White Shark Encounters along the Pacific Coast of North America
As noted in the section Shark/Human Interactions Along the Pacific Coast, an encounter between a shark and a human is always non-violent. There is never any physical contact and the shark usually departs after a minute or two. Divers have referred to this as "being checked out by a shark." There are more encounters annually off the Pacific Coast of North America than there are attacks.
On Sunday, September 5, 2004, Charlie Plybon, Aquarium Educator, Oregon Coast Aquarium, was surfing with a friend about 100 yards from the beach and just north of South Beach State Park (near blue pole) and 5 miles south of Newport, Oregon. It was 9:30 AM and the sky was clear. There were 4 – 5 foot swells and the water was 10 – 15 feet deep with the temperature 52 – 55° F. They had been in the water about 15 minutes prior to the shark encounter. Plybon and his companion observed “two small harbor porpoises” as they paddled out through the surf. Plybon recalled; “My friend and I had just paddled out and were lining up on an incoming set of waves. My friend was about 10 yards away from me and we waited...eventually letting the waves pass us by. I turned and started to paddle south down the beach and heard something break the water behind me. Alarmed, I turned and saw a fin break the surface of the water in a quick turn and disappear, maybe a hundred yards from our location. I was sitting on my board, legs dangling when I saw the fin again. This time it was close, maybe 20 yards away. The fin rose to 2 – 3 feet out of the water. The upper lobe of the caudal fin followed at least 4 - 6 feet behind the dorsal fin. I then realized it was a shark. With its dorsal and caudal fin somewhat exposed it was moving quick enough to create a small wake coming straight at me. I was frozen, sitting on my board fully focused on the shark. It slowed down and submerged about 10 yards from me. Its shadow seemed nearly as wide as a small car. It moved under my board and turned up looking at me. As it pitched its bodied in the turn, a pectoral fin rose out of the water nearly hitting my board. On the other side of my board I looked down and clearly saw its scarred snout, giant eye and flared gills. As the shark rose towards my board it abruptly turned its head away, splashing its tail fin in one fluid movement. In this one motion it had turned and began smoothly swimming away. That's when the adrenaline kicked in. My entire body went numb and I began to shake. I paddled a terrifying 100 yards to a group of people and caught the first wave in. My friend and I were both rather shaky, but the others stayed in the water not really believing what had happened.” Plybon described the shark as; “being longer than his board and very wide and deep bodied. It had numerous scars on its nose and a deep black eye about the size of my fist with dramatic counter shading from grayish blue to white. The dorsal fin appeared to rise 2 feet above the water.” White sharks are known to frequent the coastal areas near river mouths and bays.
On Saturday, 10 November 2001, Tres Tucker and fellow surfer Seth Meade were 20-25 meters south of the Sisulaw River jetty at Florence, Oregon. It was about 1600 hours and they were 75-100 meters from shore, in water 1-2 fathoms deep with a sandy bottom and an estimated temperature of 54°F. The sky was clear, except for a few high clouds, and the air temperature was about 60°F. Tucker was dressed in a black wetsuit with booties, hood, and gloves and rode a 6'5" white surfboard. The seas were 2-3 meters and there was a very mild breeze not strong enough to cause white caps. A few harbor seals were observed in the water along with a large number of kayakers that continually moved throughout the surfing area. Tucker, like most of the surfers who use this area, was aware of previous encounters with white sharks.
Tucker reported: "We had paddled out to the 'peak,' and I sat up on my board. As I sat upright my left foot planted solidly on something 1-2 feet below me. It was solid, but slowly sunk under my weight, as if it were a submerged log. Somewhat surprised and confused, I lifted my leg up and instinctively looked down into the water. Much to my astonishment I saw a giant tail go 'whoosh' right below me. I felt the water rush around my legs and then I knew immediately it was a shark, a very 'big' shark. But for that moment I thought the tail was too long to be a whitey. I only saw it for a second and from the angle and the semi-clear water thought it looked like a thresher's tail. For a fleeting moment I actually felt relief to think it was 'just a thresher.' Then I realized that the tail was bigger than my board. Within only a few seconds I saw a dark object loom past me and a dark boil in the water to my left. The darkness was as large as a car, an American car. I began to paddle to shore and then remembered my friend, Seth. I motioned to him saying quietly 'hey man ', but mid sentence the look on his face made me turn around to see a very large fin, at least 14-16 inches high, passing behind my feet. It was an awesome sight with the sunlight reflecting off it I could see every pore and knick and detail as it passed close enough to touch with my toes, which I lifted up and away."
