“You're more likely to get struck by lightning than attacked by a shark,” or so the saying goes. Comforting, until a lightning bolt is sinking its statistically improbable teeth into your leg. While attacks are rare, and fatal ones are even rarer, we've had enough of them in San Diego that you can't help but at least have it in the back of your mind.
If you're worried about “the man in the grey suit," here's a primer on San Diego's history of close, way-too-close, and tragic shark encounters. They are organized by beach, in ascending order of their likelihood to keep you up at night with the Jaws theme in your head as you wonder if you REALLY want to go to the beach the next day.
6. Imperial Beach
As the day wanes, sharks and other predatory fish move to shallower water in search of prey. That's why it's a bad idea to surf after dark. In July of 2007, surfer Jordan Springer learned this lesson the hard way when he and his friend Chris Campbell were catching some late-night waves off the Imperial Beach Pier. By the light of the full moon, Campbell spotted a school of fish jumping out of the water in a panic, a sign that they were being chased by something. He warned Springer to keep his feet out of the water as he paddled. Two minutes later, Springer's board was seized in the mouth of a shark. Startled, he punched it as hard as he could and it swam away. The surfers booked it back to shore, unharmed but shaken.
5. Point Loma
One attack (allegedly)
The 1994 death of Michelle von Emster remains a mystery. Her body was discovered floating at “South Garbage,” a popular surf spot off of Sunset Cliffs in Point Loma. Along with her clothes, most of her right leg was missing. Her neck was also broken, and her remaining limbs showed signs of having been chewed on. Her death was judged to be the result of a great white attack, but shark experts have debated this conclusion. Many people speculate that her death was the result of foul play or accident, though her coroner indicated that her wounds were inflicted while she was still alive.
4. La Jolla Cove
One attack (fatal)
Imagine your ultimate shark attack nightmare and you're pretty close to what happened to Robert Pamperin in 1959. Pamperin was swimming in the water off the mouth of La Jolla Cove with his friend Gerald Lehrer, diving for abalone while another friend, William Abitz, watched them from a cliff. What none of the men knew was that they had swum into a deadly confluence of circumstances.
The night before their dive, a dead whale had washed up just around the corner from the Cove, at La Jolla Shores. Compounding the already dangerous level of shark-attractive scent in the water, a Navy diver had cut himself on a rock and dumped a significant amount of blood just an hour before. As if that weren't enough, spearfishermen had taken a number of yellowtail, a large fish, from the same area. And it probably didn't help that there was a group of harbor seals that lived nearby.
During their abalone dive, the two men became separated. Lehrer was alarmed to hear his friend calling for help, and when he looked over, saw him raised out of the water in a strange posture, without a mask on. He assumed Pamperin was suffering from a cramp, but when he dove underwater, he saw that he was in the maw of a shark that he estimated to be 20ft long. So large, in fact, that at first he thought it was an orca.
Lehrer watched in horror as the shark dragged Pamperin to the bottom of the Cove. Unable to scare off or even faze the shark, Lehrer swam back to shore. Neither Pamperin's body nor the shark were ever found. The culprit could have been a tiger shark, but was most likely a great white.
3. San Onofre
San Onofre State Beach, located in North San Diego County, has been called “ground zero for sharks.” They are spotted here at an unusually high frequency, especially juvenile great whites. It's also the site of three attacks. Keep in mind that the term “attack” has a pretty liberal official definition. If a shark touches you and you didn't provoke it, it's considered an attack. San Onofre sharks may be a bit ornery, but otherwise just seem to be along for the ride.
In 2011, a surfer named Doug Green was badly startled when a small shark, probably a juvenile white shark, tried and failed to jump over the front of his board. After a bit of difficulty, it shimmied back into the water.
Brian Hovnanian got a similar scare in 2009, when a shark leapt onto his standup paddleboard, knocking him over. He fell on top of the shark, which then flailed its way back off the board. Hovnanian was unharmed.
Also in 2009, Scott Barton got the worst of it, and it still wasn't that bad. After riding a wave back to shallow water, he turned to paddle back out. As he did so, he felt something brush against his left foot. Then, he felt teeth. He kicked his leg, the shark released him, and he yelled to his girlfriend, also surfing, to paddle in. The unidentified shark was small.
2. La Jolla Shores
La Jolla Shores is one of San Diego's most beautiful beaches, and also one of its sharkiest. Three attacks have been reported there. The first was an odd one. In 1995, a woman from Sacramento was attacked while kayaking beyond the breakers, probably by a great white. A physician pulled a tooth fragment out of her head, but she survived. Details about it are scarce, including the woman's name. Only about 5% of shark attacks are on kayakers -- a small number, but still larger than expected.
The second incident happened in 2005. A man named Tony Simmonson was coming in after a leisurely hour of surfing, close to the Scripps Pier, and rolled off his board when he was close enough to shore to stand. As soon as he was in the water, a shark was biting his right leg. He estimated the shark, probably a juvenile great white, to be about four feet long. He poured some rubbing alcohol on the wound, wrapped himself in a bandage, and limped it off.
The third attack (in 2009) was more of a mugging, and occurred in one of the kelp beds that grow offshore. Two spearfishermen had a close call with a great white after one of them speared a sea bass that got tangled up in some kelp, about 60ft deep. As Raymundo Ayus Jr. was freeing the bass, a shark appeared out of nowhere, snatched the fish out of his hands, hit him with its tail, and kept circling him all the way back to shore.
1. Solana Beach
One attack (fatal)
In 2008, a grisly shark attack with many eyewitnesses made national headlines. Dave Martin, a 66-year-old retired veterinarian, was participating in the swimming portion of a triathlon at Solana Beach when he was fatally attacked by a large shark. The shark removed both of his legs in one bite. Martin was dead by the time two of the other triathletes in the water pulled him back to shore. The shark was probably a great white, possibly up to 17ft long, that mistook Martin for a seal.
Anytime you're swimming or surfing, keep a few basic safety axioms in mind: don't swim if you're bleeding, don't dangle your legs in the water if you don't have to, and steer clear of seals. Or maybe just remain on dry land at all times.
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