Elinor Dempsey was still shaken Saturday afternoon after a great white shark chomped on her surfboard while she was waiting for a wave off Morro Strand State Beach that morning.
“I’m still in shock but doing OK,” she said while taking it easy at her Los Osos home. “It was a pretty eventful morning.”
Dempsey, 54, wasn’t injured in the attack although her red surfboard now features a large half-moon hole edged in teeth markings. She joked, “I might sell it to the highest bidder.”
State Parks and Morro Bay Harbor Patrol posted 72-hour beach closure signs from Cayucos to Morro Rock shortly after the 10:15 a.m. incident.
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Dempsey said she had been in the water about 35 minutes when she saw the shark approach her about 2 feet underwater.
“First I thought it was a dolphin and I thought, ‘What the hell is he doing?’ ” she said. “And he kind of landed on my board. Then I realized he had taken a chunk. And I was, like, that’s not what dolphins do.”
Dempsey estimated the shark was 7 or 8 feet long and as big around as a stout man.
Surfer Jamie Bettencourt witnessed the incident.
“I saw her being tumbled off her board and the shark underneath the board,” he said. “So it was kind of a tangle of her and the board and the leash and the shark — dark gray fin and tail. And she was yelling and the shark went under and swam away.”
In the water, Bettencourt and a friend began yelling, “Get out of the water!”
Surfers near Dempsey, who had been surfing in the water in front of the ranger kiosk at Morro Strand State Beach campground, began hustling out of the surf.
“That was the freaky part,” Dempsey said, “when I started swimming in and not knowing what was going on behind me in the water. I wasn’t thinking much, except, ‘Shit, I better get in!’”
Seconds later, a California State Parks pickup drove by as Bettencourt was helping Dempsey get to the sand.
“We were just patrolling the beach, actually, on another call,” said Supervising Ranger Lisa Remington. “We just drove up on it right as she got out of the water.”
As the truck drove on the sand, throngs of surfers exited the water while Remington announced the shark incident on the truck’s public announcement speaker.
“We PA’d and got the surfers in this area out of the water so everybody is out of the water,” she said at the scene. “We also let (Morro Bay) Harbor Patrol know so they can clear the water down on the other end of the beach.”
Surfers and spectators quickly crowded the State Parks truck, where Dempsey’s board lay on the sand, a chunk missing. Rangers took photos as Jay Thompson, a Morro Bay boogie boarder, measured the bite mark for them.
The bite measured 13½ inches wide and 8 inches deep.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist Michael Harris happened to be at the beach at the time. “It almost certainly was a white shark,” he said. Sharks typically take an investigative bite before deciding whether to go in for a kill, and this was probably an investigative bite, Harris said.
Based on Dempsey’s description that the shark was no larger than eight feet long, “that puts it in the category of a sub adult animal,” he said.
However, an analysis of the bite mark and teeth pattern would need to be done to judge the size of the shark from the chunk taken out of the board, he added.
Ralph Collier, a renowned shark researcher at the Los Angeles-based Shark Research Committee, said he will examine the board. Collier has developed a way to measure sharks based on the size of bite marks and tooth imprints. The bite on Dempsey’s board, he said, likely only represents the upper portion of the jaw.
“That bite might only be 30 percent of the actual jaw,” he said. “You could be looking at an animal 13 to maybe 15 feet.”
Great white sharks have been protected in California for 15 years, Collier said, which has helped their population grow. That, and with more people in the water, contributes to the number of shark-human encounters. Furthermore, given that this is an El Nino year, warmer water is bringing fish closer to shore, which brings seals and sea lions — chief shark prey — closer to shore.
“We have to remember that their objective — their job — is to find food,” Collier said. The attack is one of multiple human-shark encounters along the Central Coast in the past several months.
In December, Kevin Swanson of Morro Bay survived after he was bitten by a shark while surfing at Montana de Oro.
Earlier this month, a visitor from Bakersfield used a drone to videotape a large shark inspecting a surfer, but not attacking, in Oceano. On Aug. 18, a shark attacked a fisherman’s kayak near Gaviota State Beach.
On Saturday morning while still at the beach, Dempsey was shaken but in good spirits as crowds of beachgoers took photos of her board.
“And I didn’t get a wave,” she said. “That’s the worst part — I got no waves.”
At the beach, Dempsey said she might take a break from surfing and boogie board closer to shore. But by afternoon, she had changed her mind.
“I love surfing,” she said at her home. “I don’t want this to stop me from that.”