Sonoma Coast surfer describes scary encounter with great white shark
Katie Wilson was still paddling out to catch her first wave when an unseen force wrenched her surfboard hard, and she was suddenly launched into what felt like a life-or-death struggle with a great white shark.
It happened in a flash of confusion and rising panic, up to 100 yards offshore of North Salmon Creek Beach on Tuesday, after the shark caught her surfboard leash in its mouth, gave a yank and began to thrash.
Wilson, a Santa Rosa massage therapist, thought at first a dolphin might have gotten tangled in the cord tethering her board to her ankle. She knew she was too far from land to have gotten stuck on a rock below the surf.
But as the water began to boil with the motion of the animal jerking her board back and forth, she looked over her shoulder and saw it raise its head from the water toward the end of her board. She peered in its eyes and realized, somehow, “it was attached to me.”
And in some recess of her mind, she instinctively recognized the “awful” feeling of “some huge apex predator underneath the water, trying to hunt you.”
“It was right behind me - like I could have reached my foot out and probably kicked it with my foot - but I was trying to stay as far away from it as I could,” Wilson said. “I felt like it was going to drag me under, and I really didn't want to be under the water with it.”
On her belly, with her legs bent behind her as tightly as possible, Wilson, 36, tried to make herself small and gripped her board in an effort to stay on top.
The ordeal probably lasted mere seconds, until the shark severed the leash with its razor sharp teeth and she felt the board released. But in the way of such things, time slowed and “it felt like forever,” she said.
Glancing to the south, she saw another surfer watching from a distance of maybe 20 yards. Her eyes met his and she screamed, “It's a f---ing great white shark.”
The clear-thinking stranger, a longboarder who gave his name as Bailey, paddled to her side and guided Wilson in toward shore.
The water was completely flat - no wave to ride when she needed one most.
“I was freaking out and hyperventilating and super, super scared,” she said. “He just paddled next to me and told me to breathe and everything's fine. And even at that time, I was in shock. I didn't know if I had gotten bitten. I had no idea. It was so much adrenaline.”
Wilson's husband, Jordan French, already had ridden a wave in and was close to shore as she approached, obviously distraught and paddling furiously.
He had earplugs in at first and couldn't hear what she was yelling at him as she approached, Wilson said. But then the unimaginable dawned on him, and as a wave broke behind her, he pushed her into the foamy wash to get her ashore and onto the sand as quickly as possible.
It was there she realized the shark had bitten through her leash about a foot away from where it connected to the surfboard deck.
Relieved to be with her husband, she nonetheless ran off to hug the other surfer, Bailey, so grateful was she for his calm presence when she couldn't think straight. It seemed as if he, too, needed to process what had just occurred before running off to pick his children up from school, she said.
‘Back on the horse'
Though deeply stunned and frightened, Wilson said she knew even that day she had to get back in the ocean as soon as possible, to ensure there was no risk of losing her passion for a sport she enjoys almost daily.
Her husband was with her, as well as several supportive companions on Wednesday, when she returned to the beach where she'd been attacked. Among the group was Megan Halavais, who as a Santa Rosa Junior College student in 2005, was attacked off the south end of Salmon Creek Beach by a 16-foot shark that bit her leg clear to the bone in several places. Even while hospitalized for her injuries, Halavais, too, was hell-bent on returning to the surf.
Wilson's Wednesday outing was brief and close to shore, but necessary.
“I only caught one wave,” she said, “but I just needed to get back. It was a pretty scary experience, and you know the old adage about getting back on the horse.”
Great white sharks roam the coastal waters up and down California and are common off the Sonoma Coast, according to State Parks Supervising Lifeguard Tim Murphy.
They are seen on a regular basis in Bodega Bay and at the mouth of Tomales Bay, mostly by fishermen and boaters, though sightings at Salmon Creek Beach are frequently made by surfers and observers on the bluffs, Murphy said. Some people on the bluff saw the shark that shook Wilson, he said.
“We get sightings pretty much monthly or weekly, but the activity that's seen as either threatening behavior or predatory behavior, those are few and far between,” he said.