In August 1998, Jonathan Kathrein was surfing in the southern end of Stinson Beach when he was attacked by a great white shark. Since the attack, he went through a long period of physical and emotional recovery. Fourteen years later, Kathrein is not only surfing again, but he's a fierce defender of sharks. He covers his transformation in his new book Surviving the Shark: How a Brutal Great White Attack Turned a Surfer into a Dedicated Defender of Sharks. Here, he writes about the day it began.
Have you ever had the feeling you’re not alone in the water? It’s that edgy sensation that causes you to search in every direction, wondering if something could be out there with you. And suddenly you wonder why all your friends seem so far away. Have you ever felt something under the water, so close you could touch it but you couldn’t see it? It’s that feeling that makes you shiver. You try not to panic but your imagination races. You search nervously, watching and hoping you won’t see a fin slicing through the water as you rush to shore.
We all know sharks live in the ocean, but we don’t really expect to see one. And yet an image lingers in our mind causing us to fear sharks and to worry that one might be checking us out. Or was it only seaweed?
It happened to me on a summer day, the last day of vacation before school would start. Here at Stinson Beach just a few miles north of San Francisco the vast Pacific Ocean spreads out to the Farallon Islands twenty-six miles offshore, home of the great white sharks. Sure, I knew sharks were way out there somewhere, but I never expected a great white shark at Stinson, our favorite family beach. There’d never been a shark attack there and I felt safe, until something changed that day.
I floated in the waves about fifty yards from shore, my legs dangling off my board, as I waited and watched for the next good wave. Fog drifted over my head and the water looked dark and empty around me, nothing unusual for the North Coast. Suddenly my hand bumped something solid under the water and I had that sharky feeling. Something was out there with me. My eyes scanned the cold dark water, searching in every direction, but only the vacant horizon spread before me. Somehow everything and everyone else had drifted away, yet I was the last to realize it. I knew I was swimming with a shark and I knew I had to get out of there, fast.
I started swimming with all my might, praying I could make it to shore before the shark came back for me. But the shark is a faster swimmer and it uses camouflage to its advantage in the dark water. It attacks without warning from below and behind, like a mugger of the deep. The element of surprise is terrifying. You first sense it as it moves below you, displacing large volumes of water. You feel a surge. Then the water ripples, and the surface breaks. The hit is overwhelming when this huge creature, as big as a bus, slams into you full force with a mouthful of teeth. You feel its massive power and speed. The teeth sink into your flesh, and the jaws clamp onto your bone. Searing hot pain flashes through your body. You know immediately what’s happening. This is the power of the great white shark.
I was trapped in the jaws and overpowered, faced with defending myself. The shark pulled me under and dragged me down, away from shore. I tried to pull away but the jaws were unforgiving. I could not pull free. I tried to hold on to keep it from ripping off my leg, but the shark was so big I couldn’t get my arms around its body. In this battle with a superior predator, I only hoped to escape and save whatever I could of my life and limbs. I let my own instincts take over, fighting for my life and determined not to give up. Only I could save myself.
For two years after my attack I worked through the emotional and physical scars. I was afraid to even enter the water. Finally, with the encouragement of my brothers staying close by my side, I managed to gather my courage to paddle out on my board, into the ocean I love. I have been surfing for twelve years now and while I may never fully overcome fear, I’ve learned that sharks generally do not want to bother us. Except for a very small margin of error when they might mistake you for their next meal, the sharks will leave you alone. Unfortunately, that first hit can be a huge mistake.