A diver scouting for sea urchins in the waters off San Miguel Island was killed Friday in an attack by what was believed to be a great white shark--the state's first confirmed death from a shark attack in nearly six years.
Veteran diver James Robinson, 42, was treading water near his boat when the shark swooped in for a swift attack about 70 miles from Ventura, west of the Channel Islands.
Robinson had just finished a routine dive to scout for sea urchins and had deposited his equipment on board his boat. His two crew members were putting away the equipment when they heard Robinson scream--and whirled around to see him drifting unconscious in a gush of blood.
"His right leg was nearly severed, and his left leg had puncture wounds on it," said Francis Oliver, a diver who came to Robinson's aid after hearing his crew mates' distress call. "It was pretty gruesome."
A Santa Barbara resident, Robinson was attacked about 9:45 a.m. a half-mile off the coast of San Miguel Island.
Crew members on Robinson's boat, the Florentia Marie, tried to revive him but could not find a pulse. A Coast Guard helicopter rushed Robinson to Goleta Valley Community Hospital, where he was pronounced dead of massive trauma at 11:15 a.m.
No one spotted the shark or witnessed the attack. But Coast Guard officials said they believed Robinson was targeted by a great white, a keen-eyed predator that can grow up to 20 feet long and can sink its serrated teeth through a surfer and surfboard in one mammoth bite.
"They say it's like a bullet . . . you never see the one that hit you," said urchin diver Jeffery Gunning. "I just hope it went quick for Jimmy."
Before entering the sea urchin business, Robinson had worked for years as a deep-sea diver for an offshore oil rig in the North Sea near the English Channel.
After settling in Santa Barbara, he quickly absorbed the laid-back California lifestyle.
Deeply tanned, with blond curly hair and an athletic build, Robinson loved surfing and diving--any activities that would keep him in the sun or in the water. Gracious and vivacious, Robinson was popular both in the harbor and in the neighborhood.
"He was one of the most likable people you could ever imagine," diving buddy Paul Kuhn said. "He always had a bunch of friends around him."
Robinson spent hours helping a 10-year-old neighbor, Matthew Pappas, with a school project on sea urchins. And he routinely bailed out sailors or divers who encountered trouble on the ocean, friends said.
"You always hear about the good dying young, and golly, this guy was just one of the best," longtime diver Steve Rebuck said. "He will really be missed."
All divers know that great white sharks haunt the waters around San Miguel Island, where they feast on seals and sea lions. But the ever-present threat has not deterred divers from prowling the ocean floor for pricey sea urchins, abalone and lobsters.
"If you're frightened by it, you have no business being in the business," Rebuck said. "More people are killed by lightning and beestings than by shark attacks."
Great white sharks bump, bite and scare several people a year in California. Just last August, a 2,000-pound great white rammed a fishing boat near Santa Cruz Island, hitting the hull hard enough to scrape off the blue paint.
But no one was injured in that attack. And indeed, fatalities are rare--sharks have killed only eight people off California shores since 1926.
The last fatal attack in California came in February, 1989, when UCLA graduate student Tamara McCallister was killed by a great white off the shores of Malibu.
A kayaker, McCallister was found dead with a 13-inch chunk of flesh torn from her thigh. Her boyfriend disappeared on the same kayaking excursion, and his body was never found.
In a more recent incident, a woman's shark-bitten body was found off the San Diego coast in April. But the county coroner said 25-year-old Michelle Von Emster may already have been dead when the great white gnawed at her body.
To protect themselves from attack, veteran divers usually descend to the ocean floor as quickly as possible. Once on the bottom, they can hide among rocks and shadows. Eventually, however, they must rise to the surface, where their wet-suited bodies are exposed and vulnerable.
"It's one of the risks of diving," Gunning said. "We become part of the food chain when we enter the water."
As a precaution, several divers in Northern California have begun to tuck plastic pistols in their wet suits before jumping into shark-infested waters, Rebuck said.
But many locals rely on a more low-tech survival technique: When face-to-face with a great white, they "say three Hail Marys and four Our Fathers," diver Matt Barnes said.
In the waters around San Miguel Island, divers have learned to check for sharks by studying the behavior of the sea lions and seals that carpet the beaches. If the animals look spooked--or if any appear mauled--the divers know to stay away.
Even the best precautions, however, are not fail-safe.
Sharks sometimes attack humans out of pure curiosity, marine biologist Gary Davis said. And they sometimes confuse wet-suit-clad divers for sleek seals.
"They spend a lot of time bumping things on the surface and seeing if anything falls off," Davis said. "If it does, they taste it to see if it's something good to eat."
Divers are willing to face such risks in part because the sea urchin business can be quite lucrative. Divers earn anywhere from $1 to $1.60 for a pound of the prickly animals, which look like bristling pincushions.
Sea urchin roe is a delicacy in Japan, prized for its rarity, freshness and delicate taste. And prices tend to rise in December, when Japanese companies traditionally throw parties featuring the roe.
With the market soaring, several divers said they will eagerly return to the ocean, despite the attack on a well-liked comrade.
"It's a freak accident," Ventura diver Chris Michalak said. "It's not going to discourage anybody from getting in the water tomorrow."
Times staff writers Constance Sommer and Julie Fields and correspondents Kay Saillant, Paul Elias and Jan Stevens contributed to this story.
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A Dangerous Predator
A commercial diver died Friday after an assault by a great white shark in the waters off San Miguel Island--the first confirmed shark fatality off the California coast in nearly six years. Although 36 shark species can be found off California, most attacks involve the great white. Here is a look at the great white attacks and some tips for avoiding contact:
Safe Swimming Rules
1. Never swim, surf or dive alone.
2. Never swim with an open wound or near fishing areas. Blood may attract sharks.
3. Leave the water immediately if a shark is sighted. Swim as smoothly as possible; thrashing movements may attract a shark.
4. Avoid places with a history of shark attacks.
5. Stay away from areas where marine mammals enter and leave the water. Sharks may be attracted to these areas.
Since 1926, great white sharks are suspected in a total of 71 attacks on humans in California waters, including three attacks in 1993 and two in 1994. Eight of the attacks were fatal.