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Riding the waves

 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!



Anonymous said…
Gary Black: Good story, Bert.
Anonymous said…
Robyne Gold: Great article!!!
I remember the movie, like it was yesterday!
Last year, I put my fears aside and climbed inside of a cage in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa and "dove" with some Great White sharks! The largest was a female, 20 feet long, nicknamed Freckles, that had a tracking device attached to her fin! It was an INCREDIBLE experience that I'll never forget...
Anonymous said…
FU: Bert,

Lucky for us you only got sealed and not shark tanked. Wow!

I was 15 the first time I saw the ocean. I went swimming and discovered it was nothing like swimming in a lake or pond or the river! One second I was in knee deep water then all of a sudden I was in water over my head. The harder I tried to swim, the harder it was to get anywhere and had no clue of what was pulling me away from shore. That was my first lesson of dealing with under tow.
Anonymous said…
MM: Loved it. Lol
Anonymous said…
I remember you telling this story back then

Bruce "Bruno" Marshall
Anonymous said…
Deb: Jaws was the most frightening movie ever. whenever it's dark and can't see under water I always think of that .....
Anonymous said…
When I was growing up my family always went to Panama City Beach on vacation. I think only once or twice did we ever go to the mountains. But the most important lesson I learned is that you CANNOT ever open your eyes under water while swimming in the ocean!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The other lesson was that there all kinds of strange and sometimes unseen critters that live in the ocean! Once I was just standing in about knee deep (or less) water and suddenly something bit or clamped onto both my little toes. It was pretty much just a moderate pinch, but it surprised and scared me enough to keep me out of the water the rest of the day!!! I figure it was probably a crab, but it had to have been a fairly large one. But the water was so murky that I could not see a thing.

Since living in Florida since the early 80s, I have learned a lot about what lives in the ocean and close to shore. I don't like ANY of them and most of them you can't see even if they are right beside you! You have Jelly Fish, Sting Rays (which requires you to do the Sting Ray Shuffle), Crabs, Sharks that are feeding on the bait fish and even those prickly round things that are very painful if you happen to step on them. I'm sure there are probably more things but all that is more than enough to keep me out of the ocean.

That and away from the beach. I got sunburned so bad once in Panama City, that I had 1st & 2nd degree burns, even though I was wearing a hat, shirt, sun screen and sitting under an umbrella. Afterwards I could not put on my uniform, was out of work for a week, ruined a set of sheets, and lost layers of skin. Which my kids loved peeling off.

Also since living here I have seen too many news reports on how close sharks come in, seen too many 'Shark Weeks' and other TV shows about sharks and the other critters that inhabit the shoreline and shallows. They live there! We only visit and are spending time in their feeding area!!

Soooo, not that I swim all that much to begin with, I can't swim all that well anyway, just give me a nice, clean, clear swimming pool where I see the bottom and if there are any snakes, gators or bears trying to take a dip with me.

By the way, has anyone ever been stung by a scorpion? PG

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