Originally published in The Press Democrat
By Matt Pera
Sitting on his surfboard during a lull between waves on Sunday morning off North Salmon Creek Beach, Eric Steinley felt something clamp down on his leg and drag him underwater.
“The feeling was very heavy, like swimming with a bag of bricks on you,” Steinley, 38, said Tuesday in a phone interview from his bed in the intensive care unit at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital.
“I reached down with my right hand and touched its massive face,” he said, recounting the shark attack just north of Bodega Bay that left him with severe injuries. “Then I grabbed it in the eye, not so much aggressively, just trying to figure out what it was.”
Realizing that a shark had latched onto him, Steinley began to wrestle himself free. He tried to punch the shark in the face, slicing his hand on its teeth, and then pushed it away.
After freeing himself from the creature’s jaws, Steinley righted himself on his board and paddled for shore, yelling out to warn the group of about 10 other surfers in the water that a shark was lurking among them.
Jared Davis, 25, had just caught a wave and was paddling back out when he saw a dorsal and tail fin lunge out of the water. Then he heard Steinley yelling, “Shark!”
Steinley caught up to Davis as they both headed for shore and the two strangers paddled next to each other “stroke for stroke,“ Steinley said.
Steinley estimated he was 50 yards from the beach, but the paddle in “felt like ages.” At one point, he glanced back at the blood pouring from his leg and thought he might never make it to the sand.
“He asked me, ‘How does it look?’” Davis recalled. “I said, ‘It looks OK. Don’t look back.’ And then I told him, ‘It’s going to be OK.’”
A wave crashed behind them and Steinley hooked into it, riding on his stomach as he took it all the way in. When he reached the sand, he crawled himself up away from the water’s edge.
Davis got there moments later. He unfolded the Velcro straps to detach the leash from his surfboard and looped the urethane cord around Steinley’s leg, tying it down to act as a tourniquet.
The other surfers, who had been scattered at different peaks along Salmon Creek Beach, got out of the water and rushed over to help.
One of them jogged up a cliff to his car and called 911. Another tied a second surfboard leash around Steinley’s leg. Somebody else grabbed a first aid kit and fished out a proper tourniquet.
The surfers heaved Steinley onto a longboard and carried him, lying on his stomach, up a staircase to the paved parking lot, just ashore of where he had been surfing. In the lot, they transferred him onto a bed of ice plant and began cutting off part of his wetsuit.
Lifeguards, firefighters and other first responders arrived moments later. Steinley was treated in an ambulance that had come from Bodega Bay before a CHP helicopter crew arrived and flew him to the hospital in Santa Rosa.
“I want to make sure everyone knows how thankful I am,” Steinley said, noting that he was grateful for the care he got from surfers, lifeguards, paramedics, doctors and others who helped out. “It was amazing to see all these guys in wetsuits marching me up the hill.”
On Tuesday, a surgeon at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital performed what was expected to be one of many operations on Steinley’s right leg. Doctors told Steinley that a nerve in his leg was severed, and partially crushed, during the attack.
Steinley said the shark’s teeth marks were imprinted in two places on his leg and one on his surfboard, a 6-foot-2 swallow tail that he often stored in the back of his Mazda 3 hatchback. He believes the shark chomped down three times during the attack.
Doctors told Steinley he’ll need to stay in the hospital for about another week and his recovery could take up to a year. He said he’s not sure his leg will ever be fully functional again.
But Steinley plans to surf again when he can. He grew up in Santa Rosa, where he now lives with his girlfriend, and has been surfing off the Sonoma Coast since he was a teenager.
He’s made the drive along Bodega Highway out to the coast about four days a week to hunt down waves, which he normally does alone.
“Surfing is such a big part of my life and it really calms me down,” Steinley said. “But I just don’t know if I’ll get that feeling anymore sitting out there. I’ll go out again in the future and see if it’s still there.”
Fellow surfers have started an online fundraiser to help pay for Steinley’s medical bills at bit.ly/3lbr4x9.
Officials with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife tested DNA the shark left behind on Steinley’s surfboard. On Tuesday, Steinley said the department confirmed the bite came from a great white shark that was at least 10 feet long, though officials were still waiting to measure the bite marks left on Steinley to get a better estimate of the creature’s size.
While shark attacks are extremely rare in California, they almost always involve great white sharks, according to the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Since records of sharks off the California coast began in the 1950s, the department has tallied 198 incidents when sharks touched people in the water. Great white sharks were involved in at least 176 of those, and were the culprit in all 14 of California’s fatal attacks.
State Park officials ordered beachgoers to stay out of the water at Salmon Creek Beach after the attack on Sunday, but the closure was lifted at 9 a.m. on Tuesday, according to Sgt. Tim Murphy, a Sonoma Coast State Park supervising lifeguard.
It was the fourth time in the past two decades that officials have closed Salmon Creek Beach because of “aggressive” shark encounters, Murphy said. In two of those cases, in 2002 and 2005, surfers were bitten and survived. Before Sunday, the most recent was in 2019, when a shark chomped on a woman’s surfboard leash. She was not injured.