Most of the time that immense, shifting mass of life-teeming saltwater that collides with our shore brings us joy and sustenance. Other times it makes our hearts beat wildly with fear -- or break.
On Oct. 30, Manila resident Scott Stephens, 25, was surfing off the North Jetty when a great white shark clamped its mouth around his middle and dragged him under. Stephens punched the shark in the head, it let him go, and he swam back to shore where a number of surfers jumped to his aid. He survived -- with seven deep gashes, a surfboard with a cartoonish-looking scalloped void, and a tale to tell.
Four weeks after the encounter, Stephens waded back in, at a spot not far from where he and his shark had their meet-cute.
"At first it was scary," Stephens said. "Then it was surprisingly easy. My mind went from thinking about sharks to thinking about surfing again. There's still a smile on my face. It's a huge part of my life, and to be able to get back out there and do what I really love to do is very lucky."
He said every time he goes into the ocean, his cares wash away.
"The ocean can be a powerful healing tool," he said. "But it can also be dangerous. It has two sides to it."
On Nov. 24, the Kuljian family, from Freshwater -- Howard, 54, his wife, Mary Scott, 57, and their son, Gregory "Geddie," 16, and daughter, Olivia, 18 -- were walking on the beach at Big Lagoon. Their dog Fran was pulled into the water while fetching a stick. Geddie, trying to save Fran, was swept in. Then Howard and Mary were pulled in while trying to save Geddie. Bystanders recovered the elder Kuljians' bodies, but Geddie's has not yet been found. Olivia survived, as did Fran the dog.
After the tragedy, officials issued reminders about the unpredictable nature of our north coast, with its cold water, steep drop-off beaches and sneaker waves -- sudden big waves that appear right behind smaller ones and that roll in deceptively on sunny, calm days.
"The undertow is very, very dangerous," said Humboldt County Coroner Dave Parris. "You can be in ankle-deep water and it can tow you under. The sand out there is very, very soft. You sink into it and you're overridden with water, and it overcomes you with pressure on the ankles and feet, and you can't pull your feet out of the sand quick enough, and it sweeps you down, and you can't stand up. You think you are in control being at ankle depth; you're not."