After fatal shark attack, surfers grapple with a return to the water
WELLFLEET — In Olaf Valli’s nearly two decades surfing the Cape’s beaches, nothing could keep him out of the water.
Not the jarring crashes and sprained appendages. Not the area’s notoriously unpredictable currents or its bitter cold; he remembers a day of surfing so frigid it took him nearly an hour to regain enough feeling in his hands to grip his keys and start the car. Even the terrifying time a rip current carried him so far from shore that he believed he would die alone at sea didn’t stop him from going right back in.
But then came the day last month at Newcomb Hollow Beach, when 26-year-old Arthur Medici died in the state’s first fatal shark attack in more than 80 years. Valli had been surfing in that very spot just an hour before. And for the first time in his life he found himself facing a previously unthinkable question.
Was it time to stop surfing on the Cape?
“I’m not the kind of person that tends to overreact,” said Valli, 38. “But I really had to sit down and think about whether I should keep doing it.”
News of the death has left this tranquil beach town predictably shaken, prompting calls for seal and shark culling and a town hall meeting that drew hundreds of worried residents. Perhaps nowhere has the unease been more apparent than among local surfers, a breed whose dedication to getting in the ocean — at almost any risk — is legendary.
In the weeks since the attack, evidence of this soul-searching is everywhere here and in the collection of beach towns dotting the outer Cape. It’s in the suddenly empty surf lineups at dawn and dusk. And in the array of shark-deterrent gadgets quickly filling the shelves of local surf shops — and just as quickly flying off them.
It’s there, too, in the mental calculus being carried out in the minutes before each potential session, as once carefree surfers attempt to determine just how much a good wave is truly worth.
“Right now,” said Phil Clark, a lifelong surfer from Eastham, “I’m looking at it from the beach and going, ‘Is it good enough to risk your life?’ ”
Surfers say their foreboding has been building for several years as shark sightings around the Cape have soared and as they came to think of a fatal attack as inevitable.
Last month’s tragedy, however, transformed the hypothetical into the real.
Some surfers reacted immediately, either swearing off any future surfing on the Cape or electing the other extreme, returning to the waves the very next day. “Like getting on the horse after you’re thrown,” as one surfer put it.
But most have found themselves agonizing over a choice between a sport they see as a way of life and a new kind of risk they don’t yet know how to compute.
“There’s really no precedent for what happens going forward,” said Mike Archer, a longtime surfer and manager at the Boarding House surf shop in Hyannis.
Surfers talk about standard precautions to avoid a shark attack: Don’t surf when it’s foggy. Avoid going out at dusk and dawn. Always go in groups. But part of what made last month’s attack so jarring was that the victim seemed to have been doing everything right. Medici had been out at midday, a time when shark activity is believed to be less significant, and he had a friend with him.
Clark quickly returned to the water the week after the attack, a lifetime spent surfing too much of a pull. But when his 13-year-old grandson clamored to get back in, too, Clark — who owns the Nauset Surf Shop — resisted, too uncomfortable to take responsibility for the boy’s safety.
“I’ll take the risk for myself,” he said. “But I don’t want to take him there.”
Sitting in his small surf shop in Orleans one recent afternoon, lifelong surfer Shawn “Vec” Vecchione, 46, shook his head as he considered this new normal.
A night earlier, he’d attended a class on how to properly use a tourniquet. On the stoop outside his shop, his black wetsuit lay on a sheet of cardboard, ready for him to paint white stripes on it; he’d heard the contrasting colors might deter sharks.
Shark danger is unlikely to go away anytime soon. Populations are thought to be increasing. Vecchione said that during one hour after exiting the ocean after a recent surfing session, he counted 10 sharks in the water — more than he’d ever seen before.
He wonders: Is this a game-changer?
It’s a question that was playing itself out in Valli’s mind as he stood behind the counter of his shop last week.
On one hand, he said, he is a husband and father, with three young children who depend on him.
On the other, he owns a surf shop, Sickday, in Wellfleet, and runs a surf school. The store and school are his livelihood and passion. Getting rid of the business just isn’t an option. How, then, could he run a shop in good conscience if he is too nervous to get in the water himself?
“I couldn’t do it,” he said. “It would feel wrong.”
And so he was doing his best to arm himself and the other surfers who populate the area’s beaches with whatever knowledge and gear might keep them safe. He’s been stocking his shop with a variety of products that claim to deter sharks, typically devices that can be strapped to an ankle or surfboard and emit electrical or magnetic fields.
Because such devices are still largely unproven, Valli stood at a microphone at the recent meeting in Wellfleet and quizzed a panel of shark experts on the technology’s effectiveness. He’s also considering a life insurance policy.
But for now, at least, he intends to keep surfing, placing his trust in a pair of shark-deterrent gadgets and a pre-surf prayer that has recently undergone something of an overhaul.
“In the past, if I’m being honest, it was Let me look good,” Valli said.
“Now, it’s Keep us safe.”