Conquering California’s shark-infested Red Triangle

Nearly 10 years ago, I laid my body across a surfboard for the first time, in the Pacific off the coast of Costa Rica, and was instantly hooked. I swallowed a sizeable amount of the Pacific that day (sand, too) and my love of water, something I’d always been fond of, grew incalculably.

That first time I paddled out, eyes scanning the horizon, a fleeting thought raced across my mind: “Are there sharks out here?” But I was drunk on excitement and I forgot about it. Years went by, yet every time my stomach and hips pressed into a board and the saltiness hit my face, the thought would creep in, “Are sharks out here?” Every time I strapped on my leash, or zipped up my wetsuit, the thought was there, sometimes a whisper. This quiet worry about what was lurking in the water. In Nicaragua, El Salvador, even the freezing emerald waters of Ireland, that fear. “Are there…?” Nah.

But this past fall, I opted to surf not where there might be sharks, but where there most likely would be sharks — Santa Cruz, California.

The Farallon Islands, a paltry 100 miles or so from Santa Cruz, are home to one of the world’s densest populations of Great Whites. The area extending from Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco, to the Farallon Islands, and down to Monterey is colloquially known as the Red Triangle. This teeny sliver is host to more than a third of shark attacks in the U.S. Google it, if you want. Lord knows I did, head in my hands. And October is referred to as Sharkoctober because the seals get nice and plump and fat, so the Great White come in to gobble them up. I am not a seal. But would the sharks know that?

As the trip approached, I checked maps and surf reports. And every single report listed sharks as a consideration. When I arrived, I flipped through a local magazine that our Airbnb host had stocked. The cover story: a feature on how proud local conservationists were about the growing Great White population … just down the street from where I sat.

I got so scared during that first session in the water that I bordered on being a buoy, bobbing up and down on my board, half-heartedly chasing sets until it was time to go in

When I daydream about surfing (as I so often do), I fantasize about turquoise waters, white sand and scorching, delicious heat. Santa Cruz is not this, but it is its own version of beautiful. The foggy sky and the ocean are the same ashy grey — moody and heart-stoppingly gorgeous. Enough so that Grainne, my friend who’d flown in from Dublin, and I were drawn to the water. Head nods to other people in the line up. The smell of the sea and wax. An occasional glimpse of sunshine like diamonds on the surface. I was quickly lost in the joy of it until that niggling thought returned. But this time I didn’t wonder — I knew. There were sharks. Ones the size of Buicks swimming near me.

Every blob of kelp, every shadow cast from the clouds, every time I lost sight of Grainne for a nano-second was a window for that fear to creep in. I got so scared during that first session in the water that I bordered on being a buoy, bobbing up and down on my board, half-heartedly chasing sets until the sun started to sweep down and it was time to go in. Fear 1, Karen 0.

The next day, we were in the water early. While waiting for a set on the shoulder, willing the sun to warm us up, a seal popped up out of the water a few feet from Grainne’s board, as if to greet her good morning. It had the curiosity and respect for personal space of a golden retriever. Satisfied with its inspection, it slipped silently back into the inky water. We marvelled in the magic of it and turned back to the horizon just in time to see a fin. A few fins. Close enough to count fins. With eyes like saucers, I said “Grai, FIN!”

And then realized that the fins had that up-and-down pattern of dolphins. Ahem.

And so, we surfed. We ventured to a few beaches (the area boasts an embarrassing amount of them) but the consensus was that Pleasure Point was just right for us. On our last day we were blessed by sunshine, so we chose to soak in its glow instead of the surf. The sun’s reflection on the surface toyed with the horizon. And then we saw a fin. An unmistakable and sizeable fin slicing through the water. People were boogie-boarding, body surfing and swimming, and about 30 metres from them a fin was moving in one steady line along the beach. And then it went under the surface, but not before we got a good long stare at it.

The water in Santa Cruz is so active, so alive with all kinds of things that it is exciting, life-affirming and scary in equal measure. We shared space with dolphins, seals, countless fish and likely many other creatures that we didn’t had the opportunity to see. Call it a sixth sense, gut instinct or intuition, but I think there is something primordial in us as a species that grants us some recognition of when we’re being hunted (though every account from shark attack survivors say they never saw it coming). There’s a hardwired inherent tendency passed down to us that knows that fin cutting the water is bad news.  We don’t need the opening bars of Jaws to have a deep reverence for the ocean, and whose home it is.

Back in Toronto, I was greeted with news that there was a shark attack just shy of six kilometres from Pleasure Point on the day that we left, near where we caught some sun. A surfer was struck from underneath while riding a wave and was launched in the air. A shark plowed into his nine-foot long board, then the animal apparently bit a piece of it  and got tangled in his leash, dragging him underwater. He was unharmed. Miraculously, the Red Triangle lost the battle that day.

Leave a comment