This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Dave Pearson, who survived a shark attack in March 2011 off the coast of New South Wales, Australia, and founded the survivor group Bite Club. It has been edited for length and clarity.
I had actually purchased a new surfboard the evening before I got bit, and was looking forward to testing it out. We went to the beach for a typical afternoon of surfing.
I’d only been out in the water for about five minutes, and I was on my stomach paddling back out after my third wave. I was looking over my left side at my mates when all of a sudden, the whole afternoon changed and a shark came up from just off to my right-hand side.
Its bottom jaw and nose struck my surfboard. It flipped out of the water with my surfboard and my right arm stuck in its mouth.
We tumbled to the ocean floor, but it left me alone pretty quick, and I was able to get back down on my board.
When I looked down at my arm I saw my forearm muscle hanging off. Blood squirted out around me in about a 6-foot radius; the water was going red quite quickly around me.
My mates pulled me in after I got knocked around and pulled underwater by a couple of waves. They tied a tourniquet around my arm that saved my life while we waited an hour and a half for the paramedics to arrive.
All my friends did it, I know. It’s amazing how people will just step up and do the extraordinary thing when they need to without realizing what they’re actually doing.
People wanted to attack me for getting attacked
When I was helicoptered into John Hunter Hospital at Newcastle, the whole airstrip was lit up, and the pilot told me that there were about 20 news crews waiting for me.
It was because a week earlier, another shark attack had occurred near Newcastle. The girl who was injured was still hospitalized. So there was a media frenzy on it, and right from the start, I got a lot of unwanted publicity.
Later, when I was recuperating, I got on my laptop. I started reading the comments on the news stories about my attack and found I was copping a flogging.
There were comments like, “who does this idiot think he is surfing at night?” And, “you know, I bet he wants to go out and kill all the sharks now.”
So I thought I had a chance to set the record straight and tried replying. I said, “‘Hey guys, this is Dave. I’m lying in hospital at the moment. It’s not true that I was surfing in the night. It was 5:30 in the afternoon. No, I do not want to kill any sharks. You know, I’m quite happy to leave them alone if they’re leaving me alone.”
But the comments came flooding back with people insisting that I was reckless and wanted to go out and kill all sharks. It was funny, these people just wanted to attack me for getting attacked.
As one might expect, I was not in the best of emotional states at that time. I remember slamming my computer down after typing the last message, because it was actually unbelievable.
I shook, physically shaking and crying. And that was it.
I remember saying to my partner, “You know, yesterday I was a pretty good guy. But today, I got attacked by a shark, and now I’m the worst person in the world.”
When you realize you’re not alone, it’s easier to deal with
I take full responsibility for what happens to me in the ocean. It was my decision to swim and surf. Even so, you know, I had a pretty tough time as you would have guessed after the shark attack. It can be really lonely.
I went to therapy, and tried to look around for support groups, but didn’t find any. The girl I spoke to had also been beaten up a week earlier.
The similarities in our stories were unbelievable — we both had injuries to our left arm and to the right side of our face. I was attacked by a bull shark and she was attacked by a white shark, but they were both similar sizes.
But more importantly, there were similarities in the way we were feeling about it, and that was strangely comforting to both of us. We kept in touch quite a bit afterward.
After that, whenever I was interviewed for a news story, I asked them to pass on my information to any other shark attack survivors they were talking to.
I was curious about my future. I wanted to find out how long the pain would last.
And so I started driving all over the place to try and meet up with people that they sent my way. After hearing the news about the attack, I started calling hospitals and giving my contact information to anyone who needed to speak to me.
Every time I met someone, we’d just sit down and chat and it was like we knew each other already. We knew each other’s feelings, and we managed to make each other feel better just by hanging around and chatting.
The greater the number of people who came together, we made everyone feel better. When you realize you’re not alone in something, it’s a lot easier to deal with.
I thought “Wow, this is something.” but my search for support groups turned up nothing.
So that’s when we started Bite Club.
Bite Club is a group that supports shark bite victims getting healthy
Since then, I’ve had hundreds of conversations with people who’ve had a shark attack. There are some amazing stories that I’ve heard from people, things that just blow your mind.
We do a lot of organizing online, because we are spread out all around the world. I don’t think there’s a country in the world that isn’t represented in our group.
We also do in-person events. A local program for public affairs provided funding that made it possible to do one of the most memorable events. We got a group of survivors together to go dive in an aquarium with gray nurse sharks.
We got a group of survivors together to go dive in an aquarium with gray nurse sharks. This was a cathartic experience for many of us. It was great.
That’s the basic recipe of what we try to do. We’re a group of people who’ve come together from traumatic events, who are supporting each other getting healthy and becoming productive.
I certainly missed those days prior to my attack. It’s not something I would change, but I have become someone else because of my experience.
I’ve also met so many inspiring people that I feel like my bucket has been filled. The people I’ve met and the stories I’ve been told restore my faith in humanity, in a way.