Mission Wildlife Refuge: Playalinda Bch, FL

A huge aspect of surfing is the journey; the adventure brought by an unpaved, dusty or muddy road ending at a glittering, turquoise sea without a soul in sight.  It’s about the anticipation of what type of surf will be waiting there, after exhausting hours of travel. It’s the sweat and tears that lead to the saltwater that wash it all away. It’s the quiet satisfaction of noodle-limp arms following a soul quenching session of wave riding.   

Hurricane season is my favorite time of year at home, because our coast is graced with waves I usually have to travel to surf.  Katia was one such storm.  Claire Rowley is an expert at assessing the best surf spot given the variables of the wind direction, swell direction, and tide.  After checking the sizeable, blown-out waves in front of my house, I decided to probe her mind about where to go, ready to dedicate my day to the search.  Claire knew the spot, so we went on a mission.  Erin, Claire’s younger sister had school, but would meet us after class if we found conditions worth the drive.

The hour journey to Playalinda, a national wildlife refuge, ended with a fifteen minute stretch of road that curved through palm trees, mangroves, and swamplands with an abundance of alligators basking in the sun.  The river and ocean collided there, and water constantly surrounded us along with hawks, massive black vultures, and seagulls that swooped and soared through the air. 

Had we scored or been skunked?  After a drive filled with conversation that jumped from eating chicken wings to how Playalinda was known for being sharky, we reached the beach.  My feet pounded down on the long wooden boardwalk and produced a beat that mixed with cawing crows and whistling birds.  I was greeted by multiple offshore barrels.  My heart raced; I needed to drop into those overhead lines. 

There were only three other guys out who were way down the beach.  Claire sent word to Erin, and soon we were hooting and hollering at each other’s waves.  Jellyfish particles infested the water, but we dealt with the annoying stings and itches for the barrels.  Claire and I took turns throwing spray and cheering each other into the biggest set waves.  The jellyfish got stuck under our bikinis, and we shouted when we got stung in sensitive areas.  The waves were too good to let the jellies chase us out.  Our wild hearts found refuge. 

Claire screamed.  Her face was a pale white, and she was shaking.

“Dude, where did you get stung?”

“I saw a shark… a BIG shark.  I’m taking the next one in,” Claire stammered through deep breaths.  I never saw Claire scared.  We worked together at a surf camp, and when we saw sharks it was usually no big deal.    

I didn’t see anything, and the waves were just too good.  I told her that I would catch some more and then meet her back on the beach.  The waves were so addicting that I was willing to deal with the discomforts of jellyfish stings, an annoying drift, and even a shark.  It was torture and euphoria at the same time.

A peeling right approached, and I was in prime position, perfectly under the peak.  The calm quiet of getting barreled sent my soul into spasms as I shot out of the wave. Claire stood on the beach by the boardwalk, and I wondered if she saw my barrel ride.  It was not like her to sit on the sidelines.  She also got a barrel on her wave to the beach, but she was still shaken up from the shark sighting.  I was still on a high from my tube and coveted another, so I talked her into going back out.  We walked down the beach against the drift, and I reasoned that the shark would be far away by now.  I prayed with her, asking God for protection and confidence.  I reminded her God was in control, and He had us.  We shredded for a few more hours.

When Erin arrived later, Claire and I were itchy and surfed out resting on the boardwalk.  I debated whether to surf more with Erin, or head back home with Claire.  I decided if Erin caught lots of waves and made it look fun, I would stay and surf more.  The boardwalk was high up and offered a great panoramic view of the sand dunes and coastline.  Right away we noticed two giant man-a-rays swimming close to shore where Erin was about to paddle out.

Then I saw the fin.  As a wave sucked up about to break, more of the colossal fin was revealed.  The fin rivaled jaws, and I realized a shark with a fin that large had to be at least ten feet long.

“ERIN!  ERIN!”  Claire and I yelled.  I waved my towel up and down, and Claire made a fin with her arms over her head. 


Erin heard us, backed out of the water, and then she saw it, too.

After seeing the fin, I don’t know how I got Claire to paddle back out.  Erin waited a few minutes and actually went surfing.  I decided that I was in fact too tired to paddle back out.

Empty offshore barrels, annoying jellyfish stings, stoked surf sisters to share the waves with, topped off with a monster shark sighting equaled a day off well spent.  On our journey home, as a white crane sailed above the winding road I realized I got all the adventure I craved, no plane ticket or board fee necessary.

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