The Day A Shark Spared My Life
by Elinor Dempsey
March 25, 2024
Elinor Standing Holding Surfboard with Shark Bite
Elinor Completing Polar Bear Plunge January 2023

Elinor Completing Polar Bear Plunge – January 2023

My first thought as I awake each morning is often “I wonder how the surf is today?” At 45, I was late to start surfing but was hooked the moment I took my first wave. I feel lucky that I live in Los Osos on the Central California Coast, close to the ocean and just a short drive to so many wonderful surf spots.

I surfed a couple of times a month because of my schedule, but soon I was able to scramble from my belly to my feet and actually ride a wave. I continued this way for about eight years and I slowly improved into a solid beginner status. I loved every minute and even if I was challenged by larger waves, I would do my best to get past my fear and get in again for another session.

I woke up to my usual thought on Saturday August 29, 2015. It was a beautiful day and I knew the waves would be fun. I quickly pulled on my wetsuit in the beach parking lot and trotted down to the shoreline to paddle out. I sat in the lineup, feeling completely relaxed, happy and grateful. The water was warm and my bare feet dangled freely below my board. The mist was just starting to lift to reveal the majestic Morro Rock.

The waves were a bit tricky to catch so I patiently waited for a wave I could ride. The water was so clear and I could almost see the bottom. Suddenly I saw a very large shadow swimming below me and my board. I stared at the shadow, my mind tried to make sense of what I was seeing. Then, within seconds, my entire field of vision was filled with the side of a large dark gray animal, not four inches from my face.

It was as if time had stopped. My thoughts were slow and clear. 1.It seems to be a very large dolphin. 2. It is so close I could touch it. And 3. Oh no! Here we go! as I felt myself release backwards off the board.

Elinor with Surfboard Showing Size of Shark BiteMy soul/life force must have taken over to save me as I don’t recall falling off my board and into the water nor the shark swimming around me. I later learned that this lasted for quite a few seconds. My next recollection was holding onto the side of my surfboard with only my head above water, the shark about an arm’s length away.

My instincts took over and I shoved the board towards the shark. It took a chunk out of my surfboard instead of me. To this day, I can still see the small, dark blue eye of the shark looking at me as it bit my board. The force of the bite startled me to start swimming rapidly towards shore. Later, I was told by witnesses that when the shark bit the board, the board was propelled straight into the air with a ton of force. By then I was swimming so fast that my body was halfway out of the water. After about 30 meters I had to stop swimming out of exhaustion because I was still dragging the remaining surfboard behind me. I was still attached to the leash.

I felt sheer panic as I pulled the board toward me, telling myself not to look back and praying the shark was not following me. I got back on my board and started frantically paddling towards shore, paddling a sluggish board that was no longer slicing across the water. With a large bite out of the board, I couldn’t go very fast. Luckily, a very large wave broke just behind me and I laid on my belly, holding tightly to the board as I surfed all the way into the safety of the beach.

A large crowd had gathered, including all the surfers who had been in the water and were now standing on the beach. I glided into the beach and took off my leash and sat down as the onlookers could see the surfboard. I was nervous and shaky but the reality of what happened hadn’t dawned on me yet. I began telling people what I could remember about what happened. I wasn’t crying and I must have appeared somewhat calm. The energy of the people on the beach was electric and several said they had witnessed the whole encounter. People were taking videos and pictures and even measuring the bite out of the board. As I was telling what had happened, someone walked up and handed me the bitten/missing part of the board which had washed up several yards from where we were all gathered. Both the bite out of the board and the piece of board were clearly marked with the teeth of the shark. Based on the bite marks, people were estimating that the shark was at least 13 feet long.

Elinor Comparing Size of Shark Bite with her ShoeOne of the park rangers gave me a ride back to the parking lot where my car was, and by this time everyone had left. It was a surreal moment as I took my wetsuit off, got dressed, loaded my board into its bag and top of the car, just like nothing had happened.

The next day I woke up and looked at my phone and the first thing I saw was a headline with my name, my age, and that I was attacked by a great white shark, one of the largest sharks in the ocean. I laughed out loud as I rarely shared my age and now it was all over the internet. The media attention was a bit nuts as I was interviewed by both local and national news, radio shows and in many newspaper articles. I was invited to speak at local events and I was even invited to be in a calendar for women athletes.

After the attack I often felt on edge and anxious, symptoms of PTSD. I sought out treatment and after about four months, I felt better. I have a great deal of empathy with people who have PTSD as it is pervasive and it affects a person 24/7.

First surf with new board and son after attack

First surf with new board and son after attack

After a few weeks the question on everyone’s mind –– including mine –– was whether I would get back in the water. I decided I could not let fear stop me from continuing to do something I truly loved and enjoyed. So, three weeks later, and with a new board sponsored by my company, I paddled to a different spot with my son and several friends. I surfed close to my friends and we all had a good session. Now I typically surf three to four times a week with a group of other women surfers. However, I rarely surf the spot where the attack happened. Every time I surf I think about the attack and I take a deep breath, look around and imagine a great white circle of love surrounding myself and other nearby surfers and I visualize the wildlife and the majestic animals on the other side of the circle.

At 63, surfing is more than just a sport to me. Yes, I am using every muscle in my body, but I am also relying on my instincts and relationship with the water to read the waves and know which ones to paddle into and surf. The beauty of the water and the waves feed my soul and the joy of being one with a wave as I ride it is hard to describe. That is why, despite the attack, I still surf as often as I possibly can. I also have a tremendous respect for sharks and especially for the one that spared my life. Sharks are vital to our oceans and I always remember I am playing in their playground, not the other way around.

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My name is Elinor Dempsey and I have been working at TransUnion for the past 18 years. In my spare time I surf, spend time with my family, friends and pets. I enjoy reading both fiction and nonfiction and am a supporter of Surfrider Foundation and Ocean Conservancy. My favorite organization is Surfing For Hope (Surfingforhope.org) which I volunteer with.

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