Surfing in the Red Triangle: The Odds Are in Your Favor, But So What?

By Ian Fein

You’re sitting on your board, waiting for the next set to roll in through the grey morning fog. The waves are inconsistent. Few others are out. Out of the corner of your eye, you see something dark break the inky green surface.

A figment of fear – however unlikely, however irrational, despite the countless times you’ve heard how the real-world statistics are completely out of whack with the media hype – leaps forward and seizes your attention.

What was that? Could it be? … Shark!

Your senses tingle, your hands grip your board and your heart jumps. As you pull your dangling legs up to paddle toward shore, the creature strikes the surface again … It’s a seal. … a seal!

You feel a wash of relief tinged with foolishness for succumbing, as you have before, to that gullible combination of fear and imagination. … But if reason were one dimensional, no one would play the lottery either. And, now and again, there’s that one story told a thousand times over that reignites that pilot light of latent fear … It can happen, it does happen, however rarely, after all …

Indeed, despite all the surfer bravado, when you slip into a wetsuit and paddle out along our greater Bay Area coastline, it is near guaranteed that thoughts of sharks will creep into your mind at some point. Understandably so.

As any local knows, the stretch of Pacific from Monterey to Bodega Bay and out to the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, is known as the Red Triangle. By some counts, it is home to more than half of the world’s reported great white shark attacks.

That being said, the chance of ever crossing paths with a great white is extremely low – although, if you’re an avid surfer who ventures out from the most crowded breaks, probably not as low as winning the lottery. Still, most surfers face a much greater threat from driving to the break — or getting sliced by the fin on their board — than they do from a shark attack.

But there is something so instinctively menacing about great whites, Carcharodon carcharias – the ocean’s top predator and a vestige that’s prowled the seas since the Dinosaur era — that those rare tales of encounters leave a lasting impression. The thought of being caught in the jaws of a 15-foot beast is enough to blur anyone’s rational risk assessment and logic.

A good deal of effort has gone into calculating the chance of dying in a shark attack, and by any measure the risk is incredibly small.

In roughly the last half-century, 28 people have died in California from lightning strikes, compared to five fatalities from shark attacks. Bees, snakes and unruly farm animals are each responsible for more human deaths every year.

According to data compiled by the International Shark Attack File, a Florida-based organization that tracks shark attacks worldwide, you have a one in 84 chance of dying in a car accident during your lifetime, compared to a one in 3.75 million chance of dying in a shark attack.

Granted, terrestrial comparisons are unfair because only a fraction of the population spends any significant amount of time on or in salt water. And no matter how small the risk is to begin with, no one would deny that if you paddle out on a surfboard in the Red Triangle your chances of an encounter are greatly magnified.

Furthermore, experts agree that shark attacks on humans have steadily increased over the last few decades. There were only about 100 authenticated attacks on the Pacific Coast during the entire 20th century, according to the California-based Shark Research Committee. But in the last seven years alone there have been nearly 40.

The nine Pacific Coast shark attacks, none fatal, which occurred between June and October last year tied the previous annual record set in 2004. That was when the last Northern California fatality occurred, when an abalone diver was killed near Fort Bragg in Mendocino County.

The cause for the upswing in frequency is unproven, but most researchers believe it’s simply because more people are getting in the water. And the growing popularity of surfing is likely playing a role. According to the research committee, surfers accounted for 30 of the 37 Pacific Coast shark attacks since 2000.

Jonathan Kathrein was learning the sport about 10 years ago when, just a few days before the start of the school year, he headed out to Stinson Beach in Marin County to catch a few waves. Sixteen years old at the time, he was paddling on his boogie board, about 50 yards from shore, when he brushed against something smooth and hard with his right hand.

Moments later, he was struck in the side by a brute force, and a great white shark, its jaws sunk deep in his right thigh, dragged him underwater.

”It was like getting hit by a car,” Kathrein recalled. “But with teeth.”

Kathrein fought off the shark by grabbing its gills, and swam to shore with the use of only his left leg. He was then flown by helicopter to John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek. Surgeons who worked on Kathrein’s wounds said they stopped counting after a few hundred stitches.

Kathrein made a full recovery and hasn’t let the incident keep him out of the water.

“It’s usually in the back of my mind, but it’s not overwhelming,” Kathrein said. “I try to keep things in perspective.”

He surfs regularly, and said in an interview this April that he’d been out on his board three days that week. He’s more careful about where he goes — frequenting Ocean Beach in San Francisco or Rodeo Beach in Marin — and avoids areas teaming with marine mammals — like Stinson or the surf spot dubbed the Shark Pit near Dillon Beach at the mouth of Tomales Bay.

Kathrein said the only time he really gets nervous is if he’s out after work, around dusk, and there’s no one else in the water.

“If there’s more than two people in the water, the chances are really so low,” he said. “Most surfers will live their entire life and never even see a shark.”

The experience also gave Kathrein a new philosophy on life. After graduating from the UC Berkeley in 2004, he founded a nonprofit, Future Leaders for Peace, that teaches children about conflict resolution.

In 2006, he authored a children’s book, “Don’t Fear the Shark,” which uses his surfing encounter as an allegory for lessons about respect. Kathrein teaches children that he does not blame the shark that attacked him, and they in turn should try to forgive someone who may lash out at them.

“It’s not the shark’s fault,” Kathrein said.

The book also has an environmental subtext, and notes that humans are rapidly degrading the ocean. It raises a sad irony that, despite the trend of increasing shark attacks, marine scientists believe that shark numbers are actually dwindling. While sharks may kill about five people worldwide each year, humans kill millions of sharks annually, including many just for their fins, which are considered a delicacy in parts of Asia.

Sharks are particularly vulnerable to over-fishing because they take so long to mature and reproduce so infrequently. And as a keystone species, their departure could have a dramatic effect on the ocean’s ecosystems.

Not to mention, many surfers in Northern California admit that they would grieve the loss of their greatest fear.

Part of the attraction to surfing is the fulfillment that comes from being part of a wild, untamed environment. And one of the things that’s special about sharks is the sense of humility they command. They remind us of our place on the food chain — that there are still creatures more powerful than us.

In Northern California, the mere possibility of a great white’s presence adds to the thrill, and perhaps to allure as well. The course of adrenaline felt while racing down the face of a wave might only be exceeded by the rush from seeing a dorsal fin in the water.

Even if that fin ends up being just a porpoise.