Paul de Gelder enlisted in the Australian Defense Forces in 2000 and worked for four years as a paratrooper, before becoming a Navy bomb disposal diver. Here he recalls his encounter with him with a bull shark.
One morning in February 2009, I was “finning” across the waters of naval base HMAS Kuttabul in Sydney Harbour, Australia. Finning meant that I was swimming on my back and using rubber fins on my feet to propel myself.
Slapping a fin against water creates the kind of low-frequency sound waves to which sharks are tuned in. My fins were going constantly on the murky surface and that’s probably what drew the interest of the bull shark in the first place.
In much of the harbor the water is muddy brown, it was early in the morning and overcast. Light levels were low, and the bull shark wouldn’t have been able to see my shape clearly and know that I wasn’t a usual food source. Instead, it decided that there was only one way to decide what was making that splashing on the surface: bite it.
That was the moment I had dreaded all of my life and when it happened I was in a state of shock. Yes, my nightmare had been about being eaten by the jaws of death, but to find myself looking into the eye of a primordial predator was just so weird.
I was in pain when it grabbed me, but at this moment it wasn’t any worse than some of the hard parachute landings I’d had in the army or skateboard accidents I’d had as a kid. I was hurting, but I could fight. What other choice did I have? I tried to punch the shark and that’s when I realized my right hand was pinned by its teeth on to my leg. I had to do what I could to get out of this, and so I attempted a counter-attack with my left hand. And that’s when it started to shake me.
All the fight left my body at that moment as the shark’s rows of teeth worked through my flesh and bones like saws. If being in a fight with a shark is on your bucket list, take it off. Trust me, you don’t want any of that. The pain was so incredibly intense that it overpowered me and all the fight went out of me.
It was at that moment that I felt sure I was going to die. I remember asking myself if I was ready to leave this world, and when I looked back in those split seconds on all I had achieved from that lost and bullied kid, I decided that I was. It had been a good life, but it was not promising to be a good end and I started to choke on bloody water as the powerful predator pulled me down into the murk. There was nothing I could do to stop it. And then it was gone.
I can’t tell you why it let me go, but it certainly wasn’t because I had fought it off. I was a rag doll in its jaws, but maybe the bull shark had tasted enough to know I wasn’t its usual kind of meal.
There was a thick coating of blood on the water, and more was pouring out of me. This one animal may have decided I wasn’t for it, but how long until more bull sharks came to check out the stink of blood? One bite had almost killed me. Another would surely end things.
Trying to keep my ruined arm out of the water and above my heart to slow the bleeding, I swam for the safety boat and my teammates hauled me in. I saw the look of horror on their faces, so I did what soldiers do, and I cracked a joke. Dark humor in the face of tragedy is often a military fallback to create levity. Then I closed my eyes and prepared to bleed to death.
Doctors, nurses, service personnel and blood donors saved my life. So many people were involved in that day and it all started with a bull shark. I do wonder what happened to that thing; it may well still be alive. I’ll never be able to conceive the role it played in my life.
So what can we learn from that attack? Swimming with fins, alone, across the murky waters of Sydney Harbor is probably not the greatest idea, especially so close to dawn on a cloudy morning. We also did n’t have an appropriate medical kit on the boat and that almost cost me my life – fortunately, one of the lads was willing to shove his hand inside my leg and hold my artery closed with his fingers. Gross, yes, but it saved my life.
Many shark-attack deaths come from single bites that result in death by traumatic blood loss.
Knowing the position of lifeguard stations, and carrying your own medical kid to surf spots, could be lifesaving. It’s always better to have something and not need it and easy-to-use tourniquets are readily available from camping stores. Of course, a tourniquet is useless if you don’t know how to use it, and I think that anyone who is spending time in the ocean should invest in first-aid training.
Shark attacks are extremely rare, but the ability to perform CPR is a skill that we should all have. It is not like there’s no risk of shark attack. I’m living proof of that.
Despite my experience of the shark attack, the amount of time we spend worrying about this particular danger, compared with the actual probability of it happening, is massively out of proportion.
Here are a few things I did today that could have been potentially dangerous: took a shower (accidental injuries at home account for more than 18,000 American deaths a year); played with my dog (dogs kill 25,000 people a year around the world); crossed the street several times (around 6,000 pedestrians are killed in America every year); worked out at the gym (114 people were killed using free weights or weight machines in America over a 17-year period, during which almost a million more were treated for injuries sustained while at the gym); crossed the street several more times; took another shower; made breakfast (around 5,000 Americans die from choking every year).
As we see from the numbers, any one of those moments had the potential to be fatal, but I didn’t lose sleep thinking about them (all right, maybe the thought of 5am workouts does sometimes keep me awake).
We all have our fears: heights, spiders, enclosed spaces, there are even some of us who fear, literally, everything (it’s called panphobia). These fears often stem rationally from circumstances we’ve encountered during our lives, while others come from irrational programming placed into our psyche by external forces – such as movies and media, in the case of sharks.
In my case, I have chosen to leverage my story of overcoming my fear of sharks, even after almost meeting my end in the jaws of one, as an example for others in the hope that people will see and understand that if a shark-attack survivor can rise above this fear through knowledge and compassion, then anyone can.
I know there are people out there, just like me now, who hold a deep respect for sharks, and there are people out there who are like I used to be, believing we’d be better off killing them all.
I wrote my book because I want to share my appreciation – and especially with those that fear them – of how truly amazing these animals are.
Sharks are an apex predator, yes, but we humans are the absolute top of the food chain and we consume everything in our path. We are often irresponsible and reckless with the world around us.
Just taking a stroll along any coastline on the planet, you can see in the sand our destructive force through the trash that washes up on the shore. Pretty little plastic pieces that mother birds feed their babies. Plastic bags that look like jellyfish and clog up the stomachs of turtles and whales. Micro-plastics that are consumed by phytoplankton, which then end up inside small fish, then bigger fish and then sharks, and even us.
The run-off from pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and cattle leach into our water tables and rivers, polluting waterways and creating dead zones in our oceans. Our human reach has no limit and if we cannot see and correct the error of our ways, then our species is in line for its own disaster.
We don’t have to continue along this path. We can influence the direction of our existence through words and actions.
‘Shark: Why we need to save the world’s most misunderstood predator’, Paul de Gelder (HarperCollins, July 2022)