The Shark Factor

Can SUP Keep You Safe?

Illustration by Martin Simpson, originally from the spring 2016 issue of SUP magazine.

The Shark Factor

Can SUP keep you safe?

It's every surfer's worst nightmare. On the morning of October 9, 2015, Colin Cook, 25, was surfing Leftovers, one of the few mellow breaks located on the ordinarily black diamond North Shore of Oahu, Hawaii. The waves were relatively small, five or six feet, and after catching a few Cook was sitting on his surfboard, taking a breather between sets. The next thing he knew, he was underwater, flailing desperately in a cloud of bubbles and blood, his left leg firmly clamped in the jaws of a 14-foot tiger shark. In a shattered moment the leg below the knee was gone, but the shark wasn't. It spun almost within its own length, dorsal and broad tail fin breaking the surface in a shower of spray, and renewed its attack. Cook surfaced next to his board and cried for help.

"I was about 100, maybe 150 yards up the coast when I heard Colin," says Keoni Bowthorpe, a 33 year-old local who was paddling home to his nearby beach house. "I turned in time to see the shark pull him under. From the size of the dorsal and tail I immediately knew it was bigger than anything I'd had experience with, and that by how aggressively it was behaving that Colin was in real trouble. So I just started paddling back."

Aside from displaying the essential courage to turn back toward the bloody tableau, Bowthorpe was eminently qualified to offer assistance in this particular crisis. A documentary filmmaker, Bowthrope had recently been working on a project concerning shark conservation, in which he had logged hours of dive time with various species, including tigers.

He was also on a standup paddleboard. Even more than his body of experience in the water with sharks, this particular factor would prove to be a significant influence on the eventual outcome of this incident. As it might have on the experience of anyone who finds themselves sharing the ocean with sharks.

"Surfers are the number one target group of shark attack and bites," says George Burgess, renowned shark behaviorist and director of the Florida Program for Shark Research. "And a large percentage of the interactions can be attributed to the provocative actions of surfers on traditional equipment, with a significant percentage of their body in the water, kicking their feet and splashing their hands, doing a good imitation of prey items on the surface."

Which, judging by this informed description, could make standup paddling the safest way to be in the ocean around sharks.

North Shore, Oahu local Keoni Bowthorpe looks out over his home break at Leftovers where months before he made a daring rescue to save a shark attack victim. Photo: Ryan Foley

Even a precursory look at the statistics show that global surfer/shark interactions are on the rise—in some cases at alarming rates. In July 2015, viewers of a live webcast watched in horror when, during the finals of a professional surfing event at Jeffreys Bay, South Africa, three-time world champion Mick Fanning was attacked by a Great White. Happily, the resolute Aussie emerged unscathed (footage of Fanning punching the shark made international headlines and received over two million YouTube hits) but a growing number of his countrymen have not been so lucky: during 2014-15 Australia's waters seemingly ran red, with five shark attack fatalities in twelve months.

The situation is even worse on the Indian Ocean's Reunion Island. Home to dozens of world class surf spots—the fabulous left reef break of St. Leu was once a world pro tour stop—this popular tourist destination has seen 16 shark attacks since 2011, seven of them fatal. The situation in paradise became so dire that the government implemented a no-surfing ban in 2013, a dramatic move that quickly choked off the island's essential tourism trade.  Tragedy continued when in 2015 Elio Canestri, a 13 year-old surf prodigy, flaunted the surf ban and was killed by a shark in full sight of family and friends.

These numbers certainly skew the old "you have more of a chance of getting hit by lightning" adage, and not just in the far off Indian Ocean. Between June 4 and July 4, 2015, eight people were attacked by sharks in the surf off North Carolina—two of them, a 12 year-old girl and a 16 year-old boy, bitten with loss of limb within 90 minutes each other.

Hawai'i Sharks' state "Incident List" list contains 16 different "interactions" in 2014-15 alone, with outcomes varying from minor lacerations to fatalities.

The Shark Research Committee's published  "2015 Pacific Coast Shark News," which chronicles all human/shark interaction along the U.S. West Coast, has seen its list swell to startling proportions, including literally dozens of incidents of various levels of severity, from scary Great White "drive-bys" to all-out attacks.

And yet it's the nature of these interactions—the patterns—when viewed as quantifiable data, that are most relevant to standup paddling and the level of safety and security afforded by this particular choice of equipment.

