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by Tom Mahony

The reef is quite sharky. Great whites. Surfers have been attacked there in the past. The area is raw and gorgeous and fertile: coastal scrub on mudstone bluffs and redwood up the valley and a slab-reef jutting into the ocean with a deep channel beside it and cold water upwelling from below. The ocean is rich with kelp, fish, pelicans, cormorants, seals, sea lions, otters. Perhaps too fertile for comfort. It’s an excellent place for great whites to make a living.

It’s an old man’s spot. I’m usually one of the youngest guys out there, and I’m not that young. The place rarely gets crowded. Being self-employed, I tend to surf at odd hours, like Wednesday at ten a.m., and often nobody’s out.

At most spots, if you’re surfing alone, you relish every minute of solitude. But while soloing the reef you’re almost begging someone to paddle out and reduce your odds of getting devoured by toothy predators.

Come on in, the water’s fine.

One day during an off-hour session, I’m surfing the reef with one other guy. We’re sitting far out, in deep water, and the waves are excellent. We exchange a smattering of relevant information — tide, wind, swell — when we drift close enough; but mostly we surf in silence.

During a lull, he’s sitting fifty feet outside of me. Suddenly he starts freaking out: yelling, flailing. I think he’s having some kind of seizure.

When he paddles closer, he’s still yelling incomprehensible gibberish, but the one word I understand is “shark.” Then he catches a wave and heads in without further elaboration.

I sit there in stubborn disbelief. But he’s a wily old veteran, not some novice who might mistake a dolphin for a shark. The waves are epic, tough to abandon without cause. I see distant splashing but can’t decipher much in the glare. Could be anything, really, but I get a sinister feeling.

And it’s not a good time for skepticism.

I scan the horizon, wondering if I should wait for a wave or paddle in. I’m afraid to attract attention by paddling, so I just sit there, stressing and worrying and trying not to look down at the murky water and my feet dangling like seal nuggets.

The ocean, which has pumped all morning, is suddenly flat. I glance toward shore. The bluffs look incredibly far and I turn back to the water and it stretches forever and I think this place isn’t meant for humans. Think a lot of things and none is particularly optimistic.

Finally a wave appears. I catch it and ride to shore.

Heart pounding and hands shaking, I stand on the beach and study the ocean. It’s creepy and beautiful and alive all at once. Fertile. Too fertile: whitey’s turf, not mine. The waves are reeling but they’re all his for today. I turn and walk up the trail to my car.

Until next time.

Copyright © 2009 by Tom Mahony

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