Monday, July 07, 2008

Shark attack survivor tells all!

Silver fog blanketed California's Monterey Bay on a late August morning last year. For Todd Endris, it was a perfect end-of-summer day for surfing. The lanky 24-year-old aquarium technician zipped into his wet suit and headed to Marina State Beach, two miles from his apartment.

As he waded into the surf, a pod of dolphins played in the waves just ahead of him. Other than a few dedicated surfers, the dolphins were the only creatures visible in the bay. Endris paddled strenuously and caught a wave in, then headed out to find another. Resting on his board 75 yards from shore, he turned to watch his friend Brian Simpson glide under the curve of a near-perfect wave. Suddenly Endris was hit from below and catapulted 15 feet in the air. Landing headfirst in the water, he felt his pulse quicken.

He knew only one thing could slam him with such force. Frantically paddling to the surface, he yanked at the surfboard, attached to his ankle by a leash, climbed on, and pointed it toward shore. But within seconds he was hit again. An enormous great white shark had him in its jaws, its teeth dug into his back.

The vast aquatic wilderness known as the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary stretches from Marin County, north of San Francisco, to the rugged Cambria coastline south of Big Sur, encompassing 5,322 square miles of ocean. One of the most diverse protected ecosystems in the world, it includes the Red Triangle, an area that earned its ghoulish nickname for its history of shark attacks, particularly in the period from late August through November, when great whites come to feed on young seals and sea lions.

Almost every surfer who visits California's wild coastline has heard the horror stories: In 1981 a surfer was found just before Christmas south of Monterey, his body bearing bite marks from a great white; in 2004 an abalone diver was killed by a great white near Fort Bragg; and in 2006 a 43-year-old surfer was dragged underwater by a great white off a beach in Marin County -- and escaped without serious injury when the shark spit him out.

Just last April, a 66-year-old man died after being attacked by a great white while swimming far south of the Red Triangle, in waters north of San Diego. "It's always in the back of your mind -- you know they're out there," says Endris. Shark-human encounters make headlines, but they're rare; fewer than 50 people were attacked in the Red Triangle between 1959 and 2007.

Humans may be mistaken for prey, but some experts say that great whites just don't care much what they eat. "Anybody who surfs or dives where seals and sea lions are prevalent could be asking for trouble," says George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File in Gainesville, Florida, a group that tracks shark incidents worldwide. "You wouldn't walk through a herd of antelope on the Serengeti, knowing you could be attacked by a lion." Despite the warnings, Endris routinely surfed in such waters.

From the time he was a toddler in San Jose, he'd looked forward to weekend excursions to the beach with his parents and older sister, Julie. As soon as he was big enough to straddle a board, he took up surfing. More than once over the years, he'd been called out of the water when someone thought they'd seen a shark. "But it wasn't something I dwelled on," Endris says. "As a surfer, if you did that, you'd never go into the ocean." In Monterey Bay that August morning, the great white dragged Endris below the surface. Attempting to force the shark to release him, the surfer slugged it on the snout over and over. "It was like punching a Chevy Suburban covered with sandpaper," he says. "I was getting nowhere."

The 16-foot shark had clamped down on his back with three rows of razor-sharp teeth. Endris felt no pain, only a tremendous pressure as the shark dipped him beneath the roiling water and shook him back and forth in its powerful jaws. A few feet away, Joe Jansen, a 25-year-old college student from Marina, was relaxing on his board when he heard a loud splash. Glancing over his shoulder, he spotted a gray creature rising 12 feet out of the water with Endris and a blue surfboard in its mouth.

At first, Jansen thought the creature was a whale, "the biggest thing I'd ever seen." Then he heard Endris scream. "My immediate thought was to get the hell out of there," he says. He paddled as fast as he could toward shore, looking back every few seconds. When he made eye contact with Endris, he paused. "Help me!" yelled Endris, disappearing beneath the water again. The shark now had the surfer by the right thigh and appeared to be trying to swallow his leg whole. Another 20 feet beyond the chaos, Wes Williams, a 33-year-old Cambria bar owner, stared from his surfboard in disbelief.

Six bottlenose dolphins were leaping in and out of the water, stirring up whitecaps. When Williams saw Endris surface, he believed the dolphins were attacking him. "He was shouting like he was being electrocuted," he says. "I thought, What did this guy do to piss off the dolphins?" Williams watched as the dolphin pod circled Endris, slapping their flukes in agitation. It was then that he saw the bright red ring of Endris's blood staining the water. With a burst of adrenaline, Endris thrust his head above the surface, gasping for air.

The great white still had a hold on his upper thigh. "I figured my leg was gone," Endris says, "but I couldn't think about that right then." He used all his strength to kick the shark repeatedly in the face with his free leg. The great white shot out of the water, thrashing Endris like a wet towel. The surfer swung his fists, hoping he'd get lucky and hit an eye. "Let me go!" he shouted. "Get outta here! Somebody, help me!" He barely noticed the dolphins leaping over his head. Suddenly the shark released him.

Fighting to stay afloat, Endris thought he saw the dolphins form a protective wall between him and the great white. Joe Jansen had paddled only 15 feet toward shore in his panic when he decided he couldn't live with himself if he didn't go back. He entered the pool of bloody water, half expecting to be attacked. "Quick! Get on your board!" he shouted to Endris. "C'mon, pal -- it's behind you. Let's go!" Less than a minute had passed since the shark had taken its first bite. Endris pulled his board close and crawled onto it.

