Surfing with sharks

New Smyrna Beach, Fla – It was fairly early in the day and the beach was quiet. Petty Officer 3rd Class Andrew Heald, a boatswain’s mate stationed at Coast Guard Station Ponce de Leon Inlet in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., could only see two other people surfing. They were far from shore and looked like dots in the water. Heald began to paddle his surfboard out to join them.

Hurricane Earl, the fifth named storm of the 2010 Atlantic hurricane season, was spinning his way up the east coast. It was also on that Friday morning; Sept. 2, that Earl reached his peak intensity with winds reaching 145 mph, creating an extra alluring shoreline for surfers.

Heald, a native of Philadelphia, Pa., was just getting off two days of duty and was eager to start his weekend. He grew up surfing off the coast of New Jersey and was not amateur to the sport.

“I usually did not go alone but most of the guys I normally surfed with had to stay at the station for training. I figured everything would be okay, and the waves were too tempting not to go,” he said.

Heald went down to New Smyrna Beach alone.

The shoreline smelled uncommonly fishy, and as Heald got about 100 yards off-shore he found himself surrounded by Mullet, which are small baitfish often caught and used by anglers to attract larger fish. As he looked around he noticed the water around him was extra murky. Earl had been churned up more than just big waves.

Heald became cautious of his surroundings and noticed several vortex-like swirls around him, a sure indication of sharks beneath the water’s surface. He realized he could be in the middle of a shark feeding frenzy. When he saw a fin poke out from the water’s surface he knew he was.

Shark attacks are rare, about one in almost 12 million. More people die using a toaster each year than from a shark attack. Ironically, New Smyrna Beach in Volusia County, Fla., is the shark attack capital of the world with more than 218 documented attacks since the late 1800’s. In a far away second place are the beaches off of Cape Canaveral in Brevard County, Fla., with 97 attacks.

Heald knew his favorite area to surf was well populated with the ocean’s greatest predator, but he also knew his chances of being attacked were near non-existent. At that moment though, he was not feeling so confident about the statistics.

“I have to get out of here,” Heald immediately thought.

Heald guessed the fin was from a 5-6 foot-long Black Tip Shark, which according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, are the most common species of shark found off Florida’s coast. The Black Tip Shark is credited with most reported human attacks, but never a fatality.

The fin re-submerge and Heald figured it was his chance to try and catch a wave in. Then it hit him, hard.

“I heard a big splash, and it felt like I was being tackled,” he said.

Still far from shore and possibly in shock, Heald was frozen in fear. He did not want to look at his leg where the shark had rammed into him so he did not yet realize he had been bitten.

The force of being hit knocked Heald from his board and even though he knew there was nobody nearby to hear him, he began to scream for help.

He climbed back onto his board and began to duck dive, which is when a surfer paddles under a wave to avoid getting caught in it, hoping to get away from the baitfish.

Even though duck diving was taking him further away from shore, his instinctive goal was to get away from the Mullet – and the sharks feeding on them.

After three or four minutes, the throbbing in his leg forced Heald to look down at his thigh. He hesitated, the sight of blood made him uneasy and he did not know what to expect. He could see puncture wounds in his board shorts and as he lifted them, he realized he would be in trouble if he did not immediately get to a hospital.

It took about four minutes to catch a wave that he could ride back to shore. Four minutes that seemed like forever.

“Despite everything, I ended up catching a nice wave. It was a good ride,” Heald said in light of the situation.

When he finally got to the water’s edge a stranger on the beach saw him limping onto the beach and called for help. With Beach Patrol en route, Heald called Senior Chief Petty Officer Michael Jensen, Station Ponce de Leon Inlet’s officer-in-charge, to tell him what had happened.

Jensen instructed Heald to keep pressure on his leg and said he would send some Coast Guardsmen down to help him.

Because the station was just down the road, two of Heald’s shipmates jumped onto the Gator, a small motorized cart, and headed for the beach. They arrived before the ambulance and decided to drive Heald to Bert Fish Medical Center in New Smyrna Beach where he received stitches and antibiotic shots to prevent infection.

Before Heald even left the hospital he said he felt famous. He declined media interviews but his story still made its way around local news stations.

Heald was back to work a week after he was bitten and back in the water as soon as his leg healed. He said being bit again is always in the back of his mind but will not keep him out of the surf, just a little more cautious. Imagine the chances of being attacked twice?

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