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Interview with a Shark Attack Victim: Megan Halavais’ Close Encounter With Mr. White

| posted on July 22, 2010

Is Megan Halavais a lucky girl, or an unlucky girl? She got attacked by a white shark, but she lived. Razor sharp teeth tore into her leg, but missed her femoral artery. She got a helicopter ride to the hospital, but a very expensive helicopter ride. Her board and wetsuit were wrecked, but a surf magazine is going to help connect her with new gear.

Lucky? Or unlucky?

Born in 1985 in Orange County, Megan lived in La Jolla until the eighth grade, attending Doyle Elementary and Muirlands Middle School. She learned to surf in Junior Lifeguards when she was 10, at Mission Beach and with one of her brothers at Torrey Pines. Megan moved to Santa Rosa in the eighth grade, when her mother took a job teaching at Sonoma State University. Santa Rosa was a little too far from the ocean, but she soon fell in love with the northern California coast, and started surfing around Bodega Bay. Maria attended Maria Carillo High School for as long as she could stand it, then left early and went to Santa Rosa Junior College. She played water polo for eight years, first for the Sonoma State University club team and then at Junior college until she quite because of a shoulder injury.

Now 20 years old, Megan divides her time between Santa Rosa and her boyfriend’s place in Bodega Bay. She works at the Ruby’s Coffee Shop in Bodega Bay and surfs as much as possible. On October 20, Megan was surfing at Salmon Creek, just north of Bodega Bay, when she became the second victim of the 2005 shark attack season. (The first attack was in August, in La Jolla)

The shark season for the West Coast generally starts around the last week of August, and goes into November. Last year along the Pacific Coast there were nine attacks. Eight were on surfers and one was fatal. This year started slowly, but not slowly enough for Megan.

SURFER Magazine spoke to Megan about her close encounter of the toothy kind.—Ben Marcus

SURFERMag.com: Saw you on Good Morning America this morning. How did that go?
MEGAN: The trip to New York was fun. We flew first class and stayed at the Double Tree. It was hard getting around on crutches but ABC was very nice and the trip was fun!

SURFERMag.com: Who were your posse there on camera with you? They seemed pretty protective.
MEGAN: The two guys with me were Johnny and Super Dave. Johnny, the guy in the red shirt, is my boy friend, and Super Dave is a friend. They were both there when I was attacked and paddled toward the shark.

SURFERMag.com: Good Morning America got you on and off pretty quick. Is there anything you didn’t say on national TV that you wanted to say on national TV?
MEGAN: I wish I could have thanked everyone who was out in the water with me and risked their lives paddling towards a shark for me.

SURFERMag.com: I’ve interviewed about a dozen shark attack club members going back to Eric Larsen in 1991. They all have a lot of things in common and one of the things is that the nightmares afterward are not a lot of fun.
MEGAN: I haven’t had any bad dreams which I am grateful for, but my doctors did say it can take a while for post traumatic stress to kick in.

SURFERMag.com: After watching you on TV I went to Malibu Kitchen and saw John Philbin there. He is the guy who played Turtle on the movie North Shore. I told him about your story and hoped you were okay. Can you laugh about it yet?
MEGAN: Yeah I definitely laugh about it. That’s part of what is helping me through it. All my friends and I joke about it. The day after the attack, in the hospital, a friend referred to me as shark bait! It’s just good to keep your spirits high. Try and look at the good side: I’m still alive and not majorly injured.

SURFERMag.com: You said on Good Morning America and interviews that you had a shark vibe just before the attack.
MEGAN: Yeah, I felt a little uneasy, but I just ignore those feelings when I get them.

SURFERMag.com: Of all the people I have interviewed and all the accounts I have read, I don’t think I’ve ever heard of an attack victim who saw it coming.
MEGAN: I never saw the shark until it had already bit me.

SURFERMag.com: Run down that day for me, if you can.
MEGAN: We woke up – me, John, and Super Dave – and went down to see my friend Jordan who had surfed Boardwalks the night before and was going again that morning. Then we went to the coffee shop and chatted with friends, and took off for Salmon. It was a cool crew, everyone knew everyone and we went out. I remember arguing with Johnny because I wanted to surf a different peak then him and Dave, but I went with them anyway. It was a nice morning around 9:30ish, sun breaking through the clouds in spots, clear water, lots of visibility, glassy conditions and around head-high swell.

