Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

How losing a few limbs in a shark attack led Paul de Gelder to his Shark Week career

Illustration for article titled How losing a few limbs in a shark attack led Paul de Gelder to his Shark Week career
Photo: Discovery Channel

As Paul de Gelder puts it, once you’ve survived a shark attack, there’s really nothing left to be afraid of. That experience turned out to be incredibly freeing for the Australian ex-clearance diver, whose life of adventure appeared to be over when he was ambushed by a bull shark while on a dive in 2009. He lost his right hand and part of his right leg in the attack, but where many people would never go into the water again after such a painful and terrifying incident, de Gelder decided to run toward the fear.

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After a handful of TV appearances talking about his survival story, de Gelder began researching more about sharks, and found that he had a passion for these misunderstood predators. He built that into a career, first as a motivational speaker and eventually as a shark expert and co-host for Discovery Channel’s long-running Shark Week programming. He’s also trained celebrities to swim with sharks, including Will Smith, Mike Tyson, and Ronda Rousey, who got a rare opportunity to hand-feed bull sharks—the same type of shark that almost killed de Gelder.

We connected with de Gelder over Zoom a few days before the kickoff of Shark Week, as he shared a life story that, more than once, left our writer speechless.

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The A.V. Club: Maybe this is an obvious statement, but being attacked by a shark must have been a big turning point for you.

Paul de Gelder: Losing a couple of limbs will do that to you.

AVC: What was your life like leading up to that point?

PDG: I was pretty much living the dream. I fought my way out of teenage depression and self harm and drug abuse to become a rapper and open up for Snoop Dogg…

AVC: Wait—really?

PDG: Yeah. I opened for Snoop Dogg in 1998 in my home city, Brisbane. I thought I had made it. Not a lot of money in white rappers, though.

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So I ended up joining the [Australian] Army. That was a huge turning point [in itself], learning about risking your life for the benefit of others, and the benefits of sacrifice, and how good that makes you feel. I really enjoyed that—it gave me purpose, which is one of the main things I was lacking.

And so that led me to the clearance divers, which is one of the hardest things to get into in the Australian military. I fought tooth and nail to achieve this life, and I actually pulled it off somehow. I was living in Bondi Beach. I rode a big black Italian sports bike. I was traveling the world with my mates, jumping out of aircraft, shooting guns, blowing stuff up. A literal kid’s dream job.

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AVC: It sounds like a Dwayne Johnson movie, but in real life.

PDG: Then you turn up to work one day, and a shark eats you. And it just throws everything out of whack. Seconds to take everything away.

AVC: What do you remember about that day?

PDG: Everything. I’ve been public speaking for a really long time [now], so I’ve had the chance to tell the story over and over again, go deeply into what I remember and talk to the guys who saved my life and get their side of the story. So I’ve got a pretty well-rounded idea of what happened.

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I was underwater, drowning, a shark was eating me—I accepted the fact that I was going to die. [I thought,] “I’m on my way to the next realm, whatever it is.” The shark ripped off my hamstring and ripped off my hand, and because it wasn’t attached to me anymore, my wetsuit made me buoyant. So I popped to the surface, and I thought, “Oh wow, I’m actually not dead. I better get out of here before it comes back.” And so I’m swimming to the boat with one hand and one leg, through a pool of my own blood. And thankfully I got to the boat in time for my teammates to do first aid and keep me alive. But it was touch and go for a long time.

AVC: Since you’ve gone over the experience so thoroughly, did it teach you anything that you pass on to other people now?

PDG: There are so many lessons that embedded in every aspect of my story. It’s not a shark attack story. It’s not a military story. It’s a story about life, and how we go through these life-changing moments. It might not be getting eaten by a shark—I certainly hope it’s not, because it hurts a lot. But people go through depression, for example. People have family members who die. We all go through something like that, and the tools that we can use to get through those challenges are the same.

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I like to call on all the lessons out of everything, like the fact that we’re all stronger as a team in our work, or in our personal lives. That was evident in the fact that I couldn’t have kept me up myself alive without my friends doing first aid. Even though I had the best doctors, without the 300 people that donated blood [for me], I’d be dead. Every small kind act, every time we come together as a team, we create a really incredible energy for all of us to feed off. We become better together. Those are the lessons that I got out of the whole experience.

AVC: It probably also taught you some things about overcoming fear.  

PDG: My two biggest fears in life were sharks and public speaking. I quit a college class because I have to speak in front of the class. That’s how scared I was. You can literally turn your greatest fears into your greatest strengths, if you choose to confront them. There’s nothing wrong with being afraid. Be afraid, and then do it again.

