SOLANA BEACH, Calif. — It was a perfect spring morning for an ocean swim.
With the sun shining in a clear blue sky, Dave Martin and his triathlon training group swam past the surfers at Tide Beach on their regular Friday course through cool glassy waters about 150 yards out.
Somewhere below, a shark — presumed to be a great white — was lurking, possibly on the hurt for a seal or sea lion. It struck around 7 a.m., charging at Martin from below and lifting him vertically out of the water, both legs in its jaws, its serrated teeth slicing deep, fatal gashes.
"They saw him come up out of the water, scream 'shark,' flail his arms and go back under," said Rob Hill, a member of the Triathlon Club of San Diego, who was running along the beach when the attack happened.
Martin, 66, was rescued by two swimmers who had been 20 yards ahead. They raced back and dragged him to shore in a little cove shielded by 50-foot bluffs. A lifeguard truck took Martin up to a lifeguard station on the bluff where he was pronounced dead at 7:49 a.m.
A terrifying but rare attack
Martin, a retired veterinarian, was the victim of a terrifying but exceptionally rare attack. Only person worldwide died in a confirmed, unprovoked shark attack last year, though the annual average in recent years is about four, according to the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File.
Authorities immediately closed eight miles of popular beaches for 72 hours, heading into a warm weekend. Red emergency helicopters flew over the blue swells trying to track the shark, though experts said the chances of finding it were slim.
"The shark is still in the area. We're sure of that," said Joe Kellejian, mayor of Solana Beach, a quiet suburb of 13,000 people and million-dollar homes.
Martin's family members visited the lifeguard station in small groups, emerging in tears, before his body was transported to the county medical examiner's office. A man who identified himself as Martin's son answered the telephone at Martin's home a few blocks from the beach but declined to comment on the attack.
A shark expert who examined Martin's body said sharks mistake humans for seals or sea lions. They attack with a single disabling charge and then retreat while their target bleeds to death.
"It's just very bad luck for that one man," said Richard Rosenblatt, a professor emeritus of marine biology at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.
Surfers reported seeing a stranded seal pup on the beach Friday before the attack. Lifeguard Craig Miller said he did not know whether there had been pods of seals or sea lions in the kelp beds nearby.
Bite suggests a great white shark
Rosenblatt said he believed the bite pattern on Martin's legs indicated the shark was almost certainly a great white that may have been 12 feet to 17 feet long. Female sharks sometimes come to Southern California waters to pup, he said.
Surfers were astonished.
Scott Bass of Encinitas, an editor at Surfer Magazine, was paddling when the attack happened but didn't see it. Helicopters flew overhead, announcing, "There's been a fatal shark attack. Go in immediately."
"It was totally surreal," said Bass.
Friends and acquaintances wandered down to the beach as word of the death spread. Martin, a Solana Beach resident since 1970, was well-known to neighbors.
"He was down here all the time," said fellow triathlete Hill. He said club members had been swimming there for at least six years and had never seen a shark.
Hill said Martin was mangled when he was brought in to shore. "The flesh was just hanging," he said.
Ira Opper of Solana Beach saw Martin's body arrive at the lifeguard station. His "burly and athletic" frame had a black wetsuit that was shredded on both legs beneath blood-soaked gauze bandages.
Paramedics worked on Martin for at least 20 minutes before he was declared dead, Opper said.
Last fatal attack was in 2004
The last fatal shark attack along California took place on Aug. 15, 2004, in Mendocino County at Kibesillah Rock, according to the state Department of Fish and Game. The victim was a man diving for abalone with a friend.
On Aug. 19, 2003, a woman swimmer was killed by a great white at Avila Beach in San Luis Obispo County on the central California coast.
The last fatal shark attack along San Diego County was in April 1994.
Overall, shark attacks are extremely rare. There were 71 reported worldwide last year, up from 63 in 2006, according to the International Shark Attack File.
Sharks are highly migratory, making it unlikely that Friday's attacker poses additional risk to swimmers, said George Burgess, a biologist at the university. Still, other sharks may lurk.
"It's not any more dangerous than it was yesterday or the week before," Burgess said. "The reality is when you enter the sea it's a wilderness experience. There are animals out there that can and do occasionally do harm to us."
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