The film opens with a young boy kicking a soccer ball along the shore of a beach. He finds an action camera attached to a helmet washed up on the surf which he picks up. The video on the action camera is of a man struggling to get out of the water and onto a rock only to be dragged under and killed by an enormous shark. Shortly after the death of her mother, medical student Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) travels to a secluded beach in Mexico to surf, which is also the same beach her mother surfed at after finding out she was pregnant with Nancy many years before. Nancy gets a ride to the beach from Carlos (Oscar Jaenada), a friendly local resident, who refuses to tell her the beach’s name, saying only that it is paradise. After arriving at the beach, Nancy joins two other local residents, and the three surf for several hours. Taking a break from surfing, Nancy video-chats her sister Chloe (Sedona Legge) to let her know that she is surfing at their mother’s beach. When she talks to her father (Brett Cullen), it is revealed that her mother’s death has caused Nancy to consider dropping out of medical school. The conversation becomes emotional and strained, and Nancy hangs up to catch one more wave in the late afternoon before heading back to her hotel. While waiting for a wave, Nancy notices the carcass of a large humpback whale floating about twenty yards away. While riding her last wave back to the beach, a large great white shark bumps her surf board, causing her to fall and hit her head on a submerged rock. As she surfaces to her board, the shark bites her leg, pulling her under. Nancy crawls onto the whale carcass, where she stays until the shark rams it from underneath. Nancy swims to an isolated rock, where she places an improvised tourniquet consisting of her surfboard strap, her earrings, and the sleeve of her wetsuit on her leg to stop the bleeding. The two locals depart, unaware of Nancy’s situation, leaving Nancy to spend the night on the rock with a wounded seagull, whom she names Steven, after Steven Seagal. The next morning, Nancy sees a drunk local man passed out on the beach. She gets his attention, but instead of offering to help he steals her phone, money, and backpack. After noticing her surfboard floating in shallow water, he wades out to retrieve it, only to be torn in half by the shark. Several hours later, the two locals Nancy had surfed with the day before return. When they get into the water before Nancy can warn them away, both are killed by the shark. Nancy retrieves the action camera helmet from one of the men when he tries to swim to the rock and, after another close attack from the shark, records a message for her father and sister. Then she throws the helmet toward the shore. With high tide approaching, Nancy knows the rock will be submerged soon. After sending Steven Seagull onto the other half of her surfboard and timing the shark’s circles from the whale carcass to the rock, Nancy swims to a nearby buoy, narrowly avoiding the shark by swimming through a group of jellyfish, which sting both the shark and Nancy. Nancy finds a flare gun on the buoy, but fails to draw the attention of a passing cargo ship farther out to sea. Nancy shoots a flare at the shark, which catches fire due to the floating whale blubber, although it dives underwater before it is too badly burned. The shark begins furiously attacking the buoy, ripping out the chains securing it to the ocean bed. Nancy grabs onto the last remaining chain, and, as it is ripped from the buoy, she is violently pulled down to the ocean floor. The shark chases Nancy down towards the sea floor at high speed, but, while Nancy pulls out of the dive at the last moment, the shark continues to dive and impales itself on some rebar sprouting from of the buoy’s concrete anchor. The action camera is found floating near the shore by Carlos’ son (the boy kicking the soccer ball from the beginning) who brings his father to the beach. Carlos then finds Nancy floating in the shallows as his son runs for help. He revives Nancy who then sees a hallucination of her mother and she tells her she is OK. As she looks around the beach, she sees that Steven Seagull has made it to the shore. One year later, Nancy and Chloe are going surfing in Galveston, Texas as her father tells her that her mother would have been proud.
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