My wife, Amy, texted me a picture of a mangled creature she came across when she was running at dawn on Crescent Beach. It looked like an animal about four feet long that had been chomped in half. This grisly scene was near Indian Beach, site of a shark attack on a surfer a few weeks earlier. When I saw the photo, I ran to Crescent Beach to try to figure out what had happened to the carcass. I took the same trail that Amy and I had been running a few weeks ago when we heard sirens, and then a helicopter, and went to investigate.
Amy is a nurse practitioner with fifteen years of emergency medical experience. When you’re on an adventure and something goes wrong, she’s the person you want with you. I fret about which sentence structure to use; she sews people back together. Usually she has a trauma kit in her backpack, but the day we heard the sirens and the helicopter, she'd cleaned out her pack and hadn’t put the trauma kit back in. Also, we had been planning to run to Indian Beach, where the attack occurred, but we changed our route because the tide didn't look right for passing a headland on the beach. If we’d followed our original plan, Amy might have been a first responder—and on any other day she would have had her trauma kit, which includes a tourniquet. The tourniquet, it turns out, would have been put to good use.
Amy has sent patients on Life Flights from hospitals, and she knows people who've worked as Life Flight nurses. When she saw that the helicopter hovering overhead was a Life Flight, she wanted to know what was going on. So we ran toward Ecola’s main parking lot, where police had cordoned off a landing area.
The helicopter touched down as gently as a snowflake. The weather was unusually calm for the coast—good news for the victim, who was being worked on by paramedics in an ambulance before they transferred him to the copter. Another piece of good news: the trauma victim was a trauma nurse. After being bitten by a shark, he'd yelled at other surfers to get out of the water and then paddled his board to shore, reddening the water. Then he'd told people on the beach how to use his surfboard’s leash to bind his leg and keep him from bleeding to death.
And speaking of trauma, when I saw the text about the carcass on Crescent Beach, I was so fired up to investigate I got careless on the trail and stepped too fast on a steep set of mossy stairs, which I’ve run at least fifty times without incident. I did a cartoonish banana peel slip. This would have been comical if not for my head and spine banging close to hard edges of wood. I sat for a minute or so on the steps, thinking how close I’d come to bashing my head open or cracking my spine and having to call Amy for emergency medical service. I walked the last stretch of trail to the beach.
The carcass was pretty gruesome. It looked like a porpoise with its front end missing. I imagined the jaws of a great white severing this creature, but there were no obvious bite marks on what was left of the porpoise. Many other animals could have accounted for the carnage, Melissa Keyser of Haystack Rock Awareness Program pointed out when I sent her photos. Sharks, raptors, land predators . . . hard to say. Though I hate to ruin a good story with facts, I had to admit that Melissa made a pretty solid point. It was easy to imagine half of the porpoise disappearing in the jaws of a great white, but without the evidence of bite marks, I couldn’t pin this on a shark. Maybe a mountain lion?
As I was snooping around, I got downwind of the carcass and breathed in a lungful of rot—big mistake. I took a few steps backward to settle my stomach and noticed a drag mark. The sun had just lifted over a sea cliff and was shafting light onto the scene, illuminating a long path that the porpoise had traveled from the forest’s edge across the beach. Maybe a mountain lion had enjoyed the good fortune of a dead porpoise washing up at high tide. But why would a cougar drag the carcass from the edge of the beach near the woods out onto the open shore? The paw prints that the rising sun illuminated next to the drag mark were clearly not cat. Maybe coyote, or even dog, Melissa pointed out, again ruining my story with a sensible assessment. The tracks did look more like dog than coyote, I had to admit. But wait, they could also be wolf!
Gulls picked at the porpoise while I poked around on the beach for clues. When the rising tide erased tracks and pulled the carcass back to sea, I climbed a headland to escape the waves. I sat on a rocky perch above the surf, below where the Life Flight had landed. As I watched the ocean explode against the shore, I felt grateful that some wildness still exists in the world—lions lurking in the forest, sharks knifing through the waves. And I felt grateful for the mysteries that wash up at the ocean’s edge.
I’ll never know what cut that porpoise in half, and I’ll never comprehend how that surfer found the focus to tell people to apply a tourniquet to his shark-bitten leg. But I do know this: When you’re married to someone who saves lives for a living, it can be too easy to overlook the heroism of medical professionals who deal with trauma each day—usually other people’s trauma, but sometimes their own. Courage can be easy to recognize from a distance but hard to see when you're surrounded by it.
The Indian Beach shark attack highlighted the heroism of the surfing trauma nurse. But perhaps the job he does every day—and the job that every emergency medical professional does saving lives and soothing people’s pain—is just as newsworthy as the clickbait of a shark attack.
And maybe the most compelling story of this great white shark isn’t that it attacked a person, but that it has escaped the carnage that people have visited on its species and its cartilaginous cousins. Sharks have inhabited the oceans for hundreds of millions of years, but we have nearly exterminated them in the span of a human lifetime. Our attacks on sharks have been relentless, whether through the blatant barbarism of slicing off their fins or through subtle catastrophes such as pollution. We have pushed these creatures to the brink of oblivion.