If you lived in Humboldt County in October of 2012, you heard about the encounter. For me, the word came via my cell phone, which blew up with news that someone had been hit and it was bad. Really bad. Rumors abounded on Facebook that the victim had died. Nobody knew who the guy was, just that it had happened at Bunkers and was gruesome. People called me because I chaired the local Surfrider chapter at the time and worked in ocean conservation. Before I could even find out who the guy was, the surf community rallied around to insist Surfrider's upcoming movie night, conveniently scheduled a couple days away, serve as a benefit for the dude. Assuming he lived. Whoever he was. "Of course," I told people. This is what surfers do. I did hope that the guy didn't turn out to be some kind of asshole. That's when my neighbor Amy called me. "Jen," she said, "the guy that got hit is my brother Scott." He'd moved in with her and her boyfriend some months prior. Turns out this random shark victim lived 250 feet from me. Also, not an asshole. Plus Scott Stephens was alive and expected to recover.
The story's been told everywhere from small Humboldt news outlets to international media. A movie was made. But just in case, here's a brief recap of what happened at Bunkers on Oct. 30, 2012: Stephens had caught some waves and was paddling back toward the outside when a great white raked its teeth across his torso and took a cartoonish bite out of his board that would've been almost funny if he hadn't been in danger of bleeding out before reaching shore.
"... something dark broke the surface and I felt a weight land on my back. My first thought was 'seal,' but as I was drug under water and felt the force and power of being shaken in the jaws of a top predator, I feared for my life ... My right fist made contact with the shark just behind this eye ... I was released, and the shark was gone into the depths. It wasn't until I saw my board floating nearby, leash bitten through and a 14-inch-diameter half-circle missing out of it that I put thought to my injuries. As I got back on my board and started paddling to shore I noticed the red. Blood mixing with water, creating a crimson pool around me, a hole in my wetsuit and my torso that I knew was serious."
Despite the severity of his injury, Stephens managed to reach the beach, where some luck awaited in the form of a fellow surfer who was also an off-duty EMT. This guy, Ian Louth, in a move of medical creativity, decided to lie down top of Stephens to slow the profuse bleeding from his sides. Other surfers helped load Stephens into a truck for a dramatic ride to the hospital — they'd called 911 and, like an action movie scene unfolding, the crew in the truck and the crew in the ambulance updated each other on their progress. Imagine the shouting into the phone, the screeching of tires as the vehicles met in an intersection just over the bridges, the hustling to get the gravely wounded, badly bleeding Stephens out of the truck, onto a stretcher and into the emergency vehicle.
At the hospital, they stitched him up. He was going to make it. In fact, the doctor offered to rough up the bite wound edges a bit so Stephens would have at least some scars to show for the ordeal — sharks have very sharp teeth. Meanwhile, a gory photo of Stephens' wounds was already making the rounds on social media and, in a display of what we'll assume was dark humor as a coping mechanism, one of his good friends dressed as Stephens for Halloween the next night, donning a wetsuit and borrowing the mauled surfboard for his costume.
The next evening at our film night, a few hundred people showed up to donate money toward Stephens' medical expenses, a new wetsuit, a surfboard. The ruined board sat on a couple tables, inspiring both fear and awe for the early part of the evening, then transforming into a get-well card as well-wishers signed it. "Get well soon! Keep fighting! And hang loose!" A drawing of a shark with a speech bubble saying, "Sorry, bro." The board hangs on the wall at Lost Coast Brewery these days.
For me, the evening was both a raging success — over $1,500 raised and all that love — and a shuddering reminder of how being a parent means you constantly stand to lose what matters most. Stephens' mom and dad had showed up to express their gratitude toward the Humboldt community that had embraced their son practically sight-unseen and my heart lurched when I saw his mother take stock of the bitten board.
The best part of that night manifested thanks to Google video chat. We shushed the crowd and brought Stephens up live from the hospital, 20 feet tall and smiling on the Arcata Theatre Lounge's giant screen. He could see us and waved. Said thank you. We cheered. Hell of a way to get to know your neighbors.
Four weeks later, Stephens would return to surfing, this time in a place free of sharks: the river. Yes, it's a thing. Eventually he made his way back into the Pacific and regular surfing as a way of life. A couple weeks after the encounter, Stephens wrote, "As far as the mental barrier of getting back in the ocean and back to what I love to do, it's simple. Life is too boundless not to." When I chatted with him a couple nights ago, he said what he thinks about, what getting hit by a shark and almost dying meant for him, is the perspective the experience brought, how much the people in his life mean to him, every day. (Notable aside: Stephens recently communicated how much girlfriend Casey Schuetzle means to him by proposing to her in spray paint on a fixer-upper building he bought for her — the man is walking his talk.)
Stephens also articulated something a certain type of surfer is drawn to: the appeal of being at the mercy of forces larger than yourself. "There's a lack of control in the ocean," Stephens said. "When you're out there with big fish and big waves, there's kind of a relief in not being in charge ... and then a different kind of relief in getting back to shore."
Check back next week for "Sharktober: Part Three."