"Seth and I began to paddle in toward shore and grew closer
together. We were silent as we paddled about 5 feet from each other.
I looked back to see the fin coming up and out of the water following
directly behind and in pursuit of Seth. The words 'oh s#@t' might
have eked out of my mouth. I wanted to tell Seth, yet then I did
not want to tell him because he might panic. Instead I paddled toward
him until we were only an arm's length apart. I went to him for
support I thought, but was it to protect him or me? Maybe it was
a safety in numbers thing or an unconscious idea that this shark
might perceive us as one large bite instead of two small ones. I
braced myself for the attack as we continued to paddle toward shore,
but it never came. We eventually found ourselves on the beach just
completely awestruck. It was the most terrifying thing I've ever
experienced and yet I don't know that my heart rate ever increased.
It probably did but the sensation was like a previous description,
I felt 'unbelievable calm.' But now, almost a week later, every
time I remember it I'm still terrified. I surfed the very next day,
but I can't say things will ever be the same as they once were.
I used to prefer to surf alone, but now I know
I've never been alone."
On a chilly, overcast, and rainy Sunday, Rodney Orr encountered a large White Shark about 2 miles south of Stewarts Point, Marin County, California. It was 15 October 1978, and the 38-year-old free diver sat atop his 18-foot white paddleboard at 0900 hours. The air and water temperatures were estimated at 50ºF and 52ºF respectively. He was dressed in a black wetsuit, hood, boots and gloves. There was a light ocean chop and a south wind of 5 to 7 knots. Orr had been on the water about 30 minutes. This encounter had more meaning for him than most divers, as a White Shark had attacked him in 1961.
Orr recalled, "I was headed south on my paddleboard, having left the area near 'Mac's Cove' in search of a good ab [abalone] and fishing site. I heard the shark coming before I ever saw it. I heard the sound of something cutting through the water and turned to see a fin directly behind my board, sticking two and half feet out of the water. My board is almost 19 feet long, and the shark was almost as long as my board. The shark was following me as I moved south. I could see it looking up at me from time to time as I kept a close watch on its movements. I took two strokes on the left side of the board to turn me in the direction of a nearby rock, which was protruding from the water. By the time I had made the turn the shark was under my board, with its fin sticking out of the water on the right side of my board, close enough for me to touch. At this time I was on my knees with my paddle in my hand, and used it to push off of the shark. It was like pushing off a rock, it was so solid. As I pushed off I got a good look at the shark's girth, which I estimated to be at least 3 feet across its back. I watched it swim 20 or 30 feet, then started paddling toward shore." The shark did not return, and after about 20 or 30 minutes Orr continued on his way.
On 4 November 1993 commercial diver Joe Burke was collecting sea urchins in the vicinity of the U. S. Coast Guard buoy at Southeast Farallon Island near San Francisco. It was about 1030 hours and Burke had recorded a surface water temperature of 12.6 C and estimated the air temperature at 16° C. The diver was dressed in a full wetsuit with gloves, hood, swim fins, and facemask (all colored black) and carried a wire urchin-collecting basket. The sky was clear, with a brisk 20-knot wind causing whitecaps on the 2 meter ground swells. Water visibility was about 12 to 14 meters. When entering the water, Burke observed a number of pinnipeds on the island's beach, but none in the water. The ocean floor was rocky, with numerous sand channels scattered generously throughout the area. The diver noted small-stature kelps growing from some of the rock surfaces.
Burke recalled , "I was picking sea urchins on the top of a reef in about 35 or 40 feet of water. I had been down for about 15 minutes and was working on either side of a sand channel. I was on the edge of several large rocks when a seal went by me, about 10 feet off the bottom, in a big hurry heading towards shore. Normally seals will swim around me and check me out before they leave. This one didn't so I knew there could be a shark coming. I swam down onto the sand and watched in the direction from which the seal had come. About 10 seconds after it had passed a really fat White Shark, about 18 feet in length, came cruising over the rocks heading toward me. It was swimming very slowly, I would guess about as fast as I could swim. The shark was only about a foot off of the reef as it passed over the top of me. I hugged the bottom as it passed overhead, then it changed direction and swam about 10 feet in front of me as it headed toward another reef close by. I think the shark was a female, as I don't remember seeing any claspers. When it reached the reef closest to shore it turned to my left, swimming slowly over the top of the reef, parallel to the sand channel. It slowly turned and headed back towards me. When it was alongside me, it almost stopped its forward movement and hovered as it looked me over. It then slowly moved away and I headed up the sand channel in the opposite direction of the shark.When I reached my boat, I surfaced next to it and told my tender to help me aboard. I waited about an hour before I went back in the water. I did not see the shark again that day."
