Eye to Eye With Shark, Surfer Lives to Tell
Featured September 20, 2006
Bingham told us he got the idea for this story after reading something a shark-bite victim said—”a throw-away line in the story written around the news event.” He went deeper into the story—and wrote a narrative that portrays someone not easily deterred.
Seth Mead had just nabbed a "premium" wave, one powerful enough to wash him all the way to sand and pebbles and driftwood, and he was thinking he probably couldn't catch another that awesome.
It was just after sunrise, and Mead had been surfing with a friend since 6:50, "dawn patrolling it," as surfers say. His friend had gone to work, and now Mead thought about leaving, too.
But it was a hard clear September morning, and the waves kept rolling in.
Within minutes he found himself back in the surf, just 50 feet off the south jetty where the Rogue River flows into the Pacific Ocean. He sat on his surfboard, legs dangling into deep black water, and spied a set of three incoming waves that were especially clean. He was ready.
But the next thing he knew—by some violent force from below—he was jetted three feet out of the water. Mead saw and heard it at the same time: a loud scraping sound as a great white shark punched the fiberglass and opened its jaws. Pap! Pap! The shark's upper teeth punctured the board while the lower teeth sank into Mead's right leg.
Mead sprang forward, clutching his surfboard. He faced the shark, looked into its flat black eye. The shark's head, Mead would recall later, was bigger than he'd be able to get his arms around.
Mead and the shark crashed back down within seconds, and the jaws released. Mead landed hard on his board. And the shark vanished.
Yet he knew from the "boil"—the dark bubbles roiling the water behind him—that he was not alone.
His first thought: Get to land.
The shark had turned Mead around 180 degrees to face the shore. The waves he'd spied were upon him. Mead paddled madly to catch the first one and almost made it. He rose up with the crest but the wave rolled on without him.
He looked over his shoulder as the second wave began to crash on his back. The suction pulled him sideways, parallel to land.
"No," he thought. "No. This can't be happening."
And Seth Mead, a surfer since high school, knew one terrible thing. He had to catch that wave in.
* * *
If anyone stood a chance at catching the second wave in, it was Seth Mead. After all, he has experience:
At shark encounters.
Twenty-six years old and a graduate this year from Oregon State University with a fisheries and wildlife degree but no full-time job yet, Mead had nowhere he had to be Monday morning.
He moved to Gold Beach, a few hours down U.S. 101 from his hometown of Florence, only weeks ago and has been house-sitting for a friend. While job hunting, he's gone surfing when conditions were good, though that hasn't been often lately. The foul weather early this month made Monday's blue-sky surf hard to resist.
Mead started riding waves his sophomore year of high school and became addicted to the sensation, the thrill, "the energy," within a few years. The energy, says Mead—a guy who likes to fish for salmon, hunt for elk with his dad, and scour the forests for mushrooms when he isn't surfing—comes from being surrounded by living things.
So the harbor seals playing in the surf—known prey for sharks—didn't bother him as he paddled back out to sea. Mead has surfed alongside inquisitive seals, aggressive California sea lions, birds of every sort. As someone who watches "National Geographic" and "The Discovery Channel," and someone who studied the ocean in college, Mead knows the creatures on the surface are only a fraction of those lurking below.
There have been times in the past, when he has gone surfing alone, that Mead has felt "a presence" in the water. He's had the eerie sensation, sitting far from shore, a solitary man on a 6-foot-6-inch fiberglass board, that he wasn't alone.
The day he was bitten was not one of those days, however.
The first time he encountered a shark was Nov. 10, 2001, in Florence, south of the jetty where the Siuslaw River pours into the sea. He was surfing with Tres Tucker, the buddy who introduced him to the sport.
"We had paddled out to the peak, and I sat up on my board," Tucker told shark researcher Ralph Collier, author of "Shark Attacks of the 20th Century: From the Pacific Coast of North America." "As I sat upright, my left foot planted solidly on something 1-2 feet below me. It was solid but slowly sank under my weight, as if it were a submerged log."
Tucker lifted his leg, looked down in the water and saw a tail whoosh by. Then he felt water rush around his legs and knew it was a shark—and a big one.
Seconds later, a dark object, an object "as large as a car, an American car," Tucker told Collier, loomed to his left. Tucker began to paddle to shore then remembered Mead. "I motioned to him saying, quietly, 'Hey, man . . .,' but mid-sentence, the look on his face made me turn around to see a very large fin passing behind my feet."
