That was my mom talking, from Indiana. And my first thought was: How does my mom know about any shark?, thinking that maybe she was right when she said that moms just know stuff.
Then I remembered the little photo I had posted on Facebook. It was a warning that had been posted about a shark sighting in Pismo.
I gave my mom the standard response: “They’re always out there. They just happened to spot one.”
Of course, I could have told her the usual surfer line: “Ah, that’s just some guy saying he saw a shark to ward off the summer crowds.”
Or I could have told the more likely story: That nutrients tend to come to shore in the summer, which attracts marine wildlife, which then attracts Whitey.
No, I didn’t tell her that. Because that would prompt the usual response: “I don’t want you going surfing!”
Yeah, okay, mom. I’ll quit surfing.
But I can see why people think it’s a little odd to surf at a place where a shark has been sighted. (Oh, and did I mention this is Shark Week?) In the new book “Surviving the Shark” (Skyhorse Publishing, $24.95) by Jonathan Kathrein, the author notes that there was such a sign at Stinson Beach in San Francisco the day he was attacked by a great white. He, like several other surfers, ignored the sign and went out anyway.
Given the title of the book, you can pretty well guess what happens. And his story of how it all went down is pretty much every surfer’s nightmare: His friend went to shore first, leaving him alone. While paddling, his hand bumped into something hard and sandpapery. Knowing what it was, he paddled frantically, waiting for the shark to attack him.
The shark bit into him, shook him, dragged him under. Had he not grabbed the shark by the gills, it probably would have killed him. Had the shark bitten a centimeter further in another direction, he would have bled to death in the water.
As he was being whisked away in a helicopter, Kathrein, then 16, worried that his family’s insurance might not cover helicopter trips. Then he wondered if he’d be able to make it for the first day of school — the following day.
Luckily, he hadn’t looked at his leg.
But despite gruesome injuries, a team of surgeons spending eight hours in ER were able to save his leg. In the media frenzy (enter shark metaphors) that followed, Kathrein refused to portray the shark that attacked him as a vicious, evil predator.
“I wanted to portray the shark as a peaceful yet powerful animal doing what it was supposed to do,” he wrote.
A long recovery followed. And evntually he had to answer the inevitable question: Will you get back in the water?
“Overcoming the memories wasn’t easy but gradually I became more brave or perhaps more determined,” he wrote. “I might not fully overcome the fear, but I would not let it dominate my life. There are many dangers on land, too, but we don’t stay home because of them.”
So true. While I have to admit, I do get creeped out by the notion of giant predators in the water, there are many ways you can die unexpectedly. Like those poor people who just thought they were going to watch a Batman movie in Colorado. Or the Sikhs attending their temple in Wisconsin. Or the guy who’s driving down the road and has no idea the car in the other lane is about to drift over the center line.
Kathrein did return to the water a few years later. And with a new outlook on life, he realized he wanted to have an impact. So he helped found a non-profit, Future Leaders for Peace, which proposes to inspire young people to come up with positive ways to approach life’s challenges. Through that organization, he speaks to students across the world, sharing his story.
And he’s also become an advocate for sharks.
Kathrein isn’t a great writer. His recalled dialogue is pretty stiff, and he doesn’t have a writerly flow. But his retelling of the attack is one of the most riveting — and scary — shark attack stories I’ve read. And his ability to move on — to return to the water — makes it easier for me to go out, despite fliers that remind me of the predator that swims beneath us.
As he wrote in a Huffington Post piece: “Generally, except for a very small margin of error, the sharks will leave you alone.”
That from a guy who came out on the wrong side of the odds.
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