SURFERMag.com: You surf there a lot?
MEGAN: Salmon is my local break. I wake up every morning, go to the coffee shop then look at Salmon. I surf it all the time and I consider it safe; it’s just Boardwalks is known as a sharky spot.

SURFERMag.com: Well all of Sonoma County is a sharky spot, especially in October. Do you think about sharks when you are out there?
MEGAN: I try not to, but I met Mike who got bit two years ago in the same spot.

SURFERMag.com: The lawyer?
MEGAN: Yes, that’s him. And my friend Travis had been bumped before. I knew shark attacks were a possibility, I just never thought it would happen to me.

SURFERMag.com: It’s like winning the lottery in reverse. Did you ever run over in your mind what you would do if a shark came after you?
MEGAN: No, so I’m grateful my adrenaline took control, because I was very lucky and things went very smoothly.

SURFERMag.com: What board were you riding?
MEGAN: I was on a 6’ 2” Barbera when the shark attacked me.

SURFERMag.com: How long were you in the water?
MEGAN: We were out for about 45 minutes and I probably had caught two or three waves before it happened.

SURFERMag.com: How many people around you?
MEGAN: About five or six when the attack happened, but more earlier in the morning.

SURFERMag.com: I have a friend named Steve Guzzetta who was diving by himself at Pigeon Point, north of Santa Cruz, and felt that shark vibe so strong he got out of the water. The next day, he was diving near that spot again and a guy just down the beach got hit. The shark severed his femoral artery and Steve had to pull in his dead body. Steve is a strong believer in listening to those feelings.
MEGAN: It was just kind of an eerie feeling. Not just looking at the bottom and seeing shadows and freaking myself out, but the water felt shifty. I felt really uneasy, which is part of the reason I started to move.

SURFERMag.com: So you are the one who moved?
MEGAN: I laid down on my board and started paddling and that’s when I was attacked.

SURFERMag.com: A lot of the times, the person who is attacked is the person who moves. A few years ago, a guy got attacked at Bolinas. He paddled past the pack and stopped just at the edge of the sandbar. As soon as he stopped paddling he got nailed from behind. He said he felt like a frog getting nailed by a largemouth bass.
MEGAN: I was with a group of surfers but I was at least 25-30 yards from anyone. I was riding a smaller board and I think those two things had a big effect on why I was attacked and not one of the guys. Oh any by the way, everyone wants to ask, “Were you on your cycle?” But no, I wasn’t.

SURFERMag.com: Oh thanks, I don’t have to ask that.
You’re welcome.

SURFERMag.com: Of the people I have talked to their first reaction during an attack isn’t fear, but, “Look at the size of this fricking thing!” They just can’t believe how big and powerful they are.
MEGAN: I had thought about being attacked, but never really pictured it in my head. I didn’t think the shark would be that big and yes it was very very powerful.

SURFERMag.com: Once they get over the shock of how big and powerful the shark is, they’re second reaction usually is: I am going to die.
MEGAN: Yes, I thought I was going to die. I screamed, but everyone said that it wasn’t a high-pitched loud scream, but a blood-curdling yell for help. I just remember thinking I was gonna die, then the desire to survive.

SURFERMag.com: How far offshore were you?
MEGAN: I was about 150 – 200 yards offshore and the water was probably about 10 feet deep, but just outside the last break there supposedly is a huge, steep drop off into open ocean

SURFERMag.com: Which way were you facing and which way did the shark come from?
MEGAN: I was lying on my board facing out to sea, and it came at me from the northeast.

SURFERMag.com: From between you and the land?
MEGAN: Yes, and it hit me with so much force. I wouldn’t call it aggressive, just powerful. Then it began to circle me.

SURFERMag.com: On GMA you said the shark made a horseshoe around you and you jumped on its back, between the dorsal and the tail fin.
MEGAN: That’s right.

