“Thar be no pyrates in these waters, but I warn ye, beware the sea lions, for they’re mischievous critters with a taste for blood…human blood…”
Having seen over eight-billion horror movies, I’m often asked what I think is the scariest movie ever made. My answer is always the same and always immediate—no need to mull it over—I know without-a-doubt that the scariest movie ever made is Jaws.
For those of you that haven’t seen the film, it’s about an extremely large, often excitable fish with the unpopular habit of converting frolicking, splash-happy teenagers into random chunks of floating sirloin.
Back in the summer of 1975 when the movie was new, it was considered quite intense. I was fifteen and my cousin Steve, who saw the movie with me, was fourteen. We saw it together on a hot Friday night in June, and then—with genius equaling that of a package of frozen hot dogs—we did the direct opposite of what you’d expect someone to do after witnessing vicious ocean-related carnage on the big screen: we got up at 4:30 a.m. the following morning and went surfing…in the ocean…where sharks live.
We got to the beach before daybreak. The moon was out giving off an eerie glow not unlike that of the opening scene of Jaws. The sea was unusually calm with waves almost too small to bother with, but every so often a decent sized swell would break making it surfable, but just barely.
As we waxed up our surfboards the sun began to bleed above the horizon and it became evident we were the only two people there aside from a lone Asian woman, pants rolled up to her knees, walking along the shoreline. Normally, there is at least a handful of other surfers, but probably due to the small waves, no one else showed up. I’m not very easily spooked, but I can tell you there are very few times in my life as creepy as the moment we began wading out into the water that morning.
That morning the ocean floor had developed what’s called a “sandbar.” What this means is that the ocean was much more shallow than usual and even though you were out past the waves, you could still stand on the sea bottom with the water level only reaching about chest high. This made it a lot easier because you didn’t have to paddle against the current and could simply walk out pushing your surfboard along the surface.
Once we got out there, we had to wait for a wave that was big enough to ride on. Finally, after about a half-hour, a moderately sized wave came along and Steve rode it all the way in to the beach, then he walked away from the water, stabbed the tail of his surfboard into the sand, and sat. He wasn’t coming back. The waves were just too small.
So, now I am way out there all alone in chest-high water, arms resting on my surfboard, waiting for a wave and thinking about Jaws. Fifteen minutes roll by, then something big—something alive and slippery—brushed up against my leg.
Believe it or not, my first thought was not that it was a shark, but that it was Steve who returned to play a cruel joke on me. I looked back to the shore and could see him lying on a beach towel next to his surfboard. This led to my second thought:
Shark experts in southern California are constantly telling us, “If you encounter a shark, do not panic! The worst thing you can do is freak-out and start splashing around like a wounded harp seal.” But, since there weren’t any shark experts around, I decided that “freaking-out” was the perfect solution.
The first thing I tried to do was get up out of the water and onto my surfboard.
Here’s an important, yet little known, fact about modern surfboards: if you are not skimming along the water, such as when hydroplaning along the face of a wave, a surfboard will not completely support your weight above water—in other words, it sinks.
I can see a dark form circling me and it’s big. Much bigger than anything I’ve ever encountered in my many years of surfing. I’ve seen sharks out there before, but usually they are maybe three-feet long; this thing is easily six-or-seven-feet long and swimming at high speed.
So there I am trying to keep all of my body parts out of the water by balancing on a sinking surfboard and I lose sight of the creature—I don’t know where it is and that’s almost as frightening as watching it circle me.
I hear a tremendous splash behind me, I turn to look and come face to face with it:
A sea lion.
I begin to relax, because, well, sea lions don’t generally eat humans. Besides, the way he’s looking at me reminds me of a large, but playful dog with long frisky whiskers and tiny ears.
Then, it sort of, “honked” at me.
The honk projected outward in a tremendous blast; it was a cross between a 146-decibel dog bark, an old-fashioned bicycle horn, and Captain Quint scraping his fingernails on the chalkboard in the Amity Island town hall.
The sound startled me so much that I lost my balance on the surfboard which caused it to pop out of the water and smack me in the face. Then the sea lion leaned toward me and honked again! Even louder!
It wants to bite me!
I jumped out of the water so fast that my shorts came off. Lucky for me, they got hung-up on my “leash”—a five-foot length of bungee cord that attaches at the ankle and to the surfboard so it won’t get away from you if you fall off—otherwise, I would’ve been stranded without swim trunks.
I paddled away faster than a jet-ski at full-throttle—no pants; no shame. I did not look back; I just kept paddling until I was scooping sand.
When I finally reached the shore, I stood up with my surfboard—shorts around one ankle—and walked herky/jerky Frankenstein style, completely naked, with my bathing suit flopping in the sand. The Asian woman, who saw the entire event, was standing right in front of me laughing hysterically and pointing at a part of my anatomy that, due to the cold water and furious terror, had shriveled up to the size of a Spanish peanut.
After frantically navigating my swimsuit back on, I quickly ran up to Steve and found him lying on his towel, snoring. I woke him up and told him the whole story, to which he stared at me in blank-faced silence for a long moment, then finally replied, “We should go see Jaws again…”