The instant the shark’s jaws clenched around my ankle, my life changed forever.
I kicked furiously to break free, but the shark bit down harder. I screamed for help and struggled to escape the waist-deep water.
Suddenly, the shark let go, and I frantically made my way to shallower water, where my friend dragged me from the surf and carried me to shore. I collapsed on the sand and looked in horror at my shredded foot as blood washed out to sea with the receding waves.
The 2004 attack happened just 50 feet off Florida’s Atlantic coast. My Achilles tendon was severed and my heel torn apart. I underwent surgery, but it would be three months before I could stand and much longer before I could walk more than a short distance.
During those difficult times, I sought answers. Why did this happen? My hobby was competitive ballroom dancing. Would I ever dance again? I had always loved nature, swimming in the ocean, and writing about the environment as an investigative journalist. Why did nature turn against me?
After months of reflection, I came to see this terrifying encounter as a test of my resolve, my love of wildlife, and my dedication to protecting our oceans and all the animals that call it home. I began to understand that nature hadn’t turned against me at all, that sharks are part of a wondrous ecosystem and that to help save the oceans, I had to help save the ultimate predator.
Recovering from the hospital in 2004. (Credit: Daytona Beach News Journal)
I later joined The Pew Charitable Trusts, a nongovernmental organization that works, among other initiatives, to save sharks. I learned that 100 million are killed annually, mostly to supply fins to Asian markets as soup ingredients. Because sharks are slow-growing, are late to mature, and have few young, they cannot reproduce as fast as they are being killed. About a third of all shark species are headed for extinction.
I soon realized I was in a unique position to help. If I could locate and recruit other attack survivors, we could work with Pew and be a powerful voice for sharks. I used my investigative reporting skills, tapping into shark attack databases and combing the Internet for news articles, hoping for clues to where survivors might live or work.
And I turned to Facebook to search for fellow survivors around the globe. Facebook came to the rescue when other sources had failed. But even that was challenging because I sometimes had to sort through the pages of many people with the same name. I looked for pictures that might show a person with an injury. I scanned home pages to see if there were mentions of sharks or if the person had liked pages relating to the animal.
In the end, I found and recruited about 20 survivors from the United States, Australia, South Africa, and Europe. Our group includes Paul de Gelder, a Royal Australian Navy diver who lost a leg and hand in 2009 when a shark attacked him during training in Sydney Harbor. Another is Mike Coots, whose leg was torn off by a tiger shark while he was surfing off the Hawaiian island of Kauai in 1997.
I asked the survivors to band together and travel to the U.S. Capitol and the United Nations to speak about the plight of sharks. The survivors responded enthusiastically because they were ocean lovers before their attacks and because their attitudes hadn’t changed—despite their lost limbs. Nearly all the survivors I contacted understood they were uniquely qualified to help. They were happy to transform a tragedy into something positive. We exchanged phone numbers and made plans.
Shark attack survivors visit the United Nations in 2010 to ask countries to end fishing of vulnerable species and create sanctuaries where commercial shark fishing is banned. (The Pew Charitable Trusts)
In 2009, nine survivors traveled to Washington to ask lawmakers to strengthen the U.S. shark finning ban, which requires that sharks caught and brought into U.S. ports are intact. The federal law was intended to eliminate the practice of shark finning—slicing off the lucrative fins at sea and then dumping the less valuable bodies overboard, leaving the animals to drown or bleed to death. In 2011, President Barack Obama signed a law that helps ensure shark finning cannot take place on any ship in U.S. waters.
In 2010, our group traveled to the United Nations in New York, where we asked countries to halt fishing for vulnerable species, implement shark conservation plans, and create sanctuaries where commercial shark fishing would be banned. So far, nine sanctuaries have been established, covering more than 4.8 million square miles of ocean. That’s larger than the United States and Canada combined. Yet the area represents just 3.5 percent of the world’s seas.
Last year, we helped collect samples of shark fin soup from 14 U.S. cities. DNA analysis revealed that the soups contained at-risk species, including one sample made with the endangered scalloped hammerhead. The results were part of a Discovery Channel show about our group of survivors and the work we’ve done. You can catch the show, “Shark Fight,” during Discovery’s Shark Week, starting Sunday, Aug. 4.
We began our Facebook page, Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation, to maintain our new friendships and share shark news. But we soon discovered that many other people were also interested in what we had to say. Today, we have more than 7,500 followers. And several other attack survivors have found the page and joined our group.
We post important news and sometimes use the page to help gather signatures on petitions. During Shark Week, you’ll find a shark personality quiz. See what kind of shark you’d be if you traded life on land for the sea.
Thanks to Facebook, we are talking about sharks every week. People are learning that if a group like ours thinks sharks are worth saving, everyone should.
Debbie Salamone is a communications officer for The Pew Charitable Trusts. She lives in Orlando, Fla.
- Mike Coots discovered a career in photography while recovering from a 1997 shark attack in Hawaii that cost him his leg.
- Shark attack survivors visit the United Nations in 2010 to ask countries to end fishing of vulnerable species and create sanctuaries where commercial shark fishing is banned.
- Recovering from the hospital in 2004.