Relatives of a boogie boarder killed by a shark off the coast of California are reeling from his death as the gruesome attack sends shockwaves throughout the surfing community.
Tomas Butterfield, 42, of Sacramento, died on Christmas Eve in what’s believed to be the first fatal great white shark attack in San Luis Obispo County in 18 years, the Los Angeles Times reported.
“It’s a terrible loss, at 42, with him getting his stuff together and starting to make something of himself,” Butterfield’s uncle, Grant, told the newspaper.
Butterfield, whose death appears to be the lone fatal US shark attack in 2021, was visiting his mother in Morro Bay for the holidays and went to Morro Strand State Beach alone, his uncle said.
A surfer spotted Butterfield’s board “kind of bobbing in the water” near a popular surfing locale known as The Pit and paddled to it, Morro Bay Harbor Director Eric Endersby told the Times.
The woman saw a leash tied to the board and “tugged on it” before realizing a body was connected to it, Endersby said. She then grabbed Butterfield by his swim fins and pulled him back to the beach from chest-deep water, he said.
Up to 30 other people were nearby, but it’s unclear if anyone saw the fatal attack, which shut down waters near Morro Strand for 24 hours. Butterfield’s death remains under investigation, the Times reported.
The population of great whites off central California has surged in recent years, but encounters with humans remain extremely rare, shark experts told the newspaper.
“You have a better chance of winning the lottery,” said Christopher Lowe, professor of marine biology and director of the Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach.
Great whites — which reach lengths of 20 feet and weigh 3,000 pounds – have been spotted as far north as the Gulf of Alaska and as far south as near the equator, but central California has become their “primo habitat” due to plentiful elephant seals and sea lions, Lowe said.
“I really don’t think people need to be scared, but they do need to exercise good judgment,” he told the newspaper. “Sharks are coming back. There are more of them out there. The ocean is their home, and we’re guests in their home, but occasionally accidents do happen.”
A total of 199 documented shark encounters were recorded by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife between the 1950s and August 2021 – including 14 fatalities, the Times reported.
Just two days before Butterfield’s attack, two surfers were chased off by a shark at North Salmon Creek Beach in Sonoma County about 300 miles north. The last fatal shark attack in San Luis Obispo County occurred in August 2003, Endersby said.
Butterfield’s death at Morro Bay, about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, kept surfers away from the waters for days afterward, a surf shop owner told the Times.
“There have been a lot of surfers coming in the shop saying they’re not ready,” Mike Jones of Azhiaziam said.
Jones, 48, usually goes surfing twice a week but hadn’t been back in the water since Butterfield’s death and even refused to rent surfboards to customers for days, he said.
“I tell them, with the shark attack, we’re gonna let the water clear a few days,” Jones told the Times.
Butterfield, meanwhile, was working with his father at a medical equipment repair company and was an avid fisherman and surfer, his uncle said.
Grant Butterfield said Tomas’ father and brother were “pretty shattered” by his untimely demise. He also praised the woman who dragged his nephew’s body from the water.
“She doesn’t know it, but she’s obviously part of the family now,” Grant Butterfield said. “The possibility that his board might have gone farther out to sea and that he would have been missing forever and we wouldn’t have known anything.”