.Man Dies from Shark Attack at Santa Cruz County Beach

A 26-year-old Santa Cruz County man died after being bitten by a shark in the waters just off Manresa State Beach on Saturday, May 9.

The victim was Santa Cruz resident and surfboard maker Ben Kelly.

He owned Ben Kelly Surfboards, which are sold worldwide, according to its website. The company has a production studio called Paradise Fiberglass on West Beach Street in Watsonville.

California Public Safety Superintendent Gabe McKenna says a lifeguard on patrol was flagged down at 1:29pm with a report that someone had suffered a shark bite. State Parks officials closed the waters one mile south and one mile north of the attack through May 13.

The attack occurred within 100 yards of the shore, according to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office

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Scores of tributes on social media poured into the Ben Kelly Surfboards Instagram page.

Sean Van Sommeran, executive director of the locally based Pelagic Shark Research Foundation, says he’s 99% sure the bite was from a great white shark, probably about 12 feet long. He says the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office is working to learn more by doing an autopsy, which will include DNA analysis.

Shark attacks, especially fatal ones, are rare, and this was the first known shark-related human fatality in Santa Cruz County. Van Sommeran stresses that sharks are not new to the area, but the arrival of juvenile white sharks in 2015 did attract a lot of attention, he recalls. The juveniles, which stick close to shore in the Manresa area, are harmless—as many local surfers have learned—says Van Sommeran, who didn’t personally know Kelly but has heard many stories about what a good guy he was. Van Sommeran says that the farther out a surfer ventures into the water, the more likely they are to run into sub-adult white sharks, which are more teenager-like. Those certainly could bite, but it’s still rare. Van Sommeran expects that ocean lovers will weigh the risks before they go out into the waves, just like they’ve always done.

The International Shark Attack File states on its website that fatal shark attacks are rare along the entire northern California coast. The organization, which tracks shark attacks, said there were only 64 unprovoked attacks on people worldwide in 2019. Three of them were in California.

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Tarmo Hannula
Tarmo Hannula has been the lead photographer with The Pajaronian newspaper in Watsonville since 1997. He also reports on a wide range of topics, including police, fire, environment, schools, the arts and events. A fifth generation Californian, Tarmo was born in the Mother Lode of the Sierra (Columbia) and has lived in Santa Cruz County since the late 1970s. He earned a BA from UC Santa Cruz and has traveled to 33 countries.
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