Nothing can stop clearance diver Paul de Gelder – not even losing two limbs to a shark.
By Todd Cole
Paul de Gelder walks into the crowded bar and, like a scene out of a spaghetti western, the collective chatter of the 50-odd office workers drops. People turn to look at him. Eyes scan Paul’s body, from his leg to his face to his missing hand. But they don’t gawk at him with revulsion or pity, they study him carefully, trying to understand his inconsistent physical presence.
Dressed in shorts, it’s evident Paul has a black prosthetic right leg and his right arm ends with a rounded stump. Clearly, he is disabled, the result of an obviously traumatic event. But then, in a curious way, he doesn’t look disabled at all. With about eight or nine percent body fat and the biceps, chest and shoulders of a man who trains with heavy weights every day, the 34-year-old clearance diver cuts an impressive figure. He is a man at the peak of fitness. And despite being a double amputee, Paul moves easily and confidently through the crowd and stands tall and proud.
He orders a soda water and we sit down, away from the glare of most patrons. Since the shark attack and the publication of his book, No Time For Fear: How a Shark Attack Survivor Beat the Odds, Paul’s life has taken a curious and unexpected twist. The attack and subsequent 60 Minutes story brought fame, then came the book, then an invite to speak at the UN as an ambassador for shark conservation, then a spot on Today, a part in a documentary for National Geographic’s Shark Week, then NBC and a litany of radio programs and magazine interviews. Now he does the lucrative talk circuit as a motivational speaker and, when his life as a working Navy diver allows, he gives pro bono talks for charities.
I ask him how his life’s been since his newfound fame. “It’s been crazy. I went from being a nobody to a somebody. I’m recognised everywhere I go and spend my life waiting in airports, thanks to the talks I give. I earn in 45 minutes [on the speaking circuit] what I earn in two weeks in the Navy. I meet famous people all the time. It’s insane.” Anticipating my thinking, he quickly adds, “but I’d give it all away in a heartbeat to have my fucking arm and leg back.”
We talk of his current posting at HMAS Penguin, home to the clearance diving school. Wanting to establish his trust, I tell him about my time as a clearance diver some 20-odd years ago and we break into an arcane language of acronyms and references only divers would understand. We share stories about divers we both know. Paul laughs easily, talks openly and listens intently. He is an easy person to be around. We return to the subject of the actual attack. I ask if he has nightmares.
“Never. Not once,” he says. “I had a bit of a rough time after it happened,” he admits, referencing the self doubt and depression — detailed in his book — he suffered after he was discharged from hospital. “But then I realised there are a lot more people worse off than me.
“I was asked to give a talk to Canteen [the charity for young people living with cancer] and I saw kids staring down the barrel of death and they were positive and upbeat. That’s when I realised that my life’s good.
I have good mates, a good job, money. I have my health … I’m a lucky bloke,” he says, with no hint of sarcasm.
Paul was most certainly not a lucky bloke on Wednesday, February 11, 2009. He’d just jumped in the water from a Zodiac a few hundred metres from HMAS Success, which was berthed at the Garden Island naval dockyard in Sydney’s Woolloomooloo. Aboard the Success was experimental sonar equipment designed to detect enemy divers in the water, a job that normally relies on nothing but keen-eyed lookouts. Paul simply had to swim toward the vessel on the surface and the boffins would conduct their tests and establish if the device could detect him. As far as tasks go for clearance divers, this one was piss-easy.
And as far as the location goes, he couldn’t have been in more familiar water. Thanks to exercises, ship repairs and inspections, and training courses, every clearance diver, past and present — myself included —has spent hundreds of hours in the murky waters where Paul was swimming. What’s more, it was daytime and only metres from where the Sydney Harbour Swim Classic takes place every year, and only a few hundred metres from where the BRW triathlon is staged every April. It was like getting bitten by a brown snake in Martin Place.
Paul had been in the water only a few minutes when he felt the shark hit him.“I was on my back in my regulation navy anti-stinger wetsuit, kicking my legs, about 50 metres from the wharf,” he writes in his book. “I looked over my shoulder to make sure I was heading in the right direction. I hadn’t even begun to turn back when I felt an almighty whack on the leg. I didn’t think too much of it at first. It didn’t hurt. I just thought it was strange; that I must have swum into a buoy or a log, or maybe a boat I hadn’t heard had run into me.”
