Solana Beach is neither a beach nor, for the most part, a typical Southern California tourist destination. Rather, it is a laid-back slouch of a city about 20 miles north of San Diego. But it does have beaches, and on Sunday, around lunchtime, several unfamiliar vehicles pulled into the parking lot of the city's main waterfront area, Fletcher Cove Park.
Many of the vehicles were TV station vans, their satellite transmitters hoisted like mechanical battle flags. Out of the assorted automobiles poured reporters and burly camera guys, the latter adept at shouldering aside the former for best position at a press conference. At this particular press conference, we were to hear from the family of amateur triathlete David Martin, 66, whose legs were chewed apart by a shark as he was swimming in the Pacific on Friday morning, and who died from blood loss a few minutes later, probably before his swimming companions could pull his snow-white body to shore. His family had agreed to speak to the media after two days of mostly respectful but unsettlingly urgent requests from around the globe for shark-kills-man details. Something like 100 news outlets had telephoned.
The media was fascinated because shark attacks are sickeningly grisly and cosmically rare. Your chances of being killed by a shark in any given year are about 1 in 280 million, according to the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis. Your chances of dying in a car accident are about 1 in 6,700. In other words, you would have to swim in the ocean 41,000 times a year (or 112 times a day, or seven times every waking hour) before swimming in shark habitats became as dangerous as driving your car a single time. As my colleague Amanda Ripley points out in her forthcoming book The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why, humans are kicking ass in the shark-human war: we kill at least 26 million of them every year, and they kill about six of us.
That's one reason local officials' response to Martin's death was so transparently silly. For 72 hours, they banned ocean swimming along a 13-mile swath from South Carlsbad State Beach to Torrey Pines State Beach. That's like a ban on leaving your home after a thunderstorm. Actually, statistically speaking the latter ban would make more sense: Your chances of dying after being struck by lightning are 1 in 3 million, about 93 times more likely than dying after an altercation with a shark.
And yet we have this sense, perhaps born of Jaws in 1975 and nurtured by its three sequels, that sharks lurk in an area, waiting to eat us as revenge for Roy Scheider's oceanic wickedness. It's not true; sharks attack and move on. The shark that bit into Martin probably a 15- to 16-foot great white, according to a marine scientist quoted in Sunday's San Diego Union-Tribune, was probably a bit dim. The animal likely mistook Martin, who was clad in a black wetsuit, for a seal. Some here are even wondering if, in a way, the seals are actually responsible for Martin's death: in the last few years, seals have overtaken a local coastal area known as Children's Pool. San Diego County residents are in the midst of a heated debate over whether that beach should be cleared of the infiltrating seals so that humans can swim there once again. Environmentalists feel that Children's Pool should be established as a seal sanctuary. Martin's death scored a point for the anti-seal forces.
These arguments seem inconsequential when you take a walk along the Fletcher Cove beach. It's not the white-sanded littoral paradise of a thousand movies but a grungy, rock-strewn place. A municipal storm drain releases onto the main part of the beach, and a sign warns that the water issuing from it may be unhealthy. The ugly concrete drain structure is maligned by graffiti "Rizzo [hearts] Jenny" and gnats attack any exposed skin as soon as you set foot on Fletcher Cove sand. Big, bulbous, black stink bugs fearlessly investigate your feet as soon as you sit; if you let them, they'll crawl right up your leg. At the press conference on Sunday, Solana Beach public-safety director David Ott uttered words of wisdom: "This is a marine environment. It's the ocean. It's their environment," he said. Just so.
Ott has had to tamp down ditzy media speculation that his overzealous officers have been searching for the offending shark. He admitted that helicopters were monitoring the waters, but only so that officials could advise illegal swimmers of any shark activity. They know that the shark that attacked Martin is long gone.
Helicopters? One can forgive the overreaction. Martin's death has shocked this town, which has searched for the appropriate response. One good response: the city will be working with the Martin family to establish a website where people from around the world can post condolences.
When Martin's family finally appeared at the press conference on Sunday, reporters pocketed BlackBerrys and iPhones and stood at attention with voice recorders. The family and some friends, 15 in all, filed out one by one from behind the city's lifeguard headquarters. Many were carrying solitary sunflowers, and most of the Martin women wept quietly. The men were stoic. Dave Martin's son Jeff, 41, stepped forward to speak. He gave some prepared remarks about how the family appreciated the outpouring of grief but yearned for privacy. Afterward, a reporter asked whether the family would stop swimming in the ocean, and Jeff Martin said quickly: "No."
"Can you elaborate on that?" the reporter asked.
"I went surfing yesterday. Does that help?" Martin said, a bit sharply. "I'm taking my boys out tomorrow." There was little left to say. The reporters began to melt away. In the distance, the sun still dazzled the ocean.