Updated: Oct 1, 2022
A Shark Story of Humboldt
by Brent Flaaten
A massive Great White shark clamps its razor sharp teeth down on both of your legs. I know it’s not pleasant, but just for a second imagine this happening. Imagine you’re in a dream,and you’re hovering over yourself on your surfboard,right then you snap back into your body to find this is no dream, but in fact you’re in a Great White’s mouth being thrashed around like a rag doll. “I saw it’s eyeball, it was rolled back in it’s head, I could just see white the white of it’s eye and I slid my hand right up the nose to it’s eyeball and then stuck my thumb in, and I mean all the way down as far as It could go. My whole entire thumb was stuck and then I twisted it around and that’s when it spit me out, right after that. That was it.”
If this sounds familiar then I suspect you’ve been attacked by a Great White. This is the true story of one of my closest friends, Robert Williams and his near death experience with one of the fiercest predators on this planet. You wonder what you would do in this situation. Would you have the gravitas to fight back or would you feel helpless and let nature take its course and become a light snack for a 1/2 ton beast? I knew the particulars of this story but I wanted to know the details that lead up to it and how he dealt with the attack personally.
Bob and I go way back to 1982 when we were both freshman in high school. Bob was the middle child of Mike and Sally, and brother to older sibling Pat and younger sister Amy. Bob’s father was a neurosurgeon and his mother helped raise the kids and worked in Mike’s practice.
Bob and 4 of our friends, including me, moved to Maui in 1988. We all lived there because we loved surfing and a few of our buddies had moved there a few years prior and kept telling us how amazing it was. When Bob and his wife Michelle moved back, he went to school at Humboldt State University. One of the reasons was that the waves up there were really good. Surfing was a priority for Bob and come hell or high water he had to surf whenever possible.
Let’s get back to that life changing day, you know the one where he’s floating above himself being attacked by a Great White. Let's rewind a bit before the attack. Bob decides to surf a spot called “Bunkers”and yes, it’s named that because there are bunkers left over from the war. Surfers naming spots is a whole other story, because whoever discovers these spots first literally decides the name based on what they see first, so in this case the guy saw a “Bunker”, therefore it’s “Bunkers”. Rocket science folks. This spot is a sort of “out of the way” kind of spot where you have to walk a bit to get there. So Bob walks down and scopes out the surf for a few minutes, noting that there is a great little wave on the far sandbar about 200 yards out. That is his focus and so he paddles out to catch a few out there. He instinctively looks around and notices 2 sea lions a few yards out that are standing way up out of the water like 2 periscopes looking out to deep water. He thinks this is odd but continues surfing and for the next several minutes sits and waits. A few minutes turns into 20 and then 40, which considering the overcast weather, the seal observation and the 200 yard cushion between him and safety, I may have paddled in. He did not.
He decides to start paddling out more to get in position when the tail of his board starts to lift out of the water. At first thought he thinks, “Oh shit it’s one of those huge sea lions”,because they have massive sea lions up there. He couldn’t have been more wrong and he turns his head to look and sees this Great White’s jaws open, cradling his board and legs. Because the shark came from straight underneath he had Bob’s board and legs resting perfectly in its mouth when he turned his head to look and the shark clamped his jaws shut and gave a slight twist, pulling him under water. It then let go slightly, giving relief to Bob, as he thought ”Thank God he’s letting me go!” Bob was wrong again, the shark was only adjusting it’s jaws to get a tighter grip. Which it did,and in his words``It let me go and then got my legs further in. That's when the Great White took me down a few feet under and started thrashing back and forth, totally shaking the hell out of me, back and forth!” At this point he is thinking a mile a millisecond and internally screaming that “HE’S GOING TO LET ME GO! THEY ALWAYS LET PEOPLE GO! That's when he had the out of body vision where he rose up over himself and looked down to see his body in the shark's mouth. Stew on that for a sec, this is a real story and this is what our crazy mind decides to do?!? This is when Bob returns to his mind and the reality of the situation and goes into a fight or die scenario. Of course he remembered hearing about the nose punch, so he gives that a shot, which in all actuality is far less effective underwater than he imagined. When he hit the nose he felt just how ineffective this tactic actually was and just how strong this animal was. The nose was as tough as Kevlar ! He then slides his hand up the nose, jams his thumb deep inside the rolled back eye and twists as hard as possible. Bob had made this key fighting maneuver, and won. That shark let him go almost immediately and shook its head like he was angry and injured. Bob, literally floating in a deep trough 200 yards out to sea, surrounded by pints of his critically escaping blood, watches this massive beast make one flick of its tail and disappears into the dark depths, faster than anything he has ever witnessed. It's at this point that Bob realizes he is floating in a pool of his own blood and has defeated one of the most lethal predators, with his thumb. This is one of the greatest “David and Goliath” stories ever told and hardly anyone has ever heard it. This tactic can be used in any defensive situation that you find yourself in, like being attacked by a bear or having your legs crushed by a Great White.
