Surfers Riding Waves Inches from the Jaws of Death

Fergal_Smith_catching_tube_few_feet_from_Great_White_Shark Photo: Phil Gallagher used with permission

When Fergal Smith dropped in on a monster barrel two miles off the coast of Perth in Western Australia, he little realised he was also dropping in on a monster of another kind. For as he powered down the face of the 20-plus-foot wave, lurking there just a few feet from him was a 500-pound Great White Shark. Smith didn’t even realise how close he had come to an encounter with one of the ocean’s deadliest predators. Other surfers’ shaves with man-eating sharks are closer still.

Close shave: Fergal Smith catching a barrel just feet from a Great White Surfer_sharing_wave_with_Great_White_Shark Photo: Phil Gallagher

Fergal Smith was lucky. If he had wiped out on the wave he was sharing with the Great White, help was far away – and who can tell what might have happened? Smith only discovered how narrow his escape had been when he was shown this picture by local photographer Phil Gallagher. His reaction? Laughter – though perhaps of a nervous flavour. At the time, in 2008, Smith said: “I saw a grey shape in the wave but I thought it was the reflection of a slab of rock – how wrong was I?”

Smiling assassin? Great White Shark off South Africa Great_White_Shark_Cage_Diving Photo: hermanusbackpackers

Since 1876, the Great White Shark has been responsible for at least 66 recorded deaths worldwide – most recently off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa – plus around 250 further non-fatal attacks. Incredibly, 101 of the attacks reported in the 20th century were on surfers, though often without serious injury – Great Whites being known to test-bite unfamiliar objects such as surfboards. Even so, there is much in the way of misinformation out there as well as some decidedly fishy photos.

Photoshopped: Fake photo of Great White bursting from a wave surfer_vs_shark_photoshopped Image via myconfinedspace

When Great White attacks do occur, many scientists believe it is a case of mistaken identity. The shark ambushes the swimmer, body-boarder or surfer from below, confusing their silhouette with that of a seal – particularly if the person has fins or a black wetsuit. However, great whites appear not to like the taste of humans – too bony for their palates, they prefer fatty, protein-rich pinnipeds – and it is only an extremely hungry shark that will go in for the kill after the first bite.

Catching air: Spinner Shark jumps from the waves, New Smyrna Beach Jumping_blacktipped_shark_New_Smyrna_Beach Photo: Kem McNair used with permission

Fact is, Great Whites seldom attack people. Researchers studying the species off the coast of South Africa in 2005 watched as a 13-ft specimen approached the kayak one of their team was sat in, but the creature merely veered off, circled several times, then lost interest. And in places where attacks are common such as Florida’s New Smyrna Beach – known as the shark bite capital of the world with 24 in 2008 – the sharks are usually less lethal – like this 6-ft Spinner snapped leaping from the surf.

Nice turn: Spinner Shark living up to its name, New Smyrna Beach, 2008 Jumping_spinner_shark_New_Smyrna_Beach Photo: Kem McNair used with permission

Sharks are just one of the dangers surfers face when they take to the waves, but though the odds are stacked in their favour, the risk posed is a real one – as American surfer Bethany Hamilton found out in 2003. Then just 13, Hamilton was lying on her surfboard with her left arm dangling in the water, when a 14-ft Tiger Shark attacked, ripping off her arm just below the shoulder. If the shark had bitten two inches further in, the attack would have been fatal, but luck was on her side.

Tiger Shark attack survivor: Pro surfer Bethany Hamilton at Surfest 07 Surfest_07_Bethany_Hamilton Photo: Noah Hamilton

Hamilton’s friends helped her paddle back to the shore of Kauai, Hawaii, fashioning a tourniquet out of a surfboard leash that they tied around what was left of her arm before rushing her to the local hospital. Hamilton lost almost 60% of her blood that morning but recovered over six days in hospital, and despite the trauma was back on her board just three weeks after the accident. By 2008, with only one arm, she was competing strongly full-time on the ASP World Qualifying Series.

Mistaken identity: Surfer in wave with Dolphin often misrepresented as Shark surfer_and_dolphin_in_wave Photo: © Kurt Jones used with permission

Bethany Hamilton’s story is evidence enough that a single bite from a powerful predator like a Tiger Shark can grievously injure a human, yet some sea animals may have something to say about such attacks. Dolphins are well documented protecting humans from sharks – although no one knows why for sure. In 2007, a pod of Bottlenose Dolphins formed a ring around surfer Todd Endris, allowing him to get to shore after he had been mauled by a Great White off Monterey, California.

More Photoshop trickery: Surfing a wave personified as a Shark wave_personified_as_shark Image: Worth 1000

But despite such Dolphin interventions, the words “fish out of water” spring to mind when considering the potential scrapes surfers can get themselves into in the open ocean. To some surfers, the wave itself might be likened to a shark – a force forever capable of chewing them up and spitting them out – but while the wave is a beast whose power surfers have learned to harness, the sharks remains a creature that will never be tamed.

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Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

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