A Huntington Beach surfer was “grateful to be alive” after he was bitten in the mouth by a shark off the Channel Islands as he battled a 15-foot tiger shark off Palos Verdes on Saturday, officials said.
William H. “Billy” McElroy, 50, was cleaning a longboard — a board anchored to a pole — off Little Harbor Beach in Palos Verdes when he suddenly felt an abrasion on his face. He then saw a shark in the water and saw the animal to his left reappear a few times, he said.
McElroy had pulled his board into a bunker that was 12 feet deep, and a shark landed between him and the bunker. Before he saw a second shark come near him and sink its teeth into his mouth, the bite was about 3 feet long.
“The first bite hit right on the left side of my jaw. The second bite hit directly to the center of my jaw,” he said. “I was as surprised by how close I was getting to the animal as it was by how close I was getting to me.”
A witness called for help, and a helicopter was sent to rescue McElroy after about 30 minutes, said Bill Keast, deputy director of public safety for the city of Palos Verdes. His fellow surfers provided first aid as he watched for a second half hour before the helicopter arrived.
“It was a very close encounter,” McElroy said. “I’m grateful to be alive.”
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife said an investigation is underway to determine what type of shark attacked McElroy.
McElroy is a board-riding legend in Southern California. He has won many events, including the HAP surf contest in Capistrano Beach in 2016.
Dr. Jonathan Ryan said he was the doctor who performed emergency surgery on McElroy’s mouth and jaws with the help of fellow surfers and other emergency personnel at Pier Plaza.
“I’m a little bit shaken up,” Ryan said, adding he was in awe that McElroy was alive. “What saved his life? He was just very calm about it and simply showed up and let his hands go.”
By 8 p.m., doctors at the hospital had removed the teeth, the shark’s teeth and any other dangerous sharp tooth from McElroy’s mouth, Ryan said.
McElroy’s friend, Fred Blitch, was on the beach when McElroy walked into the parking lot and told him that he’d been bitten by a shark. Blitch and other friends packed together and got in the car.
“I just told him, ‘You’re definitely going to be OK,’ ” Blitch said. “ I kept him calm and said it’s not going to be a problem.”
Blitch said McElroy has been bitten by a shark three times in the past. Once, when he was 12 years old, he said, a shark was knocked off its perch and bit him on the arm and arm parts. The shark didn’t release the bites, he said.
Blitch said he is stoked to see McElroy still in such great spirits.
“He’s not injured that much,” Blitch said. “I’m very happy he’s alive.”