One moment I was swimming in Sydney Harbour, the next my right leg was stuck 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 – it was the moment I had dreaded all my life.
But my fighting instinct kicked in. As all school children know, if you are attacked by a shark, hit it in the eye. It was the only option I was denied as my right hand was pinned by its teeth to my leg.
And the bull shark has more teeth than any other species. They may only be an inch long, but a bull has 50 rows of them, with seven teeth in each row, making 350 in all. And what they lack in size, they make up for in needle-like sharpness.
I attempted a counterattack with my left hand. That’s when it started to shake me like a rag doll. Folklore may have the great white as the most feared denizen of the deep, but there’s nothing quite as terrifyingly aggressive as a bull shark.
Motivational speaker, author and Navy reserve Paul de Gelder lost 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 photographed with a shark. He said: “My first encounter with tiger sharks in the Bahamas was unforgettable. A few years later I taught Will Smith how to do it’
As his teeth cut through my flesh and bone like saws, I was overcome with the most intense pain imaginable. The whole fight left me and I started choking on the bloody water as the 700 pound giant started pulling me down. Now I felt really sure that I was going to die.
I will never know why he let me go. Perhaps he had tasted my flesh enough to know that I was not his usual meal. Whatever the reason, he released his grip and dove down to find more familiar prey.
As I came to the surface, I became aware that not only was there a thick layer of blood on the water, but more and more was pouring out of me every second. How long before other bull sharks are attracted to the smell of blood?
Luckily I was in Sydney Harbor as a member of the Royal Australian Navy’s Specialist Diving Unit, taking part in a counter-terror exercise which involved swimming around naval base warships HMS Kuttabul . I had the presence of mind to keep my lacerated 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 my teammates’ faces as they pulled me inside 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 courage and quick thinking of one of the guys who stuck his hand in 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 have come together to save my life. Several operations later, I woke up to find that I was missing half an arm and a leg.
Since that day in February 2009, I have had plenty of time to reflect on what happened and understand why I had become the 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
Mr de Gelder says the horrific shark attack encouraged him to become a predator advocate
Maybe part of the reason was that I was lying on my back in the water and using rubber fins on my feet to propel me.
Hitting a fin against the water creates the kind of low frequency sound waves that sharks are sensitive to and that’s probably what drew the bull to me. As it was early morning and overcast, and given that the water was muddy brown, the bull shark could not have clearly seen my silhouette and deduced that I was not one of its usual food sources, such as the fish, dolphin or even another shark.
Instead, he had clearly decided that there was only one way to establish what was causing those splashes on the surface: bite him.
There is no doubt that I was unlucky. Far more people drown in their own bathtub than being attacked by sharks, but that didn’t stop me from being scared 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 had scared me so much about sharks that I even thought about them when I was in the pools.
Despite this, I was spearfishing with my grandfather and bodyboarding on huge swells with my brother. I knew there were sharks there, but some things worried me more than being eaten alive – like impressing my dad.
I didn’t conquer my terror so much as pushed it aside. My fear of sharks remained 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 demining specialist in an elite unit, carrying out missions ranging from salvage to demolition.
I guess it was because I was always in the pool or the ocean as a kid, and after a break from the water in the military, I missed it.
A former Navy clearance diver, Mr de Gelder is pictured performing routine military drill in hospital after his right arm and leg were ripped off by the apex predator.
Mr de Gelder is photographed at close range from a shark. He is now a motivational speaker, attending Shark Week every year to raise awareness of their importance to the ecosystem.
I had never seen one of the creatures of my nightmares. Sharks might have been on my mind every time I entered the water, but I never seemed to be on theirs. Until that fateful day.
After my recovery, I refused to let my injuries stop me from doing what I loved and returned to the ocean, and even to Sydney Harbour. While I was definitely still afraid of sharks, what scared me the most was not being able to continue doing my job in the Navy.
I passed all the tests they offered me and requalified as a clearance diver, but it became clear that the navy would never allow me to join their dive team or deploy to combat operations.
For the first time in a long time, I began to doubt what my future held for me. Who would have thought that it would be this bulldog shark that would steer me towards a new career?
As part of my recovery, I started learning more about sharks. I wanted to learn more about the creature that had 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 getting requests to give business and team talks on how to overcome adversity. I also had the chance to start working with sharks for television documentaries.
I’m still here and haven’t lost a limb since the Sydney Harbor attack.
I wish I could say the sharks are doing as well as I am. But, having taken so long to evolve – the earliest fossil evidence dates them back 450 million years – the human race is killing them off at a rate that will see many, if not most, species disappear in the decades to come.
I strongly believe that people should use the ocean, but do so at your own risk. I think the idea that we should 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 hotspot is to kill the sharks or surf more, then I’ll spare the sharks’ lives every time.
Shark attacks are rare and we should consider them accidents rather than murders. With the exception of shipwreck survivors, almost all shark attack victims are in the water because the ocean is such a magical place that they love. Sharks are part of this magic and we must always remember that we are guests in their home.
- Extract from Shark: Why We Need To Save The World’s Most Misunderstood Predator by Paul de Gelder, published by Mudlark at £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.