Blood flows in La Jolla Cove: the mysterious tale of Robert Pamperin

Taken by a shark

Great white shark. A 33-year-old Convair engineer went skin diving for abalone off La Jolla Cove and was never seen again.
  • Great white shark. A 33-year-old Convair engineer went skin diving for abalone off La Jolla Cove and was never seen again.
  • Image by Rasmus-Raahauge

On January 28 of this year, the body of Tamara McCallister, a young UCLA student, was found floating in the ocean near Ventura. An examination showed she had sustained what appeared to be a classic white-shark bite. A 13-inch-wide chunk of flesh had been torn from her left thigh. Her body exhibited none of the usual signs of drowning, and authorities assumed she had died as a direct result of the wound. The victim had been kayaking with a friend, Roy Stoddard, who is still missing and presumed dead. Both of their kayaks were recovered. One had three large holes in it, presumably inflicted by the shark’s teeth during its attack. The incident, which appears to have claimed two victims, was determined to be only the second recorded fatal shark attack in Southern California history.

Before McCallister’s death, the only other such attack south of Point Conception occurred in San Diego. Thirty years ago, in the late afternoon of Sunday, June 14, 1959, a 33-year-old Convair engineer named Robert Pamperin went skin diving for abalone off La Jolla Cove and was never seen again. He was accompanied during the dive by a friend, Gerald Lehrer, who later would claim to have witnessed Pamperin being swallowed by a shark. Monday morning’s San Diego Union carried the headline “Skindiver Feared Dead in Shark Attack Here.” In a front-page article, Lehrer was quoted as saying the shark was “so big it looked like a killer whale.”

Immediately following the attack on Pamperin, other divers in the cove area, accompanied by divers from Scripps Institution of Oceanography, combed the area in a fruitless search for some vestige of Pamperin or a glimpse of the huge shark. They dove until darkness ended their efforts, using both skin- and scuba-diving equipment. Not one shred of the victim, his clothing, or his gear was found that day.

Later on Sunday evening, Lehrer was interviewed by Conrad Limbaugh, biologist and head diver at the Scripps Institution. In describing the shark, Lehrer said it had a grayish-white belly and gray back, with no distinctive markings. Its approximate dimensions we re 20 feet long and 3 feet in diameter. He also indicated its teeth were about two inches long. Lehrer was wearing a face mask that corrected for the magnification caused by refraction of light in water; his estimates were not exaggerated by this phenomenon.

Two days later, the Union reported that fishermen on the boat Cha Cha had sighted a large shark off the Mission Bay channel entrance. Crewmen estimated the shark to be 20 to 40 feet long. State game wardens began hunting the beast by trailing cattle blood in the water, from their patrol boat, between Bird Rock and the Scripps Pier. They found no shark of the magnitude of the reported killer. A few days after the attack, a swim fin bearing what appeared to be shark teeth marks washed ashore on La Jolla Shores beach. From the initials carved into the fin, it was identified as having belonged to Pamperin.

In his sworn statement in superior court, which, on July 1 was petitioned by the family to pronounce Pamperin legally dead, Lehrer testified he saw the victim shoot high out of the water 60 feet from him and scream,“Help me!” He noted that Pamperin’s face mask was gone, but his abalone iron was still attached to his wrist. Lehrer swam to the spot and submerged. About 5 feet from him in the gloom he saw Pamperin’s face, chest, and arms, but the area below his torso was obscured in what appeared to be a cloud of blood. Below the cloud he could discern the white belly of an enormous shark. The beast was three-fourths upside down on a sand patch, with the victim held between his jaws, which were around his waist; his legs were not visible. Lehrer was certain that Pamperin was already dead.

Another witness at the hearing was William Abitz, who was picnicking at the cove that day and swam out to assist Lehrer back to the beach after hearing him shout for help. According to Abitz’s testimony, when they reached shore, it was obvious that Lehrer was suffering from shock. His face was ashen white, and his eyes were enormous. He was visibly terrified but coherent when relating what he had witnessed.

The event devastated the local oceansports community, and the effects lasted for quite some time. Business dried up at local diving and surfing shops. Hotels and motels in the beach area were virtually empty. The attack had occurred at the beginning of what normally would have been their peak season.

But few among the regular beachgoing community wanted to accept the fact that Pamperin had been killed by a white shark. Rumors circulated — intricate stories about love triangles and insurance fraud. In a July 1 San Diego Union article covering the death-petition hearing, the widow’s lawyer divulged that Pamperin’s life-insurance policies did not contain a double- indemnity clause. The disclosure of this private family information in an otherwise mundane article might have been a response to the community’s gnawing doubts, saying, in effect, that a person intent on committing such an elaborate fraud would not have overlooked an opportunity to double his money.