They said nothing but silently paddled when Tucker looked back again and saw the fin rise out of the water "directly behind and in pursuit of Seth."
Collier, the shark researcher, has documented 16 shark bites off the Oregon coast since 1974, including Mead's second encounter. Although the number may seem low, the number of great white sharks in the waters off the Northwest is not, especially in August, September and October, when spawning salmon and steelhead draw seals and sea lions and they in turn draw sharks to the mouths of rivers.
Mead and Tucker know all that. Mead grew up talking to his dad about the dangers in the water, and he has left the house more than once to the sound of his mother's voice telling him to watch for sharks.
"We eventually found ourselves on the beach just completely awestruck," Tucker told Collier. "It was the most terrifying thing I've ever experienced."
Yet the next day, because surfing conditions were good, Mead and Tucker went back in the water.
* * *
The second wave was beginning to collapse when Mead managed to right his board in time and ride the 50 yards or so to shore.
Out of the water, on the beach, he saw his leg was still intact. There were three gashes close to his ankle, each about 1 inch to 2 inches long. There were two more on the side of his right foot, the same length as the cuts on his leg.
High on adrenaline, Mead trudged through the sand, past the driftwood and stones, up to his truck. He had to get to a hospital but was so new to Gold Beach he had no idea where the emergency room was.
One hundred feet away, on the road beside the jetty, Gold Beach police officer Wallace Hartman sat in his patrol car, watching three boats he worried were foolishly thinking of crossing the rough bar where the river and the ocean collide, when he saw a red truck come barreling toward him, horn honking, headlights flashing.
Mead jumped out of the truck. He would recall telling Hartman, "I just got nailed by a shark, man."
"Do you need an ambulance?" Hartman said.
"I need something," Mead said.
Hartman never once doubted Mead's story, especially not after he saw the wet suit and the gashes, as clean as if they'd been made by a knife. Hartman shoved the leg of the wet suit up past Mead's knee, to act as a tourniquet, wrapped the bleeding cuts with gauze, and made Mead lie on the ground with his leg elevated until the ambulance came.
In the emergency room at Curry General Hospital, Dr. Michael O'Gara was on call. O'Gara, who can watch surfers on the south jetty from his office window, saw that the razor-sharp teeth of the shark had sliced deep enough into Mead's flesh to scrape bone.
It took about 25 stitches to sew the flesh back together.
Mead walked out of the hospital two hours later, limping, drugged on pain medication, carrying his wet suit over his arm, but well aware, as the doctor had told him, that he was lucky to be alive.
* * *
Two days later, Mead returned to his family's home in Florence and holed up on the couch with a stack of surfing videos piled on the floor beside him, his leg propped up on a stack of pillows. Friends have come by, and when they ask to see the suit and the board, he points to the deck, where they can see for themselves the punctures now dark with dried blood.
The telephone at his parents' house has rung constantly with calls from surfer friends as far as Hawaii, television reporters from as far as New York City, researchers as far as Princeton, N.J.
Friends have asked if he punched the shark, or if he hit it at all. He tells them the attack happened so fast he didn't have to think about anything like that. He quips that the scream that erupted from his mouth was a manly curse, and he tries to explain how the force of being lifted was not so different from the power of a mighty wave.
He estimates the size of the shark to be at least two times the length of his board, but he's leaving the genuine measurement to Collier, the researcher, who awaits photographs of the bite marks. Collier is confident from everything he knows so far that the bite was made by a great white.
The hardest thing for Mead to explain is how it felt to look, from that short distance, into a shark's eye.
The eye never rolled back into the shark's skull, the shark never shook his massive head or dragged Mead through the water—classic predatory behavior—so Mead thinks the shark never meant to eat him, just check him out and see what he was.
Mead has spent much of this week not contemplating surfing—"If it's what drives you, you're going to do it," he said—but thinking about how close he came, and thinking about something one of his friends said.
"Everything that happens from now on out is a bonus," the friend said.
Mead thinks that's true. He knows he's fortunate to be alive, and he's thankful.
Dr. O'Gara told Mead it would be a few weeks before the stitches come out, and after that he should have no permanent damage except for the scars.
There is no question in Seth Mead's mind about whether he will go back in the water.
The question is when.http://niemanstoryboard.us/2006/09/20/e ... s-to-tell/