The Ventura County coroner said Sunday that a young woman whose body was found floating in the ocean near Ventura may have been the victim of an extremely rare shark attack, possibly the first such fatality in California waters in four years.
The body of the unidentified woman, believed to be a windsurfer, was spotted Saturday about six miles off Channel Islands Harbor by the crew of a sailboat, Coroner Warren Lovell said. Crew members of a Coast Guard vessel retrieved the body.
An examination showed that the woman, believed to be between 18 and 26 years old, had sustained a "classic shark bite," which gouged a 13-inch-wide chunk of flesh from the front of her left thigh. Lovell said the woman also sustained several other superficial bite wounds and a fresh "defensive-type" bruise to the back of her right hand, as if she had tried to stave off a lunging shark.
No Evidence of Drowning
She had been dead one to two days, according to the coroner.
"The lungs did not show any of the classic findings of drowning," Lovell said. "This was about as likely a fresh bite case as I've ever seen. It would appear that the bites occurred before" the victim died.
"She was a gorgeous young girl," Lovell said. "It's a real shame."
The woman had short brown hair and was wearing a blue and black Spandex swimming suit, with a blue and black zip-up jacket. She was wearing a ring on her right hand and single-stone ear studs.
"Based on the way she was dressed, we think she might have been windsurfing," Lovell said.
A check of law enforcement agencies along the California coast found that none has fielded any report of a missing person matching the victim, the coroner said. Nor have there been any reported shark sightings in the area.
Shark attacks in Southern California are extremely rare, particularly when compared to the number of attacks that have occurred along the state's central and northern coast.
Records show that California's last fatal shark attack took place in September, 1984, when a diver searching for abalone was attacked off Pigeon Point, about 40 miles south of San Francisco. The diver was attacked about 150 yards offshore by what his partner described as a 12- to 15-foot great white shark, which bit him on the upper legs and buttocks.
Between 1926, when California officials began keeping such records, and 1984, six other people are known to have been killed by sharks. In five of those instances, the shark was believed to be a great white.
Shark expert John McCosker, director of the Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco, said Sunday that the attack reported in Ventura County was a "classic white shark scenario." Such fish, he said, can exceed 20 feet and 3 1/2 tons, although most attacks have involved great whites that were 10 to 18 feet in length.
"If this was, in fact, a great white attack, it would be the first that we know of to have occurred south of Santa Barbara," McCosker said.
In 1959, a diver was killed in an attack off La Jolla in San Diego, but witnesses said the fish was most likely a tiger shark, he noted.
In all, there have been 50 fatal and non-fatal shark attacks in California waters since 1926, McCosker said.