Woman bit by shark off Newport Beach goes back for swim where it happened — this time with other shark survivors
The adrenaline was flowing through Maria Korcsmaros’ body as she tread water Friday afternoon, May 3, taking a break during a swim near the second buoy bobbing off the Corona del Mar coast.
It was at this exact spot three years ago on May 29 that an estimated 10-foot great white shark sunk its teeth into her body, blood gushing out to surround her before nearby lifeguards were able to pull her from the water.
This time, she was going to finish the swim with the help of friends, family and her “bite club.” The club of four swimmers who had survived a major shark attack off Southern California in the last five years was gathering for the first time.
“I kind of had to tread water there for a minute. OK, this is where it happened,” she said.
And then: “Let’s keep going.”
They all have the shark scars, both physical and mental.
Leeanne Ericson, a swimmer bit off of San Onofre two years ago on April 29, swapped survival stories with Steve Robles, a long-distance swimmer who survived an attack off of the Manhattan Beach Pier on July 5, 2014.
“I was the one where the fisherman hooked a shark and I swam right into it,” Robles said of the attack by the then agitated 8-foot shark that latched onto him as he swan with a training group. “It went all over the country because it was videotaped.”
Robles, who lives in Loma Linda, talked about how the teeth sang into his torso, right under his armpit around to his chest, for about five seconds.
“I did the right thing,” Robles said. “I grabbed its nose and pushed it off of me.”
Ericson, who lives in San Diego, went for the eye to get loose. “I saw the black hole, my brain went ‘I can hurt that,’”
She showed where its bottom jaw got her on the top of her leg and how the top jaw bit around toward her buttock. Once airlifted to the hospital, she was in a coma for nine days.
“You two had it was worse than me,” Robles said of the two women survivors.
Korcsmaros’ injuries were near fatal. The shark’s sharp teeth dug into her pelvis, her upper torso, up around her shoulder, her back and buttocks. Her skin was pinched back together with 161 staples. Her lung was punctured and several ribs were cracked.
The athlete was saved, in large part, because she raised her arm high to signal for help to two Newport Beach lifeguards docked nearby.
Lifeguard Capt. John Moore was there on Friday for Korcsmaros’ swim back to the place she was attacked and talked about how inspiring she’s been.
“Wow, you can come back from these major injuries, to get back in the water today and face your fears,” he told her. “It’s phenomenal to see that.”
Also joining the group was Keane Webre-Hayes, a 14-year-old who was lobster diving off of Encinitas on Sept. 29, 2018, when a shark attacked.
Korcsmaros handed him a hat printed with “Come to the Shark Side.”
Returning to the ocean
Robles got back in the South Bay waters six weeks after his injury, knowing he had to go back to where the shark attacked him.
“I had to do it right away, because (swimming) was such a big part of my life,” said Robles, who can be found swimming off Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach every weekend. “I’m a long-distance channel swimmer. It was important I got back out.”
He was able to do it, he said, because of the support of friends and fellow swimmers. “When I was ready, they were all ready with me.”
Webre-Hayes has also gotten back into the water, and has even done a few dives. But he has yet to visit the spot where the shark got him.
“I’ve been at the bluff looking at it, but I’ll be there soon,” he said. “I think it’s kind of overcoming that leap, like getting back on the horse.”
With a foot that she can’t move or feel and a sciatic nerve still exposed, Ericson doesn’t have ocean plans anytime soon – she was able to get in the shallows of crystal-clear waters off Hawaii.
There’s also the mental struggle.
“I told her I’m not mentally or physically ready for that,” Ericson said of joining Korcsmaros’ swim. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the point to get back in the water. I want to be able to get wet and be in, but probably never be in the line up again. It’s just too much water.”
Last year, on the anniversary of her attack, Korcsmaros took a quick dip in the water with one of her rescuers, lifeguard Andy Matsuyama. She swam a bit a few months later when a college film crew wanted to interview her.
But Friday marked the first time she tried the whole swim she was meant to that fateful day.
She admitted to having nervous energy all morning, but once she got in the ocean she put her head down and started stroking quickly through the saltwater. Webre-Hayes and Robles swam along side, along with a handful of other supporters she called “her mermaids.”
A yellow Newport Beach lifeguard boat followed nearby – just in case.
Korcsmaros stopped at moments to reflect, to tell parts of her shark story while bobbing in the water. Occasionally, a shadow spooked her.
When she reached the sand again, a wide smile was splashed across her face.
“It feels awesome. It feels so good,” she said, using the word “grateful” to describe how she felt.
“If I hadn’t survived…”
The possibility of attacks – there has been a major one four of the past five years – are a new reality as shark populations start to rebound and mix with an influx of beachgoers.
But, lifeguards are also better trained and more educated about the possibility of attacks and they are now employing technology such as drones to do shark checks.
“We knew they were out there, it’s the ocean,” Moore said. “It was never a reality to us that we could have this level of accidents take place.”
They take sightings and reports from beachgoers more seriously, following an algorithm of when beach closures or warnings should be used. And they are also working closely with the Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach.
The state last year earmarked $3.75 million to increase shark research and public outreach. Shark Lab education tents will be popping up at local beaches this summer.
The city of Manhattan Beach changed fishing regulations for its pier and got rid of sinks that leak fish guts into the ocean, attracting larger prey. Korcsmaros wants to get other cities to follow suit.
In the meantime, she’s gearing up for her upcoming Run 4 Sharks event on Oct. 5, which benefits Shark Stewards, a nonprofit aimed at protecting sharks.
Robles said he hopes to do a 28-mile Molokai-to-Oahu swim, while Webre-Hayes will be holding a paddle-out fundraiser later this year. Ericson is continuing physical therapy to work on her strength and plans to become a pilates instructor.
For Korcsmaros, going back to the place where her life changed was another major step in her recovery.
“Let’s do it again,” she shouted when she reached the shore.