Thursday, May 7, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Into The Great White Open -- When Sharks Attack: Surfers In The Northwest Will Deny It, But The Truth Is, They Are Out There

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

WESTPORT, Grays Harbor County - The sky looks like a bruised thigh with its thick blanket of purplish gray clouds. It meets the Pacific as if blended by an Osterizer.

Alone on a wide and wild stretch of strand, I scan the faint horizon.

I am thinking of sharks.

Specifically, Carcharodon carcharias, the great white shark. A 20-foot, one-ton gray-white predator with 28 stacked spares of serrated teeth that continually are being torn out and replaced.

I've been reflecting about sharks since an attack in Lincoln City, Ore., last month, the 12th such shark-surfer incident along the Oregon Coast in three decades.

I've come to Westport to talk about sharkiness, a state of mind common to surfers. It's about fear of the unknown. The subject is not really welcomed at Westhaven State Park, where two of Washington's most popular surfing spots are located. But it is tolerated because shark folklore has no history here.

"They don't like people on this side of the border," insists Leo Shaw of the Seattle Aquarium.

Oral history, as much as anything, plays on the minds of surfers. John Forse, the latest victim, is an unwitting celebrity in this hand-me-down storytelling. Everyone along the beach has heard the name, if not the details of the attack.

Forse, of Lincoln City, knows he is lucky. He went to Gleneden Beach two weeks ago to enjoy a bountiful swell. Forse was surfing for the second time since having a disk removed from his lower back in December.

Four surfers were in the water when he arrived at 7:30 a.m. with his new board. After a while, the others paddled to shore, including Randy Weldon, whose board was bitten by a shark in 1984 just north of Lincoln City.

Forse, 50, noticed seals nearby, something Northwest surfers are used to seeing. Then he saw a school of fish jump to the surface. Two minutes later he felt a hot vise on his upper thigh.

"My first reaction was, `Why the hell is a seal biting me?' " said Forse, a sequoia of a man at 6 feet 5, 230 pounds. "I didn't want to recognize it at this point."

But he knew what it was as the shark pulled him and his board about five feet under water. He pounded on the shark, but it held his quick-release cord, a rubberband-like leash attached to board and surfer. He surfaced, but the beast took Forse down again, perhaps eight feet. He again tried to release the cord but couldn't reach it.

"All I see are bubbles rushing by," said Forse, a part-time construction worker and surfing filmmaker. "All of a sudden, I had this thought: `I guess this is it.' "

Then the shark bit through the leash. Forse surfaced, swam to his board and paddled to shore. His friends rushed to meet him, and take him to a hospital.

There, surfing buddy and physician, Bruce Watanabe, cleaned the wound. He said the biggest danger in shark bites are closing wounds too quickly. After two days of draining the thigh wound, Watanabe closed it with 50 stitches.

Forse has been filming on the beach since. He wants to use footage from the hospital in his next video, "Endless Winter, II." He also hopes to surf next week after the stitches are removed. The harrowing experience has not discouraged Watanabe, either.

"If you give up all those things you'll sit on the couch and get heart disease," he said.

Washington surfers live by the same credo. All true surfers do, really.

"You'd win the lottery before you'd see a shark up here," Seattle's Jay Jordan said. "I don't even think about it."

Syrus Ghiasvand, a surfer who works at the Seattle Art Museum, had a more metaphysical perspective. Part of the attraction to surfing Westport, he said, is the wildness. No lifeguards, few beachgoers, a sense of adventure.

"There's a raw feeling to it," he said. "An encounter with a shark would be interesting. A little scar and you get away. . . . I wouldn't mind."

All this shark talk transports me to another time and place. There I am alone, in the chilly, clear water north of Santa Cruz, Calif. The waves break a good mile from shore, curving like a horseshoe into a rocky cove.

No one is on the beach.

It is a spiritual moment as shadows from the late summer sun dance across the smooth sea. But it doesn't last. Something far more primal takes over as my legs dangle below my 6-foot-11 floating Styrofoam plank.

Sharkiness always sneaks up at the wrong time. The idea something terrifying lurks just below the surface is rarely far from the mind of a solitary surfer.

A zone from Ano Nuevo north of Santa Cruz to the Farallon Islands off San Francisco to Tomales Bay north of the Golden Gate Bridge has become known to surfers as the Red Triangle. Red, as in blood. The largest number of shark attacks in the world occur inside this geometric boundary of terror - 17 since 1976.

