Back in 1974, after coming back to the USA from the unpleasant conflict in Southeast Asia, I was stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Lompoc, California. Vandenberg has 20 miles of coastline that is basically closed to the public and people in residence, regardless if you are in the military or not. This rule didn’t seem to affect my fellow airmen and I from going body surfing on a lonely stretch of beach, far from controlling authorities.
There was a submerged shelf that ran out a couple three hundred yards from the beach that was flat and about 6 feet deep. You could swim way out there and as the ocean waves came in, they would hit that shelf and make 5 feet high waves that white-capped all the way in. Now mind you, this was pre-Jaws and none of us had ever heard of a Great White shark. Year later I read where this stretch of beach was prime habitat and a couple years ago, an airman was killed right there.
We had been in the 65 degree water for about an hour and I was turning blue, but I caught a terrific wave and all but washed up on the shore. It was amazing and the best ride of the day. It was akin to catching a big fish after not catching anything for hours. I immediately swam back out, even though we had all decided to come in. Needless to say, I found myself 300 yards off the beach and alone. In between waves, the ocean is very calm and I could see my buddies as they swam in and they were a long way off.
Suddenly, in the calm, I heard a splashing sound and because the salt water had made my vision a bit blurry, I thought it might be a SCUBA diver. It wasn’t. It was a very large elephant seal and it was about 20 feet from me. I remember looking at it and then at my friends way off in the distance and then swimming for my life. Now, I’m not what you would classify as an elegant swimmer. What I did, looked more like a spastic person imitating a meth head in 6 inches of water. I pretty much attracted everything for 10 miles with my flailing, but made it to shore unscathed.
My buddies, who were all drinking beer by this time thought my exhibition was for them and were laughing when I all but cut a furrow in the beach with my fingers and toes. Now here is the ignorance of people in 1974 concerning Great White sharks.
“Oh, it was a seal? Don’t worry, cause if there are seals present, they scare away the sharks!” To this day I can see that big seal staring at me and now I know the truth. Sharks eat seals. A few short months later, I was out of the service and the war and I tied my horse in Baytown. My brothers and I went to Galveston to swim in the Gulf and 2 weeks after that? We saw Jaws! I got to relive my experience all over again and one of the fellows in that movie was named Bert of all things! Remember him? He was on the dock that got pulled out and had to swim back! “Swim Bert!”
People forget what this movie did to us in 1975. It was traumatic to put it mildly. I remember a couple of airmen and I went to Universal Studios before I departed the Air Force and there was a mock-up of the Jaws shark hanging from a big structure and we looked at it and laughed. I think it was about 25 feet long and 6 feet thick. We put it in the same category as King Kong and just as likely. It turns out, according to the record books the record stands at 36 feet. What?
There’s no moral to this story that I can tell and just a memory that surfaced like that seal did. I know one thing. After watching the movie Jaws, I was so scared of water that for 6 months, I had trouble sitting on the throne!