GASP! Gulf Area Sea Paddlers

The One That Let Us Get Away

Copyright by Mike Chin, November, 1992


(Printed with permission from Mike Chin following a discussion on the newsgroup)

I'm the paddling partner of Ken Kelton, the guy who got his boat chomped by the shark at Ano Nuevo. Here's an article that I've written for the Bay Area Sea Kayakers (BASK). Ken's reviewed this article (he's writing articles, also) for accuracy, I think we disagreed in two areas. He thought we were outside the break, while I thought we were just inside. He thought the shark was on him for ~10secs, I thought it was more like ~6-7.

The media got the story basically correct. One quibble is the reported shark length, reported anywhere from 12-16'. When we landed at the beach, I babbled something like 14'; one of the ranger on the scene looked at the bite, and said (I'm paraphrasing) "oh a baby, 10'!... " I still think that it was longer than the Dancer. Various shark experts have seen the bite, & I'd wait for their estimate.

There's another thing to which I can add detail. Some articles have stated that I was "a novice sea kayaker on his first trip". It's true that I'm an unexperienced open ocean boater and that this was my first open ocean trip in my newly acquired X-1, but I've surfed/paddled in the bay numerous times, daytriped outside the Gate & at Pt Reyes, & have paddled whitewater a few years. Ano Nuevo seemed like it would be a perfect mellow sort of introductory paddle.

Thanks to all the people who've posted articles re shark dangers on the California coast. I'll be picking my paddling spots more carefully.


The One that Let Us Get Away

Copyright by Mike Chin 11/92

Although I've been a BASKer for 2 years, I've only recently acquired a seayak & begun to participate in organized outings. Just as he stated in his November article, Ken Kelton was ready at short notice for an Ano Nuevo trip when I called him on Friday (the 13th). The two of us drove down Saturday morning; the conversation on the way down included joking queries about any good BASK shark stories (none, as far as we knew).

We put in at Gazos Creek around 10:30AM, Ken in his modified red Dancer(11.5' x 24") & I in my camo- blue deck whitehulled Rocketboat(16' x 21"). Conditions were mild: 2' waves, air temperature in the 60's, water visibility ~10'. Patches of cloudy haze from time to time dimmed the otherwise sunny skies.

We paddled south at a leisurely pace, stopping to surf, poking the coastline, gawking at the seals as we circled the island. Heading back north, we crossed the shallow channel separating the island from the mainland sometime near the high tide for that day, ~12:30PM. We made plans to land north of the Ano Nuevo preserve for lunch.

We meandered north, just within the outermost break, less than 1/8 mile offshore. We were perhaps 100 yards north of a seal haulout on the mainland, & perhaps equally as far south of some exposed rocks which we later were told was Steele Reef. In retrospect, two observations seem important. First, we had just paddled from shallow to deeper water; in the channel, the bottom was visible (<i;10' deep). Second, in contrast to the many seals in the water near the island, all the animals associated with the mainland haulout appeared to be on shore.

Reconstructing, we guess that the time was ~12:45PM. Ken was directly inshore of me by ~30-40'. I happened to be pointing shoreward, basically directly at Ken. I believe the sun was mostly overhead and a little behind. At that moment, neither of us was paddling very fast; we might have been nearly stationary as we were checking out potential landing sites.

I don't remember if it was sight or sound that first caught my attention. I vaguely recall hearing a thump & perhaps Ken saying "What the ...???" My attention focused in time to see Ken fighting to stay upright while something yanked & splashed at the Dancer's stern. Even though I couldn't yet see the shark in these first 1-2 seconds, I somehow knew exactly what was happening.

