The Endless Blue
Published in

The Endless Blue

Sighting

San Onofre on April 27, 2021 — Photo by J.S. Lender

IT WAS THE DEAD SILENCE of the sighting that surprised me the most. I had always assumed that if I ever crossed paths with a shark in the ocean, my heart would race and my blood would pump furiously through my veins and my eyes would cartoonishly bulge out of my head. But that was not what happened.

During my 30 years as a surfer, I had never seen a shark in the water. I knew there were plenty of great whites up and down the west coast, but I never had the pleasure of meeting any of them. I had witnessed dolphins frolicking about on a regular basis — sometimes the dolphins even swim through the face of the waves at San Onofre. There are always plenty of seals as well, popping their heads up out of the water and twitching their wet whiskers and keeping the surfers amused.

I paddled out at a spot called “Old Man’s” at San Onofre on Tuesday, April 27 at about 6:45 AM. It was a fine day to catch some waves, as the tail end of the massive “La Bomba” swell from Mexico was still bringing in some legitimate, rolling sets. The water had cooled off a bit and a stark breeze was taking great liberties with the ocean’s surface. But the swell was dying off and the sets were slowly becoming inconsistent. The party was coming to an end.

I was sitting on my longboard with maybe 10 other surfers in the water. I had situated myself at the northern end of the peak, trying to get away from the crowd and catch a nice left.

When I saw it, my first thought was that the dorsal fin looked rather thick and gray. I figured that a dolphin had swam close to shore to play around a bit in the waves. But the fin kept moving so gracefully and straight and true across the surface of the rippled water that I turned my head just a tad and witnessed an equally formidable tail fin following about 5 feet behind. Best I could tell, it was a great white.

Like I said before, I did not panic and my heart did not race and my mouth did not become dry. But I experienced a total and complete silence that I can only describe as a purgatory between death and a deep, deep dream. Every sound I had ever heard from the day I was born until that moment escaped my memory. There was not a single sound in the entire world. When the shark passed in front of the nose of my longboard, it was so cool and confident as it slid through that morning’s lineup that it reminded me of an Army General inspecting his troops before battle. At ease, gentlemen!

After about 10 seconds, the fins gracefully descended into the dark blue water and I never saw them again.

The shark was heading south, toward the other surfers that were catching waves at the peak. I waved my hand to them and said “there’s a shark right there [me pointing in their direction].” They all looked at me with blank stares. When I explained that it was a juvenile shark, probably 10 foot or smaller, the surfers shrugged their shoulders and went about their business of paddling and dropping in and hanging 10.

But trust me, no shark seems like “just a juvenile” when its fin cuts through the water right in front of you.

The sea continued to awaken at a leisurely pace, as the mighty sun made its scheduled appearance over the bluffs at Camp Pendleton Marine Base and revived the California coast back to life.

* * *

That week I thought quite a bit about the shark and the fins and the rippled water and the way that the universe can become so small and silent so quickly. I finally realized that I had just two options: (1) learn to become comfortable sharing the water with sharks; (2) quit surfing.

A few days later, I found myself crawling out of bed long before dawn and guzzling down a quick cup of coffee and tossing my surfboard and wetsuit into my car and racing back to the ocean. I knew that if I did not get back out in the water quickly, my mind would become consumed with thoughts of peril and that my fears would get the better of me.

The morning air is warming up now and I know that Summer will arrive soon. When I stepped across the rocks early Saturday morning and made my way back into the water, I just stayed focused on the waves that were rolling in and how the warm sun felt on my back…

[POST SCRIPT]

I had been reluctant to publish this story because I was not sure whether people would understand what I was trying to express. My goal was to share the jolting experience of spotting a shark in the water, while at the same time convey the beauty and magnificence of the ocean and the shark.

I realize that the majority of people who will read this article do not live near the ocean, and many readers have never swam in the sea. It may be difficult for those readers to understand why surfers continue to knowingly share the water with sharks. While I can’t speak for others, I can say that the ocean has been a central part of my life since I was very young. In the summer I spend just about every day possible in the ocean either surfing, swimming, or snorkeling. There is something about the ocean that keeps calling me back. Living a life disconnected from the sea is something that I cannot easily imagine. In short, the ocean has always felt like my true home.

I did not want to write a “Hey Look At Me, I Surf In The Ocean With Great White Sharks” article. Plenty of videos exist of individuals purposefully getting up close and personal with great whites just to get sensational video footage. There have also been reported shark attacks involving individuals who paddle out hundreds of yards from shore, then go fishing off of a kayak or a longboard. Everyone in the ocean must use common sense — if you turn yourself into a floating piece of bait, a shark will eventually swim up and try to eat you.

It is my belief that we all have a sixth sense of sorts, especially when in the ocean or anywhere else in the wild. Four days after I spotted the shark at San Onofre I paddled back out at a nearby spot a few miles to the south. The water conditions were stormy and a new swell had brought in some good sized waves. The water was brown and murky and there was zero visibility — to the extent that I could not even see my own legs dangling in the water when I sat up on my board. The waves were breaking in deep water. Obviously, I was thinking quite a bit about the shark I had just spotted a few days prior, but there was something else that did not feel right — something deep in my gut telling me that I was not alone out there. I caught one or two good waves, then quickly made my way back to the shore.

Since then I have been surfing about 30 miles north of San Onofre, where shark sightings are rare. The waves are just fine there, and my “shark radar” is not making a peep. I’m sure that over the summer I’ll return to my favorite spot, San Onofre, but in the meantime I’ll follow my instincts and surf elsewhere. The most important thing is that I keep paddling out.

J.S. Lender’s books are on sale now! — reefpointpress.weebly.comCopyright © J.S. Lender / Reef Point Press 2021

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