Santa Cruz shark attack victim’s cause of death released; surfers return to the water

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SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (KRON) — After a fatal shark attack shook up Santa Cruz over the weekend, surfers are returning to the water, driven by their passion for catching waves.

Ben Kelly, 26, was killed by a great white shark while surfing at Sand Dollar Beach on the south end of the county Saturday afternoon.

Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s spokeswoman Ashley Keehn released Kelly’s cause of death Wednesday morning as a “shark bite to right knee with disruption of popliteal artery and vein.”

Dozens of large great white sharks were seen swimming in the area in the days leading up to the tragedy.

The video above shot by drone photographer Eric Mailander last winter in the Monterey Bay shows what most interactions look like when a shark and surfer end up in the same part of the ocean. The surfer never knows that the ocean’s top predator is nearby and the shark remains non-aggressive. Saturday’s fatal attack was an extremely rare occurrence, and Kelly’s friends are calling it a “freak accident.”

Ben Kelly Memorial Fund
Ben Kelly Memorial Fund / GoFundMe

On Thursday state parks officials confirmed that the species of shark that killed Kelly was a great white. Its scientific name is Carcharodon carcharias.

“Forensic analysis of DNA evidence obtained from the surfer’s wetsuit and surfboard demonstrated that a white shark attacked the surfer. (California Department Fish and Wildlife) forensics scientists and Dr. Chris Lowe, director of CSULB’s Shark Lab, estimated the shark’s length between 10-12 feet. CDFW tested the impacted property of the victim in their forensic lab in Sacramento and determined the species of shark,” according to Jorge Moreno, California State Parks information officer.

Kelly was surfboard shaper who made surfing, faith, and family his life.

His friend, Zachary Shull, wrote, “It feels like the ultimate form of betrayal to fall victim to the one thing a surfer recognizes and fears as a possibility. We sign the proverbial liability waiver every time we paddle out, but the thought of such a horrific event is dismissed as an extreme rarity. Those thoughts are quickly overshadowed by the joy and refreshment that comes from surfing and getting a good wave, and so we still choose to paddle out.”

Santa Cruz County’s south sandy beaches have long had a reputation for being “sharky.” A paramedic who has been surfing these beaches for most of his life was out surfing with friends at Manresa State Beach Saturday when someone on the sand alerted them that a shark attack had just happened less than a half mile away.

They paddled in, and the stretch of coastline was closed by officials until Thursday. But the paramedic and his friends plan to return as soon as their favorite surf spot is reopened.

Ben Kelly Memorial Fund
Ben Kelly Memorial Fund / GoFundMe

“Lately there have been a lot of sharks down there. We all know that. And this is the season where we start seeing quite a few. There is a lot of wildlife. (On Saturday) there was a whale 10 yards from us,” he said.

The paramedic has encountered sharks while surfing in the past. “To be quite honest the first thing that goes through your mind when you see one is how majestic they are. How huge they are. And how they glide through water with zero movement. You can almost sense whether it’s a calm shark,” he said.

“I’ve grown up there my entire life. There is a risk. I don’t want to sound fearless. But the juice is worth the squeeze,” he said.

Shull wrote a long tribute to Kelly for a GoFundMe memorial fund that had raised more than $75,000 by Wednesday. He described the shark victim’s “stoke” for surfing and adventure.

“I can still picture his frothing face after getting a nugget. He loved his wife unequivocally. He was stoked out of his mind whenever she’d surf and he was so proud of her. Adventure and travel was a huge part of their lives. They were dreamers, go-getters. He had such a special bond with her,” Shull wrote.

“We’re remembering: all those dawn patrols. Strike missions up and down the coast. The way he talked so fast when he was stoked. How much he loved talking about Jesus’ teachings and encouraged everyone to love Jesus more too. He was a good, godly, humble man who deserved many, many more laps around the sun and many more good waves. We all miss you, Ben,” Shull wrote.

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