Shark attack leaves SLO County surfers wary, but it won’t keep them out of the water

‘I’m gonna keep surfing, for sure,’ one SLO County surfer says in wake of shark attack

After a shark attack at Montaña de Oro State Park this week, warnings have been posted at local San Luis Obispo County beaches. For many though, sharks in the water are just part of surfing and the risk won't keep them from riding the waves.
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After a shark attack at Montaña de Oro State Park this week, warnings have been posted at local San Luis Obispo County beaches. For many though, sharks in the water are just part of surfing and the risk won't keep them from riding the waves.

The shark attack Tuesday morning at Montaña de Oro State Park was fresh on the minds of beachgoers who came out to watch the waves in Morro Bay on Wednesday afternoon.

Only a few surfers ventured out into the tumultuous water on a day of wind and rain. But the parking lot was lined with people sitting in cars peering out at the sea, some venturing out to walk along the path around Morro Rock to check out the spectacular sprays of waves slamming against the rocks.

Reactions to the Tuesday morning attack that injured 19-year-old surfer Nick Wapner ranged from awe to curiosity.

“This is the first time I’ve been to the beach right after a shark attack,” said Jeff Dizney, a tourist from Fresno. “We won’t be letting our granddaughter go out into the water today. We usually just let her go out waist-deep, but today’s not the day for that given the shark attack or the weather.”

Nick Wapner, a 19-year-old Cal Poly student, was attacked by a great white shark at Montana de Oro on Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2018. He describes how he kicked the shark in the head to break free of its bite on his ankles.

Surfers Valentina Shaw and Rigel Hall, both of Templeton, said they found out about the attack on, a website that posts surf reports, forecasts and coastal weather, along with web cam videos of surf locations.

“I surf about three times per week,” said Shaw, home on vacation from college at San Diego State. “Every time I see a fin or a fish in the water, it kind of makes me think, ‘What is that?’ Also, when the sky is gray and it’s dark and you’re out in the water, somehow it feels like there’s a shark lurking.”

Hall said he was surfing about 11 a.m. Tuesday in Morro Bay, just a few miles up the coast from where Wapner was attacked an hour earlier, he said.

Despite the post-attack spookiness, Shaw and Hall both said they’d continue surfing.

Surfer Zac Baxter of Atascadero was heading out to surf waves around the Morro Bay Harbor on Wednesday and said he has seen a 10-foot shark before at Montaña de Oro. Baxter said it’s not surprising an attack happened, and that the idea of sharks coming near him during a surf session is eerie. He won’t be returning to Sandspit Beach, he said.

“I’ve also seen those drone videos of sharks swimming within range of people,” Baxter said. “But I think the sharks are smarter than we give them credit for. Most of the time, they don’t do anything.”

Officials posted a warning to beachgoers in Morro Bay and other beaches after a shark attacked a surfer in Monta–a de Oro. Photo by Joe Johnston 01-09-19 Joe Johnston

Mike Harris, a senior environmental scientist with California Fish and Wildlife, said sharks are “visual predators that investigate with their mouth.”

“It’s well-documented that sharks will investigate but won’t try to eat a human — or a sea otter for that matter — because it’s not their prey,” Harris said. “In many documented events related to humans, an investigative interaction occurs, and the shark won’t return. For the human (attacked), a lot of it might just come down to place and time, and things lining up, for that to happen.”

Harris said that based on increased numbers of sea otters bitten by great whites, the shark population is recovering from numbers so low that around 2010 the species was at risk of extinction.

Regulated fisheries, abundant seal and sea lion populations and reductions in unintentional nettings of great whites, as well as a 1994 ban on hunting them, all have contributed to growth in the population.

“We have evidence that the population is recovering,” Harris said. “Most folks involved with shark work now are of the opinion that the population is starting to rebound. There’s more of a chance of overlapping habitat with humans.”

Harris said he has observed great white sharks swimming within a few feet of water close to shore, and he said that larger adult sharks tend to prefer colder water conditions while younger sharks may inhabit warmer waters. The great white is a year-round inhabitant of waters off the Central Coast, Harris said.

A1 Shark bite victim031
The last recorded shark attack in San Luis Obispo County was in August 2015, when a shark took a bite out of Los Osos surfer Elinor Dempsey’s board, leaving a 14-inch-wide gap. Dempsey was unhurt in the Aug. 29 incident. Laura Dickinson

Despite rumors that the ocean off Montaña de Oro is an area more frequented by sharks, Harris said sharks have been observed in waters up and down the Central Coast — and he doesn’t think that section has any higher attraction than other local coastal areas.

According to a list of 107 Pacific Coast shark attacks since 2000 compiled by shark expert Ralph Collier, five of them resulted in fatalities and the rest of the people, most of them surfers, survived.

Collier documented the last local attack in August 2015, when a great white shark bit Elinor Dempsey’s surfboard while she was waiting for a wave off Morro Strand State Beach that morning. She came out unscathed, but her red surfboard was left with a large, half-moon hole edged in teeth markings.

“It’s for the individual to decide if of venturing out into the water is worth the reward,” Harris said.

A surfer from Los Osos was uninjured Saturday, Aug. 29, 2015, after she was attacked by a great white shark. Elinor Dempsey, 54, of Los Osos, was surfing at Morro Strand Park in Morro Bay around 10:15 a.m. when the shark bit her board, leaving a 1

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.