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They're out there

The fish is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.

Its 2-foot-tall, triangular fin looks every inch the Hollywood prop.

The only barrier between fierce predator and potential prey is a flimsy surfboard.

Faced with fearsome reality, humans may dismiss a shark sighting as illusion — until the moment our place on the food chain literally hits home.

Serrated teeth sunk into John Forse's thigh, and still the 50-year-old surfer tried to convince himself that the sudden, stealthy attack couldn't be a great white shark.

"My mind's saying it's a seal, but it obviously wasn't," Forse says.

And then, an arm's length away, Forse came face to face with the creature surfers call "the landlord."

"We're guests in their environment," Forse says.

Hovering nearby, the shark was waiting for Forse's reaction. But instead of thrashing like an injured seal, the prey fought back.

Pounding on the shark's back a few times with his fists, Forse saw the animal disappear beneath the waves. In a split second, the surfer also was speeding toward the ocean floor, harnessed by his ankle strap, which was clamped in the shark's jaws.

Reflecting on the April 1998 attack, Forse — now 60 — says he felt an odd peace at the prospect of dying in the depths off Lincoln City, where he had been surfing since 1980. And then as quickly as Forse was yanked under, his strap snapped, and he and his board went rocketing back to the surface.

Friends helped Forse to the beach. He needed 50 stitches on his outer right thigh but didn't let the episode dampen his enthusiasm for surfing. He even thumbed his nose at the idea that he was mistaken for a seal and painted the likeness of a shark's favorite food on the bottom of his next board. While the portrait failed to attract any other sharks, it did scare plenty of surfers away from Forse, who was left with his pick of the waves.

"I think because I got hit," Forse says, "I moved to the back of the line, and everyone else moved up a slot."

Surfers and scientists alike are fond of saying it's more likely humans will be struck by lightning than attacked by a shark. Many surfers will spend decades in the water without so much as seeing a shark. However, the nonprofit Shark Research Committee took reports of 71 sharks sightings on the coasts of California, Oregon, Washington and southern British Columbia over the past two years.

"People eat a lot more sharks than sharks eat people," says Bill Hanshumaker, public marine education specialist at Oregon State University's Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

"None of the surfers have died," Hanshumaker adds, referring to known shark attacks near Newport within the past 15 years.

The shark's behavior after biting Forse was typical of great whites, which retreat from their prey, possibly to avoid being injured while sniffing out blood, Hanshumaker says. That Forse didn't behave like a seal probably prevented a second bite, the zoologist adds.

Since 2004, five surfers have been bitten by great white sharks in waters off Oregon or near the state's border, according to the Shark Research Committee, which chronicles shark encounters along the Pacific Coast. The committee's Web site lists nine other sightings of great white sharks off the Oregon or extreme Northern California coasts during that same period.

The Web site appends each entry with a cautionary tip about shark behavior, such as they are known to frequent river mouths, but it's not so easy to pin down a set of truths about sharks, Hanshumaker says. The fact that sharks on very rare occasions attack humans has less to do with predictable behaviors and conditions and more with sharks' place in the world as purely opportunistic predators.

"There's a lot of hypotheses out there that haven't been proven."

Great white sharks aren't any more likely to hang out near river mouths than in any other location where pinnipeds — the order of marine animals with fin-like feet or flippers — congregate, Hanshumaker says. And the assumption that sharks believe humans are seals? That's plain wrong, says Ralph Collier of the Shark Research Committee.

"If they were that inefficient, they wouldn't be successful predators," Collier says.

"Most of the time (when) a shark bites a human, it's investigation," he adds. "Sharks are very curious."

The trait would be endearing in a more intelligent animal, one that didn't have thousands of 3-inch-long, razor-sharp teeth frequently swallowed with hunks of its prey's flesh. But surfer Charlie Plybon credits curiosity in his September 2004 encounter with a great white.

"He was just as curious about me in the water as I was about it."

Plybon, 31, was surfing with a friend off Newport's south beach when he heard an object break through the waves behind him.

"I thought, 'My God, it's an orca' ... because it was such a large fin. The next thing I know, it was coming right up underneath my board."

The shark rolled, fixing Plybon with a black gaze. As it continued to turn, the shark almost hit Plybon's surfboard with one of its powerful pectoral fins.

" ... I looked down and clearly saw its scarred snout, giant eye and flared gills. As the shark rose toward my board, it abruptly turned its head away, splashing its tail fin in one fluid movement," Plybon reported to the Shark Research Committee.

Such tales aren't intended to scare anyone out of the water, Collier says. More typical of shark behavior, his story, Plybon says, should be told more often.

"Sharks are highly misunderstood animals," says Plybon, a former education manager at Oregon Coast Aquarium.

"They're really not as threatening as we are."

Reach reporter Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail slemon@mailtribune.com.

71 shark sightings were reported by surfers and beachgoers on West Coast beaches in 2006 and 2007.