Great white shark joins Call to the Wall

Lifeguard Joe Everett, left, came to the aid of Vic Calandra as he was being followed, and bumped repeatedly, by a great white shark during a paddle race from Zuma Beach to the Malibu Pier on Sunday. Calandra credits Everett with saving his life.

A local surfer encounters a great white shark during a paddle race from Zuma Beach to Malibu Pier on Sunday.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

The 16th Annual Call to the Wall surfing competition was enlivened with a shark encounter this year. During the Tommy Zahn Memorial Paddle Race, local surfer Vic Calandra had a run in with an approximately 10- to 12-foot long great white shark.

“Vic came in shaking,” William Buckley, Call to the Wall competition coordinator, said. “He told us that a shark had bumped his board aggressively and followed him for twenty minutes.”

Calandra, a Malibu resident and longtime surfer, said he was going neck and neck for third place out of 15 to 20 stand-up paddle board racers and was about a mile and a half off the coast from the beach at the beginning of Old Malibu Road when he heard something break the surface of the water behind him.

Looking back, he saw a partial fin about 20 feet behind him. At first Calandra thought it was a dolphin, but then the fin “continued to come out of the water”-the fin was 18 to 24 inches tall, he said.

Calandra said he veered to the right so he could keep an eye on it, but the shark stayed with him, and then it made a wide sweep coming closer, and then it made another sweep until it was only three feet away. Calandra said he swung his paddle to strike the shark and “it came up and brushed the back of my board, and then came up on the side of me and showed its underbelly-I could see it was great white.”

Calandra estimated the shark to be 12 feet long and about three and a half feet wide (the surfer’s paddle board is 18 feet long).

The shark started making quick turns, coming to Calandra’s side each time, and he would drop to his knees and strike it with his oar, trying to “keep a distance between the predator and me.”

Each time he hit the shark with the paddle, Calandra said, it would go underneath his board. It happened about five or six times, he said, and “I knew I was going to get struck at that point.”

But he found a compatriot in Joe Everett, a lifeguard with the L.A. County Fire Department, assigned to the lifeguard station at Zuma Beach and who was a participant in Sunday’s 10-mile-long paddle race between Zuma and the Malibu Pier.

“About an hour an a half into the race, I heard someone on a board about 800 yards offshore yelling, ‘Shark!'” Everett said. “I headed out, thinking it was just a sighting, but as I got closer to Vic, I saw the dorsal fin following right behind him. I decided I wasn’t a race participant anymore, but a lifeguard.”

As Everett was paddling toward Calandra, the shark hit Calandra’s board again and he got on his knees to strike it again with his paddle. Meanwhile, as Everett was coming to his aid, he was slapping the water to divert the shark’s attention. Everett quickly aimed the tip of his 18-foot-long board at the shark’s head to try and deter it.

“The shark kept bumping Vic’s board and he looked like a circus high wire act trying to keep his balance,” he said.

The two men positioned their boards close together, sitting back to back to see where the shark would be coming from next, and hit its back and fins whenever it came close. “We knew it was going to hit one of us,” Calandra said, so they determined to reach one of two boats that were nearby. They started paddling, following each other carefully toward a fishing boat that was about 200 yards away, beating their oars in the water whenever the shark came near to deflect it.

When they reached the boat, Everett quickly climbed in and contacted the lifeguard station, which sent out guards on jet skis to round up all race participants and hurry them to the finish line.

“Our station boat was out there to monitor the race, but they were off at Latigo at the time the shark came, so they didn’t see the incident,” Everett said. “It was my first encounter with a shark.” And he said he hopes it will be his last.

And Calandra, “for some reason,” said he stayed on his paddle board and went on to warn the other racers. “I wasn’t thinking clearly,” Calandra said in retrospect. “Not at all.”

Some Malibu residents question whether the shark pen monitored by Monterey Bay Aquarium’s White Shark Research Project drew shark populations to the area. Monterey Bay Aquarium has been overseeing the research project from a location about a mile and a half offshore from Malibu’s coast for seven years now.

“That trawler connected to the shark pen off Corral Beach is parked there every year,” local resident Mike Gardner said. “If they’re chumming to attract sharks, wouldn’t that present a danger to people swimming here?”

Captain Terry Harvey, personnel information officer for the Malibu lifeguard stations, said he himself met up with sharks during long-distance paddles.

“The lifeguard division supports oceanic research so we don’t really take a stand on the Monterey Bay trawler,” he said. “The shark pen is a good ways offshore and if it really presented a danger to all the swimmers at Corral Beach, we’d be hearing about a lot more shark sightings.”

As to the sharks, Harvey said, “It’s their environment, after all.”

The great white shark, while terrifying to a “Jaws”-familiar public, is now an endangered species due to over-fishing and the prices its jaws and teeth can fetch commercially.

Up until the age of one year, great whites feed only on fish. But as they get older, their diet switches to marine mammals.

“So, at 10-feet long, our shark was still young, but beginning to acquire a taste for blood,” Everett said.

“These are very beautiful, complex animals,” John O’Sullivan, curator for field operations for the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said.

O’Sullivan has managed the Shark Research Project for the aquarium since its inception seven years ago and said researchers work hard to strike a balance between the need for research and the sensitivities of human ocean occupants.

“If you’re concerned about species’ survival, you need to study young sharks as well as adults,” he said. “We hope to capture young great whites to tag and release. This means we need to be close enough to areas where the animals are found, but far enough away from harbors to not bother residents. We don’t want to be attractive nuisances.

“I can assure you that the seals feeding on anchovies around the surf break present a lot more attraction for sharks than our research pen.”

O’Sullivan said the Monterey Bay Aquarium would be happy to stage seminars or town halls in Malibu to address any concerns or fears residents might have. “Part of ocean advocacy is to educate the public,” he said.

As for his first up close experience with a great white, Calandra said, “I never felt so small in the food chain. I was definitely low in the chain at that point.”

Even with the shark diversion, Calandra came in 4th place in the paddle board race competition.