Surfers Share Stories and Encounters With Sharks

Oceanic white tip shark
Oceanic white tip shark | © Discovery Channel

People love sharks … from afar, at least. That’s why Discovery Channel’s Shark Week is a highlight of the summer for many. It’s why SyFy has produced not one, but four Sharknado movies and is set to air the fifth installment of the shark-tornado series in August. Aspiring entrepreneurs and inventors go on ABC’s Shark Tank to pitch their companies and creations. Jaws (1975), which won three Academy Awards and was nominated for Best Picture, is on countless lists of all-time best films. Live every week like it’s Shark Week, right?

While those of us sat comfortably in front of a TV can view these creatures with ease, feeling just slightly nervous or scared, many people around the world have first-hand shark encounters, particularly those who make their living in the animals’ home: the ocean.

In honor of Shark Weekrapidly approaching like a dorsal fin in the distance (cue Jaws theme here), Culture Trip spoke to Volcom professional surfers Muklis Anwar and Kerby Brown about their run-ins with sharks.

Muklis Anwar (Indonesia)

Yes, a couple times in Bali, but most of them were reef sharks so I wasn’t really scared. One day I saw a bigger fin around 30m away and I thought it was a reef shark, but it actually flipped a fish out of the water, opened its mouth and swallowed the fish. It was huge and it scared me so much at that time. I paddled so fast and some of the guys that saw it were saying it was a bull shark. I was so scared it actually made me not surf for a week until I accepted everything happens naturally, so now it’s just normal life. But still, it would scare me if I saw that fin again.
Around 30 minutes from my house there is a surf point called Balian Beach and there were three attacks by bull sharks in the last two years—no one died, but they were injured badly.

Bull sharks

Kerby Brown (Australia)

I grew up surfing the Western Australian coastline from a young age, which is notoriously bad for sharks and the fatalities over the years from attacks reflect this. Although the thought of being attacked is a scary one, I’m well aware of the risks of going in the ocean and I have a lot of respect for sharks in their natural habitat. My dad has been a lobster fisherman for many years. With my father working at sea and my brother and I spending every opportunity we can in the ocean, surfing over the years, it’s not uncommon for us to see sharks. That said, these are mostly reef sharks, bronze whalers and occasionally tiger sharks in this area of Western Australia.
As my surfing progressed over the years I found myself venturing further and further off the coastline in search of waves, traveling to some of the most remote parts of Australia. These days we’re constantly searching for the biggest, heaviest waves we can find. We usually travel by jet ski when out exploring, spending countless hours and days at sea, covering many miles in search of new waves and bomboras to ride.

The biggest swells are generated out of the Southern Ocean and come from really deep water into a shallow rock shelf making for a huge, thick wave. They either drop back down into deep water or go onto an exposed reef or island. Some of the reefs are so far out at sea that the ocean is so deep, the water looks a really dark blue, almost black color. The ocean feels so alive with marine life, it makes some of the spots especially eerie.

To surf these kinds of waves we have to use a jet ski to assist us getting into them so when we’re waiting for a wave we are literally dangling off a tow rope off the back of a shelf in the deepest water waiting for a wave. It feels like you’re a human lure sometimes, way out to sea in the middle of nowhere, getting towed around on a colorful board, not knowing what is lurking beneath you. Well we have a pretty good idea given these areas are known for their abundance of white pointers … but I guess we don’t want to know. We are so passionate and focused on surfing these places and the waves themselves are so dangerous that we just tend to block the thought of sharks out, or at least try not to think about them too much while surfing.

One occasion we were surfing a big-wave bombora that comes out of really deep water, it’s notorious and known as The Right. It was late in the afternoon; the swell was huge, sitting around the five-meter mark with waves forming as high as 40-50 foot faces. This spot is a more well known location, so this day there were about four or five tow teams there to surf. We were all dangling out the back of the reef in the deep, all buzzing with excitement as the waves were pumping waiting for the next set. This isn’t all that common as this spot only comes alive a handful of times a year with the right conditions, wind swell, etc. Sometimes the swells are quite far apart so at times we’re all out the back waiting in the water together as we were this afternoon. The sun was quickly dropping. The water generally gets darker and darker as this happens then suddenly, a huge fin—a massive great white shark—shows up and starts cruising between the jet skis and surfers in the water.

There was an instant state of panic as everyone quickly scrambled back to the jet skis and climbed up to be seated next to their tow partners. Everyone was blown away as this was the first time most of us had seen a great white in the surf. There were a few lads that had flown over from the East Coast plus a Hawaiian friend who made the trip over and they were all spinning out. I was partnered up with my good friend and local maniac from the area who later tells me he had seen a great white on several occasions out here.

We were all in awe of this huge creature cruising around the jet skis as if it were scoping us out. The waves were crazy but we were all just floating off the back of the reef sitting safely on the skis while this huge great white swam around disappearing into the dark depths only to reappear again minutes later. We gave it 15 minutes or so, talking among ourselves asking, “What are we going to do?” We wanted to get some of these amazing waves but we were also shit scared of this big great white. A couple of boys said there was no way they were going back in the water but I could also tell a couple were unsure, but were still considering it.

I’d never seen a great white in person up until this point so I was skeptical but for some reason felt quite calm about it. I wasn’t however overly keen to start dangling in the water again. After another 5-10 minutes a huge lump of ocean popped up on the horizon and I looked at my friend Chris Shanahan and said, “How’s this thing coming?” to which he replies, “Oh well, fuck it,” and just jumps back in right next to where the shark had been going around the ski.

I quickly hit the throttle and got him to his feet and immediately towed him into this huge wave. He disappeared onto the wave and I followed closely behind him. He came flying out of this huge barrel with the spit blowing him into the channel. I instantly felt a huge sense of relief but as I circled around to pick him up on the inside of the whitewash, I turned in the channel to grab him when the huge fin came up right in front of me between him and the jet ski.

Great white shark

To my disbelief, it must have followed us all the way in from out the back. I screamed at Chris to get on the ski. I don’t think he saw it but I was yelling, “Get on the ski, the shark’s back. It was just right in front of me.” The fin was huge! He quickly scurried up the back of the ski and I pulled him up onto the seat. I was blown away that it must have had its eye on us the whole time and was so quick. He just rode a crazy wave and then had the shark coming at him when he pulled off. It was mixed emotions and we couldn’t really comprehend that it had just happened. We decided that was it and got out of there, making the 20-minute journey back to the boat ramp just before dark. That was the first time I had seen a great white in the surf and it wouldn’t be the last.

A rare forecast would have it that another huge swell would hit two days later, same spot, same teams, only this time we were out there in the morning. The sun was out, the water was blue, clear, and after an hour the same thing happened. Out the back one of the boys looked over from his ski and a huge black torpedo was coming up out of the depths vertical next to the ski. A massive great white proceeded to cruise around the skis and disappear into the deep blue once again. Although a little shaken we continued to keep surfing that day and didn’t see it again.

Since that day, I haven’t seen a great white in the surf again, nor do I wish to.

Although nothing serious happened on these occasions it was a big reminder of what we are surrounded by, after all we are in their territory on a regular basis. Things do go terribly wrong, people are losing their lives and I feel terribly sympathetic for anyone who has lost a family member to such a tragedy, but as surfers and ocean lovers, this is a risk we are willing to take to share the ocean with these prehistoric creatures of the sea.

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