A woman swimming with seals near a pier on this picturesque central California beach was killed Tuesday, apparently by a shark attack, authorities said.
Port San Luis Harbor District operations manager Casey Nielsen said officials were working with wildlife experts to confirm what type of animal killed the swimmer in the 8:15 a.m. attack. But the woman’s wounds, along with eyewitness accounts, were all consistent with a shark attack, said California Department of Fish and Game spokeswoman Chamois L. Andersen.
The victim, whose name was withheld, died at the scene, San Luis Obispo County sheriff’s Sgt. Robin Weckerly said.
The woman, believed to be in her 50s, was swimming about 75 yards offshore in a full wetsuit and swim fins when she was attacked, possibly after being mistaken for a seal, Andersen said.
"Her friend on the beach noticed she was swimming with some seals," Andersen said. "All of a sudden, the seals dispersed rapidly and a large breach of water, this large upwelling of water, occurred in the vicinity of where the woman was swimming. Very indicative of a shark attack."
A 911 caller told a dispatcher that a witness saw "a large fin in the water" and that "something" attacked the woman twice, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
The friend screamed for help from lifeguards, who were training nearby. They recovered the body.
"A bunch of local lifeguards come out and drag her in and she was bleeding. It was bad," eyewitness David Abbott, his voice cracking, told KCOY-TV in Santa Maria.
If confirmed as a shark attack, it would be the first such fatal assault in California waters since 1994, according to Fish and Game records. An autopsy was scheduled for later Tuesday or Wednesday, Andersen said.
Robert Lea, a marine biologist for the state, said the attack was consistent with the behavior of a great white shark, a notorious "ambush predator" that strikes from beneath.
"On the surface, she is going to be silhouetted, looking like a marine mammal," Lea said.
The beach, located south of Morro Bay about 200 miles northwest of Los Angeles, was closed by the port authority.
Fatal shark attacks are extremely rare.
There have been nine confirmed fatalities in California since record-keeping began in the 1950s, and 106 incidents — fatal and nonfatal — along the entire West Coast during the same period, according to Fish and Game statistics.
The victims of the most recent California attacks both survived. A surfer was struck in late November off Sonoma County, and another surfer was attacked off Marin County in May 2002.
Nielsen said swimmers should avoid waters where there are signs that wildlife are feeding.