‘We lost Tom’: Deadly shark attack in Morro Bay devastates family, alarms surfing community

Grant Butterfield was watching the movie “Elf” at a dinner party on Christmas Eve when his brother’s name appeared on his cell phone.

Butterfield thought he was calling to wish her happy holidays and answered happily.

“We have lost Tom,” his brother said.

His brother’s son, Tomas, was only 42 years old. Butterfield wondered what the hell had happened. A heart attack? A car accident?

It turned out that Tomas Butterfield died in the place he loved the most: the sea. He was bodyboarding in Morro Bay that morning when a great white shark killed him in what the we think we are the first lethal shark attack in San Luis Obispo County for 18 years.

The victim of the attack near Morro Rock was publicly identified by his uncle last week.

California State Parks confirmed his identity on Thursday. Butterfield, of Sacramento, was about 100 yards off Morro Strand State Beach when he was killed on December 24, the agency said in a statement. The death is still under investigation.

“It’s a terrible loss, at 42, with him putting his things together and starting to do something on his own,” said Grant Butterfield, 74. The family “is going to be fine … but even then, it’s a tough time keeping it together.

Tomas was visiting his mother in Morro Bay for the holidays and went to the beach alone on Christmas Eve morning, his uncle said.

At around 10:40 a.m., another surfer spotted a bodyboard “sort of in the water” near a surf spot dubbed The Pit and paddled to it, said Eric Endersby, Morro Bay Harbor Manager. .

The woman saw a leash attached to the board. She “pulled on it and felt a weight” and realized it was connected to a body underwater, Endersby said. She grabbed Butterfield by his swim fins, pulled him through the water to his chest and took him to the beach, he said.

There were around 25 to 30 people around, Endersby said, but it is still unclear if anyone witnessed the attack.

Late in the morning, Butterfield’s mother and older brother – who had just arrived for vacation from out of town – called her, getting no response.

They hit the beach around noon, Grant Butterfield said. They saw emergency vehicles at the water’s edge and “a huge flock of first responders.”

“I think they knew,” he said.

Authorities shut off the waters near Morro Strand for 24 hours. Signs remained in place throughout this weekend indicating flashing warnings: FATAL SHARK ATTACK and ENTER THE WATER AT YOUR OWN RISK.

The population of great white sharks off the coast of central California has increased in recent years, but violent encounters with humans – especially fatal attacks – are extremely rare, said Christopher Lowe, professor of marine biology and director of the Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach. .

“You have a better chance of winning the lottery,” he said.

Tall whites tend to be viewed as dangerous to humans, given the national headlines the attacks garner. But – like the recent advent of drone photography and advanced tracking technology has shown it – they swim just off beaches, close to people, “almost daily” without incident, Lowe said.

The population has grown since the state protected the great whites in 1994 and banned the use of gillnets in coastal waters, Lowe said.

Great whites, which can grow up to 20 feet long and weigh around 3,000 pounds, have been spotted as far north as the Gulf of Alaska and south near the equator, he said. They are usually found in temperate or subtropical waters.

California’s central coast – where animals can easily find the elephant seals and sea lions they hunt – has become a year-round “pristine habitat” for them, Lowe said.

Sharks don’t often bite humans, he said, but when they do, it’s usually because they mistake them for their typical prey or because they feel threatened.

As the climate changes and the ocean warms, sharks expand their range, appearing further north in greater numbers, Lowe said.

“I really don’t think people have to be afraid, but they have to exercise good judgment,” he said.

Sharks are coming back. There are more of them there. The ocean is their home, and we are guests in their home, but sometimes accidents happen.

There have been 199 documented shark encounters with humans – in which a shark approached and touched a person or their surfboard, kayak or paddleboard – from the 1950s through August 2021, according to the report. California Department of Fish and Wildlife data. Of these encounters, 14 were fatal.

Two days before Tomas Butterfield’s death, two surfers were chased by a shark off the beach in North Salmon Creek, just north of Bodega Bay in Sonoma County.

“Holy shit, we were terrified because it wasn’t backing down”, Timothy Reck from Sevastopol told the Santa Rosa Democratic press. Reck said he and another surfer escaped after the shark bit the leash of one of their surfboards.

In October, another surfer was seriously injured off the beach in North Salmon Creek when a great white shark tight on her leg.

Endersby, the Morro Bay harbor manager, said he believed the last fatal shark attack in San Luis Obispo County was in August 2003, when a 50-year-old woman was killed on the nearby beach of Avila. The woman allegedly swam in a dark wetsuit and was mistaken for one of the seals or sea lions – food sources for a variety of sharks – seen near her.

Endersby said he has seen sharks in the water while surfing twice in recent years. The 29-year-old port worker said he was often asked if the water was safe.

“My answer is always, ‘It’s never safe or dangerous; it’s like that.’ It’s just the wilderness, and you need to be aware that there are dangers. It’s like the mountains – there are bears and pumas. There are snakes in the foothills.

Butterfield’s death sent shivers down the spine of the Morro Bay surfing community.

Mike Jones, owner of surf shop Azhiaziam, said that was the main topic of conversation in his store. For days after the attack, the waters were exceptionally devoid of surfers.

“There have been a lot of surfers who have come into the store saying they’re not ready,” Jones said.

Jones, 48, grew up in the area and typically goes surfing two to three times a week. But he hadn’t been back in the ocean for a week after the attack.

Since he was it rained these last daysThe water is cloudy, making it harder for sharks to distinguish between humans and prey, Jones said. He refused to rent surfboards to customers for several days.

“I tell them that with the shark attack, we will leave the water clear for a few days,” he said.

Grant Butterfield said his nephew had always loved the ocean.

Tomas Butterfield was born in Pittsburg, California. After his parents divorced, he and his older brother, Ben, moved with their mother to Ketchikan, Alaska, where Tomas attended high school and was drawn to the water, his uncle said.

At the time of his death, Tomas was living in Sacramento, working for his father in a medical equipment repair company, Grant said. Tomas and his brother were extremely close, and the two lived for a short time in their twenties in Puerto Rico, constantly fishing and surfing.

“Tomas had a very ironic sense of humor,” Grant said. “If you could make her belly laugh, that was pretty remarkable. If he thought he was smart and cute, you’d have that little smile on his face, his little smile aside.

Tomas’ mother, Grant said, “is deeply invested in the Catholic Church in Morro Bay” and has a good support system to help her through the tragedy. Her father and brother are “quite broken”.

Grant said he would be eternally grateful to the woman who lifted his nephew’s body from the water.

“She doesn’t know it, but she’s obviously family now,” he said. “The possibility that his board had gone further out to sea and that he would be gone forever and we wouldn’t have known -”

He choked. It was too hard to finish the thought.

Times editors Gregory Yee and Andrew J. Campa contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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