Shark attack survivor says people should respect, not fear, the seas

Co-authored by Erica Cirino

Brian Correiar, a California-based diving master and certified diver for more than 18 years, says he’s always been more comfortable in water than on land. In fact, he says his mother, a swimming and SCUBA instructor, made sure he knew how to swim before he could walk.

Correiar’s sense of ease in the seas was seriously shaken on Saturday, March 18, 2017, when a great white shark attacked the 14-foot, single-person ocean kayak he was paddling in through Monterey Bay.

“It all started with a bang,” recalls Correiar. “Suddenly the kayak was launched into the air and I fell halfway out of it. I began yelling. I remember thinking, ‘I have to do a deep-water entry from the kayak, and I haven’t practiced that since my last rescue class.’”

Just three feet away from him, on the other side of his red kayak, was the shark—its head above the water with its jaws latched around one end. Correiar says he froze in shock, then quickly scrambled out of his kayak and began kicking to shore, staying on his back so he could watch the shark. The shark proceeded to munch along the entire length of the kayak while never leaving the water’s surface, easily rolling it over length-wise like a toy.

Correiar grabbed his Nautilus LifeLine Marine Rescue GPS and tried calling the Coast Guard for help. The Coast Guard had trouble hearing his call for help. As call after call failed, the shark surged forward toward Correiar, the kayak still in its mouth.

“At this point I was really nervous, I was sure I was done,” says Correiar.

Photo by Carl Safina. Great white shark off southeast Africa.
Photo by Carl Safina. Great white shark off southeast Africa.

But suddenly a small sailboat appeared in his line of vision. With the radio in his left hand, Correiar fully extended his right hand and began waving rapidly in the hopes the boat’s captain would recognize his distress signal. The shark kept advancing.

“It was like a horror movie,” says Correiar. “The shark came toward me, dropped the kayak, then dove straight down below me where I couldn’t see it.”

Not knowing where the shark had dove, Correiar says he tried to stay calm while waiting for the sailboat to rescue him. The boat didn’t have a ladder or transom, and he was exhausted and cold, so the best he could do was cling onto the outboard motor. The people on board—a Naval Postgraduate School doctoral student named Lt. Cmdr. Kyle Franklin, his wife and young daughter—called 911 and the Coast Guard. Minutes later the Coast Guard arrived and assisted in the rescue.

Aside from a few bruises and one major adrenaline rush, Correiar says he is no worse for wear. To boot, the Coast Guard was able to recover 100 percent of his gear, down to the sandals he was carrying with him in his kayak.

Correiar credits his survival with his ocean and diving safety training, and experience in and on the water. Despite experiencing such a close call with a potentially lethal creature, he says people should respect, not fear the oceans and the animals they contain.

“People need to be aware that the ocean is a wilderness area, this naturally includes large predators,” says Correiar. “People need to be prepared for the environmental conditions and self-rescue if needed. I had exposure equipment, signaling devices and rescue classes.”

Shark attacks—especially above-the-water attacks like that on Correiar’s kayak–are uncommon. Last year there were a total of 150 incidents of alleged shark-human interactions worldwide, with 81 of those incidents confirmed as unprovoked attacks on humans, according to the International Shark Attack File.

“Comparing this to the tens of millions of people each year that enter the water to wade, swim, fish, kayak, snorkel, or scuba dive and you can see that shark attacks are in fact relatively rare,” says Ellen Prager, a Florida-based marine scientist and author. Based on the relevant statistics, you are 75 times more likely to be killed by lightning, 20 times more likely to die in a tornado, two times as likely to be killed by bears or be buried in sand, injured at home, or bitten by a dog!”

Prager says shark attacks on people occur when sharks are acting territorially or when they mistake people for one of their food sources. In the case of a kayak, a shark might see it as a big fish, dolphin or small whale—something it wants to eat.

“Unfortunately, a shark’s only way to taste something and know if it is something they want to eat is by biting. So a shark might not recognize a kayak as something unpalatable until it bites,” Prager says. “After that it could be confusion or it could feel threatened by the kayak when its prey doesn’t react as expected. But most of the time when a shark bites something, including people, that is not good shark food, it releases and goes away. Unfortunately, one bite can lead to tragedy so it is always a serious situation.”

Photo by Carl Safina. Great white shark off southeast Africa.

To avoid tragedy in such an incident, Correiar says how much a person needs to prepare for ocean emergencies depends on the level of interaction he or she has with the seas. Some options include SCUBA training—which can be done through PADI or the YMCA; kayaking lessons—which is accessible through local outfitters such as Monterey Bay Kayaks and Adventures By the Sea; and boating classes through the Coast Guard Auxiliary.

As far as going kayaking in Monterey Bay again, Correiar says he will definitely do so—but after a little break.

“I’ll be back in the water in no time,” says Correiar. “I’m planning on taking more safety classes so next time—if in the rare case something like this should ever happen again—I’ll be even more prepared.”



Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.