Fatal shark attack: When the underwater hunter became the hunted
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by JOEL HOOD
FORT BRAGG, California (13 Sep 2004) -- For nearly 60 years, the ocean has humbled Red Bartley with equal parts fear and awe.
He was introduced to it as a boy, tailing his father on fishing trips off the San Francisco coast. He was captivated by its power and fascinated by sea life.
As an adult, fishing became Bartley's passion. Yet he always felt uncomfortable in the ocean's embrace, never wading in past his knees.
This served as the backdrop for Bartley on Aug. 15 as he stood on the deck of a 28-foot fishing boat off the Mendocino shoreline, surveying plumes of blood rushing to the ocean's surface.
A friend and longtime diver, Cliff Zimmerman, was hurriedly swimming back to the boat, which bobbed and teetered with the current.
A second diver, Randy Fry, was dead — his killer, a great white shark, having appeared and then receded suddenly into the ocean's murkiness.
The excursion had begun on a whim that warm Sunday afternoon. It ended hours later on the shore near Westport, a few miles north of Fort Bragg.
Local authorities interviewed Bartley and Zimmerman separately to corroborate their stories near the spot where Fry's body would be found the following morning.
As the day waned, Bartley began an agonizing drive back to his home in Waterford.
But first, he called Fry's mother in Auburn and told her the news — and as Bartley retold his story last week at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall in Modesto, the Navy veteran paused to pick his words carefully.
"I don't play the emotional game," said Bartley, recalling the conversation. "I have to give the family their privacy. But what do you say in a situation like that?"
Defending anglers' rights
Bartley, 67, and Fry, 50, were kindred spirits in defending the rights of fishermen. Bartley has been active in local and state fishing advocacy groups for more than 20 years and had known Fry for five years as the two worked for the Recreational Fishing Alliance of Northern California.
Today, Bartley said, he will be among the friends and family who scatter Fry's ashes in the legendary Mavericks surf near Half Moon Bay.
Fry's death was the 11th from a shark attack off California's coast and the first in Northern California waters since Omar Conger was killed near Pigeon Point south of San Francisco in 1984.
For Bartley, it was a harrowing experience that rekindled boyhood fears of the ocean. Throughout the three-day weekend in Fort Bragg, an annual fund-raiser and fish fry for the Recreational Fishing Alliance, Bartley had turned down invitations to join Fry and other divers on abalone hunts along the ocean floor.
"My policy is to stay out of there," Bartley said. "I've seen great white sharks, and I know they feed within a half-mile of the shore 80 percent of the time."
Bartley's interest in sharks is more than passing. He said he regularly seeks out television programs about the ocean predators. He has studied their life cycles and eating habits. He has fished the ocean's depths for leopard sharks and land sharks.
According to Bartley, Fry often spoke about sharks and even joked at times that a shark would one day catch up with him. But talk like this is not unusual among veteran divers, Bartley said, and Fry had been a part of that close-knit community for nearly 30 years.
If there was an ominous sign that weekend, it came Friday as Bartley traveled west along Highway 20 in the pre-dawn haze. Alone in his 20-year-old, 1-ton Chevrolet pickup, traveling about 50 mph, Bartley crested a small ridge and plowed into a dozen cattle that had chosen that time to cross the highway.
"I didn't even have time to react," he said.
Two cows were killed, Bartley said, one nearly breaking through the truck's windshield as it flipped over the hood. The truck was totaled, and Bartley used his cellular phone to arrange a tow so he could meet his party in Fort Bragg.
Underwater hunter Randy Fry
Sunday, following the late-night fish fry, Bartley slept in. About 10:30 a.m., he joined Fry and Zimmerman at a seaside restaurant, and the trio talked about diving and politics. Zimmerman told Bartley about his new 28-foot fishing boat that he called the Dolphin, and at Fry's urging the group boarded the boat for an impromptu late-afternoon dive.
"I had my fishing pole with me; I figured I'd tag along," Bartley said.
The friends set off from the harbor and began trolling for sal-mon along Ten Mile Beach. Bartley and Fry landed lingcods.
Nearing the old lumber town of Westport, Zimmerman steered the boat inside a rocky cove that divers call the "Orca," after a famous inn on the shoreline. At about a depth of 14 feet, 150 yards offshore, the boat dropped anchor.
Bartley scanned the horizon for harbor seals, thinking they might lure sharks to the cove. He saw only one, about 200 feet from the boat, closer to shore.
Jumping into the water
Fry, wearing a distinctive olive green dive suit, was the first to jump into the water. He and Zimmerman wore no scuba tanks; the only legal way to take abalone is by free diving.
Zimmerman, in an all-black suit, stayed aboard and fiddled with his equipment. After a few minutes, he jumped into the water, but remained by the boat because his mask kept fogging.
Aboard the boat, Bartley had taken out his rod and reel and landed a black rock cod. With Zimmerman and Fry drifting into the background, Bartley held up the fish and jokingly called for their return. "I've got the meat right here," he said.
Zimmerman, back at the surface cleaning his mask, smirked. Fry was submerged a few yards away. Zimmerman dipped his mask into the water and lowered his head to suction it to his face.
As Zimmerman's face broke the water's surface, he felt a whoosh from below.
"I knew it was a shark," Zimmerman told the San Francisco Chronicle. "It almost brushed me. I saw its dorsal fin. I don't know what kind it was; all I know is, it was big. It was big enough to kill."
Zimmerman let out a piercing scream, and Bartley looked up. The divers had drifted about 110 feet from the boat, and Zimmerman immediately recognized the danger. He quickly dropped his weight belt and swam through the choppy water.
As Zimmerman rushed back to the boat, Bartley turned to find Fry. Instead, he saw a big pool of blood.
"I knew it was all over," Bartley said. "I knew immediately."
Once Zimmerman reached the boat, Bartley tried to radio the Coast Guard but the reception was poor. It didn't matter. Within minutes the blood had dissipated and Bartley knew the search for Fry would be fruitless.
"That whole process took less than five seconds," Bartley said. "The (state Department of Fish and Game) put out a bulletin the next day saying to beware of sharks in that area."
But divers often do not heed such warnings, he said.
"They're risk-takers, just like skydivers or race car drivers. They're always going to keep going back."