A DEVASTATED family have paid tribute to a surfer who was killed by a great white shark on Christmas Eve and praised the hero swimmer who recovered his body.

Tomas Butterfield, 42, had been visiting his mum in California when the fatal attack happened off the coast of Morro Strand State beach.

“It’s a terrible loss, at 42, with him getting his stuff together and starting to make something of himself,” Butterfield’s uncle, Grant, told the Los Angeles Times.

"[The family is] going to do OK … but even at that, it’s a tough time holding it together.”

On the morning of Christmas Eve, Butterfield went to the beach alone, his uncle confirmed.

Around 10.40am, a woman spotted a bodyboard "kind of bobbing in the water" near a surfing spot nicknamed The Pit and paddled towards it.

The woman saw a leash tied to the board and "tugged on it" before making the grim discovery.

She then grabbed Butterfield by his swim fins and swam his body back to the shore where around 30 people had gathered.

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It is unclear if anyone saw the fatal attack.

Butterfield's uncle went on to praise the woman who saved his nephew's body from the waves, telling the LA Times that she " doesn't know it, but she's obviously part of the family now.

"The possibility that his board might have gone farther out to sea and that he would have been missing forever."

According to the LA Times, his death remains under investigation.

Authorities closed the waters near Morro Strand for 24 hours and issued warnings "enter the water at your own risk".

The number of great white sharks in California has surged in recent years, however, encounters with humans have been extremely rare.

“You have a better chance of winning the lottery,” Christopher Lowe, the professor of marine biology and director of the Shark Lab at Cal State Long Beach, said.

“I really don’t think people need to be scared, but they do need to exercise good judgment.

“Sharks are coming back. There are more of them out there.

"The ocean is their home, and we’re guests in their home, but occasionally accidents do happen.”

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