Kelly Smith is a wildlife documentary filmmaker who has edited videos for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. The following piece is her personal narrative of encountering a great white shark while stand-up paddle boarding off the coast of Santa Barbara.
On Friday, September 11, I was stand-up paddle boarding off Goleta Beach with my friend Michelle Speckler. It was hot — temperatures were in the upper 80s and the sea was calm and crystal clear. There was no wind and the water temperature was about 72 degrees.
I’ve been stand-up paddle boarding 3 to 4 times a week for more than 3 years. I’ve encountered harbor seals, sea lions, bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, a mega-pod of common dolphins, and gray whales. Once I was even lucky enough to find myself in the middle of a bait ball of swarming small fish and all the creatures it attracted. I qualify as an experienced stand-up paddle boarder. I also edit documentaries for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. I’ve seen hundreds of sharks while editing these videos and I know a great deal about their appearance and behavior.
This was Michelle’s sixth outing on a stand-up paddle board. Being at sea had already become a love affair and she’d been eager to go out that day. She’d seen tiny fish, harbor seals, and a stingray on previous paddles, as well as sea lions hanging out on the buoys near the mouth of the harbor.
While Michelle does not have much experience on the water, she does have experience in the presence of apex predators, namely mountain lions and bears from the seven years she lived in Montana. She understands that first, animals are not lying in wait to kill us and second, remaining calm and not creating unnecessary conflict can save a life if threat does occur.
We are both members of Santa Barbara’s Paddle Sports Center Co-op and we rented our boards at their Goleta location. I was riding an 11-foot-by-4-inch Starboard, dark gray on the bottom and white on the top, with a red decorative figure on the nose. Michelle was riding a 10-foot-by-6-inch Surftech, white with blue markings.
We entered the water off Goleta Beach, just in front of the Paddle Sports Center and paddled out for approximately one hour. We were past Campus Point and had just turned back. We were paralleling the beach and heading east toward Goleta Pier. When we were approximately 100 yards east of Campus Point, we spotted a pod of bottlenose dolphins (about 10 between 3- to 11-feet in size), which were approximately 50 yards out to sea from us and heading toward Goleta Pier.
I began to paddle faster to try to catch up with the dolphins. Michelle was soon trailing 20 to 30 yards behind me. The dolphins led us out toward a white buoy.
It’s my understanding that there is a drop-off point to much deeper water around this area. After 5 or 10 minutes of pursuit, the dolphins suddenly changed direction and headed for shore. I believe we were approximately 50 yards inshore from the white buoy. I followed them. Now we were about 3/4-mile off Goleta Beach.
Still 20 to 30 yards behind me, Michelle suddenly felt compelled to look to her right. It was then that she spotted a large fin further out to sea. Assuming it was a dolphin, she chose to continue heading toward the pod and me, assuming that we would all meet up at the pod.
I continued to follow the pod of dolphins toward shore for 5 to 10 minutes, occasionally looking behind me to check on Michelle.
As Michelle followed me, she felt a presence rapidly approaching her from behind. When she turned around, she saw a large fin coming towards her. She wanted to believe it was a dolphin. Despite her inexperience differentiating between shark fin and dolphin fin, she felt certain it was not a dolphin. The fin appeared completely unscathed: it was glossy dark grey and sleek. The shark circled her board, positioning itself directly underneath her board and crisscrossing beneath, frequently touching her board for
3 minutes. All the while, Michelle was able to see the shark from a variety of angles. It was at least 12-feet long — it appeared both longer and wider than her 10-foot-6-inch-long, 32-inch-wide board. Michelle was terrified. She could feel herself starting to shake, but she remained outwardly calm and steady. She called out to me repeatedly, but I could not hear her. Perhaps the dolphins sensed her distress?