The ‘interspace measurements’ of the tooth impressions in the bottom of her surfboard are consistent with the lower jaw dentition of an adult white shark 18 to 19 feet in length. Although ‘interspace measurements’ of white shark teeth are a reflection of the shark’s size, there are minor variations within the species. Therefore, it is possible for a white shark 18 feet in length to have the same ‘interspace measurements’ of a white shark 19 feet in length and vise versa. However, in this case I can state categorically that the shark that attacked Megan was no less than 18, nor more than 19 feet in length. The weight of the animal can only be estimated from similar sized sharks that have been accurately weighed following capture. In this regard, the shark would weigh a minimum of 4,000 and possibly as much as 5,000 pounds, based on prior historical data for this species.

SURFERMag.com: In one of your interviews you said you were hitting the shark and were afraid to hurt it.
MEGAN: Everyone got the idea that I was pounding on it. I definitely wasn’t. I wasn’t really thinking about not hurting it, just getting away from its mouth. It didn’t really occur to me that anything I could do would hurt it. It felt so much stronger and powerful than me – obviously, because it was.

SURFERMag.com: Good thing you didn’t damage that shark, young lady. Carcharadon carcharias are a Federally protected species. Want to go to jail for shark endangerment?
MEGAN: I wasn’t punching it, I was pushing on it. I don’t really know what I was trying to achieve, but I just remember looking at my hands and they were shoulder-width apart. I was pressing on it with my elbows locked straight.

SURFERMag.com: Think the shark knew you were there?
MEGAN: I think it felt me on its back because it started to thrash more. Johnny explained it as: “It looked like it was starting to frenzy.” Like it got freaked out a bit.

SURFERMag.com: Were you freaked out a bit?
MEGAN: I remember feeling extremely calm, considering the position I was in. I just went into survival mode. I didn’t think about what I was doing, my body just did it.

SURFERMag.com: When Eric Larsen was attacked at Davenport in 1991, he said the worst part was the shark got wrapped up in his leash and started dragging him out to sea. Didn’t that happen to you?
MEGAN: My leash got caught up in the shark’s mouth, and when it started swimming away, it pulled me under.

SURFERMag.com: Oh lordy.
MEGAN: I was under for a very short time – maybe five seconds at the most. I don’t remember being pulled under, I just remember coming to the surface and grabbing on to Johnny’s back. I literally think my entire body was out of the water on top of Johnny on his board. I just wanted to be out of the water and safe.

SURFERMag.com: Did Johnny know you were on his back?
MEGAN: Oh yes, he did.

SURFERMag.com: So the shark’s teeth cut your leash and that is how you got free?
MEGAN: It snapped either from the power of the shark pulling, or its teeth. I’m not sure. I’m just glad it broke.

SURFERMag.com: What happened after that? Do you remember seeing the shark swimming away? Do you remember what people said to you?
MEGAN: No, the shark was just gone. Johnny said right when I got pulled under, the water was calm. No bubbles, no nothing. Then I surfaced, got on Johnny’s back and they paddled me to my board. Everyone kept telling me I was okay and I wasn’t bit that bad. Britt Horn, the local lifeguard and surfer, just kept telling me to stay calm, breath and keep paddling.

SURFERMag.com: Do you remember making it to the beach?
MEGAN: After I got on Johnny’s back he paddled me over to my board and I got on and started paddling. Everyone paddled around me and pushed my tail, then a set came in and I caught whitewash in. When I got to the beach, big waves were crashing right on shore and Britt and J.P. grabbed my arms and carried me up the beach and laid me down. Dave ran up the beach for help and Johnny, J.P., Devin and Britt stayed with me. They used a wetsuit hoody to cover my thigh and a rash guard to cover my calf, then elevated my foot on a log.

SURFERMag.com: How long until help came?
MEGAN: It was probably 30 minutes on the beach until the paramedics came. All the paramedics and lifeguards were people I knew or recognized, so I felt comfortable and safe. That time on the beach was one of the worst parts because it was so cold. I started to shake violently. They cut my wetsuit off, put IV’s in my arm and then the helicopter came.

