Post Surf-Trip Adventures

That Time I Inadvertently Swam with Great White Sharks…

Emily was stoked. We were headed to Trails, a picturesque and uncrowded surf break in San Onofre just south of the infamous break, Trestles. The grueling hike in-and-out makes it undesirable for most wave-riders, especially with such a great shortboard spot next door, but the waves are decent and great for longboarders who dislike crowds. I, however, was less psyched for the adventure. Trails was a renowned Great White Shark breeding ground, and we just so happened to be in peak breeding season.

I don’t necessarily think that I have a fear of sharks, but my anxiety about them increases with my relative location to water. I don’t mind the more crowded breaks because having other surfers around increases my odds of survival (plus Doheny isn’t known for shark sightings). Emily says that if I’m afraid of being eaten by a shark, I’m in the wrong sport. I personally don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a healthy respect for the ocean and its creatures. Though admittedly, I am a little cowardice.

I know surfers peacefully paddle alongside sharks all the time without even realizing it. They don’t like the taste of humans or neoprene wetsuits. Studies show they only attack humans if they mistake us for seals, if they are provoked, or if they have no other food options due to an injury. I rationally understand that the odds of even seeing a shark are slim (especially since they use the element of surprise when they hunt). However, if one does mistake you for dinner, you’re lucky to get away with all of your appendages. I might not have been so worried if there hadn’t been news stories about recent shark sightings only a few miles away. I really shouldn’t have watched Soul Surfer and reruns of Shark Week before driving down to California.

“Don’t worry,” Kristi said soothingly after listening to my concerns, “There hasn’t been a shark attack at Trails in at least twenty years.” Not that I didn’t trust her but I decided to Google it just in case. Another bad choice on my part. According to the Shark Research Committee, there had been attack only a few weeks prior at Trails. I’ve never slept so poorly in my life. I kept having dreams about the sharks from the Snickers commercial pointing to a photo of me on a board saying I was the tastiest of the sample group.

I was pretty quiet on the car ride over. Emily was bouncing in her seat, explaining to me the beauty of the untouched landscape and how if we were lucky, we may be the only surfers out there. I chewed nervously on my nails. Emily had no fears of losing an arm. She would rather deal with baby sharks than unpredictable people. She was Xena, surf warrior princess; I was the less bad-ass sidekick. How could I climb a volcano with a metal board in a lightning storm and be less afraid than I was now? Was I over-reacting? Emily parked the car. I sighed. We were already here; if I missed some great waves because of my fear I would never forgive myself. It was time to suck it up. We unracked the boards.

After checking out the waves, we chose our trail and began our descent down to our fates. Luckily for me, the trail was pretty steep and our boards were heavy so I was distracted by the task at hand. When we finally reached the beach, we were surprised to find a reef break. We now had a whole new challenge ahead of us: we needed to find a safe spot to paddle out that wasn’t hiding dangerous reef rocks.

courtesy of Socialhiker.com

After a series of trial-and errors (i.e. Emily slamming her board into giant rocks) we headed further down the beach to paddle out where some other surfers were congregating. I enthusiastically supported Emily in this decision, figuring an extra couple of bodies in the water would be good. You know, just in case.

Emily was the first to paddle out, ready to catch the waves waiting for her. I hesitated, scouting the horizon for fins or passing pods of dolphins. I needed a moment to pep talk myself into this. This landed me 0 for 3 on decision-making.

My pep talk turned into a half-hour of vacillation. I walked into the water and then put my board down. I sat on it, thinking over the possible ramifications of paddling out. I then pondered the impending disappointment I would feel if I didn’t even try. I got up, picked up my board, put it in the water, and then picked it up again. It was a ridiculous dance of wits. I was choosing to either be in complete control of the outcome or chancing my safety to the universe. I was at a stalemate. The seagulls watched me curiously from the cliff. When they cried, I could swear they were saying, “Shark, shark, shark. Sharky, shark.”

Courtesy of socialhiker.com

I finally caved, thinking about how unimpressed Holly would be by my chicken attitude. I was going to have to haul my board back up that stupid trail anyway; I might as well get some use out of it. Resolved, I began the paddle out. 0 for 4.

