This story doesn’t involve anyone who lives in Santa Barbara. You may ask why, then, it’s being printed in a Santa Barbara newspaper. The answer, simply, is that this issue is devoted to sharks and this story is good enough that you should read it anyway, because you probably don’t know anybody else for whom a shark bite resulted in a marriage proposal. Yes, this shark story is also a love story-and one with a considerably happier ending than most stories involving sharks.
Last October, my friend Megan Tharpe and her boyfriend, Aaron Finley, took a break from their lives in West Hollywood-where she works as a photographer and he as a sound engineer at the Los Angeles club Largo-to spend a few days in Maui. Typical sun-soaked Hawaiian vacation business, it was, and all organized under Aaron’s rule: “Land is for sleeping on at night, ocean is for daytime.” That came to an abrupt halt on October 29, when a dip at the Maui Four Seasons beach-a spot that Megan picked, she notes with some regret-ended with Aaron’s brief but memorable one-on-one with a tiger shark. “I swam out past where the waves were,” Aaron described, “and was floating for 10 or 15 minutes when I felt like I slammed into something. I thought I had drifted into a rock. I looked up and saw this huge gray hump. : Then I noticed my leg was bleeding.”
As sharks sometimes do, this 10- to 12-footer took a chomp out of Aaron’s leg, in what Hawai’i-area newscasters deemed a “catch and release,” probably resulting from the fact that the shark was disappointed Aaron was not a seal or a turtle. That one bite, however, managed to cause a crescent-shaped, 10-inch gash-from his calf to above his knee-that left a significant chunk of meat hanging off his leg and his leg bone visible.
Aaron described backstroking to shore before beachgoers realized his predicament and one “Baywatched” him out of the water and carried him like a baby to a place where those concerned could examine the extent of his injuries. “Then we saw that his calf was not attached to the rest of his leg anymore,” Megan recalled. Most of the pain felt more like a broken bone, Aaron recalled, and less like the huge wound that it was. “You’d think something like that would be more devastatingly painful,” Aaron posited, “but the shark’s teeth are so sharp that it punctures the nerve, cauterizes it.” To this, Megan chimed in with, “Aaron has an amazingly high pain threshold.”
In the end, of course, Aaron survived-thus his ability to tell me his story-though his being alive entailed nerve grafts, having a vacuum suck tiny marine crustaceans out of his leg, an extra three weeks in Maui with his stitched-together leg sticking straight out in front of him immobile, and the knowledge that his bite was only an inch away from his femoral artery. (Solana Beach resident Dave Martin died from blood loss this April after a shark punctured this artery while he was swimming in the ocean by his hometown, Aaron noted, pointing out how lucky he was.) He can walk now, though he can’t move his middle and pinkie toes. “Which is pretty good, considering a shark bit me,” Aaron said.
Of course, Maui papers wrote about Aaron’s ordeal and soon Californian papers did too, including ones read by his and Megan’s families. “And that’s how we got engaged,” Megan explained. “The hospital asked who we were, so just so I had full access to Aaron, I said I was his future fiancee.” So as news of the shark bite spread to everybody back home, so too did news of the apparent bite from the marriage bug, with the latter taking a backseat to the former. Megan’s father arrived in Maui a few days later and a recovering, hospitalized Aaron asked him, “It’s a little late to be asking you this, but it’s all right if I marry your daughter, right?”
Sure, the shark attack diverted Aaron and Megan’s initial plans as a couple, maybe even accelerated them. But certainly a couple that can overcome a shark bite can cope with a slightly altered course in life. When they said that they planned to marry this October 10 at the Maui Four Seasons, I assumed it was some sick joke until Megan explained their reasoning: “When the shark attack happened, we made so many friends in Maui. : It’s our favorite place on Earth,” she said. “And it’s also cathartic. And we’re celebrating a year that Aaron isn’t dead.” Aaron said he plans to try his luck at the same beach once again, figuring the odds that he’d be bitten again are astronomical.
“Unless you’re swimming in steak-filled water,” he added. Appropriate though it might be, that particular activity is not scheduled to be part of the festivities.