Standing by my car, hair still wet from the surf, I witnessed a surreal sight Saturday morning: two dozen surfers hustling out of the water.
I figured the State Parks truck driving on the beach had warned them of a shark sighting. But a couple of minutes later, a beachgoer at Morro Strand State Beach (“A-Beach” to surfers) said a surfboard had been bitten. And I knew then that I would have to pull a Saturday shift.
Normally, I at least have a crumpled reporter’s pad on the floorboard of my car, next to melted surf wax, sweaty gym clothes and discarded straw wrappers. But not this time. So I took my iPhone and immediately started recording as I ran toward the crowd that had gathered near the State Parks truck.
When I first caught a glimpse of the board — and the huge chunk missing from it — I knew it was going to make international news. And, as luck (or unluck) would have it, I was the only reporter in sight.
Never miss a local story.
As I got in position to shoot video of the surfboard, I saw a State Parks ranger taking photos while a man in a wetsuit was measuring the bite mark for him.
Turns out, the guy with the tape measure was Jay Thompson, a former Tribune copy editor who now works at Cal Poly. Thompson, who had been boogie boarding, pointed me toward the owner of the board, Elinor Dempsey of Los Osos.
Thompson tried to console her, but he also let her know there’d be widespread interest in the story.
He didn’t say how quickly news would spread.
Within two hours of the attack, I got a text from my mom in Indiana, pleading with me to give up surfing.
“Stop tempting fate,” she wrote.
Craft, who has a show on KGO Radio, made big news herself in the ’80s when she sued her television station, claiming she was demoted from co-anchor because her bosses believed she was too old and not attractive enough. But she is also a former competitive surfer, she told me, who was once circled by a shark in a scary ocean encounter.
As the shark tale picked up steam, Dempsey’s story was carried by news outlets across the country and across the Atlantic. While her proverbial 15 minutes of fame will soon fade, the impact of that attack will linger a bit longer for surfers. Some reported the shark to be only 6 feet long, but Ralph Collier of the Shark Research Committee said the shark could be as long as 13 to 15 feet based on the 13½-inch-wide bite mark it left behind.
Hard not to think of that while in the water.
In a little over a year, three surfers have been attacked in San Luis Obispo County. In July 2014, a shark bit a surfer’s board in the water off Oceano. And last December, Kevin Swanson was bit on the thigh and dragged under the water by a shark while surfing in Montaña de Oro.
I don’t want to think about the human-shark encounters in northern Santa Barbara County, where two people were killed by sharks in 2010 and 2012.
If there’s any bright side, Stanford University researchers concluded this summer that Californians are safer from sharks today than any time in the past six decades. (Possible reasons cited: a drop in the white shark population off California's coast and a shift in white shark spatial distribution in response to growing seal population.)
But Dempsey’s board defies statistical probabilities.
Also, there’s a reason why this has been a great year for whale watching: Warmer water is bringing bait and prey closer to the shore. And with more people in the water, Collier says, more human-shark encounters are likely.
Dang … I just had a new surfboard made.
But Dempsey told The Tribune she plans to go back out. And if she can muster the courage after her face-to-face encounter with an apex predator left over from the dinosaur era, then I can as well.
But maybe not right way. And maybe not at A-Beach.