The tide was stronger now than when we had first arrived. I paddled over the top of the waves making a mental note of the power of the whitewash. My board hit me in the face on the second wave so I opted to turtle roll on the third. The whitewash hit me like a fierce wind; my board and my body were pushed at least five feet back towards shore. This was not a good sign. I flipped my board back over as fast as I could, hoping to hit the next wave before it turned into whitewash. No such luck.

With every turtle roll I lost the progress I had made on my paddle. My board crushed against my body from the power of the break. The lull between sets was so small I didn’t even have time to get back on my board before another wave would crash against me. I tossed and tumbled, my board flying into the air like a leaf. I worked on quieting my mind as I clutched the back of my head. I felt the fin on my board graze my fingers. The tide was so strong, loose reef rocks were slamming into my legs. My worries about sharks dissipated. Now it was time to figure out how not to drown.

I hit the surface with a vengeance, seeing Emily sitting calmly past the impact zone oblivious to my fight. Whitewash pounded me in the face. I had no concept of where my board was except for the leash tugging on my ankle. I was out of energy and scared I would drown faster than I could paddle. “Forget this,” I muttered, looking for my yellow board. I rode the whitewash into shore, shaking uncontrollably once I hit the sand.

Emily paddled in after a catching some nice waves, asking if I managed to paddle out. I could only meet her answer with crocodile tears. Emily listened calmly to my recount while looking at the waves. She paused once I finished, obviously perplexed by something. I followed her gaze to the water. The water was flat. “Are you serious? I swear it was a nightmare!” I tried to defend myself but Emily just smiled. She understood the nature of the tide. She gave me an A for effort and we hiked back up the trail.

My experience became all the more absurd to me the farther up the cliff we climbed. Did I seriously waste all of that time preoccupied with shark attack fantasies when I couldn’t even handle the paddle out? Emily and I laughed like school girls as we re-racked the boards. The day had been nothing if not interesting and I was relieved to have that experience over with.

I felt something sharp rubbing against my neck in my wetsuit. Expecting to find a rogue reef rock, I was shocked and disturbed at what had really lodged itself in the neoprene. I carefully inspected the object in my hand just to be sure.

It looked like I swam with Great Whites regardless of what I had wanted. And yes, I now had the shark tooth to prove it.

40 Comments

  • Reply

    Sea

    December 13, 2011

    Surfing is one I’ve never tried. I would thoroughly enjoy the hike in tho. Looks like a beautiful place!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      December 13, 2011

      They call it one of the last remaining untouched beaches. Surfers often say that Trails is what most California beaches looked like 60 years ago. I probably would have enjoyed the hike much more if I wasn’t hauling a board, but I hope to go back one day and camp out there!

      Do you want to try surfing? Are there other activities you enjoy?

  • Reply

    fourbluehills

    December 13, 2011

    Beautiful area, glad you were there and not me! :) Heheheh Cuz of the sharks. I lived in Vegas for 7 years, moved in 2001 to Wyoming. Love it here. Thanks for visiting my blog today, I really appreciate it.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      December 14, 2011

      It was definitely one of the most nerve-racking experiences I’ve had so far! But I’m glad I attempted to paddle out.

      How did you like living in Vegas? What part of Wyoming do you live in? I visited Jackson Hole a number of years ago and loved it. I hope to go back again one day.

      Thank YOU for coming by my blog! I hope you continue writing; I love reading your work!

      • Reply

        fourbluehills

        December 23, 2011

        I bet it was nerve-wracking! LOL

        Las Vegas was ok. :( Not much of a gambler and that didn’t appeal to me very much at all. Once in a while I did, other than that it was not bad. :) I live about 100 miles from the East Entrance of Yellowstone. 6 miles from the Montana border. It is beautiful here. Jackson is too! I went there as a kid a few times and I finally went back thru about 4 years ago, I really loved it.

        I like your blog. Haven’t been by a lot because of Christmas and stuff, but will be visiting more often! Keep up the good work! :)

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          December 25, 2011

          I’m not much of a gambler either; when my friends come to town they want to know the best places to play and I am not much help to them! It sounds like you live right in the middle of paradise! I am super jealous. I certainly miss the trees and grass here.

