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Great White Shark Encounter: Death of a Skin Diver


There are annual reports of sharks attacking surfers, divers and, as of late, the lethal attack of a triathlete-in- training. The following account took place 50 years ago in Southern California waters and helped launch today’s intensive research and in-depth studies in shark behavior. I first read of the attack back in the early-seventies, possibly in “Blue Meridian” or “Blue Water, White Death.” The details in that first account were much the same as in the documented report available today. The major difference being the book claimed the surviving diver was beneath the surface when the Great White first appeared.

In June of 1959, Robert Pamperin and Gerald Lehrer took their girlfriends to the beach at La Jolla Cove, California. The women stayed on the beach while their boyfriends went into the sea in search of abalone, an edible mollusk found in the Pacific. Pamperin, age 33, and Lehrer, age 30 were free diving – using only masks, fins and snorkels. They were without wet suits. The water was estimated between 30 – 40 feet deep. The depth indicates the men were exceptional skin-divers.    

In their quest for abalone the pair slowly drifted apart by 15 meters or more.

Lehrer was near the sea floor when a very large shadow passed at extremely close range, blocking out a good deal of the sunlight filtering down. Looking up, Lehrer saw a huge fish with a white underside. Its large tail sweeping from side to side, the fish kept going, disappearing into a dense stand of kelp. A bit unnerved, Lehrer was making up his mind whether to continue searching for abalone or alert his buddy and head for ashore. Before doing either, he needed air.

After Lehrer shot to the surface, he heard Pamperin shout for help. Thinking his friend might be having a leg cramp he turned in the direction of the shout and saw his companion with his head up and unusually high above the surface, minus his mask. In the next instant, he saw his friend disappear beneath the surface. Lehrer swam quickly toward where he last saw his companion, took a breath and dove. Twisting and turning in a sandy pocket on the bottom, was a large shark, estimated to be 7 meters (approx. 23 ft.) in length.   Pamperin was in the shark’s mouth, his legs not visible, and being violently shaken from side to side. The predator’s large, triangular teeth – firmly clamped around Pamerpin’s torso, told Lehrer the shark was a Great White.   

After surfacing for air, Lehrer reportedly dove again, approached the shark and began waving his arms in a desperate and futile attempt to frighten it off.

Realizing there was nothing he could do, Lehrer swam toward shore. About fifteen yards from the beach he was met by an onlooker who had come to help. William Abitz had been standing on an elevated rocky point overlooking the attack sight. “He (Pamperin) was thrashing his arms and looked to be running from something. Then he went under,” said Abitz.

Within the hour a scuba diver dispatched from nearby Scripp’s Institute of Oceanography combed the sea floor and found no trace of the victim.

Further investigation revealed three events may have aroused the Great White.

Prior to Lehrer’s and Pamperin’s arrival at the cove, several fish had been taken by spearfishermen. Distress signals given off by speared fish may have been an attractant. Secondly, not far from La Jolla Cove was a harbor seal rookery, known prey of Great Whites. Lastly, and perhaps most significant, the previous evening a dead whale had washed up on the beach at La Jolla Shores, about a half-mile away. Currents and winds likely created a natural chum slick or “odor corridor” attracting the shark.        

Is the shark’s notoriety warranted? Do they swim about, endlessly looking to devour anything in their path?  

I’ve seen recent footage where a team of divers – one by one - exited a shark cage and swam among multiple Great Whites. The sharks, ranging in size from fourteen to sixteen feet, made what appeared to be curious, non-aggressive passes. Two of the divers actually placed their hands against the shark’s flanks as the big fish swam past.

Like any wild creature, sharks are unpredictable. And we play the percentages whenever we enter their realm.

Jeffrey R. Bartz

These are the kinds of stories that stick in my head and make me give an occasional look back while we're spearfishing. Your chances of getting struck by lightning are better than being attacked by a shark, yet we don't live in fear or give thought to being struck by lightning.

Feb 10, 2009, 11:39am Permalink

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