And these doubts persist to this day. One man who was at the cove that Sunday afternoon in 1959 said, a few months ago, that he still refused to believe the story of Pamperin’s death. He went on to say that someone had recently seen Pamperin in Mexico. This recurring theme has been heard many times before. It was always an anonymous “someone” or “a friend” who had seen Pamperin, and he was always somewhere, vaguely, “in Mexico.” But how would this mythical “someone” know what a 30-years-older Pamperin would look like?

Jim Stewart, head diver at Scripps, was interviewed for an article about the McCallister attack, which was published in the Los Angeles Times this past January 31. Stewart is Conrad Limbaugh’s successor, one of the divers who searched the cove after the incident, and a shark attack victim himself. He doubted that Pamperin’s disappearance could be attributed to a shark and was quoted as saying, “I was one of the first people in the water when that shark attack happened. There’s not a shark alive that can swim off with that large a man, yet not a piece of him was found.”

But it is not physically impossible for a large shark to eat a man. Pamperin was 6’2” and weighed about 200 pounds. But 20-foot white sharks routinely consume 500-pound Stellar sea lions. And among the things reportedly found in the stomachs of dead sharks have been a nearly whole reindeer, a 100-pound Galapagos tortoise, a cow’s head, and 25 quarts of Vichy water bound with wire.

Whites are members of the family Lamnidae, the mackerel sharks. They grow to lengths of over 20 feet, can weigh over 3 tons, and are deep bodied; a 20-foot specimen would probably be 4 to 5 feet in diameter. Their mouths are equipped with large, serrated, triangular teeth, which they skillfully use to saw off chunks of flesh. Recent studies of their feeding behavior suggest that whites scan the surface from below, looking for their prey. When they attack, they take a large bite to bring on shock and rapid blood loss, then back off and wait for the victim’s death before leisurely finishing their meal. This makes more sense than trying to bolt down an angry, half-ton elephant seal. A swimmer clad in a dark wet suit or riding a surfboard or a kayak could look enough like a seal lounging on the surface to precipitate an attack.

There is no factual evidence to refute Lehrer’s story of his friend’s death. Pamperin has not been seen for 30 years, other than in uncorroborated hearsay. His insurance underwriters did not contest Lehrer’s deposition, nor did the court. This lingering incredulity is best explained as a defense mechanism for individuals who enter the ocean for sports activity or in pursuit of their livelihoods. By refusing to believe it ever happened, it could never happen to them.

In June of 1959, I was a scuba-diving instructor in La Jolla. Looking back on my own feelings at the time, I must confess I harbored strong doubts about the truth of Lehrer’s story. But now that I seldom enter the ocean and can consider the evidence dispassionately, all of my doubts have been dispelled.

About a year after the incident, I would meet Lehrer when he enrolled in one of my diving classes. My co-instructors and I were dumbfounded.We agreed that if we’d ever seen a friend halfway down the maw of a huge shark, we’d have moved to Kansas immediately so we’d never be tempted to enter the ocean again. But Lehrer went quietly through the class; in fact, he was one of our best students. It brought to mind the old adage: if you ever get thrown off a horse, you’ve got to get back in the saddle right away or you never will. It helped to explain things, but I couldn’t help wondering if he knew something I didn’t know.

The information concerning the Pamperin incident that has been reported here thus far was extracted from various articles written in the ensuing years. I decided to talk to Lehrer personally as we neared the 30th anniversary of the attack.

Gerald Lehrer’s recollections are still clear. “Bob Pamperin and I were friends for about two years, and he had taught me to dive in Florida. On that Sunday of the attack, we had gone to the Bird Rock area to dive for abalone. But the surf was too rough to work in the shallow water there.We decided to go to the cove to see if conditions were any better in the deep water. Both of our wives were with us. My wife and I had only been married for about a month.

“We were only wearing swim trunks, swim fins, and masks. The surf of the cove was really big, so we decided to go off Alligator Rock, one at a time. Bob went off first after a big wave had just passed, and he swam out past the surf line. I was waiting on the rock for a good spot between waves when I saw Bob shoot out of the water, about 60 feet west of the rock. He screamed, ‘Help me!’

“I thought he might have suffered a cramp, so I jumped in and swam to the spot. I dove where I thought I’d seen him, and I saw his face and upper torso a few feet away in a reddishbrown haze. Then I saw the shark on the bottom, almost on its back. I heard a loud voice in my head shout, ‘Don’t move!’ I hung there for what seemed an eternity, until my buoyancy carried me to the surface. Then I panicked and practically started running on the water toward the beach.When I saw Bob, his lower half was already gone. The shark had apparently eaten his lower part and was ready to swallow his upper torso when I got there. I didn’t mention that at the time, because I didn’t want to upset Bob’s wife any more than necessary.”

