The real-life 'Jaws': Don't go back in the water

San Diego County had not seen a fatal shark attack in 50 years. So when a swimmer was killed by what witnesses believe was a great white, panic spread through the area

By Clifford Coonan
Sunday 23 October 2011 07:36

"I went into the water today. I come here most days, but I'm not going in deep," said Kyle Frye, a classic southern Californian, tattooed, tanned and healthy. But his eyebrows were raised in concern behind the rims of his sunglasses.

"It doesn't happen that often, but this shark attack was a total shock, especially because I live just up the street," he said. "This was terrible."

Mr Frye was standing on the beach near the stark "SHARK WARNING!" signs that have dotted the strand since a great white shark attacked and killed a swimmer on Friday, the first fatal shark attack in San Diego County waters in nearly 50 years.

In southern California, the beach lifestyle is treasured and fiercely guarded, and the San Diego beach community was still reeling from the attack at Fletcher Cove. Surfers, retirees and holidaymakers gathered along the shores to leave flowers at a makeshift memorial for the retired veteran Dave Martin, 66, who died on a triathlon training swim near his home on a warm spring morning. Officials said he had been swimming together with eight fellow members of a triathlon club at the time.

"I surf here all the time, sure, but I'm going further up the beach now, there's no sharks up there. This is terrible, poor guy," said one surfer, clutching his board at Solana Beach.

Mr Martin was swimming about 150 yards offshore, in water up to 30 feet deep, when the attack occurred. Witnesses said the shark thrust Martin out of the water with his legs in its jaws, biting two large gashes in his legs and shredding his black wetsuit.

The victim died from loss of blood, according to people who tried to rescue him and a subsequent autopsy. Beachgoers at Solana Beach, 14 miles northwest of San Diego, said they were still in shock over his death.

Soaring temperatures meant many of the beaches near Solana Beach, such as Oceanside, Carlsbad and San Diego were full this weekend. But in many sections, the waves were mostly empty, except for the shallowest parts. People were keeping a respectful distance after shark panic took hold.

Helicopters from the coastguard and the local sheriff's department flew sorties along the beaches in the area, on the look-out for what was believed to be a 16-foot great white shark, while boats also patrolled the waters looking for the killer shark.

"I would wade in to cool off but no higher than that, no way. I certainly wouldn't go in over my head right now," said Lauri Pitcher, who owns a time-share property on Solana Beach. "What are the odds of this happening? Statistically it's fairly remote," said her husband Jeff Pitcher. "They found a baby seal, and people are wondering where was the mother, so maybe that's what the shark was after," he added.

A fisherman, going in no higher than mid-thigh, cast into the waves, looking for bass, while one homeless man appeared to be taking a bath; a shopping trolley full of his possessions parked carefully away from the waves.

People gazed into the water, looking for fins, or offering up prayers. North Coast lifeguards posted hundreds of signs along the shores warning people to stay clear of the sea, which included a drawing of a great white.

Yesterday morning, many of the shark attack warning signs had to be replaced, as souvenir hunters stole them as a grisly memento of Friday's attack. Everyone on the beach, the bars and surf shops behind the promenade was talking about the attack. One cafe owner further up the coast said his customers had been out swimming in the morning, regardless of the danger.

A shark expert present during the autopsy, Ralph Collier, with the Los Angeles-based Shark Research Committee, said the wounds indicated the shark was a 15ft to 16ft-long great white.

The victim was a well-known member of the 13,000-strong Solana Beach community, where he had lived since 1970. He trained hard in the swimming-biking-running regimen and remained fit, lean and tanned.

Bouquets of roses and other flowers as well as handwritten notes on the memorial at Fletcher Cove bore testament to the popularity of the father of four.

"Dear Dr Martin: You were the kindest, most compassionate man I have ever known," read one note. "Thank you for taking such incredible care of our animals for more than 20 years."

Shark attacks are more common in areas such as Florida where the water is warmer – the sea tends to be cool around San Diego for much of the year. Female great white sharks sometimes come south from their usual territory in the cooler waters of the central and northern coast to pup.

It's rare for the ocean's largest predator to make the mistake of attacking humans instead of seals or sea lions, their usual prey. Some people say the black wetsuits worn by swimmers can make them appear like seals to the sharks.

The attack was unusual because it took place over a sandy ocean bottom – sharks usually prefer to attack over rocks, which provide better camouflage.

The last shark fatality in the San Diego area may have been in April 1994, when a woman's disfigured body was washed ashore with evidence of shark bites. However, it has never been confirmed that this was a shark attack and there was suspicion of foul play. Michelle Von Emster, 25, had gone for a night-time swim in Ocean Beach.

The most recent confirmed death before that was in 1959, local media reported.

The chances of finding the shark that attacked Mr Martin are slim, as the migratory animals tend to move on.

"It's just very bad luck for that one man," Richard Rosenblatt, a professor emeritus of marine biology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego. "It was typical great white shark behaviour to attack from below, make a bite and then draw away." He believed the bite pattern on Mr Martin's legs indicated the shark was almost certainly a great white that may have been 12ft to 17ft long.

The last fatal shark attack in California, according to data from the California Department of Fish and Game, took place on 15 August 2004, off Mendocino County. The victim was a man diving for shellfish with a friend.

There have been stories of shark sightings along the coast from San Diego County north through to Orange and Los Angeles counties.

Overall, shark attacks are extremely rare around the world. There were 71 reported worldwide last year, up from 63 in 2006.

Shark attacks, while rare, are still very much on people's minds in beach communities like that of San Diego.

Many of the local hang-outs feature famous pictures of shark attacks, such as the photograph of a Royal Navy exercise where a sailor is being winched up to a helicopter and a shark's jaws are open wide just at his feet, or the photo from Australia of a great white shark inside a wave while a blissfully unaware surfer rides the crest above. There were an average of 4.1 people killed by sharks annually worldwide in the past seven years.

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