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Surfer severely injured in shark attack off Sonoma Coast, beach activities limited as precaution

Authorities ordered beachgoers to stay out of the water on Sunday along a stretch of the Sonoma Coast north of Bodega Bay after a surfer was attacked by a shark and airlifted to a hospital with severe injuries.

Officials with the California Department of Parks and Recreation posted closure notices along the two-mile stretch of coast between Mussel Point and Marshall Gulch.

Beaches will stay open, but swimming, surfing, kayaking and paddling in the water are not allowed through Tuesday, officials said.

The attack happened at about 9 a.m. on Sunday in the water just beyond the paved parking lot at North Salmon Creek Beach, officials said.

(Watch the video below to hear a fellow surfer describe the attack, rescue.)

The man was lying on his stomach paddling his surfboard when the shark swam up from below, according to a surfer who was nearby when the attack happened and described the incident to a photographer at the scene.

The shark approached the man from his side and sunk its teeth into him, clamping down on the back of his upper leg and the bottom of his surfboard, according to the nearby surfer.

Fellow surfers helped the man get to shore and then laid him on a longboard and carried him up a staircase to the parking lot. One bystander tied a tourniquet around the man’s leg to help stop blood from gushing out of his wounds, the witness said.

The man was in the parking lot when firefighters, paramedics and other emergency officials arrived, said Bodega Bay Fire Capt. David Bynum. He was treated in an ambulance until a helicopter crew picked him up and flew him to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, Bynum said.

Bynum describe the man’s injuries as severe but said he was expected to survive. Officials said the man was conscious when paramedics were evaluating him.

The attack was top of mind on Sunday for most of the surfers who stopped by the Northern Light surf shops in Bodega and Valley Ford, said owner Sarah Dougherty.

“The surf community is pretty tight,” she said. “When something like this happens, you worry about it, and you worry about the person.”

While the Sunday surf crowd at Salmon Creek dispersed after the attack, Dougherty said the most dedicated surfers likely won’t be deterred from getting back in the water.

“I’m sure some people will definitely be a little more cautious and others will be like, ‘Oh, they’re always out there,’” she said.

Sharks are most prevalent off the Sonoma Coast in late summer and fall, said Sgt. Tim Murphy, a Sonoma Coast State Park supervising lifeguard.

“That’s when a lot of sharks that have migrated come back into this area,” said Murphy, who is also a surfer. “We know they’re out there. We just coexist with them.”

For surfers, the timing lines up with the most optimal conditions of the year for wave riding, when autumn offshore winds groom larger swells that come in after the summer lull.

“This time of year is the sharky time of year and it’s also when the waves get really good and the water starts warming up a bit,” Dougherty said. “So it’s harder to keep yourself out of the water.”

Bynum, the Bodega Bay fire captain, guessed that the bite came from a white shark, but he said officials with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife were working to determine the species using DNA collected from the man’s wetsuit and surfboard.

While shark attacks are extremely rare in California, they almost always involve white sharks, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Since records of sharks off the California coast began in the 1950s, the department has tallied 198 incidents when sharks touched people in the water. At least 176 of those, or about 85%, involved white sharks.

Fourteen of California’s recorded shark attacks were fatal, and all of those involved white sharks, the department’s data show.

State Park officials have closed Salmon Creek Beach three times in the past two decades because of “aggressive” shark encounters, said Murphy, the lifeguard.

One of those closures came in November 2002, when body-boarder Michael Casey was bitten by a shark at South Salmon Creek Beach. The next time, also at South Salmon Creek, was in September 2005, when surfer Megan Halavais was bitten in the leg by a great white.

The most recent closure was in May 2019, when a shark chomped on Katie Wilson’s surfboard leash in the same location as Sunday’s attack.

About four to five shark sightings off the Sonoma Coast are reported to authorities each year, and those don’t typically trigger closures, Murphy said.

“Sightings are common,” Murphy said. “But if there’s an aggressive behavior, like a bump or what we call a gaping, where they come up with their mouth open, we close for that.”

State Park officials typically post closure notices along the coast a mile north and south from where a shark attack happened, Murphy said.

You can reach Staff Writer Matt Pera at matthew.pera@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @Matt__Pera.

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