SURFERMag.com: Were you in much pain?
MEGAN: I was in a little pain. It felt like a really sore, worked-over muscle. I was very calm, just trying to keep myself relaxed and keep my breathing steady. That was one thing everyone commented on, the fact that everyone involved stayed very calm, and didn’t freak out! If I had gotten to the beach and everyone was screaming it would have been a different scene for sure, and I would have felt a lot more uneasy about the sitchi.

SURFERMag.com: When they say white sharks have razor sharp teeth, they aren’t kidding. Ralph Collier of the Shark Research Committee, and author of the book Shark Attacks of the Twentieth Century, says you can actually shave with a white shark tooth. How much damage did that beast do?
MEGAN: All the damage was to my right leg. There is a five-inch cut on the back side of my upper calf, which severed the muscle completely and went all the way to the bone. Then there is a big, 10-inch cut on my back thigh, also with severed muscle to the bone. Then there is a little cut coming off the 10-inch cut. The cut on my calf came within an inch of my femoral artery.

SURFERMag.com: Maybe those water polo legs saved you?
MEGAN: I think so. More muscle to cut through.

SURFERMag.com: There is one photo of your board with the bite in it, and it looks like the shark but around the fin. Do you think the fin getting in the way minimized the damage?
MEGAN: The glass on my fin cracked and kind of splintered like I had pressure on it. It definitely could have helped.

SURFERMag.com: Where did the helicopter take you?
MEGAN: To Memorial Hospital in Santa Rosa, which is the first place that Mike the lawyer went.

SURFERMag.com: But you don’t like Santa Rosa!
MEGAN: The helicopter ride was cool! I kept lifting my head to look out the window and all the crew was extremely nice!

SURFERMag.com: Were you awake and aware the whole time?
MEGAN: Through the whole thing, until I went into surgery.

SURFERMag.com: How many days were you in the hospital?
MEGAN: From Wednesday, October 19 until Monday the 24th.

SURFERMag.com: Anything interesting happen in the hospital?
MEGAN: The morphine was interesting.

SURFERMag.com: Most of the shark attack club members I have spoken to say the same thing: They got attacked by a shark, and then the feeding frenzy began. How bad were the media? Anyone sneak into your hospital room?
MEGAN: There was a lot of media contacting me. Luckily the hospital was cool and didn’t give out any information or let the media in, which was cool. But I get lots of emails.

SURFERMag.com: Did you miss the ocean?
MEGAN: I missed the ocean a lot. When I got out of the hospital on Monday I went straight to Bodega Bay.

SURFERMag.com: If you have ever been to The Tides restaurant in Bodega Bay, immediately to the left there is a photo of a fisherman with a monster White Shark tangled in his nets.
MEGAN: I went to see that picture the first day I got home because it’s around the same size as the one that bit me. Scary!

SURFERMag.com: Scary? Good lord. That thing is a beast. Good thing you didn’t hurt it when you pounded on it. So a week after you got out of the hospital, you were on Good Morning America with your posse. Did they pay you?
MEGAN: Nope, they only paid for my trip expenses. But from now on I’m only gonna do shows that will pay me, if I do any more. TV is a little shady.

SURFERMag.com: I went to the emergency room for a kidney stone last week, and the bill was $6000. I am afraid to imagine what yours are going to be.
MEGAN: I haven’t gotten all my bills yet. But every day just to be in the hospital – not including my surgeries or medicines or anything – was almost $1,000. The helicopter bill alone is $7,000.

SURFERMag.com: Well we would love to take that weight off your shoulders but we will do this: It has always been the policy of SURFER Magazine that if you join the Nailed By Whitey club, you get a new wetsuit and surfboard for paying your dues.
MEGAN: That would be great.

SURFERMag.com: Robert “Wingnut” Weaver is the man who can, and he is going to help us get them, bless his heart. Any idea what you want?
MEGAN: A 6’ 2” Al Merrick Flyer from Surf Tech would be sick. And the wet suit type doesn’t really matter. I think I’m size 8 for O’Neill but it might be 6. And a hood would be sick! Thank you so much.

SURFERMag.com: Oh, and the other obvious question everyone asks: When are you going surfing again?
MEGAN: One of the guys who saw the attack, J.P. was the first to surf the spot after the attack. I hope to surf as soon as possible, but the doctors said about eight weeks.