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.

Shark attacks rare in state

Wilson said she had only seen a great white shark once while surfing, about a decade ago off South Salmon Creek Beach, when she left the water and saw a shark consuming a seal.

But many of her friends and fellow surfers have been bumped or circled while out in the water. A friend of a friend in Humboldt County has been bitten, twice.

Then there's Halavais, who in 2005 described throwing herself onto a great white shark as it twisted toward her in the water - an impulsive move she hoped would help her fend off the animal's awesome power in some way without hurting it, she said at the time.

The shark pulled her deep under water as friends watched. Halavais didn't realize until later that it had bitten down on her leg, coming within a half-inch of severing her femoral artery and causing injuries to her calf and thigh, medical personnel said.

The state Department of Fish and Wildlife says shark attacks are rare in California, with 184 documented incidents of actual contact between a shark and a human since 1950, including 115 cases involving injury, 13 of them fatal.

Sixty-nine incidents were like Wilson's and did not result in injury.

The majority, at least 163, involved great white sharks. Surfers and paddleboarders accounted for 74 of the incidents, according to Fish and Wildlife data.

Twelve cases have been recorded off the Sonoma Coast - half of them off Salmon Creek Beach, said John Ugoretz, a program manager with the state wildlife agency. “That's where people are accessing the ocean,” he said.

Warning signs posted

The most recent was the attack on Halavais in 2005, he said. Four were noninjury. There have been no fatalities.

Five incidents also were documented off Mendocino County, and 16 each off Marin and Humboldt counties.

“Sharks are all over the state,” Ugoretz said. “We see more incidents where there are more people, and in particular in Sonoma and surrounding counties, there's lots of sharks present at all times. It is somewhat rare for people to encounter them, but always exciting when they do.”

State park officials have posted warning signs along a 2-mile stretch of Sonoma coastline in the wake of Wilson's close encounter, Murphy said. They also have reached out to certain user groups through surf shops, kayak rental businesses and the like, just to make people aware of the incident with the shark and remind people “they are out here,” Murphy said.

When Wilson returned to the beach on Thursday, several acquaintances were just leaving the water - one of them having noticed “a very distinctly shark-looking shadow” in a wave moments earlier in the area where Wilson's encounter had occurred. The shape appeared to be 8 to 10 feet long, about the size of the shark that gave Wilson a scare two days earlier.

Wilson said she already had been debating getting in anyway, given the gray, foreboding sky and surf that didn't look especially inviting.

“I might just go do some yoga, go for a hike or something,” she said afterward.

She may take some time off from surfing at Salmon Creek Beach, but only a short while. It's her home break, after all.

“I just don't want to give up surfing, and this was an incident that could make you not want to do it anymore,” she said. “It's a big part of my life, and I don't want not to do it anymore.”

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Mary Callahan

Environment and Climate Change, The Press Democrat

I am in awe of the breathtaking nature here in Sonoma County and am so grateful to live in this spectacular region we call home. I am amazed, too, by the expertise in our community and by the commitment to protecting the land, its waterways, its wildlife and its residents. My goal is to improve understanding of the issues, to find hope and to help all of us navigate the future of our environment. 

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