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.
“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.
“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.
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!”