What do you do when the shark alarm goes off?
Some people I know scramble straight for shore. Others make sure their mates are safe before heading in themselves. There are, however, a bunch of surfers out there who relish the sound of the shark alarm, as it means that their surf is about to get a whole lot less crowded.
I used to see it the same way. If it’s pumping, it’s pumping, and the less people, the better.
It was with this mindset five years ago that I jumped into the river mouth at Tamarindo, Costa Rica, despite seeing a handful of crocodiles lazing about less than a hundred metres upstream. The channel created by the river’s entrance was an express lane to the take-off zone, and I had to get out there as quick as possible, because it was pumping.
As I began floating out towards the pack, I was stoked on the idea of entering a pumping line-up without even getting my hair wet. These shallow thoughts were rudely interrupted when, now helpless against the power of the channel, I found myself floating straight towards the enormous head of a big ol’ crocodile, which had materialised only twenty metres from where I lay on my board.
Then, as quick as it had appeared, it was gone. Despite the warm Costa Rican water, I was frozen stiff to my board. I forced myself to breathe slowly, but it did little to help my situation as I floated over the exact spot I had seen the head.
I passed by untouched. Shock was immediately replaced by a frenzied panic, and I sprint-paddled the remaining distance to join the pack out beyond the pull of the river.
Mid-way through my sigh of relief, I was interrupted by the shouts and screams of the local crew:
The thirty-strong crowd began hurtling towards shore. A rogue set hit the river-mouth, and the mayhem was intensified as arms, legs, bodies and boards started rag dolling in all directions.
In less than a minute since I’d jumped into the river, I was back on the shore, out of breath.
Deflated, I did what anyone would do - I stared back out at the line-up. What I saw was a beautiful wave, peeling across the sandbar, flawless and perfectly rippable. And atop that wave stood a local surfer doing just that - ripping.
At the end of his ride, he didn’t come in like the rest of us. He paddled straight back out, where another three of the local crew were waiting their turn. And what did I do? Damn right, I paddled straight back out after him. Just like how, when I heard the shark alarm back home, I would keep surfing in the uncrowded bliss.
I followed him out, and I had an all-time session. For the next hour there was just the five of us out there, sharing amazing waves – and jumping at every unexplained splash that occurred nearby.
When I told this story to mates over a beer, I did so boastfully. When I told it to non-surfers, I did so dramatically. When questioned, I justified my actions by explaining that during this session, I got the best waves of my whole trip.
But when I remember this story now, and replay it to just myself, I do so regretfully, almost disgustedly.
Less than a year after I saw that reptilian head looming towards me in the river mouth, an American was attacked by a crocodile in the exact same location. He lost his leg.
By chance, I met the bloke last year, miraculously surfing Cloudbreak with a prosthetic limb. When the subject of his leg inevitably came up, I told him how I’d also seen a croc at that same wave.
But did I tell him how I paddled back out despite the obvious danger? Did I make myself sound brave? Of course not - I was embarrassed to even think about it.
Nothing but sheer luck separates my story from his, and thinking about the fact that I rolled the dice again by paddling back out, it now fills me with something I can most closely describe as guilt.
Fast forward to late last year, when I’m sharing a surf with just my brother and one other mate. A fin the size of my forearm breaks the surface and passes by within arms reach of me. Without thinking, we flee in to shore.
This time, after standing on the beach and watching some extremely good-looking waves roll through unridden, I stay on land. Despite some protest from the others, we accept the situation for what it is, and spend the afternoon mesmerised by gem after gem rolling through, untouched.
So, what should you do when you hear the shark alarm sound? That’s up to you. But, at the risk of sounding like a worried mother, just remember that there are no special bravado points for staying in the water. Missing out on a a few pumping waves is better than losing a limb.