Tick Tock

| posted on January 03, 2012

Unfortunately, jumping in the water takes us down a notch in the food chain.

Rob Gilley

Previously in denial about his photographic past, Rob Gilley now rummages through his trove of mediocrity.

The conversation went something like this:

“I thought you guys went to Tabletops.”

“We did, but we saw a huge shark out there, so we decided to paddle out here.”


“Yeah, we saw a giant fin and turned around.”

My brain had a little trouble working for a minute. I waited for the guy to crack a smile, or laugh, but he looked completely serious. As he related this story to his friend in a matter-of-fact tone, I sat there flummoxed. Dumbfounded. At a loss.

Adding to the weirdness of the whole situation, this guy was apparently surfing with his son and his son’s friends, and now we were all sitting there on the inside at Seaside, only 500 yards or so from where they had just seen the mega-shark.

Normally I would have written this episode off as another mistaken dolphin, but there were a few mitigating factors: 1) This guy was obviously a seasoned California surfer and had seen plenty of dolphins in his life, 2) Two multiple-witness large white shark sightings had been reported in this area in the last few weeks, and 3) We were now within a stone’s throw of the only Southern California shark fatality in recent history. Just to our left, Dr. David Martin had been attacked and killed by an estimated 17-foot long great white shark just three years prior.

As I came to the conclusion that this guy was probably telling the truth, I had an even weirder realization: I wasn’t moving. I wasn’t paddling towards shore. I wasn’t even saying anything to my daughter to warn her. I was just sitting there.

And then I realized why: The surf was going off.

Apparently my addiction to good surf supersedes my shitless fear of man-eating sharks.

And this thought scared me to the core.

In an instant, I had decided that even if this guy was telling the truth, I wasn’t in significant danger. After all, we were inside the surf zone riding a relatively shallow reform tucked inside of some kelp beds. Big sharks don’t like shallow water, right? Also, there were plenty of other surfers out. There’s safety in numbers, right?

You know your addiction is pretty bad when your denial involves becoming part of a food chain.

My denial has roots in experience, though. I have been surfing and shooting Southern California surf spots on a near-everyday basis for 32 years and have seen exactly one shark, and it was a skinny, puny six-footer. A min pin.

And, as far as I can determine, not one surfer has ever been attacked south of Point Conception by a shark of any significance (The late Dr. Martin had been swimming.)


On the other hand, it can’t be denied that the odds of an impending attack on a surfer seem to be growing exponentially with time. The amount of fairly recent near-shore great white sightings in Southern California is off the charts. From Malibu to San Onofre to La Jolla, surfers, fishermen, boaters, and stand-up paddlers are reporting seeing these mini-van-sized carnivores everywhere.

An attack—or attacks—seems like a matter of when, not if.

And a conversation I happened to have with the owner of a swordfish spotter plane didn’t help either. She relayed to me that the amount of white sharks the pilots were now seeing in the Santa Barbara Channel was, “getting ridiculous.”


So it seems that this is our new reality. We now have to constantly be on the lookout for large triangular dorsal fins with a tracing trailer. Always be suspicious of unusual occurrences of water displacement. Paddle in when we bleed. Try our best not to look like a seal.

And, to be honest, with my rippingest years well behind me, I would be stoically resigned to carry on and live and surf with this new reality, but now my kids are using and loving the ocean, which leaves me kinda pissed. I mean, why now? That was one of the best things about being a Southern California surfer: You didn’t have to worry about becoming a human Scooby Snack.

If an attack does occur, I’m sure there will be a call from some people to “cull” the great white population, and to be honest, I wouldn’t object. I love nature and animals and I think they should be protected, but I’m willing to make an exception when it comes to mosquitoes and things that can eat you while you’re surfing.

For reasons mostly related to the American legal system, I’m pretty sure that this potential cull would never happen, which is why I would like to suggest that we go on the offensive now and start offering a bounty for every successful, video-documented big shark GPS tagging. Then we could get some scientist or oceanographer-type to set up a monitoring system where surfers and lifeguard towers with sirens could be alerted when a big shark is getting close to shore. This is something they’re already doing in Australia, actually.

Surfers who live in Northern California will probably laugh at my shark paranoia because it’s something that they have had to deal with and accept for their entire surfing lives. But this is a new reality for us Southers, and I gotta tell ya, it’s a little unsettling.

To me, surfing is gold at the end of a rainbow: a life of almost unimaginable joy. Every time I surf I feel like a kid again, like I used to feel when I was riding my bike to my friend’s house and I knew we were gonna watch cartoons and build forts and throw rocks and play touch football and blow stuff up and eat candy and not care about anything. For me, surfing is a pathway to regaining youth, an E-ticket to Neverland.

But like Neverland’s Tick Tock, the hungry sharp-toothed clock-adorned crocodile in Peter Pan, Southern California surfing now has an underlying threat. A source of fear. A dramatic element.

Up until now, surfing with big sharks has been such a distant reality, such an exercise in the abstract, that it verged on fictional—almost cartoonish.

My final hope is this: Like the animated, fictional Tick Tock, the great white posse never finds their man, and we can continue flying through Neverland with the greatest of ease.

