The Refugio Shark Attack

Two weeks ago news emerged that a free diver had been attacked by a Great White Shark while spear fishing at Refugio State Beach, a popular campground and park with a sheltered, south-west facing cove located fifteen minutes north of UCSB. Thankfully it was reported that the diver, though sustaining minor injury to his toes, was mostly unharmed by the encounter. As is the case with many water enthusiasts these days, the fellow attacked by the shark had his GoPro attached to his speargun and caught the entire incident on film. This POV footage from the encounter reveals just how lucky the spear fisherman had been.

After watching the footage we reached out to Ralph Collier, President of the Shark Research Committee, to see what might have caused such an unusual attack right here in our backyard. What he had to say about the incident just might surprise you:

The shark appears to be 8 – 10 feet in length and more sub-adult than juvenile. The attack on Tyler was not predatory, in my opinion, if you watch the original unedited tape at about 1:16 you will see a bat ray bounce off the bottom and quickly swim off. The Refugio State Park Ranger, a friend of mine, informed me that a large number of bat rays had taken up station off the beach in that area. At 1:25 the diver is pulled backwards and drops his spear gun, with camera still filming, and is seen to swim away missing his right fin and bootie. He comes back and grabs his gun and turns as he surfaces with the shark returning a second time to strike him in the left shoulder at 1:36. Then the shark returns a third time at 1:44 and is jabbed with the speargun, whereupon it swims away. White sharks, of all ages, feed on bat rays. I removed 17 bat rays stingers from a 17′ 7″ white shark some years ago and have observed many other stingers in other white sharks examined since 1962. The shark’s behavior is more displacement than investigation or predatory. In either of the latter two behaviors the shark would not have returned to strike him on the left shoulder or advance on him a third time. This was not a ‘mistaken identity’ incident which are the same as predatory. In this case the initial strike was a warning that the shark did not want this ‘thing’, a potential predator of its food source, in the area. The second strike to his left shoulder was to drive Tyler from the location as was the third and final approach. Once he began swimming towards the beach and away from this location the shark ceased its aggressive behavior and was not observed again. The shark perceived him to be a threat to its food, the bat rays in the area, so it drove him away. It is very possible the shark was following Tyler and might have even given notification to him in the form of displays that he did not see as he was not looking behind as he moved through the water.


Needless to say we were surprised to hear that this type of attack is almost certainly something beyond the “mistaken identity” most often credited to human/shark interactions along the Pacific Coast. Seems like it’s a good idea to always consult with your local ranger or lifeguard before entering the water to find out about any unusual wildlife activity in the area and gauge the potential risks accordingly.


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