Esther Kang

Shark attack at the Manhattan Beach pier

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Swimmer recounts being attacked by a distressed shark hooked to a line; city temporarily bars fishing to evaluate safety

Manhattan Beach Fire Department paramedics treat the victim. Courtesy of Eric Hartman

Manhattan Beach Fire Department paramedics treat the victim. Courtesy of Eric Hartman

Last Saturday morning, Steve Robles found himself staring deep into the eyes of a great white shark.

An hour earlier, he and a dozen fellow Southern California Aquatics swimmers had set out northbound from the Hermosa Beach pier. The 2.2-mile trek to the Manhattan Beach pier was no challenge for the 50-year-old Lomita resident, who had completed the pier-to-pier training course countless times. Close to 9:30 a.m., he was steadily approaching the finish line — just 150 yards from the pier — when a seven-foot shark stealthily emerged from beneath him.

“I saw it as it surfaced from about eight feet below me,” Robles recalled. “It was awfully close. I thought, ‘God this is the real thing.’”

Their eyes were locked. In one swift motion, the shark lunged at Robles and bit into his torso. Between screams, Robles reactively extended his hands and grabbed the shark’s nose.

“Fortunately, the shark let go and swam away immediately,” the former lifeguard said.

Still screaming, Robles turned around and grabbed onto a friend who was a few strokes behind him. Bleeding profusely from his torso, where the shark bit him, he was fighting to stay afloat. He was brought to shore on a lifeguard’s rescue board with the help of several surfers, swimmers and a paddle boarder who initially lent his board immediately to help Robles stay afloat.

The paramedics transported him to General UCLA Medical Center, where he spent eight hours in the emergency room. He was discharged later that evening and has been recovering at his Lomita home.

Steve Robles shows his wounds while in the emergency room at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. Courtesy of Steve Robles

Steve Robles shows his wounds while in the emergency room at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center. Courtesy of Steve Robles

“I’ve been recovering pretty quickly,” said Robles, a real estate broker for Keller Williams Palos Verdes. “The cuts inside my chest along my torso penetrated my skin and the fat under the skin, but it didn’t penetrate my organs. It looks nasty and horrifying, but it’s not as severe as it looks.”

According to witnesses, the shark had been hooked by a fisherman off the pier and had been struggling to free itself for about 45 minutes before the attack.

While shark sightings are common in Manhattan Beach, this incident marks the first attack of a swimmer, said Eric Martin, director of the Roundhouse Aquarium on the pier. He believes the attack was a “response bite” from the shark. Sharks, he explained, open and close their mouths when trying to free themselves from a fish hook.

“What happened was the guy swam and he was at the wrong place at the right time,” Martin said. “It was not the shark’s fault. It was actually caused by the fisherman who didn’t want to cut the line.”

The initial shock of the attack has given way to speculations about the fisherman who had the shark hooked to his line and calls to reevaluate fishing regulations on the pier. Despite several witnesses claiming that he was “chumming” — using bloody fish guts as bait — the fisherman told Los Angeles County lifeguard captain Tracy Lizotte that he and his two friends were fishing with anchovies and sardines.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife is investigating the incident but is not likely to write any citations, said Carrie Wilson, an environmental scientist with the agency. Whether the fisherman was chumming or shark fishing is irrelevant, as both are legal in salt water, she said. Great white sharks, however, are protected under state and federal law and must be released as soon as the fisherman realizes what he’s caught, Wilson said.

Lynn Kim of Rancho Palos Verdes visits her friend and co-worker Steve Robles, 50, of Lomita who shows her his stitches from a great white shark attack he suffered Saturday morning in Manhattan Beach. Photo by Cindy Yamanaka

Lynn Kim of Rancho Palos Verdes visits her friend and co-worker Steve Robles, 50, of Lomita who shows her his stitches from a great white shark attack he suffered Saturday morning in Manhattan Beach. Photo by Cindy Yamanaka

Robles said he believes that the fisherman’s decision to wait and release the shark in deep water, away from swimmers, almost cost him his life, that it was “fully the cause of this accident.”

“He should’ve released it right at that moment but he did not,” Robles said. “He continued on for 25 minutes, and that’s when I happened to be passing by. The shark may have thought that I was a threat to it. It was trying to defend itself by attacking me. The juveniles do not want anything to do with people, from the way I understand it.”

Manhattan Beach on Monday announced a 60-day ban on fishing from the pier. During this period, the city will “consult with the State Coastal Commission, County of Los Angeles and other regulatory agencies to help evaluate impacts to public safety from allowing fishing from the pier, and determine if a change in regulations in necessary,” City Manager Mark Danaj wrote in a press release.

Since the attack, Robles said he’s been contacted by media outlets from around the world. According to the National Geographic, the odds of being killed by a white shark is one in 11 million. Fourteen shark fatalities have been recorded in California history.

“It was a freak accident, not a common occurrence at all,” he said. “I really believe that had the shark not been agitated with that fishing hook and the line, none of this would have occurred.”

Robles said he hopes to eventually gather enough courage to return into the ocean. Last August, he swam for 13 hours from Catalina Island to the shore of Rancho Palos Verdes Palos Verdes to raise money for an orphanage and school in Nicaragua, a project supported by Hope Chapel in Hermosa Beach.

“I’m very thankful that I’m here,” Robles said. “I know that this is a second chance I’ve been given. God has given me a second chance.”

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