It was like starting all over again: my breath hold was poor, my aim was rusty and my confidence was shaken. Seven months had passed since my leg had been bitten by a shark, and I was just starting to get back in the water.
For readers who don’t know what happened, this is a brief account of my shark incident:
In March 2013, I was freedive training off the coast of East Africa. I was ready to ascend from a 100 foot dive, when I noticed a Bull Shark swimming towards me from about 100 feet away. I had no speargun or camera with me. The shark was behaving strangely – very alert and curious. Without much concern, I started my ascent expecting the shark to turn around at any moment as they usually did. However, it kept coming closer. At around 15 feet away from me, it suddenly increased speed and was at my left leg in what seemed a fraction of a second.
The shark bit me between my knee and my ankle, shook its head a few times and then released me at around 80 feet.
My mask had filled with water from the shark’s movements shaking my whole body. All of a sudden I was free, but I could see through the water in my mask that one of my fins was sinking to the bottom. I didn’t know the level of damage I had sustained. I didn’t look down again, I just started swimming desperately to the surface with the one fin I had left, through the 80 feet of water above me. The boat came quickly after hearing my screams on the surface. Once on board, the crew used a tourniquet to stop the heavy arterial bleeding and doctors say it kept me alive for the 70 mile trip back to the main island where I was treated. I still lost a lot of blood and was feeling very weak. The bite reached down to the bone between my knee and ankle but did not break it, only severing my muscles, tendons, main veins and arteries. The doctors repaired and stitched everything in a four-hour long operation.
After months of physiotherapy I was still walking around with a prosthetic shoe that kept my ankle at a 90o angle, but I was ready to get back in the water, if anything just to get wet and evaluate my psychological situation. Freediving again felt very strange and familiar at the same time. I was wearing the prosthesis and feeling uncomfortable and a bit afraid, but at the same time being in the water felt right and welcoming.
After a few weeks, I managed to put a fin on my scarred foot, and was kicking very slowly and carefully. I had to wear shorter fins, since the long freediving blades would put too much pressure on my recently repaired tendons.
I only managed to shoot some small shallow water fish, but at least I was back in the water. I kept practicing and training, kicking harder, diving deeper with every week, and noticed a slow but steady improvement.
Overcoming my fears
On my fifth trip spearfishing after the shark accident, I saw two good sized Bull Sharks. One of them was moving a bit fast, reminding me of how my African shark friend had behaved just before the attack. Everyone else continued diving, but I had to leave the water and evaluate the situation. I guess I was traumatised. I actually had doubts as to whether I would ever fully recover psychologically.
Trying to build up my confidence in the water again, I kept diving in more “friendly zones” which were nice and shallow, where no one has ever seen a shark.
Almost one year later, I went back to the same place in Africa where the shark attack occurred. I went to visit the doctors that saved my leg and they confirmed that they were, in fact, considering amputation a couple of times due to the level of damage, not to mention the massive blood loss that was keeping me at death’s door. Once again, I felt unbelievably fortunate. I am constantly reminded that life can end anytime, anywhere with no warnings… and that we must live life to the fullest. The next morning I dived in the same area of the attack. I felt fine: no flashbacks. I guess I had finally overcome my fears. I understand the whole shark event now, not as a reason to abandon spearfishing, but as a lesson to keep practicing the sport I love, but in a safer way.
Since then, with all of the psychological trauma a thing of the past, I have been more relaxed while spearfishing, which automatically translates into catching better fish. For the last few weeks I’ve been lucky enough to find some decent fish in relatively shallow waters. I’ve found nice Snapper and some medium sized Spanish Mackerel in 50 feet of water, which have helped me feel like I’m getting back in the game. I also got a nice Malabar Grouper in only 60 feet. After shooting it, I had to keep it from escaping into a hole. I had to kick pretty hard… and my leg didn’t hurt at all.
Two weeks ago we found a new spot with bigger Spanish Mackerel but they were all between 80 and 90 feet deep. Everyone was getting nice ones, but I was only making shallow dives, to a maximum of 60 feet, due to my inability to kick properly. I realised that by taking my time and relaxing, I would be able to reach those depths again.
I relaxed and did a nice breathe-up, with my mind set to shoot a Spanish at my new deepest dive since the accident. I started my descent and concentrated. Slowly gliding down, I felt I was already going deeper than I had ever been since the shark event, but I remained calm, descending, looking around. At 85 feet I went horizontal while barely moving my fins, looking around for a Spanish. A few seconds after, I spotted two Spanish Mackerel at the edge of my visibility swimming in my direction. The peace and calm I felt during those few seconds proved to me that I was back in business. Everything felt right, perfect in fact. I felt that I was where I belonged, right in that moment.
The first of the two fish was already within range, I had the point of my gun where I wanted it and the whole moment felt so magical that when I squeezed the trigger I already knew it was a kill shot before it hit. And there it was… my first big Spanish Mackerel after the shark incident, dead still and trembling with my shaft protruding from behind its head. I ascended with the same peace with which I had dived down, and as I reached the surface I felt really well, no pain in my leg, no urge to breathe, and very happy with my fish.
To wrap it up, it is possible to overcome your fears. If you really love something, nothing can stop you. Think of difficult events as lessons to help you to do it better next time. And remember to live life to the fullest. In my opinion most spearos already do, but once a while we forget and give too much importance to things that don’t really matter.
Dive safe, don’t underestimate sharks and keep an eye on your partner at all times.