"We break these incidents down into three different categories," explains Burgess, who has amassed more of this sort of data than anyone else on land or sea. "And these are interactions, bites and attacks. The percentage of these can be looked at geographically. Take the East Coast of the U.S., especially warmer, more temperate waters. The more typical species are black-tip, spinner and bull sharks. All three of these species are attracted to the provocative movement of surfers and swimmers as their hands and feet flash near the water's surface, imitating mullet, a major prey item. In the murky waters like you find in Florida and the Outer Banks the sharks have to make a quick choice to bite or not. And in many cases what looks like a mullet turns out to be a hand or a foot."

Hawaii, home to what appears to be a growing population of large tiger sharks, experiences a high number of what Burgess labels "attacks," where the shark's intent is actual predation. This could explain the severity of many of the recent incidents in which the shark either made off with large portions of its victim or made renewed efforts to do so.

Interactions on the U.S. West Coast almost exclusively involve Great White sharks.

"My hypothesis is that some of the bites are purely investigative," says Burgess. "The sharks can't be sure so they make a dry run. When they taste fiberglass they know it isn't what they're hoping for and they back off. But for a surfer laying on a board the damage is already done."

The key phrase in almost all the incidents, regardless of geographic location, is "laying on the board." Statistics show that the majority of White shark fatalities, for example, are caused by blood loss resulting from bites between the hip and the calf—the portion of the body laying on the back of a surfboard. The shark's observed attack pattern seems to focus on the back flippers of regular prey items like sea lions and elephant seals.

"Sharks, like all predators, grab for the propulsion end," says Burgess. "You take the tail off a sea lion, it can't swim very well. And a surfer with his arms and legs hanging off their board couldn't do a better job of approximating a sea lion."

But what about a surfer or paddler standing up on their board? With no arms and legs hanging off the tail of the board or dangling in the water? Even without taking into account the benefit of greater field and depth of vision, does this position on board make for safer surfing and paddling?

"I think that if you were to go into the water in a region known for just about any species of shark a standup paddle board would be a well-considered option," says Burgess. "In the case of the bigger sharks, who characteristically bite the tail, certainly. I'd much rather get knocked off my board than sampled along with it."

Standing up or looking down: which perspective looks safer? Photo: Slater Trout

Statistics back up Burgess' assertion. On Hawaii's "Incident List" the injury report of surfers often read "severe lacerations," "loss of leg" and "deep puncture wounds." But in each case where the victim was on a standup paddleboard the injury column reads: "No injury. Shark bit tail of board."
Statistics like these, along with anecdotal evidence, make it pretty clear that aside from standing on shore, standing up is the safest way to be on a board around sharks. And not just for the standup paddler. Consider Keoni Bowthorpe, who found himself heading into harm's way in an attempt to save Colin Cook, who had just lost his leg to a 14-foot tiger shark. Bowthorpe, paddling a 8'10" surf SUP, quickly covered the distance to where Cook struggled to keep the shark at bay. There he used his paddle to, in his own words, "re-direct" the shark, repeatedly pushing its business end away from Cook, who was beginning to pass out from blood loss. Bowthorpe then tossed his paddle, pulled the fading Cook onto his back and paddled for shore, the big tiger harassing them the entire way.

"With the both of us on it, when we were paddling I was pretty much underwater," Bowthorpe said. "And with the shark all around us, I even hit it with my hand once."

Bowthorpe got Cook to shore where first aid was administered, saving the young surfer's life. Cook is currently making a remarkable recovery, having already gotten back in the water with a custom prosthesis. Bowthorpe, on the other hand, took a couple days off to avoid media scrutiny and then quietly picked up his board and paddle and headed back out to Leftovers, his favorite spot.

"When we go into the ocean we have to realize that we're co-existing with these creatures," says Bowthorpe, whose passion for shark conservation has become even more acute following his dramatic first-hand involvement. "I have to look at what happened as a random occurrence, and not make it bigger in my mind that it is. Sure, standup paddling is a much safer way to be in the water with sharks. You're on a bigger board, nothing dangling off the side, and you've got a paddle in your hands if you need it. But when you stop to consider how many sharks are needlessly killed each year, you've got to believe that no matter what we're paddling we're way safer than they are."

This article by Sam George was originally published in the spring 2016 issue of SUP magazine.

See also:

Sharks in SoCal: Why So Many Sightings?

Watch: Paddler Makes Pals With Whale Shark