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Local News RARE, BUT DEADLY Encounters with great white sharks are ‘amazing and terrifying’ 8/21/03 By SCOTT HADLY NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER Your chances of dying from a dog bite are much greater than from an attack by a great white shark, but there are few things more frightening than an encounter with that arch predator. “It was both amazing and terrifying,” said Bill “The Reverend” Heet, a veteran urchin diver who had a close call last year with a huge shark near Point Conception. “It was almost like a visit from an alien. In some ways it felt like a gift, but I’m in touch with reality. I know how it could have ended.” Deborah Franzman was taking one of her regular swims along the Avila Beach pier Tuesday when she was bitten by a great white estimated to be between 15 and 18 feet long, officials from the San Luis Obispo Sheriff’s Department said Wednesday. The attack severed her femoral artery. Although lifeguards quickly pulled her to the beach, they were unable to save her, officials said at the news conference. Ms. Franzman’s death was the result of a rare attack by an exceedingly rare creature. Some estimates peg the number of great whites at slightly more than 100 off the coast of North America. In 1992, the shark was placed on the protected species list for the state of California, and is legally protected from unlawful killing or exploitation. Shark experts say more people are killed by dogs in a single year than have died from all shark attacks in the past 100 years. The fatal attack this week was only the 10th in the past 50 years and the first local attack since 42-year-old urchin diver Jimmy Robinson of Santa Barbara was killed by a great white in 1994 near San Miguel Island. But for all the attempts to demystify this highly evolved and increasingly endangered species, there is no denying the primal fear they engender. Mr. Heet said that after 26 years as a diver he was long overdue for an encounter. It was March 2002 when Mr. Heet and his partner, Jim Urquhart, decided to take advantage of good weather and dive for urchins south of Point Conception. Mr. Urquhart was tending the air line from the boat, “And Then Some,” while Mr. Heet surveyed the bottom. Water visibility was only about 10 feet. He was down about 10 minutes when he felt tugging on his air line. It suddenly got even darker, as if a big shadow had passed overhead. Looking up, he saw just a few feet above him what he first thought was a lumbering gray whale. He contemplated touching its belly, but didn’t want to spook it. He started counting “one one-thousand, two one-thousand,” to estimate its length, until he noticed its lateral fins. The shark’s belly was starkly white and Mr. Heet could see the muscles in its side and tail and its unmistakable tail fin. “I had all sorts of thoughts in my head,” he said. His mind racing, he shoved himself into a crevice in the rocks and stayed there for about 15 minutes. His air line had hooked on the shark’s lateral fin and it slowly turned. “Then I knew I had to swim back to the boat,” he said. “That was hard.” He swam about 200 yards on the bottom and then to the surface as calmly as he could. “It was like I had six people in my head all talking at the same time,” Mr. Heet said. He was thinking about the beauty of what he’d seen while envisioning his death by shark attack playing on the 6 o’clock news. When he got on the boat, his partner knew immediately what had happened. As he pulled off his gear, he kept repeating words like, “gigantic, large, huge, unbelievably huge.” He tried to compose himself and then said, “This could have been the date on my tombstone.” Then he threw up. Mr. Heet estimated the shark was between 19 and 21 feet. He was later told by people who fly helicopters out to the offshore oil rigs that they regularly spot a great white they’ve dubbed “Big Al,” and he believes that’s whom he crossed paths with. He didn’t dive the next day, but is diving regularly now. In the summer of 1975, when the movie “Jaws” came out, Rob Rebstock was a 23-year-old summer camp counselor at UCSB. Kids would come back and talk about the movie, which in 1975 had racked up enough ticket sales to make it the top grossing film of all time. “That’s all anyone was talking about,” said Mr. Rebstock, now a 51-year-old attorney in Santa Barbara. On July 23 of that year, Mr. Rebstock, his 15-year-old brother, his roommate Tom Hesseldenz, and friend Jeff Morris went diving for abalone near Point Conception. It was an exceptionally calm day and on the way out the group, riding in a leaky, 16-foot wooden boat, stopped to talk to commercial diver Gary Johnson and his partner. Mr. Johnson told them a great white had bit his fin and then circled him while he was gathering abalone off the bottom. With all the hype surrounding the movie and the natural animosity between commercial divers and recreational divers, Mr. Rebstock said they were a bit skeptical about the claim. They rounded Point Conception and decided to dive in an area called Perch Rock. Within moments of getting in the water – he was still treading water next to the boat – Mr. Rebstock was attacked. The shark came from underneath him, bit down on his legs and launched out of the water with Mr. Rebstock in his mouth. “I was just a few yards from the boat, my brother was still handing me some gear and it came up beneath me at a pretty good clip,” said Mr. Rebstock. “Its snout hit my right side slightly toward my back with the upper jaw coming down on my right thigh.” His lower left leg was caught by the bottom row of the shark’s teeth so that both his legs were clamped in its jaws as he was launched out of the water. “Imagine sitting on top of a rocket,” he said. He didn’t feel pain and he knew what was going on. He said he didn’t have time to experience terror. Although he definitely felt the attack, he didn’t have the view that his younger brother and friends did from the boat. “It was much more terrifying for them,” he said. They pulled him into the boat immediately. They were so stunned by the attack – and worried that their small boat could easily be overwhelmed by the huge creature – that they cut the anchor and motored out of the area as fast as they could. Rounding Point Conception, they took the boat all the way to the sand. One of the crew ran to find help among the oil workers who were stationed there at the time. “I was really lucky in how it attacked,” Mr. Rebstock said. Although he had a deep gash to the bone in his upper thigh, no arteries were cut. His friends stuffed a sweatshirt into the wound to slow the bleeding. It took several hours before he arrived at Lompoc Hospital for treatment, but he did not suffer any long-term physical or mental effects from the attack. “As soon as I could, I got right back on that horse,” said Mr. Rebstock, who spent the year after his first year of law school in San Diego, surfing, swimming and diving as much as he could. Since then he has been interviewed periodically by shark researchers. Anytime there is an attack he gets calls from friends or reporters. “It was scary but also unbelievably neat in that I came away mostly unscathed,” said Mr. Rebstock. “I was lucky.”