          And thank you so much for continuing to come by and read my posts! Your time and comments are greatly appreciated. And I completely understand about the busy schedule. I haven’t had a chance to finish editing my next post due to the holiday rush as well =). Wishing you the best of times for the season and brightest blessings for the new year! Can’t wait to hear your thoughts about my next post!

          • I know what you mean about people coming to visit in Vegas. I never knew which were the best and if I had my druthers, I’d want to go where the locals hang out. Not on the strip. :) It was the same when I lived in San Diego, everyone wanted to go to Tijuana! I didn’t mind, but after a while started saying, “Hey, lets go down to Ensenada instead?” Beautiful down there.

            I loved your next post. Sad, I didn’t get here to reply to this one and your new one is already up! :)

          • Hilary Billings

            January 4, 2012

            Haha, I am glad to hear that someone understands my feelings on the matter.

            And thank YOU for continuing to come by and read my blog. I greatly appreciate it! Can’t wait to hear your thoughts on the next one!

  • Reply

    LookingfortheSweetSpot

    December 14, 2011

    I tried surfing once in Manhattan Beach – it was fun, but a one time adventure. And the waves were very tame. At least you tried!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      December 15, 2011

      You don’t think you’d try surfing again? Any other activities you’re looking to experience?

      I love your blog! Thanks for stopping by and keep writing!

  • Reply

    clisanti

    December 15, 2011

    Sharks attacks are like getting hit by lightening, rare occurrences. Its one of the greatest aspects of surfing: knowing that you are still part of the food chain. I found your blog from your visit to mine. Your blog is chill. If you make up to Santa Barbara on your California adventures you should hit me up.

    http://www.surfingruinedmylife.net

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      December 16, 2011

      Thank you so much! I’m glad you enjoyed it.

      And I will be sure to do so! I’ve heard the surfing in SB is amazing! I love reading your blog. Keep writing!

      • Reply

        clisanti

        December 17, 2011

        SB is what God had in mind for a surfing paradise, yet for a surf it is more of a paradox. The points are great and there are plenty of mellow spots where you wont have to worry about drowning on the paddle out.

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          December 17, 2011

          Sounds like a great time to me! I love the dry hair paddle out. Point breaks are my favorite, but I hope to one day be able to endure any type of break. I think it will just take time and practice (being based in Vegas doesn’t exactly make that learning curve move faster). How long have you been surfing?

          Enjoy your weekend!

  • Reply

    Folding Mirror Poetry

    December 16, 2011

    Nice account and photos Hilary, sounds like you had a great adventure in a lovely place.

    Understanding opinion of sharks too. Cool.

    Have a great weekend, Marc.

  • Reply

    Super Rupar

    December 17, 2011

    Thanks for the like! What made you come by my site?

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      December 18, 2011

      Hi there! I was surfing through blog topics I enjoyed and your blog happened to be one of the ones I stumbled upon. I hope that you’ve enjoyed visiting my page! Keep writing!

  • Reply

    adalamar

    December 17, 2011

    Ok, I am all about adventure…but I wold have to do some serious training before going out to surf! Great post!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      December 18, 2011

      Haha, I’m glad you liked it! And in my experience, just getting used to paddling and using all that upper body strength IS the training. I’ve been an athlete and a dancer my entire life, but I never had such a challenging workout as when I first started paddling out. I think you should just go for it! I mean, you only live once, right?

      Thank you so much for stopping by! I hope you enjoy my future posts as well!

  • Reply

    RunnerOnABike

    December 17, 2011

    Hi – great post!

    A few years ago, I was SCUBA diving in the Florida keys and saw a Nurse Shark about 20 or so feet away. I kept cool because Nurse Sharks are non-lethal to humans (the structure of their mouth prevents them from biting us)…also, it was 20 feet away. A few minutes later that same shark (or maybe it was a different one) was now 3 feet off of my left fin. I could feel my psyche furiously tapping me on the shoulder as if to say: “dude…Dude…DUDE! Shark! Now would be an excellent time to panic!”

