Living the life of a NorCal hick, I did some stupid stuff. Most of it revolved around surfing because I surfed a lot, and despite the coastal environment being wild and dangerous, I surfed alone 99.9 percent of the time. Why? Because I had a boat.
The trusty 12-foot aluminum skiff was my four-stroke hall pass to an upper echelon of NorCal secret spots. (Technically they weren’t “secret because no one knew about them–no one.) Roads were scarce, leaving acres of ocean inaccessible by land, and because I adhered to the Point Arguello Yacht Club’s motto (“If there’s a parking lot in front of it, it ain’t surf.), a 20-mile fetch of that pristine coast eventually became my personal surf sanctuary.
One gray September Sunday morning I blasted the skiff downcoast for a routine check of a hooking left I’d named Manzanita. Manzanita was pure wilderness, backdropped with sheer cliffs, boulders, a waterfall, untracked black beach sand, and impenetrable forest–from the water I’d seen black bears prowling the hills and bald eagles circling the treetops. Surfing Manzanita was never dull, replete with startling splashes, evil rocks, inky underwater silhouettes, and surly sea lions.
Uncertainty was Manzanita’s allure, which is why I’d initially searched for it using topographic maps, binoculars, cooperative weather, and loads of spare time, like I had this day.
A clean south swell was pleasuring Manzanita, so I idled in the channel for a bit, checking things out, watching some nice waves roll through before noticing a few strange things (which really weren’t so strange considering the location).
The water reeked like dead fish–obviously something was rotting, which I took to be the two sea lions floating upside-down just outside the peak. But they were not dead, because suddenly they righted themselves and swam off, like they’d been spooked. Moments later, dozens of gulls began squawking overhead, eyeing the mass of baitfish that had formed behind me. This was Manzanita’s food chain.
And I was part of it, apparently, because as soon as I stood to toss the anchor overboard, something large bumped the bottom of my boat. Cold aluminum hull didn’t suit the bumper’s taste, so it quickly surfaced and looked at me before slinking back into the depths, affording an unforgettable glimpse of that sinister white face and dreaded dorsal fin, the bane of all sharky-spot surfers.
Right then, a really good set steamed through, a bit overhead and utter glass, totally inviting, looping down the reef before sputtering into the channel. It could’ve been a rocky, reversed version of Swami’s on a good day….with no one out.
The shark and sea lions had vanished but the surf hadn’t, so I figured: What the heck? Plenty of sea life around; no reason for the shark to eat me or my boat. Besides, the waves were perfect. I set the anchor and grabbed my damp 5-mil, stoked about another sublime session at a rarefied surf spot that, as far as I know, has only been surfed by me.
I felt comfortable paddling away from the boat, as I had done so many times. The widely unfamiliar was always familiar to me: I knew the water’s cold sting, its ominous murk, the reefy hazards and threat of consequence should trouble strike–if I got hurt and couldn’t drive back to the harbor, I was doomed.
Doom was a great word for Manzanita, because lots of things died there: seaweed, seals, sea lions, baitfish, waves. (Once, my boat’s motor died and wouldn’t restart, but that’s another story.)
Anyway, I paddled over to the take-off spot and sat up on my board, glancing around for that dorsal fin. The birds and baitball and sea lions were gone, and peace was restored. “No worries, this is sweet, I thought. I was completely alone, scoring at this secret-but-perfect wilderness reef on a weekend while the sheeplike hordes were all beelining to their favorite Orange County/Santa Cruz/Los Angeles/Bixby Ranch south-swell spots. Good for them, I smirked, inwardly thankiing my boat for this session.
About a minute later and twenty feet to my right, a young seal popped its head above water, like they always do, staring blankly, wondering whether you’re some sort of bizarre buoy or a badly deformed elephant seal.
I like to have staring contests with seals to see who wins (I usually do, thanks to seal skittishness). This particular seal must’ve known my game, though, because it didn’t budge—our eyes were locked for at least two minutes. I was determined to win, even if it meant missing a wave. The sets were inconsistent; I had time to kill.
The seal started slowly swimming closer. I didn’t blink or flinch, but I was certainly startled when suddenly a fearsome white shark’s head shot from the water and, mouth agape, removed the seal’s head with one clean bite, like it was a Tic-Tac (seal-brain flavor), before submerging.
I couldn’t move because I couldn’t believe this was 10 feet away–a shark mauling a seal. I’d seen it happen a few times, but from the safety of land. Sitting in the water when it occurred was a completely different deal, but luckily the shark had no intentions of eating me.
Then there was a loud disruption of water caused by the shark’s reappearance, gnawing into the half-sunken, headless seal. I was soon sitting in water reddened by seal blood, dispersed quickly by the shark’s violent side-to-side motion of its head: much splashing, thrashing, ripping, yellow intestines and chunks of pale blubber flailing about–that type of stuff.
Seeing this so up-close was surreal. I may as well have been watching a Discovery Channel “Shark Week special from the comfort of my couch, Cheez-Its in one hand, Coors Light in the other.
But the attack ended as abruptly as it had started. The shark ate the seal and left–it was as if nothing happened. There were still no waves, no birds, no baitfish, no nothing. Only a few sinews of guts and a lot of slimy blood. Manzanita was serene once more, my staring-contest-opponent seal now marinating in the shark’s digestive juice. (I’d won by default.)
Of course I was scared shitless, so I got the hell out of there, because once another shark got a whiff of that fresh kill, I would’ve been toast. The waves looked good, but hey, they weren’t worth decapitation or disembowelment.
Back at the marina, I relayed the incident to a drunk geezer who worked in the tackle shop, emphasizing the part about me not fleeing after the shark bumped my boat.
“You’re real dumb, was all he said.