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A Heaven-Sent Wave, Perfectly Timed

He thought it was a harbor seal. He was wrong. It was a shark. And it attacked. Now he had just minutes to live

By Scott Stephens, Manila, California

As appeared in

October 30, 2012. high tide. Calm offshore winds. Clean six-foot waves. A beautiful morning to surf. I stood on the north jetty at the entrance to Humboldt Bay and gazed out at the ocean. Shore birds flew in formation, almost shimmering in the sunlight.

I loved being out here in nature, in touch with something greater than myself.

There were maybe 20 guys already in the water at Bunkers, where waves break on a sandbar just north of the jetty. I watched them for a while, gauging the temperament of the ocean before zooming in on the perfect spot.

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A little farther than usual, but hey, why not? I had my new insulated, hooded Xcel wet suit to protect me from the chill. I pulled it on, grabbed my short board and hit the water, letting the current take me out.

I bypassed the ankle busters and paddled to where the waves break deep, about 500 yards from shore. I surfed good A-frames for an hour and a half. Then I caught three in a row, putting me some distance down the beach from everyone else. Sweet.

By then the 20 boarders had dwindled to 10. Just one more wave and then I’ll go in too, I thought. I paddled all the way back out.

Out of the corner of my left eye, I glimpsed a black shadow beneath the surface of the water. Probably a harbor seal. When I moved here to California’s North Coast, six months earlier, I noticed the large population of seals.

As I reached out my left arm to take another stroke, a heavy weight landed on my back. The seal? Within seconds I was dragged under. This was no seal. Whatever it was, it had ahold of my torso. I opened my eyes underwater.

Shark! I was face-to-face with a shark. A great white. In 13 years of surfing, I’d never seen a shark. Here I was, staring one in the eye. That eye was huge, the size of a baseball. And it was locked on me.

It whipped its head from side to side, shaking me like a dog with a toy.

Do something or you’re gonna die!

I torqued my body and punched the shark as hard as I could behind its right eye. It was like smashing my fist into concrete. But all of a sudden, the shark let me go and swam away. Maybe it realized I wasn’t a seal and gave up. Maybe it was going to circle back for me. I wasn’t sticking around to find out.

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I surfaced. I was 400 yards out. My board was floating five feet away. Must have popped out from under me when the shark snatched me and severed the leash. I grabbed the board. Whoa, that’s a massive chunk it bit off. That’s when it hit me that the shark must have taken a big chunk out of me too.

Why didn’t I feel any pain? Was I in shock?

One thing I knew: I had to get to shore. I lay on the board on my stomach and started paddling. Both my arms seemed to be working. Gingerly I felt my torso. The wet suit, the flesh were shredded. Man, did it take my whole left side? I was too scared to look.

But I could see my blood. Red misting in the water. Pooling on my board.

I spotted a few surfers 150 yards away. “Help!” I screamed. “Help!”

No one looked. Could anyone even hear me over the roar of the waves? I screamed louder. Paddled faster than I ever had in my life. But I wasn’t going anywhere fast. I’d take a few strokes toward shore only to have the current push me back.

How long could I keep fighting it? It seemed like it had taken hours to go a couple of hundred yards.

“Help!” I cried again. Now my voice was so faint, I could barely hear it. My paddling slowed. My strength was ebbing, draining out of me like my blood. I rested my cheek on the board for a moment, trying to gather myself.