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Illustration for article titled How losing a few limbs in a shark attack led Paul de Gelder to his Shark Week career
Photo: Discovery Channel

AVC: So you’re encouraging people to make the choice to confront fear, instead of having fear sneak up on you.

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PDG: Our choices are our only true power; they’re the only thing we actually control. And so I’m laying in my hospital bed in this totally complicated scenario: My leg’s gone, my hand’s gone, I can’t get out of bed. I’m looking down the barrel of losing my whole career, wondering how any woman is going to find me attractive with one hand—all of these crazy things. And I realized that I had one simple choice. What do I want?  Do I want a good life, or do I want a bad life?

I thought, “I want a good life.” All right, so what is a good life to me? And how am I going to get there? I thought, “I want to go back to work.” And so I started working out in my bed, using the bar above my bed for Thera-Band exercises. I was doing research on the internet, trying to find out about the prosthetics I was going to need. You have to be proactive, but the choice itself is really simple.

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AVC: How much time passed between you waking up in the hospital until you were back in the water?

PDG: It was three months to the day.

AVC: No way!

PDG: It would have been earlier, but I had to wait for my stitches and my staples to come out.

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AVC: Dude.

PDG: I know. I was in Bondi trying to surf on one leg.

Sharks came not long after that, because we did it for 60 Minutes in Australia. They wanted me to confront my fear, and so we did that in an aquarium. And then the next year they took me to Fiji to confront the bull shark, the actual shark that tried to kill me. That was to actually hand feed them. And then on Shark Week, I got to pass that knowledge on to Ronda Rousey, and teach her how to do that.

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But yeah, it wasn’t long at all. I think when you come that close to death, you can go one of two ways. You can either curl up in a ball and be afraid of everything, or you realize that there’s nothing left to fear.

AVC: That’s true.

PDG: I live in this realm where I don’t have to be afraid of anything, because I’ve already seen what everyone is afraid of. And to be honest, it’s not that scary. The scariest thing would be getting to that moment of death and having a life full of regrets. Now, I get to live free. All I want to do is make sure the next time I go to that place, I feel exactly the same way: I’m ready to go. I have no regrets. I can look back on my life and go, “I’ve done some cool shit.”

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AVC: I guess when your fear of getting eaten by a shark comes true, you look at public speaking and you’re like, “eh.”

PDG: You know what? I was still terrified. I had businesses asking me to do it for a couple of years when I was still in the Navy, and I turned it down. But then [a group for] kids with cancer asked me, and you can’t say no to kids with cancer.

I felt so ridiculous. I’m like, “I’ve jumped out of aircraft, I’ve planted bombs underwater, and I’m terrified of these 20 children.” But I walked out of that presentation on top of the world. I just felt so good about what I’d done, helping these kids that have grown up in hospitals just forget about life and have a laugh and hear a cool story. I felt so good about it, I thought, “You know what? I need to do this.” And that launched me into this whole new career.

AVC: So you went back to the Navy, then you were on 60 Minutes, and then you started traveling around telling your story. Did all that lead up to Discovery Channel getting in touch with you?

PDG: The attack was February 20, 2009. I got out of the hospital after nine weeks, went back in the water after three months… I went back to work full time after six months. 60 Minutes wasn’t until, I think, 2013 or 2014. I’ve done a lot of TV. Every time there was a shark attack back in Australia, the media would come to me. And out of a desire to not look like a dumbass on television, I thought, “I better learn about sharks.” I did some Googling, and I learned about the plight of sharks and how many we actually kill comparative to how many of us they kill. And I go, “Wow. I don’t know if people know this.” So I started speaking up for sharks.

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I started to learn more, and then Discovery came and asked me for an interview for a show about shark attacks. And I thought, “Yeah, no worries.” I did my own re-enactment in the exact place where I got attacked, and I think that kind of knocked their socks off a little bit. And they invited me out to America, to be on [Shark Week talk show] Shark After Dark. And I thought, “Hell yeah, free trip to L.A.” I guess they liked that, so much so that they gave me the co-host job the next year.

It was the first time I saw a great white shark, the first time I dove with one, the first time I got to work with [nature cinematographer] Andy Casagrande. I learned so much from this guy. I had just an incredible experience: Everyone was so nice, I was getting paid—I would pay to do my job. If you don’t have a job that you would pay to do, then I don’t know if you’re doing that right.

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Now, I get to live in the States. Discovery Channel sponsors my work visa, and I get to make a whole bunch of shows every year. I got to recreate a dream life in another place, with another career. There’s a whole other lesson than that—I had to rebuild at 31 years old.

AVC: You’ve rebuilt yourself several times as a person.

PDG: It’s incredible that you can do that. I think people shy away from those big, scary decisions because they’re big and scary, but it seems like every time I was confronted with a big scary scenario and forced to make a decision, I chose the harder one, and it always paid off dividends. If it feels scary, then definitely do it. There’s going to be an adventure on the other side for you.

