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Guest commentary: Idyllic dive becomes a showdown with a shark

Wyatt Joyce holds the half of a 30-inch calico bass that a sevengill shark left behind.
Wyatt Joyce holds the half of a 30-inch calico bass that a sevengill shark left behind after chomping the rest of it off the edge of Joyce’s kayak off La Jolla.
(Courtesy of Wyatt Joyce)

A few days ago, I had an interesting encounter with a sevengill shark in our La Jolla waters.

My girlfriend, Jackie, and I were excited to dive a new kelp forest that we had our eyes on for a while. The sun was shining and the swell was finally down. After going about a mile in our double kayak across the early-morning glass, we arrived at the kelp forest.

We jumped into the water and were immediately greeted by magnificent schools of calico bass, jacksmelt and halfmoons.
Right away we knew we had stumbled upon a very productive reef.

Jackie kicked off the dive by spearing a really nice-size opaleye, her personal best. Hearing this, I decided to swim down near her. I dove about 45 feet, following the kelp stalk down as I descended to the sea floor.

Down there was a school of calico bass. But then an 8-foot sevengill shark brushed by me less than a foot away. I’ve seen this species of shark before and they are usually quite docile, so I didn’t think much of it. However, his behavior and body language signaled much more aggression than I had experienced in prior encounters.

After regaining my breath on the surface, I decided to swim back down. To my surprise, there he was again. And he was coming right at me! I stood my ground, and when he got within arm’s reach, I poked him with my spear. Big mistake. This only seemed to anger him. Immediately, he aggressively whipped his head back around and charged again, this time with fire in his black eyes and his mouth wide open baring his jagged teeth.

I remained calm and gave him a really good poke right in the gills. He didn’t like that, and I chased him until he disappeared into the murky water.

After telling Jackie what happened, we contemplated moving to another spot but ultimately decided to give it a few more dives. We had been wanting to dive this spot for too long to give up so quickly.

We dove together and saw no sign of the shark. After building my confidence back up, I decided to return my focus to the fish. I swam to the bottom, checked to make sure there were no sharks and then searched for fish. To my surprise, I saw a humongous calico bass, by far the biggest I had ever seen, cruising along the boulders. I caught it and clipped it to the stringer on our kayak. We were so stoked that we hadn’t let the shark scare us away, as we were rewarded with this very special fish.

I was floating on the surface when Jackie emerged from the depths saying she had just seen the shark again. Then Jackie called out, “It’s right under us!” And there he was. Those familiar black eyes stared me down once again and he barely clipped our swim fins as he swam past. I couldn’t believe he swam up to us on the surface. We didn’t even have any fish on us!

For the next 10 minutes he circled us, getting closer and closer. We stood our ground and kept our eyes locked on him. Finally, I was able to chase him off and we decided it was time for us to go home.

We swam back to our kayak, secured our dive gear and were about to be on our way. Then I looked back as I heard a big splash, and there was the shark, full head out of the water, chomping at my fish that was hanging off the edge of the kayak. I shouted at him and smacked him as hard as I could on the head with my paddle. His head was thrashing around, splashing us and shaking the kayak. I kept hitting him and he kept circling back and chomping at our fish.

It seemed like he was never going to leave us alone. We were still attached to our anchor, which was right next to his wide-open mouth, so we could not escape. I smacked down as hard as I could on his nose, and he finally let off. Then we detached from our anchor and paddled to safety.

I still cannot believe that happened to us. Good thing we were able to stay calm, although I’m not sure we were ever in much danger. Even though he bit my 30-inch fish right in half, it’s hard to imagine he would have wanted (or been able) to do the same to us. It was the fish he was after.

I am grateful for this humbling experience. The ocean continues to provide for us and remind us that we are truly not in control. It is through experiences like these that I am reminded of just how silly our daily life struggles can be. I can’t wait to get back out there.

Wyatt Joyce is a Ph.D. student in the UC San Diego Physics Department and has been living in La Jolla for about a year. He is starting a website called SpearfishingSD.com.