Thankfully, on a Coastal Walkers walk, it is extremely unlikely that you would be attacked by a great white shark. Perhaps an attack from Godzilla, would be only slightly more implausible.
Nevertheless, both our Lands End Walk and our Ft. Point to Baker Beach Walk does indeed skirt the shores of what is called the “Red Triangle”. This area off the coast of northern California extends from Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco, out to the Farallon Islands, and down the coast to Big Sur. This area encompasses a large population of marine mammals, such as sea otters, harbor seals, sea lions, and the extremely large elephant seals, all of which show up on the great white shark's dinner menu. In fact 38% of all recorded great white shark attacks in the U.S. have indeed occurred in the "Red Triangle", that’s 11% of the worldwide total for shark attacks! Now do I have your attention!
Indeed, the outer coastal waters have experienced a handful of great white shark attacks on the unwary surfer, diver, or kayaker, mostly along San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, but thankfully, while scary as hell, there have been almost no fatalities. Just one….way back in ’59….
Fatal Shark Attack at Baker Beach – May 7, 1959
It was a sunny afternoon on May 7, 1959, when 18-year old San Francisco State College freshmen, Shirley O’Neill and her new boyfriend Albert Kogler decided to go for a swim off Baker Beach.
As Shirley relates,
“We had been in the water for about 15 minutes, and about 30 yards from shore. We stood neck deep talking and cuddling and after a few minutes decided to return to shore. I was about to start swimming when I heard Albert scream! As I turned toward him I saw this great big fish hitting the surface of the water. The big fish was thrashing as Albert was fighting with this fish. It was then he yelled, “It’s a shark! Get out of here!”
On duty at the Presidio that fateful day, was Master Sergeant Leo P. Day who explained what happened next. “I could see the boy in the foaming red water, shouting and signaling someone to ‘go back, go back!’ Then I saw the girl, swimming toward him, completely ignoring his warning. It was the greatest exhibition of courage I have ever seen!”
“I did a few strokes toward shore and then thought, “I can’t leave him here” so I turned back and swam towards the commotion in the water. He was screaming like he was in great pain and for a moment I saw the great beast biting down on his chest. There was blood everywhere and poor Albert was howling even louder! It was an awful sound, but what was worse was I could literally hear the feeding sounds of the shark eating him alive!”
“Through the froth of blood a hand appeared and I grabbed and started to try to pull him away, but as his arm was almost detached from his body, I used it to get closer to the battling shark and Albert, to put my arm around Albert’s body and literally had a tug of war with the shark, which was showing no interest in me, but just continuing to bite down and rip his chest.”
“Finally the shark let go and I started towards shore with the bloody mess that was my boyfriend.”
With superhuman effort and unbelievable bravery she struggled for 20 minutes to drag him the 30 yards to shore as the shark continued to attack and rip at Albert’s body.
There were many people on the beach that day who witnessed the attack,
but none were brave enough to enter until Shirley got to knee deep water.
They lay Albert down in the sand and surveyed his injuries; one leg gone to the thigh, the other, a mess of strips of flesh and muscle hanging like old rags and blood pouring onto the sand. One arm intact and the other chewed off near the shoulder. The worst part was his chest, as the shark had bitten poor Albert nearly in half, as his whole bottom torso was missing, with all wounds bleeding profusely.
As they were on the sand, Shirley, a devout Roman Catholic, scooped up some sea water and let it run over the head of her boyfriend (who had never been baptized or belonged to no specific faith). “I baptize thee in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost,” said Shirley, making the sign of the Cross, and whispered to Albert, “Is that all right?”
“O.K.,” he gasped.
Just before Albert Kogler lapsed into unconsciousness he whispered, “I love God, and I love my father and mother. Oh God, help me.” Two hours later, at the Presidio’s letterman General Hospital, he died.
Note: Shirley O’Neill received national attention for her bravery. In July 1959, California Governor Edmund C. Brown nominated her for the Young American Medal for Bravery and it was presented to her by President John F. Kennedy on March 23, 1961 at the White House.