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Calif. swimmers, lifeguards use tourniquet to save shark bite victim

Lifeguards closed Del Mar Beach for 48 hours after the incident

By Jessica Garrison
Los Angeles Times

DEL MAR, Calif. — Cameron Whiting had just finished an easy 1.5-mile open-water swim and was bodysurfing Sunday morning off Del Mar Beach when a member of his swimming group began to scream.

At first, Whiting heard only the terror in her voice; then his mind processed that she was screaming, “Shark!”

One of the newer members of the swimming group — a 46-year-old man whose name has not been disclosed — had been attacked. The woman closest to him was yelling for help.

Since it was before 9 a.m. and lifeguards weren’t on duty, help would have to come from the swimmers nearest the man in distress. That was Whiting and another member of the group, Kevin Barrett. The pair were about 100 yards offshore, while most of the others were back on the beach and thinking of breakfast.

Barrett took off toward the man — and the shark — as quickly as he could. Whiting, 31, who had trained as an ocean lifeguard, quickly scanned the shore to make sure someone there was summoning help, then began to swim.

As he pumped his arms furiously, two fears battled in his mind.

The first was the realization that he was swimming directly toward an active shark attack. The second was his dread of what he might find when he got there. Would his fellow swimmer have all his limbs? Would he be alive?

“That is what scared me the most,” Whiting said. “To get to him and realize ...”

But when he had completed the approximately 50-yard swim, just behind Barrett, they found the victim conscious, limbs intact. He was, however, bleeding profusely.

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They were about 150 yards from shore; it was hard to imagine he could make it on his own. When they flipped him over, blood began to gush from his wet suit.

As they started to pull him toward the beach, a surfer paddled over and offered up his board.

They lifted him onto the surfboard, and Whiting climbed on behind to paddle. Barrett swam alongside, stabilizing the victim. The woman who had called for their aid followed behind.

“That’s when I started to see the full extent of the blood,” Whiting recalled. It was “gushing off both sides of the board, leaving a big streak” in the water.

Whiting paddled as quickly as he could. It went through his head that he was “surrounded by blood, and there’s a shark still out there.” The journey to shore “felt like an eternity but was probably a few minutes.”

Finally, they got to a place where they could stand. Rescuers hoisted the man and carried him, still prone on the board, up the beach.

By then, lifeguards — who had been nearby, waiting to go on duty — had come speeding to the scene.

They laid the victim on the back of the lifeguard truck to assess his injuries.

The victim said he had been bumped once by the shark, then bitten. Then the shark came toward him again. He tried to punch it, throwing his fist toward its nose and sustaining deep cuts to his arm in the process.

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He also had lacerations to the torso, from where the shark had bitten him on its first pass.

Whiting said he tried to shield the man from seeing the deep cuts in his chest.

They tied a tourniquet around his arm, then applied as much gauze as they could to the lacerations on his chest.

An emergency room doctor who had been walking his dog on the beach joined them, looked at the wounds and advised the rescuers to keep applying pressure.

Finally, the ambulance arrived.

As paramedics hoisted the man in, Whiting tried to offer reassurance, telling him he was going to be OK.

The man thanked him so calmly that Whiting wondered if he was in shock.

He was rushed to a hospital and is expected to survive. On Monday, he was awake and smiling.

In the wake of the attack, lifeguards closed Del Mar Beach for 48 hours. Officials urged the public to remain calm.

The ocean is full of sharks, and they rarely hurt humans, said John Ugoretz, environmental program manager for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. When they do attack, it is probably because they mistake the human for prey such as a seal or sea lion, scientists theorize.

“Since 1950, there have been 215 incidents in California with sharks,” Ugoretz said. “That’s less than three a year.”

Among them were 16 fatalities.

“It is incredibly rare to even encounter a shark,” Ugoretz said. “You are far, far, far more likely to be stung by a stingray.”

One thing is true, Ugoretz said: Reports of shark encounters that do not result in injuries are way up, but he doesn’t blame the sharks for that.

“Two decades ago, if someone got bumped and wasn’t injured, they might tell their friends,” he said. “Now they tell the whole internet.”

State data show that shark interactions that did not result in injuries began climbing around 2004. Facebook was founded the same year.

Jonathan Edelbrock, Del Mar’s chief lifeguard and community services director, said the conditions Sunday may have been confusing for sharks.

The light was low and the water was cloudy, he said, similar to the last time a shark attacked a human off Del Mar Beach, in November 2022. That swimmer also survived.

Whiting doesn’t intend to let the incident keep him from the ocean. In fact, he said, some of the swimmers in his group are already planning to get back in the water, albeit at a different beach.

“We’re all passionate about being out in the ocean,” he said.

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