What It’s Like To Watch A Great White Bite Your Arm
In the jaws of nature.
It was 6:15 pm when I paddled out at Avoca (on the NSW Central Coast). There was one bloke up the beach; it was two-foot onshore garbage with 40 or 50 people walking on the beach, playing frisbee, walking their dogs or whatever. As I was paddling out I got over the last wave I stroked with my left arm looking left up the beach, I took another stroke and looked to the right. And as I looked to the right I saw the shark come out of the water mouth open and take a bite getting my arm and board in the same mouthful, and pinning my arm to the board. It was literally that moment in National Geographic where the shark is open-mouthed coming into bite. That sort of thing doesn’t really leave you. It was an intimidating sight, to say the least.
I freaked out and punched it in the nose. It let go and then went under and came back up again like a submarine at me. Subconsciously I moved my arm out of the way to my left, which pivoted my hip, and the board moved to block it. It rammed my board and knocked over 180 degrees; I was back facing the shore.
I’ve never had a feeling of helplessness like that. In the ocean there is nothing you can do. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen.
I started paddling as hard as I could with my left arm, keeping my right arm out of the water. I didn’t know how bad it was. Then the thought hit me: it’s gonna sense the vibrations, and me thrashing about and come at me again. At that moment I floated over a wave and it passed me. I watched it head to shore thinking, well that’s safety, and I’ve just missed it.
I looked at the shore and my missus was looking at me with a quizzically. I saw her tilt her head like, is he waving at me? Why is his arm in the air? I thought I just missed that wave, she hasn’t seen anything, and now she’s gonna see me eaten alive by a shark.
I didn’t know where it was at this stage. I looked behind me and saw a wave coming. I started paddling with both hands, chin on the deck, hardest I’ve ever paddled. I looked to my right and saw the blood spreading in the water with every stroke.
I got the wave and ten feet from shore it died off in a gutter and nothing was breaking. I was like, you’re kidding me, I’m so close to dry sand, the wave of panic came over me again. Luckily a little double-up pushed onto another wave and capped and I got onto that. I got to dry sand, picked up my board and started running. I looked at my arm; it just started spurting blood. I dropped my board wrapped my shirt and pressed it to my left arm against where I assumed the bite was.
I ran to my wife and she just squealed and threw her glass of wine in the air, then took off to make the call. It took 45 mins for the ambulance to arrive. I was just keeping my heart rate low and trying not think of the word ‘sever’ or ‘wrist’ and remain calm. I went grey in the face; my eyes were rolling back a little bit. I thought I was remaining calm and regulating my breathing. The ambos were unsure, asking me are you sure it wasn’t just a feel? I took my arm away and the blood spurted a meter and a half and I was like, is that enough for you? They estimated I lost about a litre and a half to two litres of blood (the average adult body holds between 4.7 – 5.5 litres of blood). When you donate blood you give about a pint, so I lost about four times what you can donate in about 45 mins. When it happened there was no pain, I didn’t feel a thing. Just the adrenaline, shock, everything kicked in and it was until that night when the morphine wore off I began to feel it.
People talk about fight or flight. If it happened again would I punch it in the nose? I have no idea. I’m grateful that I did. The shark expert at the fisheries department, Dr Vic (Pedemors) reckoned that if I had of tried to pull my arm away it would have known I was prey and it would have ripped my arm off. Because I punched it, it didn’t know what to do and let go.
I ended up with 17 puncture marks in my arm, each were up to an inch deep and that’s going from my wrist all the way up to my forearm to my elbow. They measured the space between the bite and measured the bite marks on the board – it had 21 teeth marks underneath it – and we figured out it was a great white, 2.5-2.8 meters (roughly eight feet) in length, an older juvenile, with a jaw width around 30-40 cm wide. It was only the tip of the jaw that got me. It was just a nibble, a nibble where 16 teeth puncture you an inch deep.
It took me six months to feel my arm again; it was numb. I couldn’t feel a thing. My wrist and hand were paralysed for three months. Even though I didn’t break any bones, everything else in there was ruined. It snapped the tendons that connected my pinkie and wring-finger so they had to rewire a spare tendon that sits down the back of your palm underneath your pinkie. They had to rewire that around the top to get those two fingers working again otherwise they were useless.
The thought that it could have gone so much worse rattled me. It took three and a half months to get back in the water. I couldn’t push myself up or duck dive. First surf back we went to the same place of the attack with my good friend (and talented surf photographer) Luke Shadbolt and he spotted a shark. He didn’t say a thing, just something along the lines of, I think we should go in and get some lunch. A few months later he told me what he saw that day.
The attack has made me a bit more calculated. If there’s a big gutter or if it just doesn’t look right, like dark water, things like that, I decide not to surf because it plays on my mind too much. It took two or three years to surf by myself again and I love doing that. I’d rather find a spot to myself than surf with a bunch of people. In the last 12 months, I’ve gotten to the point where if I’m by myself I’m not looking around everywhere. But it’s like going back to being a novice. When I see a dolphin it scares the heck out of me.
The craziest thing is nothing was out of the ordinary. It was sunny; there wasn’t bait fish, the bank I was surfing was waist-deep the entire way, there had been no sightings. I wasn’t wearing a wetsuit so I didn’t look like a seal, they asked were you wearing a watch or ring because sometimes that can cause a reflection that looks like fish scales. I wasn’t. I didn’t pee in the water. The conclusion was that I was just very unlucky. I had none of the calling cards My hair was still dry; I hadn’t caught a wave. Just wrong place at the right time. And I’m not anti-sharks. I think they’re amazing.
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