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Apr 14

Fatal Shark Attack in Morro Bay

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NOTE: I’m off for a bit, so I’m re-posting some of my earlier Sidetracks — the best of, if you will.

I can’t enjoy surfing as much when I fear that each wave contains a shark with its mouth open, ready to pronounce “GOTCHA!” like Misterjaw, the top hat-wearing shark from the Pink Panther series.

But that’s how I felt as I sat on my surfboard in Morro Bay last night. In fact, I couldn’t help but make a mental checklist of shark risk factors:

1.)    Are you in the water during the evening when sharks swim closer to shore?

Check.

2.)    Are you in the middle of a feeding frenzy where other wildlife that might attract sharks are present?

Check.

3.)    Is the water murky so sharks can’t decipher what’s a human and what’s a sea lion?

Check.

4.)    Are you relatively alone, with few other surfers near?

Check.

5.)    Is it summer, when shark sightings here are more common?

Check.

So after catching a paltry two waves, I decided to bail.

While I felt a bit like a wuss for leaving, I also didn’t want to dismiss the risk. Sadly, this summer marks the fifth anniversary since Deborah Franzman was killed by a great white at Avila Beach. Franzman was swimming near a pack of sea lions when the shark attacked her near the Avila pier.

Before that incident, it had been more than 45 years since a shark had killed someone in the county. That attack, which killed a Cal Poly student in 1957, occured at A-Beach, where I was surfing yesterday.

Since a lot of people don’t know much about that terrifying incident, I wanted to find out more about it. The Florida-based Shark Research Committee, a leading organization in shark studies, had some good information about it, which was gleaned in part from the Telegram-Tribune story above. Here’s what the shark committee wrote:

 On Sunday, 28 April 1957, shock and disbelief would grip one of California’s small coastal communities. Peter Savino, age 25, of Brooklyn, New York, would lose his life while swimming with fellow California Polytechnic Institute student Daniel Hogan, age 22, about 3 kilometers north of Morro Rock at 35th Street, Atascadero Beach, San Luis Obispo County (35°24.2′N; 120°52.5′W). Savino and Hogan were accompanied by 10 to 12 other student acquaintances for an early-afternoon ocean swim. It was about 1330 hours on what was described by one companion as “a very warm, sunny day.” The two swimmers encountered a very strongly ebbing tide that carried them 300 to 400 meters out to sea from their original location, which had been about 50 meters from the beach. They decided it would be best to head back to shore before they were swept out to sea any farther. Shortly after beginning their swim back toward shore, Savino had become exhausted from fighting the current and was being towed by his friend. Hogan recounted the events of the attack to Deputy Sheriffs Don C. Miller and Henry Karagard as follows:“Pete had gotten tired and was hanging onto my shoulder when there was a sudden swirl of water and he disappeared over the top of a big wave. I heard him yell, ‘Something really big hit me,’ and I saw him raise an arm out of the water that was all bloody. I saw the shark hit him. I said, ‘Come on, let’s get out of here,’ because I knew the blood would bring the shark back. I saw the shark, it boiled the water around us and then it all got confused, but I saw the shark. It carried Pete over a big wave. I started swimming toward shore and Pete was right behind me. The next time I glanced back he was gone.” 

Realizing nothing could be done, Hogan continued to the beach and informed classmate Jerald Frank of the tragedy. Frank called a local mortuary, which then notified the sheriff’s office and the U. S. Coast Guard station in Morro Bay.

The USCG dispatched the cutter Alert, which, upon arriving on the scene, lowered a 6.5-meter launch under the command of Executive Officer James C. Knight. Within mere minutes of beginning their search for the missing swimmer, Knight reported, “We located a shark as long as our launch. After making a quick trip back to the Alert for firearms we returned to the area where we had last seen the shark, but it was gone.” Knight was positive that the shark observed was not a Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus), as was reported in several newspaper accounts of the attack. Knight also reported sighting several smaller Blue Sharks in the search area. The search resumed the following day, but was unsuccessful. Savino’s body was never recovered.

It is not possible to unequivocally determine the species of shark responsible for this incident. The shark’s length, about 6 meters, probably precluded most untrained observers in the 1950s from considering any species of shark except a Basking Shark. However, Executive Officer Knight was familiar with Basking Sharks and was positive that the shark he observed was not this species. There are some striking similarities between this case and Robert Pamperin’s fatal White Shark attack in 1959. A large White Shark is highly suspect in Peter Savino’s fatal attack.

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