The thought now is “Get to shore as fast as possible!” Once Bob surfaced he started screaming at the top of his lungs,alerting the other 3 surfers that were nearby. He hoisted his maimed legs up onto his board realizing he was going to bleed out quickly. Searing pain finally kicked in and he knew he was in trouble. He was paddling as fast as possible and ended up catching some whitewater, all the while thinking that the shark would return and finish him off. The three young men, Chuck, Brett and Brian started to make their way to Bob, helping him in as quickly as possible. Once on shore he managed to look down and assess the situation which was grim at best. The back of his legs where the jaws made contact were shredded by the layers of razor sharp teeth. The flesh of Bob's legs were strung out like pasta dangling off of your fork. It was brutal and the pain was blasting through Bob's body, sending blinding waves of heat through his entire nervous system, attempting to hemorrhage it. It was like nothing he had ever experienced or felt, ever, but giving up now would make the thumb attack null and void.
All of his motor skills were gone, he literally couldn’t move anything. It could have been the massive amount of blood loss or just too much adrenaline, but either way he was done moving voluntarily. The 3 high school aged boys used Bob’s surfboard as a makeshift stretcher and loaded him on it and carried him to their truck. The reality of the situation was settling in and Bob started to think about his family as time started to slow down. If these boys hadn’t driven down onto the beach in their 4X4 truck Bob would have most likely died on the beach. But for God’s sake, they did and now was no time for “what if’s”. He also made a crucial mistake in that he didn't think about applying a tourniquet, but thankfully the shark missed all of his main artery’s by fractions of an inch. [He didn’t know this at the time] Just how much luck can one man have?!
Once in the truck they started down the dirt road with Bob stable for the time being, but each bump was a shockwave of spiking pain through his entire body. They arrived at the main road and made a quick right turn, pinning the gas pedal to the floor. All good, they're on their way and it won't be long till Bob is getting the care he needs. Except they’re now pulling over and all 3 of the boys are yelling at each other, “What in the fuck are you doing?!!”, “Why in the hell are you pulling over!!”. “I forgot to unlock the hubs, my transmission is fried !!”, Yells the driver back. He actually fried his transmission and the “emergency vehicle” was done. That’s it I’m done, Bob thinks, Just my luck! He has no idea just how lucky he has been. He yells at the boys to flag a car down immediately. They jump into the street and start waving down a car that's coming and it swerves right around them, speeding off down the road. They try a second car but it honks at them to get out of the road. Now Bob yells,”Get in front of it and make them stop,for Christ's sake!!” Which the driver does and he manages to flag down an older couple in a small truck . They happen to be in their late 60’s early 70’s and they’re about to have one hell of a story for the grandkids. They throw Bob into the back of the couple's truck and off they sped to Saint Joe’s Hospital in Eureka , California.
Once sedated and calm the doctors had to operate on Bob’s leg and piece some of it back together with staples. When he woke up he remembers his first thoughts were, “I looked around and felt comfortable and I knew I was in a safe place, I felt safe.” All told, the damage was severe and he would have internal stitches and 180+ staples on the outside. The doctors took pre-op photos of the wounds and they noted teeth marks on the Femur bone. He endured 7-8 months of rehab and even mental therapy to deal with the trauma of the encounter. It’s important to note that the expert’s in the field like Mark Mark’s have said , “This was an investigatory encounter, which is much better than mistaken identity. It is trying to assess its environment and identify the object in front of it. But in mistaken identity the shark would immobilize the victim by a huge bite or decapitation.” Mark’s said. Bob seems to have been a taste test and thankfully he failed. But also the “thumb in the eye trick, in my opinion, saved Bob’s life.
After several months of rehabilitation and therapy Bob decided to go back in the water but on a different board. He conferred with Mark that all of the episodes with sharks are almost all short board riders. So Bob decided to switch it up and longboard to evade the errant encounter with another shark. He continues to surf to this day and lives with his wife Michelle and their 2 boys Nick and Max in San Clemente. Some of the long term effects were shark nightmare’s that became constant, such as swarming large numbers of sharks or a weird nightmare of an obese Great White at Rincon that stalked Bob. He kept in touch with the 3 kids who were involved with saving his life for awhile and he even offered to pay for the driver's transmission in his truck but the boy's father said it was ok. One thing Bob is happy about is that he moved from Humboldt County and lives where he does now. He never thought about getting attacked and even if he did he would think, it won’t happen to me. He now knows several guys who live up there, who have been attacked in the past several years since Bob's encounter. Sharkbanz 2 is the latest shark deterrent technology and also Ocean Guardian Freedom Surf and Shark Shield Freedom 7 ,as well as Shark Stopper which emits an acoustic signal. There are actually quite a few more but I'll leave that to you. In closing we are all in their world and this is part of the risk we as surfers take. Culling the shark population is NOT the answer, as we have seen the results of these actions and it has proven to be devastating. We must realize this is all part of surfing and in my humble opinion, it’s worth it.