One minute I was swimming across Sydney Harbour, the next my right leg was clenched in the jaws of a 9ft bull shark.
As someone who grew up in Australia – which reports an average of 20 shark attacks a year – this was the moment I dreaded all my life.
But my fighting instinct kicked in. As any schoolboy knows, if you are attacked by a shark, you have to hit him in the eye. That was the only option I was denied because my right hand was attached to my leg by its teeth.
And the bull shark has more teeth than any other species. They can only grow to an inch, but a bull has 50 rows, with seven teeth in each row, for a total of 350. And what they lack in size they make up for with needle-like sharpness.
I attempted a counterattack with my left hand. Then it started shaking me like a rag doll. Folklore may have the great white as the most feared inhabitant of the deep, but there’s nothing more terrifyingly aggressive than a bull shark.
Motivational speaker, author and Navy Reserve, Paul de Gelder lost both an arm and a leg when he was attacked by a male bull shark during a counter-terrorism exercise in Sydney Harbor in February 2009
Paul de Gelder depicted with a shark. He said: “My first encounter with tiger sharks in the Bahamas was one to remember. A few years later I got to teach Will Smith how to do it’
As his teeth sawed through my flesh and bones, I was overcome by the most intense pain imaginable. All the struggle went out of me and I started to choke in the bloody water as the 700lb behemoth started to pull me down. Now I felt really sure that I was going to die.
I’ll never know why it let me go. Perhaps it had tasted enough of my meat to know I was not the usual meal. Whatever the reason, he let go of his grip and ducked to find a more familiar prey.
As I floated back to the surface, I became aware that not only was there a thick layer of blood on the water, but more was pouring out of me every second. How long did it take for more bull sharks to be attracted to the smell of blood?
Luckily I was in Sydney Harbor as a member of the Specialized Diving Unit of the Royal Australian Navy, where I took part in a counter-terrorism drill that involved swimming around the warships of naval base HMS Kuttabul. I had the presence of mind to keep my torn arm out of the water and above my heart to slow the bleeding as I made my way to the safety boat.
I saw the look of horror on the faces of my teammates as they dragged me in and so I did what soldiers do, and made a joke. Then I closed my eyes and prepared to bleed to death.
I owe my survival to the guts and quick thinking of one of the boys who shoved his hand into my leg and held my severed artery closed with his fingers until I could be handed over to the battalion of doctors, nurses, service personnel and blood donors who saved my life together. Several surgeries later, I woke up to find that I was missing half an arm and a leg.
Since that day in February 2009, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what happened and figure out why I’d become a target of every swimmer’s nightmare.
Paul de Gelder lost his right arm and leg after being attacked by a 9ft bull shark in Sydney Harbor in February 2009
De Gelder says a shark’s horrific attack encouraged him to become an advocate for the predators
Part of the reason may have been that I had been lying on my back in the water and using rubber fins on my feet to propel myself.
When you hit the water with a flipper, you get the kind of low-frequency sound waves that sharks are tuned to and that’s probably what drew the bull to me. Because it was early morning and cloudy, and as the water was muddy brown, the bull shark would not have been able to see my silhouette clearly and conclude that I was not one of its usual food sources, such as fish, dolphin or even another shark. .
Instead, it had clearly decided there was only one way to determine what that splashing on the surface was doing: to bite.
There is no doubt that I was unlucky. Far more people drown in their own bathtubs than are attacked by sharks, but that didn’t stop me from being afraid of them as a kid. As a young boy growing up in Australia, I spent a lot of time in the water, but movies like Jaws made me so scared of sharks that I even thought about it when I was in swimming pools.
Nevertheless, I would go spearfishing with my grandfather and boogie boarding with my brother on huge waves. I knew there were sharks, but some things worried me more than being eaten alive — like impressing my dad.
I didn’t overcome my fear so much as I pushed it aside. My fear of sharks persisted even after I joined the Australian Army and became a paratrooper.
So why did I then ask to be transferred to the Navy to become a diver? And not just any diver, but a clearance specialist in an elite unit, carrying out missions from salvage to demolition.
I think it was because as a kid I was always in the pool or ocean and missed it in the military after a break from the water.
Former Navy diver, Mr. De Gelder, is pictured performing a routine military exercise at the hospital after his right arm and leg were torn off by the apex predator.
Mr. de Gelder is depicted up close to a shark. He is now a motivational speaker, participating in Shark Week every year to raise awareness of how important they are to the ecosystem
Never had I seen any of the creatures of my nightmares. Sharks may have been on my mind every time I stepped in the water, but I never seemed to think about theirs. Until that fateful day.
After my recovery, I refused to let my injuries stop me from doing what I loved and went back out into the ocean, and even back to Sydney Harbour. While I was definitely still afraid of sharks, I was even more afraid that I wouldn’t be able to continue my job in the Navy.
I passed every test they put before me and requalified as a diver, but it became clear that the Navy would never allow me to rejoin my diving team or enlist in combat operations.
For the first time in a long time, I began to doubt what my future would hold. Who would have thought it would be that bull shark that would send me on a new career path?
As part of my recovery, I started reading more about sharks. I wanted to understand more about the creature that changed my life and the more I learned, the more I realized how much we – as humans – change theirs.
My story was followed by the Australian media and I started receiving requests to talk to companies and teams about overcoming adversity. I also had the opportunity to work with sharks for TV documentaries.
I’m still here and I haven’t lost a limb since the Sydney Harbor attack.
I wish I could say that sharks do as well as I do. But after taking so long to evolve — the earliest fossil evidence dates them back 450 million years — humanity is killing them at a rate that will see many if not most species become extinct in the coming decades.
I’m a big believer that people should use the ocean, but it’s at their own risk. I think the idea that we have to kill creatures to make the sea safer for us is the epitome of selfishness.
I don’t want you to stay out of the water. But if the choice in a particular hot spot is to cull sharks, or surf more, then I’ll spare the sharks’ lives every time.
Shark attacks are rare and should be seen as accidents rather than murders. With the exception of shipwreck survivors, almost all shark attack victims are in the water because the ocean is a magical place they love. Sharks are part of that magic and we should always remember that we are guests in their home.
- Extracted from Shark: Why We Need To Save The World’s Most Misundersted Predator by Paul de Gelder, published by Mudlark for £16.99. © 2022 Paul de Gelder. To order a copy for £15.69 go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. UK delivery is free on orders over £20.