Recently a surfer was attacked off of the California coast and as expected there was a flurry of e-mail postings by the paddling club. In this case the number of postings was much more than usual. I was reminded of how much concern there seems to be toward the threat of shark attack on kayakers. When I taught classes in Santa Barbara there always seemed to be one or two in the class who were terrified by the thought of a shark attack when we were out in the channel. I vividly remember the look on the faces of the students when a jet skier came over to our class to report a shark sighting off of the pier which was a half mile away and we were just about to do our capsize recovery drills. Even though I loved the movie I have to admit that Jaws did not help the kayak industry or the Scuba industry (I was teaching Scuba diving when the movie was released).
I am not going to go into the statistics of shark attacks vs. getting hit by lightening. The truth of the matter is, if you are afraid of something discussion and statistics seem to do very little to help get rid of the fear. In most cases those that have the fear and go on the water just live with the fear.
What I do find interesting is the focus there is toward the creatures from the deep versus the real dangers that face paddlers on a regular basis. I decided to list the concerns that should be of more importance to paddlers than Mr. & Mrs. Jaws.
Submerged objects in surf zones
Kayak in a surf zone
Driving to and from the launch site
Back injuries from lifting
Falling on seaweed covered rocks
Unprepared paddler as a partner
The list goes on and on. When I look at the list I can say I have personally witnessed at least one paddler (sometimes more) suffering from each concern on this list save two. I did not witness it but I have a friend who drowned and then was successfully revived after the rescue. During this past summer a jet skier in Mission Bay, San Diego, hit a kayaker. I saw the results of a motor boat cutting through the bottom of a canoe where one occupant was fatally wounded. Yet with all of my years on and under the water I have not known anyone who has been attacked by a shark when paddling. I have read two stories of close calls in the northern California area but they did not get bitten.
I wish there were a greater awareness on the part of paddlers to the real dangers of paddling rather than the hype created by a Steven Spielberg movie. I am happy to say that dressing for immersion has been taken seriously by the informed public but hypothermia is still the number one cause of fatalities in sea kayaking with the victims usually being the uninformed. When filming the ABCS of the Surf Zone I actually found an exposed hypodermic needle sticking up through the sand on the beach. If stepped on the potential for disease was real.
There are risks everywhere. We take chances every day whether we are conscious of the risks or not. I wish there were more energy spent on trying to reduce the real injuries experienced by paddlers than the exotic ones that rarely happen. So the next time you encounter one of the common risks paddlers face take the time to post it up on the club e-mail so others can be made aware of the real creatures of the deep. Thank goodness my paddle tomorrow is on a lake because if it were on the ocean a great white shark would probably swallow me.
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