/ 11 June 2015

My brush with Jaws

Mathieu Dasnois
Mathieu Dasnois

I twisted, and saw the shark with my foot in its mouth. It was dragging me through the water. The shark – an eyewitness said it was a 4m great white – was shaking its head from side to side to rip my leg from my body. But I felt very little pain. My mind was completely clear. I did a kind of sit-up in the water and started pushing and prodding the shark. Its skin was rock hard.

I noticed the eye and pushed my left thumb into it. I remember it felt squishy. I remember my thumb entering the eye socket. I felt the shark twitch. As it let go and swam away, I felt its teeth slash my foot.

I took stock. My leg was mangled and I had little control of my foot. My fin was gone.

I had asked Rob Nettleton and Debbie Smith from Offshore Africa in Port St Johns if I could hitch a ride on their boat tour and jump overboard to look at a reef I’d seen from the shore at Sugarloaf Rock, with a view to coming back another time to spearfish. It was about lunchtime on May 2 and the weather was perfect – sunny, with little wind and calm seas. The boat dropped me off about 50m from the tip of Sugarloaf.

I’d been in the water a few minutes and there wasn’t much to see, so I was swimming back to the boat when the 8m-deep pebbled sea bed gave way to a reef. This was what I’d been looking for! I stopped swimming and started taking slow, deep breaths, preparing to dive to the bottom and look around.

Then I felt myself moving. For a split second I thought the boat had hit me and I was being pushed by the hull. A shark attack seemed absurd, unreal.

Brief moment of relief
When the shark let go of me, there was a brief moment of relief. I thought maybe it had gone. But it turned around with an agility that was more terrifying for me than seeing my foot in its mouth. I was prey. I was being hunted. That’s when I thought I was going to die.

Rob had seen the shark before I had and had already tried to get the boat to me, but I’d been dragged away.

He told me later that he saw me with my arm around the shark. He says the animal “went ballistic on the surface, thrashing its tail and arching its back half out the water”. Rob said he thought: “This is it, he’s gone. We’re not going to find him.”

Dasnois was rushed to hospital after the attack. (Kathryn Costello)

I don’t remember the second attack well. I remember my hand on the shark’s nose, and I think I pushed myself away. It only got hold of my upper arm. Alison Kock, the research manager for Shark Spotters, suggests the shark may have attacked more cautiously after I poked it in the eye, giving me time to react.

It dragged me through the water a second time. I remember thinking: “Great. First a leg, now an arm. What’s next?”

Lined up from below
I managed to break free when the shark adjusted its grip on my arm. I surfaced and saw the bright red boat. Everyone was looking at me, including Rob at the wheel. I raised my arm and shouted: “Help! I need help!”

Then I put my head back underwater to scan for the shark, and I saw it, straight below me, coming up fast. It had taken the time to line up from below, as if I were a seal. I could sense its desire. I was food. It had no vindictiveness, no hatred, no animosity. Nor had I. It wanted to consume me and I wanted to survive.

Dasnois has had 187 stitches and extensive surgery on his road to recovery. (Shaun Swingler)

I saw it slowly opening its jaws, I saw the rows of razor-sharp teeth that I had felt tearing my flesh and muscle earlier. I was eye to eye, nose to nose with the creature hunting me.

I dangled my right hand to one side, to give it a target. As the shark shot up, I pushed against it with both hands. It twisted, jaws open, and burst out of the water with the sheer speed of the attack. It breached – “nose to belly button”, according to Rob – both pectoral fins out of the water, and almost fell on the boat, which had come closer.

I swam to the boat, feeling my useless, dangling right foot, concentrating on my left leg that still had a fin. I reached out to Eddy Johnstone, a guest on the boat, saying: “Help me. Please help me.”

Face to face
He pulled me out of the water in one go, leaning out of the boat. He came face to face with the shark. It had already turned around for another attack.

On the boat, I could finally stop moving, but I was still full of adrenaline. I kept looking around, moving my limbs, telling people: “That was a shark! I was attacked by a fucking shark!” as if they hadn’t seen it breach, metres from the boat.

Debbie and Eddy were calming me down, telling me it was over and I would be okay.

I couldn’t feel my right foot or move my toes. I was spurting blood.

Dasnois and his friend Jason Piratis near Sugarloaf Rock, weeks before his terrifying ordeal. (Neil Clayton)

Eddy was holding my head in his hands. Rob was on the phone to shore, “at the same time taking out our massive first aid box that we always carry and telling clients to rip open the packaging and pass it to Debbie”. Rob added: “I was sitting … seeing this enormous amount of blood flowing down the back of the boat and out through the scuppers.”

Debbie says she told herself: “Just work, just get it sorted, just get it fixed, help, talk to Matt, ask for more sanitary towels, more bandages … I remember my fingers sinking into the gaps in his wetsuit by his calf.”

Severed arteries
Three arteries in my leg were severed. “The boat was full of blood,” says Rob. Tendons and nerves were ripped, and both hands were slashed when I fended off the shark. Eight hours of surgery and 187 stitches later, I know I will make a full recovery. I was lucky. Lucky that Offshore Africa always carried that big medical kit on board, and that Debbie bandaged me up so well.

Right now I’m just recovering. The nerve pain in my mangled leg is constant, but it’s good to have it still attached, and my arm and hands have finally healed.

I still have a cast on my leg and there are months of physio ahead.

Friends have asked me if I will ever dive again. Yes, but only in very clear water, from a boat, with a buddy like Rob and a dive master like Debbie.

Also, I have a new respect for the ocean and a new understanding of our place in the ocean’s food chain: somewhere in the middle. I am both predator and prey. I must behave like prey, watchful and careful.

Sardine spotters undeterred

This attack happened just as Port St Johns was preparing for the annual sardine run spectacular, which is a key contributor to the economy in an area where unemployment, according to the municipality, reaches 96%.

The migration of millions of sardines between May and July attracts birds and ocean predators, from dolphins to sailfish and tuna – and all manner of sharks.

The Wild Coast town of Port St Johns is a favourite place to see this migration – the biomass of which equals the great wildebeest migration of the Serengeti. It’s only three nautical miles from the deep waters off the continental shelf.

Shark diving is part of the attraction of the sardine run, although great whites are rarely seen. Several tour operators were worried that news of an attack by a great white would scare tourists away. So worried, in fact, that none wanted to be quoted in a story about sharks at all. But no operator I spoke to had experienced any cancellations owing to this attack, nor did any have fewer bookings.

Knowing there are sharks in the water can be safer than thinking there are none, as I did. But there is no way to predict the behaviour of an individual shark, emphasises Alison Kock, research manager for Shark Spotters. Great white sharks “are apex predators at the top of their game. They can be cautious, they can be confident, they can be timid, they can be submissive or aggressive – it all depends on the specific circumstance.”