“Half a second later I turned over, looked down to check my leg and saw the huge head of a bull shark … I could see the upper row of its teeth across my leg.”
Paul had been hit by a bull shark, a vicious man-eater that inhabits the warm, shallow waters along the coast. Bull sharks can tolerate freshwater exceedingly well and often travel far up rivers. At the height of this year’s Brisbane floods, one was spotted swimming through the submerged city streets — and several attacks in Gold Coast waterways have been attributed to bulls. They’re mean, aggressive and unpredictable, which is how they derived their name. When they bite, they don’t let go easily. Divers refer to them as the pit bull of the sea.
Paul continues: “Half a second later I turned over, looked down to check my leg and saw the huge head of a bull shark … I could see the upper row of its teeth across my leg. Its lip was pulled back … and its mouth looked fucking enormous … We must have stared at each other for about three seconds, but as soon as I recovered from the shock and realised what I was looking at, I started fighting for my life.”
George Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research and the International Shark Attack File, claims it is possible to fight off a shark attack. He told the BBC that if attacked by a shark you should “hit
it with an object — like a spear or camera or whatever you have to hand — avoid using your bare hands … If the shark is persistent, hit it hard on the end of the nose, which is just a little north of the mouth.”It’s a popular concept. In my time as a clearance diver I took comfort in the idea that if attacked by a shark, I’d simply gouge the beast in the eye and give him a quick punch in the snout. I imagined it would release me and I’d swim to the surface triumphantly in time for tea and medals. Mercifully, my hypothesis wasn’t tested, because as Paul discovered, sharks don’t behave the way a naive 20-year-old imagines they will.
Paul planned to poke the shark in the eye, but his right hand was in the shark’s mouth, pinned against his leg. With all his might, Paul punched the shark on the nose with his left hand.
“The fish was about three metres long, probably weighed 200-300 kilograms and was like one giant muscle. Compared to that, I was a tiny shard of flesh, a mere morsel in its mouth.”
“It didn’t make much difference,” he says. “The fish was about three metres long, probably weighed 200-300 kilograms and was like one giant muscle. Compared to that, I was a tiny shard of flesh, a mere morsel in its mouth. There was nothing to hold on to. I couldn’t anchor myself. I realised with a sickening feeling that I was completely at its mercy.”
BACK IN THE BAR, the waitress brings Paul’s dinner — salmon and salad — and he speculates as to why the shark eventually let him go. “Some people think it might have been the sound of the Zodiac’s motor approaching; others that my struggle put him off. I don’t know…”
“Maybe you tasted like shit,” I propose. Whatever the case, the shark abandoned Paul after lacerating his hand to the point it couldn’t be saved, and taking a good portion of his right thigh, including most of his hamstring.
The next couple of years saw a long and painful recovery, both physical and mental. Rebuilding his body was tough, but with a superhuman tenacity, Paul worked on it. He was determined not to lose his physicality. He still dives (and has even dived with sharks at Manly aquarium), he also surfs, parachutes, trains every day and he did the Sydney Tower Run Up [of Centrepoint Tower] in the respectable time of 18 minutes and 55 seconds.
I ask Paul what he’s learnt from this whole experience. He starts telling me about strength and happiness, then says, “It’s in the book, mate”, before heading off to the men’s. I open the last page.
“I’ve also learnt a lot about mental strength,” he writes. “I’ve come to realise that, without motivation, goals can remain pipe dreams. You need to care about and really want a certain outcome and then pour your heart and soul into achieving it. I’ve seen in others, and learnt myself, that the human body can endure more and perform better than we ever give it credit for. But it’s not the body working alone. The body is just the nail being driven in; the mind is the hammer, the driving force that will push a person far beyond their own expectations and on to success. I think what stops other people is that they fear the act instead of focusing on the outcome.”
I watch Paul moving back through the crowded bar and realise that although he was a victim of a terrible, disabling injury, he’ll never, ever act like one.
Paul’s book recounts his life prior to joining the army and then the navy, his training and the attack. No Time For Fear: How a Shark Attack Survivor Beat the Odds is published by Penguin, rrp $29.95.