  • Chase

    Rob, as a long time Norcal surfer (north of the GG Bridge), I would say that your paranoia is justified.

    Great article BTW.

    Apparently addiction to good or even marginal (as is the case mostly up here) does overcome the strange feeling that you’re putting yourself smack dab in the food chain.

    Last spring I watched as the lifeguard rolled down the beach and called my buddy out of the water at a river opening spot that was going off, while I freaked at it being just him and I out. The lifeguard told him that a Whitey had been spotted that morning just outside the surfline. Just then the local crew (can’t consider myself one) came down and when I mentioned the sighting they said “that’s where we live” and said to come on out.

    Despite my trepidation and paddling parallel along the shoreline after each overhead drainer down the beach, the real locals never showed and the human ones were more than courteous, even giving us waves and hooting us on. The combination of fear and excitement, I will never forget.

    p.s. I too have seen only one while in the water in nearly 20 years on this coast.

  • Justin Avery

    We surf out the front of my flat a couple of times a week.

    The only time there are actual any surfable waves is during a cyclone, and for the rest of the years all we get in shin high waves as the tide comes in and goes out.

    Lucky for us we go out on Stand Up Paddle boards, so those waves can actually be caught.

    This usually wouldn’t matter too much, except we have the same shark problem here. While there aren’t any Great Whites we have a lot of tiger and bull sharks.

    Add to that the fact we have a LARGE population of Saltwater Crocodiles.

    Pretty bad right!

    Well now chuck in some box jellyfish for good measure. I’m not talking about any regular Jellyfish either, if these guys get on you then you’re going to want to make it to the hospital in 30 minutes.

    We endure all of this (Jellyfish we have stinger suits) just for a bit of a paddle in small surf…. and I can tell you the only time I ever get nervous about what is in the water is in between the very small swell coming through.

    Touch wood nothing will happen to me or anyone else out there, but it’s just too nice to be our there to miss it over a slim chance.

  • ET

    I love nature too, but people should be allowed to fish for great whites!

  • Kerry

    Only one shark sighting at Black’s Beach back in the 70’s and it was a Leopard shark (sand shark). But it sure did make everyone out exceptionally polite and quiet until a school of dolphins came in and then it was all fun surfing with the dolphins. I have sailed off Catalina Isl w/ a school of sharks surrounding our boat. That is very uncomfortable.

  • cazon

    Yet another yuppi from Cali, thats the price you gotta pay you scared piece of Sh…

  • bob

    say a big whitey at north carlsbad campgrounds this summer, and have heard countless stories of smaller white sharks off san o and big momma’s off LJ and IB.

  • zeno malan

    no worries Rob!

    I invented the submersible fin w/remote control for my personal use only.
    I am thinking of marketing it publicly but it would be of no use if everyone had one.

    Capt. Zero was mis-named!

    “Crosshairs R US” – surf travel inc.

    “We zeno in on perfect surf”

    Even as far of as MSF!

    Say hi to Rob and Joel next dip/sesh at Cardiff!

  • zeno malan

    Takes too long to see my post

  • Matt

    I have been surfing in Oregon and Northern California for years. When i moved to California i was amazed at how paranoid all of the so-cal guys were about sharks. Its a ridiculous fear considering the odds. But the most ridiculous part of this is that peoples fears are starting to lead to irrational ideas like killing even more great white sharks just to make you feel safe. If you are playing in a great white sharks home, you know the risks when you went it. your safety is your own responsibility not theirs.
    This is just like what happened in 1916 when there were several shark attacks, so everyone freaked out and went on a shark hunt with depth charges, essentially nuking the wildlife, when the whole time it was the fishing fleets fault for pushing the sharks into shore for food.

    so my point is nature is dangerous, if it wasn’t, it wouldn’t be nature.

  • mike

    We saw a big one from our boat, probably 15′ off Camp Pendelton this summer. Girthy

  • Marcus

    I have seen a lot of sharks over the years. This year I saw a 12′ white off of El Porto while stand up paddling out to the oil tankers. Have seen “herds” of Leopard sharks every season in shore. Even saw a hammer head in Hermosa Beach in the 70’s (it was documented by the press in Redondo Beach later that day). I have seen a shark at Hammonds Reef, and Rincon when I was a kid too. If one were to get hit by a big white shark, one would go into shock so fast that there will be virtually no pain, unless they survive. I actually hope I go quickly like that. If I do, please DO NOT cull the sharks on my account. With a human population of 7 billion plus, it isn’t the sharks that need culling.

  • Adam Fraser

    Fantastic article, Rob. I like your point about your kids being in the ocean now. Neverland is worth a little risk, but our kids aren’t. Eff!

  • Susan Wickstrand-Roche

    Rob, A good friend of mine finally got her app approved today:
    It tracks adult great whites and is called: “Expedition White Shark”. She’s one of the scientists that has helped tag, track and develop this app.~ SW

  • DZ

    The sightings of late in SoCal, especially in SD are getting borderline ridiculous! How about that Winnegabo-sized one just photographed off the shores of Imperial Beach? For eff’s sake people, something’s gotta give here, and it sure as sh*!t shouldn’t be our enjoyment of the ocean. Tag ’em, monitor them or axe the larger ones! Either way, we’ll all be way better off!