15 Sep 2014
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Shark Victim Advocates for Great White Preservation

Jonathan Kathrein, who survived a shark attack when he was 16, is part of a new movement to protect Great Whites. With him on a panel Saturday was 'Shark Week' producer Brooke Runnette.

Shark Victim Advocates for Great White Preservation Shark Victim Advocates for Great White Preservation Shark Victim Advocates for Great White Preservation Shark Victim Advocates for Great White Preservation

Monterey Bay waters are no stranger to shark sightings.

In early July of this year, a Fremont man had his kayak chomped by a great white off Pleasure Point. The following week, Rio Del Mar Beach was plastered with warning signs after a dorsal fin was seen patrolling the area.

But the wackiest shark story comes from 1891, when locals say a man wrestled a mammoth shark at Capitola Beach, attracting a huge crowd and creating a legend that has lived on for over a century. 

Some people who survived being bitten by the ocean's largest predator, the Great White Shark, say they didn't even feel the bite.

Not Jonathan Kathrein, who, at 16, had a huge gash taken out of his leg from his knee to his hip Aug. 26, 1998 when he was surfing at Stinson Beach. 

"It was like getting hit by a car," he told an audience of underwater photographers and scientists at the film and conservation event called BLUE in Monterey Saturday. Among the speakers there were Monaco's Prince Albert II and filmmaker James Cameron.

"I completely felt it. Almost to a hyper-awareness where I felt the teeth come through my skin," said Kathrein. "I felt a pop. I felt the teeth go through the muscle and clamp down on the bone."

Kathrein was part of a panel calling for the protection of the predators at the top of the ocean food chain, all of whom represented a shift away from the Jaws mentality of fearing Great Whites, demonizing them and wanting to wipe them out.

He was paddling out on a quiet day when his hand brushed on something that he said felt like a rug, but was wet and slippery at the same time.

He never saw the shark. Never saw a fin or a ripple or movement.

"It's this funny combination of soft and solid and fleshy and like sandpaper. I often think it feels a lot like carpet, if you reach down and feel the carpet. It's almost soft, hard, solid, wet, all at the same time. The thing I thought I hit was a pile of sand."

He was 50-feet out so it coudn't have been sand. He started wondering if it was a seal, a jellyfish...or a shark.

He started paddling in to get away when he felt the 12-foot-long Great White shark bite. The shark started pulling him down under the water, but then, miraculously, let go.

It took at least 600 stitches to repair the wound, he said. "The doctors stopped counting after a while."

But to offset the horror of his tale on stage, he raised his pants and showed he was wearing socks with sharks on them.

"I surfed this morning, by the way," said . "It hasn't stopped me from enjoying the ocean. I'm very convinced, in fact, that sharks don't want to have anything to do with people. I think in my case, I don't know that if I hadn't hit it, it's likely that it would have swam by."

He's written a book about the experience and so has his mother.

His goal in speaking to this audience was to help protect Great Whites, of which there are estimated to be only 400 along the Central California Coast. There is a movement to make them endangered and prevent the killing of more of them.

Why? Because they are the apex of marine predators and help control the ocean's balance the same way that wolves or lions do on land, say researchers. They keep the numbers of marine mammals down and can get rid of the weakest members.

All of which is a big change from the Jaws mentality that sharks are out there hunting humans.

The producer of Discovery Channel's incredibly popular Shark Week, Brooke Runnette, has been a big factor in changing that perception.

She told the underwater lovers that in her four years producing the 25-year-old series, she has changed the image of sharks as demonized figures to wonders of nature that should be protected.

"Any channel has to worry about ratings and a lot of people were thinking that the thing to do is to go out and show this particular tale, step into the water and they will kill you. They will find you and they will kill you."

To her surprise and relief, producing conservationist documentaries with the likes of Stanford shark expert Barbara Block, has brought in higher ratings.

Block, also on the panel, described her tracking of Santa Cruz area sharks that have been tagged. Her project, "Fish and Chips" which plants microchips on Great Whites, showed these denizens were almost as common in the water around Santa Cruz as tourists.

The app is on iTunes, free, here, for iPads, iTouch and iPhone.

And, like tourists, they hang around Santa Cruz and then shuttle out to a spot halfway to Hawaii, which she calls the White Shark Cafe, where they may breed, eat, feed. Much of their lives, however, are still a mystery to the marine biologists.

Researchers fear that they will be wiped out because protected areas are small dots compared to the sharks' roaming territory.

"We find out we have a neighborhood of sharks here in the Northeast Pacific, a neighborhood in which these animals are our own and this is their backyard," said Block, showing live-action maps of tagged sharks moving through Monterey Bay waters. "It's a neighborhood that stretches from here to halfway to Hawaii."

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