    The shark, of course, couldn’t care less about me and tooled on off, much to my relief.

    As for surfing, I’ve took a lesson in Waikiki (they had me on a stand-up paddleboard, which was slightly smaller than a garage door) and enjoyed it. I’m looking to take more lessons down in Costa Rica, one day. That said, even after I learn some more skills, I don’t think that I’ll do any surfing locally (I live 15 minutes from Pacifica, CA) as the water is too bloody cold up here.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      December 18, 2011

      WOW! That sounds like such an amazing experience! I hope to one day go diving with nurse sharks (hell, I hope to one day go diving ;). All good things in time, but I would not even know how to react if I actually saw the shark. That was something that was discussed at length on our way to Trails, because both blue sharks and Great Whites are stealth predators; you don’t know they’re there until they’ve bitten you. I have never been so afraid of the unknown in my life.

      It sounds like you have quite the life yourself! Have you ever thought of getting a drysuit? I was just introduced to them and they seem like a warmer and safer way of surfing in cold water.

      Cheers! Please keep writing and sharing your adventures! I love to hear about them.

  • Reply

    El Guapo

    December 28, 2011

    Can’t believe I missed this post. Great story, and go you for at least taking a shot at it.
    I’ve been hammered in the rough surf before, and now I try and pay attention to the wind direction before I go.

    At least you won’t have not-trying on your list of regrets!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      December 28, 2011

      Agreed! I am now attempting to learn more about off-shore vs. on-shore winds. It’s almost like being back in college when I don’t have an ocean to practice with all the time.

      Hope you had a fantastic holiday! Thank you so much for your continual input and support!

      • Reply

        El Guapo

        December 28, 2011

        Hah! just learned that one too!
        I get very grumpy when surfline shows the big fat offshore arrows… means I’d better be ready for a wave concussion!
        Thanks, and hope you have a great New Year with all the adventure you want.

        And as a shameless plug, I threw up my intro to rock climbing, which will be followed by part 2 on Saturday or Sunday. don;t usually do self-plugs, but you might like it…Or not…
        http://guapola.wordpress.com/2011/12/27/an-adventure-learning-to-climb-part-the-first/

  • Reply

    mariajulianne

    December 31, 2011

    I love Sharks, why? Cause they’re scary. hehe… I like snakes, why? because they’re flexible…haha

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      January 1, 2012

      I love that! What a great analogy =). Have you ever tried surfing?

      Thank you so much for stopping by! Happy new year to you!

  • Reply

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  • Reply

    toplessdriver

    January 10, 2012

    I can totally feel for you in this blog. We went to Egypt last Christmas and three weeks before we went the Egyptian news reported shark attacks. One woman was killed. When we arrived all the resort beaches were closed. We had to travel 1.5 hours to go snorkelling in the Red Sea. I had never snorkelled before and was not going to miss this opportunity as I love aquariums and this was going to be the ultimate aquarium experience. The snorkelling was so mind blowing, that I decided that if a shark fancied me for dinner, I would die one very happy snorkeller. Thanks for sharing. Time to follow you.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      January 10, 2012

      Wow! I remember when that was on the news. I couldn’t even imagine what that experience must have been like! You should write a blog about it.

      And thank you so much for your kind words! I love reading your blog as well. Keep writing!

  • Reply

    Kathleen Hoffman, PhD

    January 10, 2012

    I would love to see a picture of the shark tooth! Thanks for coming by and liking my post! Right backatcha!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      January 10, 2012

      Hi Kathleen! I will certainly upload a photo sometime soon! Thanks so much for stopping by!

  • Reply

    Editor001

    January 12, 2012

    Ha ha! Love it, and I glad you enjoyed Sunny So Cal unscathed. We are in the ‘bloody triangle’ down here, but no fret, we’re so overly populated with sea lions there’s no shortage of fat happy feedings for the whites!

    Love the travels, love the bardic approach!

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      January 12, 2012

      Wow, I wonder what that must look like. You must have seen some amazing things along that coast.

