True Stories: Scott Stephens’ Great White Shark Attack

Scott Stephens Shark Attack
Illustration by John Antoski

True Stories: Scott Stephens’ Great White Shark Attack

As told by Scott Stephens and featured in the new (May 2013) issue of TransWorld SURF magazine

Tuesday, October 30, 2012—the day before Halloween—started like any other morning in my life. I filled up a mug of coffee, loaded my car, and headed to the beach to surf. Fall had been good to Humboldt Bay's surf-exposed peninsula and this morning followed suit. Smoke from a nearby power plant drifted up and over Samoa Boulevard, hinting of offshore southeast winds and groomed conditions off the North Jetty. I remember the first thing I noticed when I eased onto the beach at the end of Bunker Road was a large flock of shore birds flying low to the surf, reflecting shimmering silver like the offshore ocean spray. I tried to film the spectacle on my phone—but you just had to be there to appreciate it.

The morning looked perfect, high-tide peaks broke up and down the beach, most of the action focused where an underwater canyon funnels in the approaching swells and maximizes their size and intensity. The water looked clean and clear—characteristic of October. As I began suiting up into my 5mm wetsuit I got a call from my friend Teddy asking how the surf looked. I laughed and asked him how he knew I was checking the surf. "I guess I know you too well," he answered.

Once in the water I ran into another buddy, Blake, and we spoke briefly about how clear and beautiful the water was. A set rolled in and I took a left, separating myself from the rest of the surfers on the north end of the peak. A channel brought me back to the outside, and I caught three more waves in quick succession, laughing at my good luck. My arms felt good, finally back in paddle shape thanks to all my recent surfing.

And then, my luck changed in a heartbeat. Mid-paddle, from behind me and out of the corner of my left eye something dark broke the surface and I felt a weight land on my back. My first thought was it was a large seal, but as I was being drug underwater, feeling the force and power of being shaken in the jaws of a top predator, I began fearing for my life. I felt so small and insignificant, but I opened my eyes underwater and came face to face with the first shark I'd seen in 13 years of surfing. Its face was black and streamlined, the nose jutting forward over an almost grinning mouth of teeth. It was at least four feet from the tip of the nose to the beginning of the dorsal, and its right eye was as large as a baseball. My right fist made contact with the shark just behind this eye. It felt like punching a bag of concrete. I can't describe what I was feeling at this moment—some eerie combination of shock and terror. And then as quickly as the attack had started, it was all over. I was released, and the shark was gone into the depths.

Scott Stephens Shark Attack
Illustration by John Antoski

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It wasn't until I saw my board floating nearby, leash bitten through and a 14-inch diameter half circle missing out of it that I put thought to my injuries. As I got back on my board and started paddling to shore I noticed the red. Blood mixing with water, creating a crimson pool around me—a massive hole in my wetsuit and torso that I knew was serious. Screaming for help while I attempted paddling to shore I hoped the other surfers 150 yards away would hear me. I kept paddling, wondering how much blood I had left to lose. A wave came to my rescue, lifting me to shore on my stomach where another surfer met me. He grabbed my board and I stumbled onto the beach, where two other surfers had gathered. My hand did nothing to stop the bleeding, so I lay on my side and one of the surfers, Ian, an off duty EMT had the quick—and as the surgeon would later call it—creative, thought to lay on my wound and use his body weight to apply pressure. Luckily for me, driving on the beach is allowed here and right when I needed it most, another surfer, Jason, drove by on his way home. I was quickly loaded into the back of his truck and driven almost to the hospital, where I was intercepted by an ambulance in Eureka. From there, everything continued incredibly—the head surgeon at St. Joseph's Hospital was fortunately on duty and fresh out of surgery. I was going to make it. Modern medicine saved my life, but not without the help of my fellow surfers. They are my heroes.

In a sport made for kings, surfing remains a pursuit in which the playing field is unlimited, unbiased, and unconquerable. Perhaps it's this sense of unconquerable magnitude that drew the great Polynesian kings to love the feeling of gliding atop the ocean. I can only imagine that if your job were to be king, you would seek comfort from places where you are not in charge.

In the wake of the attack I was forced to stay out of the water, but I found myself riding a different wave—a wave of compassion and support from the local community. That support brought me back standing tall and mighty like a Polynesian king. I don't know why I was so lucky, but I am given a sense of joy for being alive. It's a joy that I feel is my duty to spread with the world. An infectious stoke that started inside the jaws of the mighty great white, and spread into the community that has supported me.

Call it a second chance, borrowed time—I would have never thought a life-threatening accident could bring such a clarity to life. Exactly four weeks to the day of the accident and after a mere two weeks of physical therapy, I was able to once again go surfing. The smell of wax, the feel of neoprene, the salt in my eyes—it was as if I were experiencing it for the first time. As for the mental barrier of getting back in the ocean, it came to me in a fortune cookie: "A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are built for." Simply, life is too boundless to turn your back on your dreams and stop embracing something you love.

I have written this to thank everyone who has supported my family and me—for the boundless compassion and generosity. I can only hope to be able to one day give back the love that has been shown to me.—Scott Stephens

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