea lion on that boogie board.
Experts say the great white bites the human mistakenly, then moves on after discovering the target doesn't taste like seal. Which gives one hope, unless you read the 1952 case of poor Arthur Wilson, a 17-year-old who was bitten four times near Monterey.
Which, if you ask me, is Shark City.
The thing is, I love surfing too much to quit because of some silly little 20-foot leviathan. And while I joke about the car thing, 40,000 Americans die in auto accidents every year -- and I still can't use that as an excuse to work from home.
After seeing my first shark in the water, I hauled back to shore. And later I did a little Internet research.
"I'm pretty sure it was a basking shark," I told the surf posse the next time. "They don't bite people."
They seemed relieved, so we paddled out, knowing that once again the waters were safe - until Sunday, when a surfer was bitten by a great white 10 miles from where we surfed.
My mom hasn't called yet, but when she does, I'll assure her she need not worry about me.
"That guy had a gray board," I'll say. "What was he thinking?"
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