Unprovoked White Shark Attacks on Swimmers
Although swimmers certainly composed the largest number of potential shark attack victims to use the waters of the Pacific Coast during the Twentieth Century, only 12 authenticated attacks against this group were recorded. The causal species of sharks for these 12 attacks consisted of 6 unknown and 6 that implicated the White Shark. For the 6 cases in which the White Shark was positively identified or highly suspect as the species responsible, 3 of the attacks were fatal.
It was a pleasant Sunday morning, 20 August 1961. David Vogensen, age 16, decided to go for a swim, accompanied by several friends. They had swum out to a sandbar about 75 meters from the beach and were returning to shore. The young swimmers crossed over a channel to a location about 6 meters from the beach near Salmon Creek, Sonoma County, California (38°20.8'N; 123°04.5'W). It was about 0930 hours and the water was cold and very clear.Vogensen was wearing dark blue swimming trunks.
He saw the shark swim over the sandbar and parallel the beach until about 10 meters from his location. The youth observed a large dark shape, a few feet below the surface, approaching him head-on. The shark circled Vogensen twice before grasping the lower groin and upper inner thighs of both legs. It held its victim for several seconds before it began mouthing his left leg down to the ankle. The youth was unaware of any sensation of pain, only a great deal of pressure, until his foot went numb. It was then that he knew a shark had bitten him. What he did not know was the extent of his injuries. Vogensen made his way up the beach, where he collapsed, clutching his bloody trunks. From this time until hours later in the hospital, events were unclear to the young man.
The swimmer was taken by automobile to Palm Drive Hospital in Sebastopol for emergency trauma care. Following emergency treatment, he was transferred to Hillcrest Hospital in Petaluma. Vogensen had received numerous slash wounds to his groin, with secondary lacerations to his left leg and foot. Several tendons and nerves were traumatized, requiring several hours of surgery to repair. Vogensen's physicians expected a complete recovery without any physical limitations. The shark's description and measurements of the wounds are indicative of a 4-meter White Shark.
Pat DuNah, age 18, was bitten by a shark on Saturday, 5 August 1978, while swimming 30 meters from shore off Pajaro Dunes Beach, near Santa Cruz, California (36°51.6'N; 121°48.6'W). DuNah and two companion swimmers had decided to go body surfing. They swam out some 100 meters from the beach at about 1200 hours. The sky was overcast and the air warm, about 20°C, with a mild wind generating small ocean groundswells, creating water visibility of 3 to 5 meters.
The knowledge that female victims were only a small percentage of the shark-attack cases reported in the ISAF by the end of the 1950s would undoubtedly have been of little comfort to Susan Marie Theriot, age 16, on Thursday, 19 May 1960. On this day, Theriot became the first known female to be attacked by a shark off the Pacific Coast in the Twentieth Century. The attack occurred while she was swimming with four student friends at Hidden Beach, near Aptos and Santa Cruz, in Santa Cruz County, California (36°57.6'N; 121°53.7'W). It was 1300 hours as Theriot and her companions were joined by 38 other sophomores from Mora Central High School for a day of fun at the beach. The beach outing was a reward for selling a specified number of their high school yearbooks. Witnesses said Theriot was 40 to 50 meters from shore in water 1 to 2 fathoms deep with a sandy bottom.
A huge shark appeared just beneath the surface and circled the girl several times before rushing in and seizing her left leg. Theriot screamed to friends that something had grabbed her leg. Classmate Larry Cronin was sitting in an inner tube near Theriot and grabbed her by the arm, pulling her slightly up onto the tube with him. Tessie Lettunich watched the shark circle the two swimmers several times. She said, "It was awfully big, darkish gray, with a big fin sticking out of the water." Theriot's blood quickly began clouding the water around the inner tube as many students began screaming for help. Most began kicking their feet wildly in an attempt to keep the shark away as they all headed for the safety of the beach. When they were only a few meters from shore, a large wave seemed to sweep the students, simultaneously, up onto dry sand. Several students ran up the beach to summon aid for their injured classmate.