After going approximately 1/8-mile toward the beach, the pod of dolphins was still 10 to 20 yards ahead of me when two of the largest dolphins (each approximately 11-feet long) left the pod and crisscrossed under my board. They made eye contact with me and led me in the direction of Michelle, who was now 15 yards behind me and directly out to sea. I looked back and saw a fin break the water approximately 10 feet behind Michelle’s board. I assumed this was a dolphin fin and decided and join her in playing with her dolphin friend. The two dolphins that were leading me quickly returned to their pod as I began to turn my board around. This took about 30 seconds. When I looked at Michelle again, there was a large dorsal fin, approximately 25- to 30-inches-long, touching the right rear rail of her board. Believing it was a dolphin, I called to Michelle, “Look, you found your own dolphin friend! Yay!” Michelle calmly responded, “Kelly, I don’t think it’s a dolphin.”
At this point, I realized that a large shark was swimming beneath my friend’s board. I have no memory of paddling to Michelle, but the next thing I remember is being right next to her — her board facing toward shore and my board facing out to sea.
I saw the head, fin, and tail of the agitated shark pass beneath the nose of my board. The shark was moving quickly, splashing the water and looking like a quintessential sea monster emerging from the depths. I knew it was a shark, but I could not positively identify it as a great white shark. Michelle appeared shaken but very steady on her board. I had considered recommending that we get on our knees, but I decided against it because it seemed wiser to keep a clear overhead view of the shark. The shark continued to circle us as I turned my board around. I said to Michelle, “We are going to paddle to shore and it’s going to be OK. We are not going to panic.” Michelle responded, “No, we are not going to panic.” I said, “We are going to paddle close together so that we have a larger presence for the shark to consider.” So we lined up our boards and began paddling toward shore.
Now the question was which shore to paddle to. To the bluffs of UCSB where there were surfers or straight to Goleta Beach where UCSB’s campus begins? We settled on heading for an approximately 30-foot sailboat, “Selkie,” that was anchored
about 300 yards off both those beaches. Maybe someone was aboard who could help
We paddled toward the sailboat for a couple minutes with the shark crisscrossing behind us and coming up on either side of our boards, still agitated and — frankly — terrifying. Then the shark came up approximately three feet beneath and three feet to the right of my board. The water was crystal clear. The lighting was perfect with the mid-afternoon sun coming over my shoulder. The shark lined her nose up with the nose of my board and did a quarter roll onto her back. We made eye contact. She remained in this position for 10 to 15 seconds. This was the first time I was able to positively identify her as a great white shark. I could now clearly see her white belly and the distinctive mottled markings between that and her dark gray back. I was also able to determine she was female because she had no claspers. I was able to measure her length using the length of my board. She was at least 12-feet long. I have seen hundreds of great white sharks in my experience as a video editor. I must say this was one of the most beautiful white sharks I have ever laid eyes on. She was a perfect specimen with no scars that I could see. Her girth was enormous. I estimate that she was at least 36-inches wide. At this point, my level of fear reduced significantly. I no longer felt like prey. I expected her to leave us at any minute.
We continued toward the sailboat for several more minutes. We chatted nervously, occasionally looking over our shoulders. “She still there . . . still there?” we murmured. By then the shark was no longer coming up to the sides of our boards, but she was slowly crisscrossing a few feet behind us. We reached the sailboat and determined that no one was aboard. Because the shark was still with us, we decided to head to Goleta Beach rather than to the bluffs of UCSB, which may have been a bit closer but had surfers. For about 5 minutes we paddled toward shore. Now we realized that we were paddling in formation
The shark had assumed a position with its head between the tails of our boards and was pacing us, maintaining a distance of 12 to 18 inches. This continued for 5 more minutes, with us checking on her frequently. Approximately 200 yards off shore we looked back and the shark had disappeared. We did not see her again.
We paddled to the beach and warned both swimmers in the water and folks on the beach.
We carried our boards up to the Paddle Sports Center, arriving between 3:30 and 3:45 p.m. Steve, a staff member there, alerted the Goleta Beach Park Rangers. Two rangers interviewed us at the Paddle Sports Center. When we asked if they would be closing the beach, they said that would be up to their supervisor. Signs reporting the sighting were put on Goleta Beach.