      Thank you so much for your kind words! I also love your blog! Can’t wait to see what you post next!

  • Reply

    Chris Coney

    January 17, 2012

    Great story, I loved the suprise ending. This summer in Florida, I surfed on a long board for the first time at age 40 and was hooked. We went four days in a row and I was worked at the end. It is really hard though, but I was doing pretty good by the second day. My friend said to try not to send out the scared vibe or to thrash around a lot because that attracts the sharks. It was hard for me to not be scared though. The thrill of the ride in the moment did override the possible danger of getting eaten. As others have said, it is cool to be a part of the living food chain and to be a real part of nature. Well keep up the writing and thanks for supporting my blog. Take care.

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      January 17, 2012

      Hi Chris! Thanks so much for stopping by to comment!

      Wow, what a cool story! Yeah, I remember my first week of surfing. It beats you up, but it sure is fun! Thanks for sharing =). Looking forward to reading more of your posts!

  • Reply

    Mia

    April 12, 2012

    Hey

    I really understand what that must have been like. For a while I live in Den Haag (at the coast close to Amsterdam) and with 5 minutes from the beach I would sometimes rent a surfboard and try surfing. I swear once the tide was so strong that I felt I was being sucked out into the ocean. By the time I made it back to shore I had done no surfing and I was absolutely and utterly exhausted and felt like I just evaded drowning.

    I can also understand being slightly afraid of sharks – especially great whites. Personally, I love sharks. They might have a face that makes them look pretty much braindead, but if you see them hunting it is impressive as hell. I was working out on Coconut Island (Hawai’i) for a short time and they actually have their labs between these lagoons and tiny canals which are full of seaturtles and fish, but they also had lots of small hammerheads and a tigershark. Beautiful to watch, but yeah… no way I was dipping my toes into that water…

    One of my favourite sports is actually scuba diving, but I mostly do that around Lanzarote (Canary Islands), which have pretty tame waters. The only type of shark I have ever seen there is the Angel Shark. It is one of the few sharks that actually lies down to sleep during the day. It is so tame I have seen divers pull its tail (Idiots!) and it didn’t do anything except swim 9ft and go back to sleep. They are the kittens among the sharks,

    But yeah… just wanted to let you know that I love your blog and I totally feel with you. I am trying to be a nomadic scientist, but it is a bit harder to do – but entirely possible (I hope)

    Take care and I will keep an eye on your posts
    Mia

    • Reply

      Hilary Billings

      April 15, 2012

      Hi Mia!

      Wow, it sounds like you’ve had some amazing experiences! A nomadic scientist, huh? What kind of work does that lead you to?

      And thanks so much for taking the time to comment! I look forward to hearing more about your journeys!

      Happy adventuring!

      • Reply

        Mia

        April 16, 2012

        Heya

        thanks for getting back to me. Well, a nomadic scientist… it is a tad overstated, but the basic idea is that as a researcher you can live… basically anywhere that allows you to do your work. Now, I am into molecular biology and cancer research so unlike a zoologist that you would see on planet earth I am not stalking desert lions all day. But since I am only just about to start my PhD so far my work led me to a few cool places for research and I intend to keep it that way. =)
        I have only just started blogging so the number of posts are limited, but I intend to put many of my adventures into writing.
        Also, I read your post about Oz and mentioned it to my Dad. We both would have strangled that bank lady ;)

        Keep up the good work
        Mia

        • Reply

          Hilary Billings

          April 16, 2012

          Wow, that sounds like such an amazing career path!

          Please keep me updated and let me know where your travels take you! Maybe I’ll get the opportunity to meet you somewhere down the way!

          And yeah, I wanted to strangle her too. Good thing it all worked out! =)

          Happy adventuring! Looking forward to staying in touch!

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About Me

About Me

Hey fellow adventurers, my name is Hilary! After being rejected from grad school, I took off on a solo journey around the world. Now I constantly challenge myself to take on new experiences. This blog documents my journeys from Europe to Fiji, swimming with sharks and living with tribes, to becoming an accidental beauty queen and working for one of the top national media outlets. If you like what you're reading, please subscribe! Here's to the next great adventure!

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