Classmate Edward Cassef, age 16, applied a tourniquet to Theriot's
badly lacerated leg. The victim, unconscious from shock and loss of
blood, was transported by ambulance to Dominican Hospital in Santa
Cruz. A hospital official reported, "She was so weak we had
to build her up with blood transfusions before we could operate."
Several surgeons, including Paul J. Weiss, treated Theriot's extensively
traumatized leg, which ultimately had to be amputated below the knee.
The descriptions of the shark and the injury, provided by witnesses
and surgeons, clearly identified a 4-to-5-meter White Shark as the species
responsible for this attack.
On Monday, 17 September 1984, at 1530 hours, Brian Cramer would be injured while swimming at Mission Beach, a community in San Diego, California (32 47.1' N; 11715.4'W). This was yet another instance where the identity of the attacking shark could not be determined. Cramer was wading in waist-deep water when he felt something grab his right arm near the elbow and violently shake it. A crescent-shaped wound, composed of five individual tooth punctures, required many sutures for closure. The wound was 7.5 to 10 centimeters in diameter. The swimmer reported being in a school of baitfish when attacked. Cramer said he could not see what had struck him because “the water was too murky to see anything clearly.” Several biologists believed the attacker to be a small requiem shark (Carcharhinidae). James Stewart, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, considered a small Blue Shark (Prionace glauca) the most likely suspect, as “they are frequently seen close inshore chasing baitfish.”Cramer’s injury was minor, and physicians expected a complete recovery for the swimmer. Overnight hospitalization was not required.
On Sunday, 28 April 1957, shock and disbelief would grip one of California's small coastal communities. Peter Savino, age 25, of Brooklyn, New York, would lose his life while swimming with fellow California Polytechnic Institute student Daniel Hogan, age 22, about 3 kilometers north of Morro Rock at 35th Street, Atascadero Beach, San Luis Obispo County (35°24.2'N; 120°52.5'W). Savino and Hogan were accompanied by 10 to 12 other student acquaintances for an early-afternoon ocean swim. It was about 1330 hours on what was described by one companion as "a very warm, sunny day."
The two swimmers encountered a very strongly ebbing tide that carried them 300 to 400 meters out to sea from their original location, which had been about 50 meters from the beach. They decided it would be best to head back to shore before they were swept out to sea any farther. Shortly after beginning their swim back toward shore, Savino had become exhausted from fighting the current and was being towed by his friend. Hogan recounted the events of the attack to Deputy Sheriffs Don C. Miller and Henry Karagard as follows:
Realizing nothing could be done, Hogan continued to the beach and informed classmate Jerald Frank of the tragedy. Frank called a local mortuary, which then notified the sheriff's office and the U. S. Coast Guard station in Morro Bay.
The USCG dispatched the cutter Alert, which, upon arriving on the scene, lowered a 6.5-meter launch under the command of Executive Officer James C. Knight. Within mere minutes of beginning their search for the missing swimmer, Knight reported, "We located a shark as long as our launch. After making a quick trip back to the Alert for firearms we returned to the area where we had last seen the shark, but it was gone." Knight was positive that the shark observed was not a Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus), as was reported in several newspaper accounts of the attack. Knight also reported sighting several smaller Blue Sharks in the search area. The search resumed the following day, but was unsuccessful. Savino's body was never recovered.
It is not possible to unequivocally determine the species of shark responsible for this incident. The shark's length, about 6 meters, probably precluded most untrained observers in the 1950s from considering any species of shark except a Basking Shark. However, Executive Officer Knight was familiar with Basking Sharks and was positive that the shark he observed was not this species. There are some striking similarities between this case and Robert Pamperin's fatal White Shark attack in 1959. A large White Shark is highly suspect in Peter Savino's fatal attack.
If you, or someone you know, has been involved in a shark attack and would like to voluntarily participate in the Shark Research Committee's research program, please use the appropriate reporting form.