A sea lion pops through a kelp bed, and I have a 10-car pileup anxiety attack. I'm still shuddering as a perfect peak starts breaking a few yards to my right. I can barely muster the strength to join its rollicking ride to the cove.

Safely on a Washington beach 26 years later, I smile at the thought. There are two kinds of surfers: those who want to know and those who say they don't but really do.

Every time Surfer magazine has a shark attack on its cover, its sales increase. "It's really one of the last things people do to throw themselves back into the food chain," said Steve Hawk, the magazine's editor.

That ancient fear has a mythological tenor. A sampling this week reveals many surfers have misplaced notions about sharks of the Pacific Northwest. For this, we can thank Steven Spielberg and Peter Benchley and their movies and books. No, great whites don't go into a frenzy with blood in the water. And no, they don't gravitate to warmer water.

They're out there and none of the denials can change it. Washington surfers are quick to note no one has been attacked along their coast. They would be wrong. There has been one.

On April 12, 1989, at 10:45 a.m. Robert Harms, paddling a purple surfboard about 100 meters off shore at Pacific Beach, Grays Harbor County, felt a pain in his left arm. He pulled away and then saw a swirl and what looked like a large gray fish. He caught a wave to shore and removed his wetsuit to discover a bloody mess. He suffered superficial puncture wounds extending from thumb to arm. Friends treated him on the beach. He never went to a hospital.

Larry Giese, owner of Deep Sea Charters in Westport, dedicates two pages of a photo album to the capture of a great white off Grays Harbor in 1976. He stuck a gaff into the creature's mouth but the shark straightened the hook and swam away. It was caught two days later.

John E. McCosker, a shark expert with San Francisco's Steinhart Aquarium, has confirmed shark attacks on animals as far north as Vancouver Island and the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia.

"They're there, but the chance of them going out and looking for surfers is slight," he said. "The story of rogue sharks is completely baseless. No one is sure if they find humans distasteful. They will eat people but seem to prefer seals."

Scientists have recorded only eight fatal shark attacks on the West Coast since 1950. Doesn't matter. The psychological drama plays out in the endless sea.

Upon closer inspection, it is understandable. But where does one begin? Perhaps inside the uterus where as eggs hatch the unborn young devour each other until one proficient killing-machine survives. Sharks are the world's only intrauterine cannibals. If the womb is a battleground, what then the sea, asks Daniel Duane in his book "Caught Inside, A Surfer's Year on the California Coast."

A continuous underwater hunt done quietly. As large as sharks get, you'd think they would announce themselves well before an attack. They don't. Death arrives unexpectedly.

"You won't see it coming," McCosker said. "The shark won't warn you or threaten you. It wants to eat you."

Great whites rarely devour struggling prey. They prefer a sneak attack, then to patiently wait for the victim to bleed to death. In fact, most human fatalities are a result of loss of blood or trauma.

As a group from the Auburn area was getting ready to surf last weekend, one put raw hamburger inside a friend's wetsuit. "Just to test the shark theory out," Doug Kocke said.

His friends laughed with gallows humor. Actually, sharks follow the food supply, simply and naturally. They are interested in seals and sea lions, collectively known as pinnipeds.

Since the Marine Mammals Protection Act in 1972, seal and sea-lion populations have exploded. In turn, the pinnipeds migrate to river mouths to poach salmon and steelhead. Many surfing attacks have occurred near river mouths, which often provide excellent waves.

"You kind of get that sixth sense something is in the water," said Mark Wade, a surfer from Ocean Shores, Grays Harbor County. "Then something will brush up against your leg. It's usually a seal. They have a strange sense of humor when it comes to that."

Surfers in overcrowded California and Hawaii fight for waves, wishing they could have a moment's peace. In the Northwest, most welcome the numbers. Better chances if a shark comes, said Karry Marquardt, an Orange County transplant who opened the North Coast Surf Shop in Ocean Shores.

"If you think of sharks, it ruins your day," he said. "They show `Jaws' here every summer. I hate it."

But when all is said and done, Marquardt, 41, a stout, muscular man, cannot resist going out on uncrowded days. He and a friend paddled into an empty ocean at Damon Point State Park on Monday morning. A few surf anglers were casting their lines a half-mile down the beach.

The sky was battleship gray, the waves two-to-three feet high. Marquardt didn't hesitate. He laid on his board and made broad strokes to the lineup, the spot where the waves were breaking best. He wheeled his board around as a wave peaked. He pushed down and crouched, left foot forward.

He smiled. And why not?

Sharkiness is all in the head.

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.


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