His skin was shredded to the bone. Jansen was horrified but stayed calm. "You can do it," he said. "There's a small swell coming. Let's take it in." Williams had also swum back to help; as soon as they reached the beach, they were joined by Simpson, who had been in shallow water when he saw his friend attacked. The three lifted Endris under his armpits and dragged him onto dry sand.

"That's when the pain hit," recalls Endris. He cried out as the men positioned him facedown on a slope so that more blood would flow to his heart and head. While Endris's blood spurted from the gashes in his wet suit, somebody dialed 911. Simpson tried to reassure his friend. "It's okay, buddy. You're going to make it," he said, though he feared Endris wouldn't last until the paramedics got there. "I thought, Who's going to call this guy's parents and tell them he's dead?"

As it happened, Simpson, an X-ray tech at Salinas Valley Memorial Hospital, had witnessed his share of trauma cases. Working quickly, he wound a six-foot surfboard leash tightly around Endris's leg to help slow the bleeding. There wasn't much he could do for the 40-inch gash on his friend's back. A flap of skin was hanging from his body, exposing his spine and internal organs. When Endris craned his neck to see his injuries, Simpson and the others shielded his eyes. "His entire back was filleted," says Jansen. "It was hard to look at. We just kept saying, 'Take deep breaths. It's not that bad. Hang on.'

" Endris, raised Catholic but an infrequent churchgoer, closed his eyes and said a silent prayer over and over: Lord, I need you, now. It took ten minutes for a beach patrol crew, traversing the steep dunes in a four-wheel-drive pickup, to transport Endris to an ambulance. He was helicoptered to a trauma center in Santa Clara, where surgeons spent six hours putting him back together. "He looked like an emery board," says Maria Allo, MD, who oversaw Endris's care. "We used a couple of gallons of saline to get the sand off his muscles and skin." The shark's teeth had nearly punctured one of Endris's lungs and had missed his aorta by two millimeters. He had lost half of his blood and required more than 500 stitches and 200 staples to close the deep gashes. "His muscles were completely severed," says Dr. Allo. "It was hard to tell what belonged to what. It was tedious work, like doing a jigsaw puzzle." During his six days in the hospital, Endris, often in a painkiller-induced fog, thought about the ocean.

When he was 12, his parents --Michael, owner of a company that distributes microprocessors, and Kathi, a labor and delivery nurse -- had signed him up for lessons at Davey Smith's Surf Academy in Santa Barbara. By age 16, he was an expert, teaching surf camp kids what he knew. After high school, Endris, wanting to be close to the water, enrolled at California State University, Monterey Bay. He launched a business taking care of large saltwater aquariums owned by wealthy clients after he graduated. He enjoyed keeping his own hours -- leaving time for daily surf runs and for hanging out with friends on weekends.

Endris lived for the adrenaline rush that came with outracing a roaring wave, the cold salty spray stinging his face as he barreled underneath the curving white water. "You're in perfect sync with an actual moving force of nature," he says. "There's no other feeling that even comes close." Endris replayed the attack in his mind as he recuperated; he wondered if he'd ever surf again. After his release from the hospital, he retreated to his parents' San Jose home so his mother, who retired from nursing in 2001, could care for him.

"As a nurse, I've seen a lot," she says, "but never anything close to this." She changed his bedding, helped clean his wounds, and managed his medication. "But mostly I was there for emotional support," she says. "I just loved him."

Once Endris was back in his Marina apartment, he began having a recurring nightmare: the great white shark plowing through the water, about to knock him off his board. At the moment of impact, he would wake in a sweat. "I would have this feeling of dread and panic in my chest, and there's nobody to talk to," he says.

"Who can relate? It's not like there are shark attack victims around every corner." Endris took to focusing on the positive from that August day. "A lot of things came together to pull me through," he says. "The guys who rushed to help, the dolphins -- they all saved my life." He had heard about a common practice in Taiji, Japan, where dolphins are herded into small coves and slaughtered to be sold at fish markets. Hoping to do his part to protect them, he joined several organizations dedicated to their preservation. "I tell my story now to anybody who will listen because I want people to know how truly remarkable dolphins are," he says. "They're as smart as humans, and I believe they're capable of empathy. When I was being attacked that day, maybe they were trying to protect their young or acting on instinct. But they drove the shark away. If they hadn't, there's no doubt in my mind it would have come back." Endris also signed up to head an advisory committee in Monterey for the International Shark Attack Research Fund, a group of wildlife veterinarians and marine biologists who have teamed up to design an attack-prevention system. (A portable device that uses electrical pulses to repel sharks was developed in 2002 by an Australian company, but it's not cheap, costing about $650.)

"Our idea is to create a compact, affordable system that will protect me and my friends," says Endris, "without harming the sharks. They've been on earth millions of years -- a whole lot longer than we have." Six weeks after the attack, Endris stood at a mirror and checked out his scars. One snaked its way across his back and the other up and down his right leg. Even before he got a close look, he knew that he would return to the water.

"I had to get on with it," he says. "I love the ocean too much." That day, he climbed into his Toyota Tacoma and drove to Marina State Beach to try out a new surfboard. Though Joe Jansen now avoids the area, a handful of other surfers met Endris there. The water was murky with algae, but rays of October sun poked through the clouds as Endris paddled his board out to the same spot where the shark had slammed into him. He scanned the surface of the bay until he spotted a huge swell building behind him, curling with white foam. It was an ideal wave, smooth and cylindrical. Jumping to his feet, Endris caught his balance and soared into the glassy tube.


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