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‘We’re gonna need a bigger board’: A surfer shares his Shark Week tales

"Don't tempt fate," the surfer's mother told him after yet another encounter with an apex predator.

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. (CN) — I shuffled into the surf and immediately noticed how remarkably clear the water was.

“I like it when it’s clear like this,” I said to a surfing buddy as I started to paddle toward the lineup. “I can see what’s beneath me.”

The wink-wink suggestion that I might see an apex predator up close was supposed to be a joke. But a little while later, as I paddled for the most important wave of my life, I wasn’t laughing at the notion.

As viewers enjoy another round of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, I thought this might be a good time to share some of my own tales.

November 2000

“I can’t believe they caught Jaws,” 6-year-old Carson Gorman told the San Luis Obispo Tribune, where I worked as a reporter at the time.

A couple of my colleagues had reported that a 14-foot great white had become entangled in a halibut gill net off the Morro Bay coast. After the 1,700-pound juvenile suffocated, a commercial fisher named Fred Arnoldi brought the beast back to shore, put it in a freezer behind the Fish Shanty restaurant on the Embarcadero and let the public view an ancient predator up close.

A recently transplanted Midwesterner, I couldn’t resist.

Touching a great white shark — even a dead, frozen one — is an amazing experience.  Luckily, my Konica (yes, that would be a film camera) was still working then, and I snapped some photos of a small boy reaching to touch the leviathan.

Arnoldi eventually sold the shark to The Pelagic Shark Research Foundation for $700 and it was transported to Santa Cruz on a flatbed truck. The foundation got to dissect the shark for research; Arnoldi got the jaws.

As far as shark encounters go, it was a pretty safe one for me. But they would get less so.

An unidentified boy pokes a deceased 14-foot great white shark that died in a fishing net off the shore of Morro Bay, Calif. (Pat Pemberton/Courthouse News)

April 2014

“Did you see something?” my friend Dan asked.

Suddenly frozen, I repeated what I’d just said:

“Uh . . .”

“What — did you see a shark?”

I wasn’t a surfer when Arnoldi caught that 14-footer.  But a year later, after covering a long and grueling death penalty trial, I decided I could use a fun new hobby.

And for 13 years, the only sharks I saw were small leopard sharks — until I saw something big about 35 yards from the surf lineup.

What I saw: a glistening triangle, slicing above and below the water’s surface.

The first time, you think it’s probably a dolphin.  The second time, you utter something profound, like, “Uh . . .”

The third time it surfaced, my friend Clam saw it as well. A biologist by trade, Clam seemed qualified to confirm.

Once home, I researched what we had seen — a triangular, brownish fin. Then I saw a YouTube video posted that same week of a basking shark in Morro Bay, and I decided that’s probably what we saw.

The big-mouthed creature is the second largest living fish in the world, I read, but it eats plankton. So I felt a little better.

Assuming it was a basking shark.

August 2015

My friend Nick and I had just gotten out of the water and were removing our wetsuits when we noticed a small crowd gathered on the beach below the bluff. Then a park ranger arrived. Then every surfer in the water high-tailed out in a hurry.

“You’re a reporter,” Nick said, watching this curious scene. “You should check it out.”

I corrected him: I was a reporter not working on the weekend.

“It was probably a dolphin,” I said.

Then a kid ran up to the kiosk at the Morro Strand campground and shouted, “A shark just took a huge chunk out of a surfboard!”

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Change of plans: I was working on the weekend.

I grabbed my GoPro and my iPhone and ran to the shoreline, where a crowd stood in a half circle. Inside that circle, someone kneeling on the sand held a tape measure to a longboard as a park ranger standing above him took photos.

Turns out the guy with the tape measure was my friend Jay. 

“Where were you?” I said as he looked at me, still holding the tape measure.

He was supposed to surf with us that day, but we showed up at different times and couldn’t find each other. He got out of the water just as 54-year-old Elinor Dempsey was frantically paddling to shore, her red board sporting a surreal, 13 1/2-inch bite mark.

She had only been in the water about a half an hour and was sitting on her board when she saw a gray object appear.

She thought it was a dolphin.

“I thought, ‘What the hell is he doing?’” she told me, remarkably calm, though in a bit of shock. “And he kind of landed on my board. Then I realized he had taken a chunk. And I was, like, that’s not what dolphins do.”

When I met Elinor at her home the next month, shark expert Ralph Collier marveled over the perfectly shaped bite mark — which still had a little blood on it. He also estimated the shark to be around 11 to 12 feet.

The story I helped make an international tale didn't go unnoticed by my mother, who quickly texted me: “Stop tempting fate.”

Despite the nightmares that followed, Elinor did surf again, though not at that exact spot.

Jay Thompson helps a park ranger measure the 13 ½-inch bite that a great white inflicted on surfer’s board in 2015. (Pat Pemberton/Courthouse News)

May 2019

The water, as I wrote above, was unusually clear.

The waves were pretty great, too.  We were having a blast, catching 2- to 3-foot waves. But then my friend Nadine looked beneath her board, and her head immediately jerked up.

“There’s something down there!”

Of course, my first thought was Probably a dolphin.

But then I spotted a shadow behind me, and in a second, I saw everything: The snout, the dorsal fin and that tale, swaying not up and down like a dolphin but back and forth.

Like a you-know-what.

I stared, transfixed, as it methodically swam about five feet in front of me, a foot above the sand. And when I had seen enough to confirm it was a great white, I blurted, “Oh, @#$%!,” alerting everyone around me.

I had my GoPro camera — which had captured many dolphin shots in the past — but I didn’t have the nerve to lean forward to grab it from the nose of my board.  Everything I’d ever read said not to create a stir around a shark.

Let National Geographic take shark photos.

Trying to remain calm, we all sat nervously on our boards for two or three minutes, and then — mercifully — a wave began to form.

A beautiful, gentle wave.

Paddling for my life — but careful not to splash too much — I caught the wave. And while I briefly considered riding in while prone to avoid the risk of wiping out, I decided leaving my body exposed on a board was a worse option. So I popped up and rode the wave as conservatively as I had ever done until I was sure the water was too shallow for a 9-foot carnivore.

As surfer Joe Johnston rode this perfect peeler in 2019, he didn’t realize a great white shark was trolling in unusually clear waters. The photographer decided against getting photos of the shark. (Pat Pemberton/Courthouse News)

Coda

Since 1900, sharks have only killed 15 people along the Pacific Coast. Yet three of those occurred in San Luis Obispo County, where I surf. Two of those were in Morro Bay, the site of all of my encounters — one in 1957 and another at virtually the same spot this past Christmas Eve.

After that holiday tragedy, I decided to avoid the surf at Morro Bay, and did, for several months. But this summer, I returned.

Yeah, I know. Don’t tempt fate.

And if I need another reminder, I’ll be sure to tune into Discovery this week for "Great White Serial Killer," "Great White Comeback" or "Jaws vs. The Blob."

Or I’ll just wait to hear from my mom.

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