“I tried all those things you see on Shark Week,” says Paul de Gelder, describing his attempt to fight off a shark while diving. “But nothing worked.”
Paul de Gelder, an Australian shark attack survivor, is not only featured in Shark Week 2015, but he is also training for The Paralympic Games of 2016. He plans to be the first-ever to bench-press with one arm —he’s already benched the remarkable weight of 300 pounds.
With both Shark Week and The Paralympics just around the corner, De Gelder is extremely influential as a motivational speaker, an environmentalist, an adventurer and a mentor to school children. Since losing two limbs in his career as a daredevil Navy Clearance Diver, De Gelder continues to dive and learn more about his attackers.
As a young man, Paul De Gelder seemed an unlikely candidate to be a motivational speaker and a regular on Shark Week. He ran the streets, worked at strip clubs and even was a rapper at one point opening for Snoop Dog. According to De Gelder, “I was just trying to do things, testing the waters, seeing what I was good at… I knew there was an amazing world out there and I wanted to be apart of it and I was never going to be able to do it this way, doing the things that I was doing. So, I figured I would change everything in my life and join the Army.” At 23 De Gelder would join the Australian military, running counter terrorism ops with the U.S. military and after five years the amateur surfer transferred to the Navy where he went in for selection to do diving runs, diffusing water mines and “blowing stuff up.” It was “awesome.”
He’d had a few harmless shark encounters while laying rope lines on the seafloor, but nothing he felt was dangerous, juts part of your average day as a diver. But, “until the one that was actually attached to my leg and was eating me, I’d never seen a dangerous shark.” And sharks aren’t the only thing to fear, prior to every dive they got a brief on their mission and there’s a section called DMA. DMA stands for Dangerous Marine Animals. It says, “If you encounter any DMA, exercise caution.” So, there ya go—that is our “safety protocol”. Chuckles. Among the other animals considered DMAs are sea snakes, jelly fish, and the blue ring octopus. “A lot of things can kill you in Australia, so we have to be careful.”
His one and fateful encounter with a DMA was a doozy and one that would change his life. In February 2009, at 7AM, it was overcast and he was in Sydney harbor, which according to De Gelder, “is a little bit murky—but I’ve dived there, I swam there a hundred times before, for work… and there hadn’t been a shark attack in sixty years. So, I’m feeling pretty safe—but I’m on my back, on the surface, and this bull shark comes up from underneath me and grabs my hand and my hamstring in the same bite. So I freak out a little bit and I’m trying to fight it off and jab it in the eyeball and punch it in the nose—and all those things you see on Shark Week. But none of it works. The shark took me under water and started tearing me apart. So I’m thinking, this is it, this is the end. I’m dead. But it removed my hand and my hamstring, and whether it was swimming away or circling back for another go… I just started swimming for my safety boat. And, the guys hauled me into the boat, and I was missing my hand and have this massive gaping wound in the back of my leg. They jumped in and started doing CPR and first aid— and they kept me alive until I got to the hospital. I’m pretty fortunate to be alive because those injuries are incredible.” Indeed.
But the reason de Gelder is impressive is because not only did he survive, but he LIVED.
Most people would never have recovered from such an attack, let alone go back in the water. Yet there he was after three months. “I went back to work as a Navy diving instructor after six months and it just progressed from there. It got to the point where I was doing some Shark Week documentaries, diving with Great Whites, went to Fiji, dove with Bull sharks. It was just a really cool progression of learning about all these different kinds of animals and being able to share my newfound respect and love with the rest of the world, through Shark Week.”
Why, I ask, do you think there’s so much hysteria about sharks? “It’s primal mate, it’s ingrained in us to be afraid of being eaten alive. And I can tell you first hand, it hurts… this does not tickle. I lost about 8 kilos in about 10 seconds. That is not a weight loss regimen I would recommend to anyone.” Chuckles.
Currently he’s exploring competing in the para-olympics, a regular gym goer, DeGelder decided to become a power lifter. “At the moment, and I’ve only started about a month and a half ago,” he says, “I am up to 300 pounds on the bench press. So I’m slowly working my way, and stacking the weight on, see if I can get competitive. And if I can do that, I’m going to get some great guidance, then, of course I’m going to give it a crack.”
I mention how impressive this is, since some of us can barely get out of bed and lose ten pounds let alone face the obstacles he has… what I ask is his advice for the rest of us?
“Get off your ass! … Put the game controller down, stop ordering pizza. Get up in the morning and go for a walk, a run, a swim, the gym… anything. Just start moving and stop eating garbage. Eat a lot of meats and vegetables and pastas. I try and eat a lot of whole foods, not processed garbage that is full of chemicals and crap that’s going to ruin your immune system. I always try and eat a lot of real food.”
What, I ask was more dangerous, running the streets as a young man or facing REAL sharks in the ocean? “It wasn’t so… this is Australia – it’s not as dangerous as running the streets in America. … chuckle …. But, yea, definitely sharks.”