North Bay man's shark encounter inspires role as ocean guardian
Published: Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 5:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 22, 2013 at 1:49 p.m.
Jonathan Kathrein was one day away from starting his junior year at Saint Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco.
-109 shark attacks in California since 1926
-10 of those attacks were fatal
-19 of those attacks occurred within Sonoma, Marin and Mendocino counties and one was fatal (Mendocino, 2004). Source: Florida Museum of Natural History
-You are 40 times more likely to die from a lightning strike than a shark attack.
Source: National Geographic
Three safety tips for shark season (Aug.-Oct.)
-Don't go in the water by yourself
-Be at a beach that has lifeguards
-You're safer if you're on a big surf board.
Source: Jonathan Kathrein
The 16-year-old Chicago transplant had spent his summer dabbling in surfing, and decided to spend that last day of freedom, Aug. 26, 1998, boogie boarding with a friend at Stinson Beach.
The cold water caused Kathrein's friend to bail out early, but he stayed in. He was paddling parallel to shore when his hand hit something in the water.
Unnerved, he began to head back to shore. Within seconds, a 12-foot great white shark came underneath Kathrein on his right side and bit into his leg, pulling him into the water.
Kathrein, now 30, works to defend the same sharks that almost killed him. His book "Surviving the Shark" was released in July, and he has spoken internationally about his story.
He now works in Santa Rosa on clean-energy projects as a government relations specialist for former Congressman Doug Bosco, chairman of the California State Coastal Conservancy. Bosco also is an investor in Sonoma Media Investments, which owns The Press Democrat.
"I've tried to deflect attention from my survival to the fact that sharks don't want to eat people," Kathrein said. "Sharks aren't interested in people, if they were, there would be a lot more attacks."
But on that 1998 summer morning, Kathrein knew only that his leg was firmly in a shark's mouth.
"I knew right away that it was a shark because it was big and powerful," Kathrein said. "It was too big to fight so I just tried to hold onto it in hopes of minimizing the damage."
Kathrein tried to throw his arms around the shark, but it was too large. He opened his eyes and saw the shark's gill slits in front of him.
"I grabbed onto them like handlebars, and when I did that, the shark let me go," Kathrein said.
He struggled toward the beach, unable to move his right leg.
At about that time, John McCosker, a shark expert, was sitting in his office at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco and began getting phone calls from the Stinson lifeguards about an apparent shark attack victim.
"They asked me what to do, and I told them I wasn't a physician," said McCosker, who had given lectures on shark attacks to lifeguards.
Paramedics were called and Kathrein was taken by helicopter to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek, where he spent seven hours in surgery. "The doctors stopped counting after 600 stitches," Kathrein said. "All of the major muscles in my right leg were severed."
At the hospital, McCosker confirmed that a tooth pulled from Kathrein's leg belonged to a great white. He called Kathrein during his recovery, and the two struck up a friendship.
A three-sport athlete, Kathrein was forced to sit out the soccer and water polo seasons, spending six months in physical therapy learning how to walk. During his recovery, Kathrein fielded dozens of questions about the accident.
"At the time it was pretty big local news, and people would see me at the mall on crutches and start asking questions like, 'Do you hate sharks?' and 'do you want to hunt sharks?' " he said.
Gradually, the teen began to realize a calling. Sharks were stigmatized, and he could change that.
"Most people know nothing about sharks even though they're right here, because they're incredibly hard to study," Kathrein said. "Even the world's leading shark scientists don't know that much about sharks."
Shark attacks are rare, Kathrein discovered, and often non-fatal. Talks with McCosker and a visit to the Academy of Science inspired him to do more research.
During his freshman year at UC Berkeley, Kathrein was asked by nonprofit group Wild Aid to speak at an event at Cal Academy.
"Sharks have an image problem, and they don't have a really good PR firm behind them," said Greg Miller, a former Google executive who was Wild Aid's interim board president at the time. Wild Aid was raising awareness about the issue of shark finning, and Miller saw a unique chance in Kathrein.
"There aren't many shark attack victims, and of those many don't like to talk to the media," Kathrein said. "That leaves very few people who can say 'it was horrible, but I don't think sharks are out there hunting people down.' "
Kathrein's role as a speaker grew, and soon he found himself not only speaking about sharks, but sharing life lessons with the kids who came to hear him.
In 2005, he started a nonprofit called Future Leaders for Peace, which encouraged young people to overcome challenges, develop leadership skills and do good. He garnered speaking engagements all over the world, giving presentations to school assemblies in England, Germany, South Africa and the U.S.
"The shark attack was woven into everything, and kids really listened because of it," Kathrein said. "I realized there was some room for me to speak into their lives."
In 2006, Kathrein self-published a children's book called "Don't Fear the Shark." The book uses the shark attack as a metaphor for treating people well and getting along with everyone.
For McCosker, perspectives like Kathrein's are invaluable for furthering shark research and conservation. "He's just been wonderful on behalf of humanity and sharks," McCosker said. "He has no anger at sharks; instead he's a great defender of them."
Kathrein worked with McCosker on legislation to ban shark-fin products in California, a measure that passed in 2011.
"He's someone who has every reason to be angry at sharks," Miller said. "But instead he can say, 'Hold on everybody, don't use this attack as an excuse to be uncaring or to ignore the issues.' "
Kathrein lives in Mill Valley with wife, Ashlee, 2-year-old daughter, Madison, and a baby is on the way. He remains an avid swimmer and surfer.
"I still surf up and down the coastline, but not at Stinson," Kathrein said. "I tried once and it's maybe just psychological, but I've never been back."
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