Before Saturday, Walter Szulc Jr. had never been in a kayak. By the end of the day, he had become the most famous kayaker in New England, the centerpiece of a photograph that has spread around the world.
The photo is of the moment Szulc looked back at the water behind his kayak and saw that he was going to need a bigger boat. He was being chased by a shark.
“I saw a long, dark shadow under the water, and I saw the fin,” he said of the moment he called the most terrifying of his life.
What he did not see was the head of the shark, estimated to be 12 to 14 feet long. That is because it was underneath him.
He did not look back again.
The day started innocently when the 41-year-old from Manchester, N.H., on a Cape Cod vacation with his family, went to Nauset Beach in Orleans. His cousin arrived with kayaks — one red and one blue — and Szulc took one out for a spin.
“I enjoyed it so much I was actually considering buying one,” he said.
He had been having the usual problems of first-time kayakers – he struggled to get his paddling rhythm, struggled to keep from tipping — but after his second trip out, he was feeling confident. He was certain he could get back on the beach without toppling in the waves near the shoreline, something he had failed at twice.
So when he was 50 yards offshore, he stopped paddling and scanned the beach for his teenage son and daughter. He wanted to show off, he said, wanted them to see Dad’s new kayaking skills as he made his first successful landing on the beach.
It was then that he noticed a man on a standup paddleboard gesturing frantically to the water behind him. That is when he turned.
“To actually see it, to see the fin come out of the water behind me, it was a moment, almost like I was watching it happen to me,” Szulc said.
“It all happened so quick, and I knew I had to react. I had a deep swallow, that ‘oh, my God’ moment,” he said. “Then I just paddled.”
The chase lasted maybe 90 seconds, Szulc and witnesses estimated, and he said he was running on adrenaline and reactions. “All I could sense is that I should paddle,” he said. “I just knew that I didn’t want to end up in the water. And paddling-wise, I turned into a professional kayaker all of a sudden. I paddled like there was no tomorrow, like my life depended on it, and it’s quite possible that was the case.”
Greg Serrao of Andover was on the beach with his family to do some surfing, but the waves had been small, and they were getting ready to leave when he noticed the shark.
“At first it looked like the blue kayak was dragging something,” Serrao said. Then he noticed the fin.
“First, you could see six or seven inches of the dorsal fin, then you could see almost the whole dorsal fin, then you could see the whole back of the shark, that it was coming out of the water right behind him,” he said. “It was really trailing him.”
Serrao sent his son to notify the lifeguards while he ran to the shoreline and screamed at people to get out of the water. At first, he said, there was some confusion, people wondering who this man was yelling at them to get out of the water. Then he dropped the bomb – Shark! – and panic set in as parents dashed into the water to retrieve children.
Most people, he said, reacted quickly. But not the man in the blue kayak.
“I’ve seen pictures of me with the shark closing in, and I’m smiling, having fun,” Szulc said. “I had no clue.”
At that point, according to witnesses, the shark had been following him for about 100 yards.
When Szulc finally turned, Serrao said the look on his face was unmistakable. “Sheer terror,” he said. “And he just started paddling like crazy.”
Shelly Negrotti of Upton was standing on shore, taking pictures of her children playing Frisbee in the water — “I’m pretty notorious with the camera,” she said — when her daughter spotted the shark.
Her husband and others were waving frantically to Szulc, so she aimed her telephoto lens at the kayak, set the camera to continuous shooting mode, and fired away.
“That’s how I was able to get that one moment when he turned around,” she said of her photo, which has become an Internet sensation. “In my head, I kept thinking, ‘Go, go, go.’ I knew he would be OK as long as he didn’t tip.”
Szulc was thinking the same thing, but as he approached the shore, with the shark right on his tail, he hit the same wave break that had been flipping him all day.
Just as they were passing over a sandbar, Szulc saw the shadow break off out of the corner of his eye.
“Just as it turned right, I flipped over again,” he said.
His feet found the sand, the water was shallow, and that was when Szulc said he knew he had made it.
“If he was going to get me, he would have got me when he had the chance,” he said. “But I was still glad to see that shadow turn.”
Szulc credits the paddleboarder — identified by the Cape Cod Times as Dana Richardson of Orleans — with saving him. “That guy stood strong and didn’t waver,” Szulc said. “He pointed his paddle right at me.”
The two spoke afterward, and Szulc said Richardson told him he was heading out to him in case something happened. “He was there to grab me,” Szulc said. “I owe him.’’
Richardson told the Cape Cod Times the shark had briefly pursued him when he was paddling near Pochet, about a mile south of Nauset Beach, but turned away when he passed over a sandbar. He said he then paddled toward Nauset Beach to warn lifeguards, but when he saw the fin following the kayaker, he began yelling and waving his paddle.
Szulc’s cousin, Brian LaFrance, was out in deeper water in the other kayak, but headed in the other direction and exited the water without attracting the shark’s attention.
Shark sightings have become increasingly common off Cape Cod, a fact that specialists attribute to a growing population of seals, a favorite shark food. Last year, there were more than 30 great whites spotted off Chatham, just south of Orleans, where a healthy population of seals thrives. Experts advise staying as far away from the seals as possible. Blood, whether from bait fish or cuts, is also known to attract sharks.
Attacks on kayaks are rare — though a great white bit into a kayak off the coast of Santa Cruz, Calif., the same day as the Orleans event — but Greg Skomal, a shark specialist with the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said it is not uncommon for sharks to investigate any silhouette on the surface.
If attacked, experts advise aggressively defending yourself with whatever weapons are available, focusing blows on the eyes and gills, which are sensitive areas on a shark.Billy Baker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.