‘Blood was everywhere’
A shark takes a big bite out of Mitch Milan’s surfboard and punctures his hand, but the Kauai surfer still feels “blessed.”
Call it joy.
That’s left-hander Mitch Milan’s outlook, even after suffering a shark bite that deeply punctured his left hand, severed the tip of his ring finger and chomped a 14-inch piece out of his surfboard Monday at Davidson’s Beach in Kekaha on Kauai’s west side. Call It Joy is also the name of the 54-year-old carpenter’s band, in which he plays ukulele, an instrument that “makes everything light, no matter what we play,” he said. “Two weeks and I should be back to playing my ukulele.” Milan’s genial voice reflected his positive nature during a phone interview Wednesday from his Waimea home. He said doctors call him lucky and say he’s healing well.
“I like the word ‘blessed’,” he said. “Somebody was looking out for me.”
Milan and fellow carpenter and surfing buddy Gary Watkins hit the 6- to 8-foot-face waves after work at Davidson’s, where six months ago a French visitor was bitten by a shark.
But after surfing 30 to 45 minutes, it was getting a little too dark.
“It was time to come in and (I was) just waiting on a big wave,” he said. “Shark hit. Took me out from the left side, basically blew me off the board. Apparently it hit my hand.”
Milan, a surfer for 40 years, moved to Kauai from California in 2004, in part, ironically, to escape
sharks. He had surfed Santa Cruz since he was a kid and some of his friends had been badly bitten.
“The minute it happened, it was very surrealistic,” he said. “In my head, I’ve been thinking about it for 40 years … thinking about the ‘Jaws’ song.”
The 5-foot-10, 180-pound surfer said he didn’t see the tiger shark coming and felt as though he’d been hit by a linebacker. He was thrown up into the air, and it took a few seconds for his brain to catch up and to realize he’d been bitten, he said.
He said he saw the shark pull his board underwater, and Milan pulled back. “I don’t know if it was the smartest thing to do,” he said. “The shark just went down. I was just praying for my life because you can’t see this thing. I saw swirls in the water.”
Watkins, 25 feet away, paddled quickly to him, heard the board being crunched between the big fish’s jaws, but at that point didn’t know his friend was bitten and bleeding badly. “He just said, ‘We gotta go in. We gotta go in,’” Milan related.
Milan caught a wave that broke within seconds, unaware that Watkins had missed the wave and was left behind with the shark still in sight.
“Gary went nose to nose with it,” he said. “It was acting extremely erratic. He was seeing the fin. He (was) looking right at it, keeping his board between him and it.” Watkins caught the next wave in.
Watkins wrapped Milan’s hand with some clean rags, told him to press down, and drove him to West Kauai Veterans Hospital in Waimea.
Milan described his injuries as “two huge gouges on top of my hand and one finger.”
“Blood was everywhere. It wasn’t a direct hit. If it (had been), I wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. To walk away from it is miraculous.”
50 stitches later
Milan was treated for the deep wounds to his hand and the tip of his ring finger was sewn back on. “The flap on the back of my hand was peeled over my knuckles,” he said. “The miracle is that it didn’t cut a tendon, didn’t hit an artery or vein, didn’t break a bone.”
Milan received 50 stitches, a tetanus shot and morphine, and his hand was placed in a compression splint.
“All I can say is, ‘Praise God,’” he said. “Someone was really protecting us. This just doesn’t happen.” He said when tiger sharks bite they usually don’t let go, and there is often severe blood loss. “That’s curtains for most people.”
He referred to the 28-yearold French man bitten by a 12-foot tiger shark at Davidson’s on April 14. The man suffered severe injuries to his lower right leg and was taken to the hospital in critical condition. According to The Associated Press, a portion of his leg was amputated.
Milan said he didn’t get a good look at the shark, but caught a glimpse of its silver and black stripes. He was told the 14-inch-width of the shark’s bite in his surfboard indicates it was about 14 feet long.
“In theory, the length of a tiger shark can be estimated from a bite impression in a surfboard,” said Carl Meyer of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology. But most bite impressions are partial and the entire jaw is not recorded, so “we are currently investigating whether partial impressions can be used to accurately estimate shark size.”
A Kauai County spokeswoman said first responders were not called after the attack. Lifeguards posted signs Tuesday morning as a precaution but took them down Wednesday morning after no sharks were seen in the area.
The state Department of Land and Natural Resources was not contacted after the attack, but officials plan to get in touch with the victim, DLNR spokeswoman Deborah Ward said.
Asked whether he was aware that October is the month with the highest incidence of shark attacks, he said, “Sharktober? I guess I’m a believer at this point.” But he said surfing brings him “great joy,” so the knowledge wouldn’t have changed his decision to go into the water on Monday. His wife of 35 years, Sharon, says she’s “just grateful that he’s alive. He’s really a blessed individual.”
She said her husband is “very positive.” By Tuesday evening he was giving ukulele lessons, using a friend as a hand model to display chords.
His splint was removed Wednesday, and he’s wiggling his still-swollen fingers.
Perhaps the takeaway could come from the lyrics of his band’s popular song, “Life is Jelly”:
“Life is good. Make the most of your situation.”
Sharon Milan gave husband Mitch a kiss after he was treated at West Kauai Veterans Hospital for a shark bite to his left hand.