Cal Poly student with surfboard
Nick Wapner, a 19-year-old Cal Poly student, who was attacked by a great white shark at Montana de Oro on Tuesday. Wapner suffered cuts to his legs and received 50 stitches. He kicked the shark in the head to break free of its grasp on his ankles.  (David Middlecamp / San Luis Obispo Tribune photo)

For Nick Wapner, Tuesday morning at Montaña de Oro State Park was a typical day of surfing with friends as he paddled in for one of the last waves of the day off Sandspit Beach.

Wapner, a sophomore communications major at Cal Poly who has surfed since he was 4 years old, had met up with some fellow surfers to ride the waves.

Then, it happened.

At about 10 a.m. after about an hour in the ocean, Wapner said, a great white shark came up from beneath him as he paddled into position for an incoming set.

He didn’t even see a splash.

“It all happened quickly, but I turned and saw that it had one of my legs in its mouth,” Wapner said.

The shark bit down on the lower part of his legs around his ankles, and then up to his thighs. In a skirmish that he estimates lasted a few seconds — though his mind was racing and it’s hard to say exactly — Wapner kicked the shark hard in the head and wrangled himself free.

The experienced surfer said he didn’t feel any pain initially as adrenaline shot through his body.

After releasing him, the shark turned in a flash, leaving Wapner with a lasting, haunting image of its entire torso — giant head, massive jaws and beady eyes — as it pivoted away.

“The thing was huge,” Wapner said.

He estimated the predator to be 15 feet in length, with an 18-inch dorsal fin. Wapner believes the shark was biting out of curiosity and realized the object in its mouth wasn’t the taste it was looking for.

“I think between the fiberglass board and me, it realized pretty quickly it wasn’t a seal,” said Wapner, smiling, seated on a couch in his apartment garage in San Luis Obispo with crutches at his side. “Fiberglass isn’t too tasty, I don’t think. For the shark, it was probably just a play tap really, but for me it was a major ordeal.”

Getting to the beach

At the time of the attack, Wapner’s friends were already back on shore, and he recalled screaming to one, “I just got attacked by a shark!” as he paddled for the beach.

“My primary goal was to get to the beach as quickly as possible,” he said. “When I got to shore, I was just lying on the beach trying to process everything that just happened.”

He removed his wetsuit and wrapped towels around his bloodied legs. He briefly checked under his wetsuit booties covering his feet.

“I took a quick look and decided, ‘Yep, I better keep these booties on,’” Wapner said.

Limping, he made the five-minute walk on his own with a friend to the parking lot near the Sandspit trailhead.

Wapner and his friend both have lifeguard training, and determined no major arteries were damaged despite multiple cuts on his legs, some deep; he was conscious as one of his friends drove him to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo.

He received 50 stitches before being discharged in the afternoon.

A flood of calls

The past 24 hours have been a whirlwind.

On Wednesday morning, Wapner said he has received more than 100 calls and texts from friends, family, lifeguard coworkers and bosses, and members of the media.

He gets around his home on crutches while on painkilling medication and antibiotics, and his mother drove up from the Los Angeles area Tuesday afternoon to help him.

Wapner plans to take the rest of the week off of classes to rest and recover.

The 19-year-old grew up in Palos Verdes and regularly surfed at L.A.-area beaches, also serving as an ocean lifeguard at Huntington State Beach.

The thought of a shark attack sometimes would cross his mind, as it does most surfers and ocean swimmers, but he’d dismiss the notion fairly quickly.

“It’s such a low-probability event, that it never really seemed like it could be a reality,” Wapner said.

“I’m happy to be alive,” he added, looking back on the incident, and he’s tired but thankful it wasn’t worse.

His bandages cover incisions around his ankles and thighs, including one cut on the lower part of the leg that preserved the shape of the shark’s tooth.

“I’m still in shock,” he said. “I got off really lucky.”

Despite the terrifying close call, Wapner said he loves the ocean too much to stop surfing, adding that “it’s such a big part of my life.”

“I don’t hate sharks now or anything,” Wapner said. “We are in their home when we’re out there in the ocean. Sharks are part of the natural environment, and they help maintain a healthy ocean environment.”

Doctors told him it would take a couple of weeks until he could go back in the water, but it will likely be at least six months until he gets back to normal after sustaining some ligament damage from the bite.

For now, he’ll take it easy.

“I know I’ll continue to surf,” he said. “But I’ll just take it one day at a time.”

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