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Happy 4th of July, Carcharhinus limbatus

I have surfed most of the breaks in the Outer Banks, a few in SoCal and Great White-heavy Northern California and frequently spend time in lineups throughout southeastern North Carolina. So naturally, when I had the chance to catch up with old friends, meet some new folks (including a cool guy named Big Rick who has bullet wound) and surf the consistent summer breaks of Cocoa Beach for the 4th of July weekend, how could I say no?

Little did I know that a few blacktip sharks were invited over for burgers too.

The bait fish activity was enough to have most of the surfers talking nervously between waves, interjecting humor in an effort to cast some levity upon the true subject of the discourse, which was lurking in the shadows beneath our own side bites and cut-aways. It was unusually cloudy for summer in Florida and the sun only occasionally pried itself out of the folds of a dark blanket of building stratocumulous, making it look like we were paddling into sets of swelling, waist-to-chest high mercury.

Sitting on our boards a few yards apart, Dan (of hcsr.com guest writer fame) whistled my way and threw out the universal “hand to the forehead” sign indicating that visual evidence of what was rumoring through the lineup had been secured. I joined him in a few paddles for confirmation and we tentatively continued dropping in. After all, they’re there when they’re not there, so, let’s keep the stoke. (And in doing so, we demonstrated the exact same mindset that is at the root of most wilderness accidents.)

A few waves later, the splashing glance Dan reported became for me, a close encounter of the third kind. I’m more than accepting of the idea that, like most people who see something in the wilderness that tends to scare them, I may have encountered something much less ferocious and intimidating than what actually presented itself. Nevertheless, without question, I watched a shark, of what I honestly think was around six feet (big for a blacktip), surface about ten yards away from us. It’s pale gray dorsal highlighted at its peak in black, it curved smoothly through the surface long enough for me to acknowledge what it was, process it and still awe at the idea of being so close to something so cool. An arrow-tipped tail fin then sliced into the ripples, re-entering the blackness and at the same time, the worst of my imagination.

The pelicans took over our spot in the lineup, diving with precision into the schools of bait fish slapping the surface of our faint aquatic contrails.

Surfers respect sharks more than they fear them. That’s why most surfers who have been scarred by them have little trouble getting back into the lineup. In the ocean, we are in the middle of the food chain. I mentioned at one point to Dan, as the bait fish rapped all around us, that I felt like I was part of the school. He responded matter of factly with the confidence of a true veteran, “We are.” I knew exactly what he meant.

And I’m fine with it.

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