First published on 19 Dec 2012. Updated on 19 Dec 2012.
In February 2009, navy clearance diver Paul de Gelder was returning from a training exercise near Garden Island when he felt a whack to his leg. “I looked down and there was a massive shark head attached to me,” De Gelder recalls. “I tried to jab it in the eyeball but my hand was in the shark’s mouth. So I tried with my left and couldn’t reach because the shark had me by the back of the leg. I tried to push it off, I tried to punch it, but it took me underwater and started tearing the hamstring out of my leg.”
Fortunately, while the shark was gnawing, De Gelder was somehow able to swim to the surface where his colleagues, who were only moments away in a nearby boat, rescued him. “Within a matter of probably ten seconds, I was pulled out of the water, minus half of my right leg and a hand.”
De Gelder, now 35, lives on the North Shore and recently published a book about the incident called No Time for Fear: How a Shark Attack Survivor Beat the Odds. He says he has many things to thank for his survival: his daily, intense fitness training; the proximity of his medically trained colleagues; the fact that surgeons were ready to operate by the time he reached the hospital; and – to a degree – pure luck.
“As soon as emergency stations were called, everyone snapped into action and did their job, from trying to tourniquet my leg and keep me conscious to one of the guys having to pinch-close an artery in an open wound in my leg.” De Gelder made the decision to have his leg amputated, but the hardcore diver was determined to stay active: “Two days after I had my leg removed, the doctor came into my room and found me doing one-armed chin-ups on the bar above my bed.”
OK, so jabbing it in the eyeball didn’t work for De Gelder, but what should we non-Supermen do if faced with a Jaws-y fish?
“Stay out of the ocean!” De Gelder jokes. But that’s not realistic. The former navy diver loves to surf and his experience hasn’t stopped him from enjoying the water. How about: don’t swim in shark-infested waters, heed lifesaver warnings and don’t swim, fish or surf alone. And avoid swimming at dawn or dusk, which is prime shark-feeding time (as anyone who’s seen the movie well knows).
If you do come face-to-face with a shark, the experts say (try to) stay calm and swim away slowly. Most sharks don’t want to eat you and will not attack unless provoked. Nowhere to go? Limit the angles of attack: back up against something (coral, rock, dive buddy…)
But if a shark gets its jaws on you, De Gelder’s advice is simple: “When you’re at that stage, anything goes!” It’s time to fight. Those same experts say to use anything you may have (spear, camera, boogie board) as a weapon, and – as a last resort – to hit or jab in sensitive spots like the eyes, snout or gills. Mostly, just hope you get lucky.