Commercial urchin diver "D. D." had two encounters with White Sharks off Southeast Farallon Island in January 1992. The encounters were separated by only 12 days, with the first occurring on the 9th and the second on the 21st.
His description of these two encounters follows:
"It was about 1000 hours and I had just jumped in water about 45 feet deep to survey the area for urchins. Water visibility was about 50 feet and I was over a reef with broad sand channels intersecting the area. I noticed an object coming at me from just out of my visual range. As it continued toward me I was able to identify it as a Great White Shark about 15 feet in length. When it was about 20 feet from my location, it turned to its right and slowly swam off over the top of the reef until out of sight. I never felt threatened or concerned, because the shark's movements were slow and deliberate. About an hour after I had my run in, my companion diver saw a different Great White near the same area. This shark was different than the one I had seen, because my shark had the top of its tail cut off."
"My second encounter occurred in the same area as the first at about 1030 hours. I had been in the water about five minutes picking urchins. I was over a 'rolling reef' with an occasional rock pile. Water visibility was 30 to 40 feet and there were 10 to 15 sea lions playing around me. They would dive-bomb me and would play with the floats on my urchin basket from time to time. Suddenly, the sea lions were gone. I started looking around and saw movement coming toward me from behind. Within only a few seconds I could make out a Great White that was at least 15 feet in length. The shark had a tremendous girth, with perfect coloration and not a scratch on it. Over the years I've seen big Great Whites with scrapes and scars on their head and body. The shark swam a slow half circle around me, then headed away until it was almost out of sight. Then it made a quick turn and headed back in the direction from which it had come. When the shark made its hasty turn I got the feeling it was swimming back toward me to size me up. However, it swam past me and disappeared out of sight. No sooner had the shark disappeared than the sea lions suddenly reappeared, playing around me again. I left the area to locate my companion diver to alert him to the shark's presence. Neither of us saw the shark again."
On September 25, 1999 Michael Bigelow, his father Robert, and friend Jeff Maloney, were spearfishing 40 feet from shore off the East end of Catalina Island (118°18.50’W and 33°18.00’N). It was 1 PM and they had been in the water about 30 minutes. Air and water temperatures were estimated at 70 and 68 degrees Fahrenheit respectively. Water depth was 100 feet with 10 feet of visibility. Bigelow recalled; “While Jeff and I were swimming on the surface looking for fish to spear, my Dad called me frantically back to boat. When I got to the boat he told me he had been reloading his speargun when a large shark had grabbed the float attached to the gun. This float is a florescent orange lifeguard rescue float made of a hard plastic. It was tied to the speargun by 50 feet of polypropylene rope. The float was trailing behind the anchored boat when it was attacked by the shark. The force of the attack pulled the speargun out of my Dad's hands. He looked back to see that the float had disappeared and then saw a large dorsal fin appear about 20 feet behind the boat. At first he thought he was looking at a whale because the fin was so large. He then realized it was a shark. After telling me this story I got out of the water. By this time the float was back on the surface drifting down current. We weighed anchor and moved the boat to recover the float. Upon inspection I saw one large jagged puncture hole in the top of the float. On the bottom of the float was an arc of several tooth imprints with each imprint measuring 1.5 inches in length. Also visible were distinct serration markings in the plastic from the teeth. We figured the shark thought the float was a small pup seal when viewed from below. Water had a hazy layer in the top 10 feet with clear water below. I have been freediving Catalina Island for 25 years and have never heard of this sort of thing happening before or since. We later took the float to a marine biologist at Scripp's Institute of Oceanography and he estimated the shark was at least 5 meters long based on the bite marks.”
If you have had a similar experience and would like to voluntarily participate in the Shark Research Committee's encounter project, please use the appropriate reporting form for your submission.