Lehrer recalled that this was the first time Pamperin had used his new abalone iron, which was made of shiny stainless steel.“Maybe the flint of the metal could have attracted the shark and provoked the attack. The iron was still attached to his wrist when I saw him in the shark’s mouth.” Several articles that followed the event said Lehrer had described the shark’s tail as asymmetric, having a much larger upper lobe than lower. This led to a great deal of speculation as to what species of shark it could have been. Although a great white was the prime suspect, whites have crescent-shaped tails with symmetrical lobes. Someone suggested tiger sharks, which grow to 20 feet or more, have asymmetric tails with large upper lobes, and have been known to attack and eat men.

Tigers are a tropical species, and only two specimens have ever been officially reported off San Diego, although a few others have been sighted by divers. The year of the Pamperin attack, 1959, though, was the third year of unusually warm ocean temperatures off Southern California. Surface temperatures were five to ten degrees warmer than usual. Hammerhead sharks, another tropical species, infiltrated our coast in droves during those summers. The killer could not have been a hammerhead because they don’t grow large enough to fit Lehrer’s description and are so distinctive that he would have recognized one instantly. This fueled speculation that a big tiger shark may have been the culprit.

About these speculations, Lehrer now says, “I was quoted incorrectly. I said I could recall seeing only one lobe of the shark’s tail. They showed me pictures of different species of sharks to see if I could identify the one that had attacked Bob. The best I could do was speculate that it was a white, mainly due to its size.”

Some months later, Lehrer went to Marineland of the Pacific to be interviewed for a television show. They had a dead, 18-foot white shark on display. Once again, there was no certainty, but he felt it could have been the type he had seen. Years later he saw a live tiger shark in an aquarium in Japan, but that did not strike any positive chord.

“I even allowed myself to be hypnotized, trying to bring back subtle details that might have been lost because of the shock of the incident. This brought things more clearly into focus, but I couldn’t bring back any new facts.”

And what about all the rumors of insurance fraud and love triangles? “I heard them, but I couldn’t understand how anybody could believe Bob and I would be involved in any sort of deception. We were both happily married.We had no overwhelming financial problems.” And what about the rumor that he had later married Bob Pamperin’s widow? Lehrer laughs, “Bob’s widow did remarry, but she married one of Bob’s cousins, whose name was also Pamperin, and she left San Diego.” Lehrer is still married to the same woman who was at the cove with him that Sunday afternoon.

How has the incident changed his attitude about entering the ocean? “I was back in the water, at the very spot, about a week after the attack. And I taught my niece to dive at the cove that same summer. I still skin dive and do underwater photography. But I stopped scuba diving after my gear was stolen in a burglary.”

Despite the lurid story of Bob Pamperin’s death off La Jolla Cove, the waters off San Diego and Southern California are relatively safe from shark attacks. Since the mid-1800s, when local newspapers began publishing, there have been only a handful of shark attacks reported and, with the exception of this incident, the worst thing to befall the victims has been severe lacerations. According to California Fish and Game statistics, there have been 62 recorded shark attacks in the state since 1926, and only 6 of these were in Southern California. In contrast, 5 fatal attacks have been recorded in Northern California between 1926 and the most recent one in 1984; these have all been attributed to great white sharks, commonly known as man-eaters.

This north-south division in the ocean of California occurs at Point Conception, just north of Santa Barbara, and marks the transition between two distinct current systems. South of Conception, the sea is generally calmer and warmer. North of it, aside from being rougher and colder, there are much larger populations of pinnipeds (sea lions and seals), the principal constituent of the great white’s diet. This abundance of food attracts more sharks. Over the past 15 years, 31 attacks and 2 deaths have occurred in the patch of ocean between southern Marin County, Monterey, and the Farallon Islands off San Francisco. This area is known as the Red Triangle because more attacks have taken place there than anywhere in the world.

Could a fatal shark attack happen here again? Of course. What can a swimmer do to ensure he won’t be the next victim? Very little, other than avoiding some of the more obvious provocations, like staying in the water when he’s bleeding or swimming with a bloody, speared fish tied to his body.

But before deciding to avoid the ocean entirely, take some comfort from the statistics. The probability of a person’s being a shark attack victim is minuscule when compared to the probability of his becoming a traffic fatality. And if that’s not convincing, remember— Gerald Lehrer is still diving.

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