DISCLAIMER AND WARNING:
First - I need to emphasize something: THIS IS NATURE, NOT DISNEYLAND. Any wild animal, even one under extreme duress like the one described in this posting, lives according to its own rules not ours. So if you come across ANY wild animal (injured or not) it's always better to leave it alone and give it plenty of space. It does not know that you may be trying to do it a favor, and it may defend itself or react unpredictably or dangerously.
Second - Do not try this yourself! Looking back on my experience, I have to say that I was VERY, VERY lucky.
On Tuesday, August 28, 2012, my wife and I took a morning walk on Seaside Beach, Seaside, Oregon. We were out and strolling along the shore before 7am. Like most people we walked and talked, watched the waves roll in, and kept an eye open for a shell, sand dollar, or something interesting that the tide and waves may have washed up.
For those of you who know Seaside, OR, we were well north of the end of the Prom and had made our turn and were walking south along the beach, it was then about 8:30am. About 100-150 yards down the beach we saw a young gal standing at the edge of the wave wash zone looking at something in the water. Whatever it was it had fins, pretty good-sized girth, and was at least a few feet long. At first I thought it might be a stranded dolphin or porpoise pup. When I ran over and got close enough to see what it was, I had the shock and thrill of my life. Luckily I had my wife and camera along!
This is what we saw:
This photo shows no scale for size, but based on other photos and using myself in those photos for scale I calculate that that this shark was between 3-4' long, and as you can see, it comes with a full set of teeth.
The shark was being rolled around in the surf and was under obvious and extreme stress, and showing no signs of life. It was still very flexible though, so perhaps it still had a chance!
At first glance I didn't know exactly what kind of shark this was, but I'd narrowed it down to one of three species: White, Porbeagle (a.k.a. Mackerel), or Salmon shark. These sharks all belong to Family Lamnidae and have geographic ranges that include the Oregon coast. Oh, FYI, this family also includes Mako sharks, but this is clearly not one of those!
Anyway, all Lamniid sharks do something called ram ventilation. That is, they have to swim with their mouths open in order for water to flow over their gills so they can get the oxygen they need. I had no idea how long this shark had been in the surf, but it was clear that very little water was flowing over its gills - it was almost certainly asphyxiating, and if it couldn't get oxygen soon it would be a goner.
At this point I carefully grabbed it around the caudal peduncle (the part of the body right in front of the tailfin) and carefully hauled it out of the wave wash zone where I could get a look at it. I was extremely wary that this shark could convulse or thrash around at any time, so I was prepared for that, but it was limp as could be. This really concerned me. You can love nature, but IMO it's better to understand and respect it.
This shark was a juvenile. It had uniform blue-grey coloration above, and white below. There were no signs of blood or external injury or damage.
I decided that it was probably either a Salmon or Porbeagle shark because the coloration and teeth didn't look right for a white shark of this size. Juvenile white sharks are much more common along the southern California coast than they are in Oregon, and young whites tend to have a silvery color along their flanks rather than this clearly distinct dark above and white below color pattern you can see in the photo above.
Later, after this experience was all over and we were back in our room, I did some checking and this was definitely a juvenile salmon shark, Lamna ditrops. Anyway...
At this point there were only two options. I could just say that since it was showing no signs of life that it was a goner and leave it on the beach, or I could try to get some water going over its gills in an attempt at resuscitation. Remember, this animal doesn't know that I'm trying to do it a favor, but because it was so lethargic I decided to pick it up and take it back out into the wash zone where there is moving water that is also highly oxygenated - just what it needed!
I picked it up gently but firmly with one hand around the caudal peduncle and another under the pectoral girdle beneath the pectoral fins. Before I took it back out we took the opportunity to take a few photos.
Here's a shot showing the "business end" of the animal. This is NOT the time to see "how sharp those teeth really are"! I was walking on pins and needles. Even a small shark like this could give you a nasty gash. BTW, this shark is a female. You can tell by looking at the paired pelvic fins just in front of my left hand. They lack projections called claspers that only males have.
OK, one more close up shot and then it's out to the water...
The rust-red discoloration under the lower jaw is a possible indication of lack of oxygen. This is a sign that the shark was clearly under duress, and unless water starts flowing over the gills soon it'll probably be a goner.
I walked out far enough that the water would be a depth where the shark's mouth would be underwater and I held it, moving its entire body forward and backward in the water as wave after wave came in. This is similar to what you might do for a trout before you let it go if you are a catch-and-release fisherman.
Sadly, the shark continued to show no sign of life after some minutes in the water, remaining just like a rag doll.
I pulled it back up onto the beach (staying well clear of the teeth-end, just in case) and we gave it another look.
This time when we checked it out, it started to show some weak signs of life - flexing its jaws a bit and weak movement of its tail! By this time there were probably 6-8 onlookers.
My wife encouraged me to take it back out and try again, and I did.
I look it out into slightly deeper water than I'd been in before and continued trying to get water into the mouth and over the gills.
It still didn't show a lot of signs of life, but I thought, what have I got to lose? So I gave it a gentle shove, launching it toward deeper water. Surprisingly it started to beat its tail fin, still weakly, but beating. We stood and watched it, hoping for it. It was still swimming weakly, but swimming nevertheless. It was having a hard time, getting rolled over in the wash zone a couple of times (see the photo series below), but at least it's head was facing into the waves; water flow = life!
In this series of photos you can see the shark getting rolled over a few times in the wash zone. When you see black, that's its back. When you see white, that's its belly.
Luckily she managed to get her bearings and make it into deeper water. If you click on the photo below to see the full-sized image you will be able to see the tips of the dorsal and caudal fins sticking above the water.
We watched as long as we could, and between 5-10 mins later we couldn't see it any more. From all indications this was a successful rescue.
FYI, salmon sharks are fish-eaters. They reportedly prefer salmon. Their teeth are specialized for this lifestyle. The teeth are all needle-like, sharp and pointed - good for grabbing and holding a fish, not really so much for biting and slicing - that's the white sharks's game.
Anyway, if you check the web you will see that it is not at all uncommon for salmon sharks, especially juveniles, to get stranded on beaches of Oregon and Washington.
There are a variety of possible reasons why they might get stranded: they could lose their bearings while fishing in shallow water and get rolled up onto the beach; they could be trying to escape from larger sharks (like whites) that are known to feed on this size of shark; or they could be sick and disoriented. Those are all likely possibilities. I hope that in this case that the shark was simply disoriented and that she's now fine.
Lastly, this is the biggest fish I ever caught! This is a fish story I'll love telling...
Remember, IT'S NATURE, NOT DISNEYLAND!
And again, remember, I got lucky. Don't try this yourself!