I believe in this initial contact, the shark was mainly placing his jaws on the boat. In the next 3-4 seconds, the shark lunged horizontally out of the water with the boat clamped in his jaws, his belly skimming the water surface. I saw a dark dorsal fin, and the profile of the shark's immense bulk, dark on top turning to silver on the sides & fading to white on the belly. From the top of the fin straight down to the belly spanned ~3'. I believe I also saw gill slits and an eye. I saw his back well behind the dorsal fin. It seemed that half the shark's length cleared the water, causing the stern to disappear, and it seemed that the shark had merged with the kayak/Ken. The shark seemed at once horrible, beautiful, powerful, terrifying & graceful.

There was a rush of water like that of a breaking wave as the shark surged forward, up, & finally down. It seemed that the dorsal fin was towering over Ken's head as I finally lost sight of him amidst the spray. I was sure that I had just watched him die.

After the shark submerged again, he abruptly let go and vanished; we never saw him again. Unbelievably, Ken was alive, unhurt, and still upright. Two thoughts were flashing through my head; white sharks rarely hit a victim more than once, and even more rarely do they attack rescuers.

I paddled up nervously, scanning the water beneath my boat, slapping the water with my paddle, striving to not look like an injured seal. Ken yelled "What *was* that??!!" Somehow the humor of Ken not immediately realizing what had happened escaped me at that moment. I yelled back "Shark!"

I think we had the same simultaneous thought; get the heck out of there. We didn't bother to work out ahead of time what the best direction might be; in fact we had directly opposite ideas. I raced towards shore while Ken scooted seaward. It doesn't make any sense now, but we paddled *past* each other.

After some frantic paddling, Ken cleared the surfzone while I had gone in even further than where the shark had originally struck. We looked at each other, & Ken waved me back out towards him; he wanted to skirt Steele Reef and some breakers. I paddled out, but we soon discovered that the Dancer was shipping water. We passed the reef, but the Dancer was starting to get hard to control & Ken couldn't wait to get totally clear of the breakers. We headed in, and agreed that he would attempt to land first, with me to aid if he flipped/swam. With remarkable effort & skill, he beached his wallowing waterfilled boat. I followed right after; solid ground never felt so good.

Preserve rangers had seen us landing and came down to the beach within minutes to shoo us away. They had missed the few seconds of the shark attack, but were greatly impressed with our stories and the evidence of the Bite on the right stern. It measured ~17" across, ~11" deep (crossing over the midline of the kayak), and was only 1.5' behind the cockpit. Cuts/slices thru the stern deck marked the oval perimeter of the Bite where teeth had met boat. The most awesome damage was at the waterline; multiple 3-4" gashes in 1/4" polyethylene. The power and the sharpness of the tool that had made such effortless cuts are nearly unimaginable.


The following was taken from an email exchange between Jackie Fenton and Mike Chin:

I contacted Mike Chin after reading the above story on and he was kind enough to answer some questions from a paddler who, being from Texas, knew very little about white sharks and seals at the time...

jf: What is a seal haulout? I thought this is where seals primarily rest when they aren't in the water.

mc: Yes, but my Personal Anxiety Index (PAI) goes up with the number of seals there are at a particular site. Some resting haulouts outside the Gate typically have only 10-15 (low PAI); breeding haulouts like Ano Nuevo have hundreds at times (unacceptable PAI).

jf: And as far as the high-tide, would you explain more about how that is more of a danger?

mc: High tides force more seals off their haulout areas into the water, or so some shark researches think (sorry, can't cite a reference off the cuff). I also think I read somewhere that orcas attacks on seals happen more often during extreme high tides. I am prejudiced, cuz Ano Nuevo happened at an extreme high tide...

jf: Have there been others (not just bumping).

mc: Yes! In October of 1993 off the CA Sonoma coast near the mouth of the Russian River (big seal haulout area), a Great White hit the bottom of a womans Frenzy (Scupper-like washdeck) so hard that she flew into the air "12-14 feet" and put a 20" crack in the bottom hull. The woman was not injured, and with the help of her 3 paddling companions was able to reach shore. She gave a riveting talk at one of our BASK meetings, but her incident didn't get the same publicity as Ano Nuevo.

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