It was a bull shark that took Paul de Gelder’s right leg and forearm.
The incident took place in February 2009 in Sydney Harbour. De Gelder was a Navy bomb disposal diver taking part in a counterterrorism exercise. A 9-foot shark bit into de Gelder’s hamstring and left him “swimming through a pool of (his) own blood.”
“I’d basically given up and accepted the fact that I was going to die,” de Gelder recounts in a video shared by APB Speakers.
This week — about 14 years since the attack — de Gelder has written a book about the ocean predator that forever altered his life and nearly ended it. And when it comes to sharks, he has a singular focus — saving them.
With “Shark: Why We Need to Save the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator” (Harper Collins), de Gelder wants to advocate for a creature that he says is being “absolutely slaughtered” by overfishing and the shark-fin industry.
“They don’t have a voice,” said de Gelder.
But de Gelder didn’t develop an appreciation for sharks until after he was almost killed by one.
“I thought, ‘Why don’t we just kill them all?” de Gelder explains in the video. “Then we can swim in the ocean and we don’t have to worry about anything. It would be glorious.’”
He grew up spearfishing in Australia and was “absolutely terrified” of sharks. After what he describes as some “wild” and “whirlwind” teen and young adult years, de Gelder became an Army paratrooper, then a bomb-clearing Navy diver. The dark, murky water didn’t help his fear of sharks.
“I didn’t hate them,” he said. “I just didn’t want them anywhere near me.”
When the unthinkable happened, it was the first attack to occur in Sydney Harbour in 50 years and drew lots of media attention, de Gelder said. When other shark incidents occurred, de Gelder was sought out by the media for comment.
“I had absolutely no idea,” he said. “At the risk of looking like a dummy on television, I started learning. The more I learned, the more I realized how little we have to fear of sharks and how much they have to fear of us.”
De Gelder, who jumped out of airplanes and worked with bombs as a member of the military, said he “never blamed the shark” that attacked him.
“I chose a dangerous life,” he said. “I can’t choose that sort of life and then get mad when something goes wrong.”
While in the military, de Gelder says his job was “to stand up for people who couldn’t stand up for themselves.” Now, de Gelder spends a lot of time standing up for sharks, educating others on the risks they face and the role they play in ocean health — often in front of the camera. He’s a regular on Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week,” where he once taught former UFC champion and current WWE star Ronda Rousey how to hand feed a shark. He’s been a “shark diving mentor” to actor Will Smith and worked behind the scenes with actress Blake Lively on the movie “The Shallows.”
He’s also writing a children’s book — about a kangaroo that loses his tail — and recently took up snowboarding.
“Apparently I’ve picked it up really well,” said de Gelder, who mentioned the possibility of pursuing the Paralympics one day.
“It’s another box to tick,” he said. “Hurtling down a snow covered mountain on a stick ... and there’s cliffs everywhere, and I don’t know how to stop. ... It’s really thrilling.”
De Gelder describes his work as trying to “spread the word about how important” sharks are.
“Every shark is different and amazing,” he said. “They’re all spectacular in their own way.”
But, understandably, he did add with a laugh, “I’m not a huge fan of bull sharks.”