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Illustration for article titled How losing a few limbs in a shark attack led Paul de Gelder to his Shark Week career
Photo: Discovery Channel

AVC: Speaking of doing scary things, let’s talk a little bit about the celebrities that you help train to swim with sharks. Is there a baseline physical fitness requirement to even begin to do something like this? It sees like a lot of them are athletes.

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PDG: I don’t think there is at all. I think everyone has to be able to pass their scuba course, but that’s it. It’s not like the Navy clearance divers where you go and take this test. As long as you can learn the drills, there’s nothing saying that you have to be an elite athlete or anything. I could take anyone at all and teach them how to do this.

AVC: What’s the first thing you tell somebody when they’re meeting you for the first time? Do you address your prosthetics?

PDG: I kind of just leave it with them for a while, to draw their own conclusions. I have to talk about this so much that if I don’t have to, I won’t. The main thing I try and teach people when we’re doing things like this is: Don’t act like food, and they won’t treat you like food.

AVC: What does that mean in practical terms?

PDG: It means that you are a predator as well. You are scary to sharks. Sharks are opportunistic hunters much of the time, and you can tell. When a shark goes to bite something, their eyes roll back. That’s because they want to protect their eyes, because they don’t want to fight. They don’t want to get hurt.

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If you are holding your ground, if you’re not panicking and waving your hands around in the water like you’re injured, the shark is going to think, “Okay, this thing, I don’t know what it is, but it doesn’t look like food. It’s not portraying itself as a food source. So I’ll be careful of it.” They’ll come in and they’ll be curious, but they’re not trying to attack. Then you just put your hand on [the shark’s] head, you push it away, and it feels the strength. And it’ll be like, “All right, that’s not food.”

AVC: That is in line with the one thing that I know about sharks, which is that when you’re laying on a boogie board and flapping your arms, you look like a seal to them. Is that right?

PDG: Well, surfers look like seals, and boogie boarders look like turtles. That’s probably the most dangerous place you’re going to be, is on the surface, because they just see your silhouette. They’re curious. It’s not always, “I’m coming to eat you.” They’re coming to investigate. And it’s just a sad fact that as humans, we’re so very delicate.

AVC: I assume that when you’re training somebody, you don’t say on the first day, “Okay, let’s go meet the sharks.”

PDG: We did do that with Will Smith. Basically, he got his diving ticket, we took him to the Bahamas, and his first time was in the water with tiger sharks. They came out onto the back of the boat and we had probably 20 lemon sharks on the surface, and the water is writhing and bubbling and there’s fins everywhere. And him and his personal trainer and his buddy who was with him, they’re just looking at the water, and he’s like, “Are those the sharks I’m going to dive with?” And I’m like, “No, no, no, they’re the sharks you have to drive through to get to the sharks you’re going to dive with.” And they’re just like, “what?!”

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Then we got to the bottom and we had multiple 10-foot, 12-foot tiger sharks directly in front of our faces. So it very much feels sometimes a trial by fire.

AVC: Your approach seems to be, “Come on in! Water’s fine!”

PDG: Well, with Ronda, we did have to put her through a series of paces, because she was doing things that were very special, right? No normal person gets to hand feed bull sharks, and the area also had mako sharks, which are quite dangerous. So we had to train her really thoroughly.

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And even the Mike Tyson special from this year, we had him doing baby steps, swimming with a chain mail dive suit, diving with sharks in a cage. Will Smith was trial by fire. That was like, “right, in you go.” But a lot of times we want to work incrementally, because we don’t want them to have a bad experience and we don’t want the sharks to be unpredictable and be scared and all that sort of stuff. We want it to be enjoyable for everyone.

AVC: Do you ever see the same sharks coming around as you go on these different dives?

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PDG: They are individuals. We have a series of sharks in the Bahamas specifically, where everyone knows their names. There was one on the Will Smith dive, a female shark that had a scar, like an indentation on the front of her nose. And you know what they called her? Butt Face.

AVC: Oh no!

PDG: That’s—you can’t do that! And so we let Will Smith re-name her, and he called her Angelina. They all have their own personalities.

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When you dive with the great white sharks, some of them are these rugged males who have scars all over, And you’ve got to watch those guys, because they’ve had some bad stuff happen—whether they’ve been messed with by fishing fleets and they’ve had multiple hooks in their face, or they’ve been pulled onto boats as juveniles, or other sharks have tried to attack them for dominance. Things like that. Those ones, you always keep a little bit of an extra eye on. Usually the females, I find, are a lot calmer.

AVC: Does having a camera crew change the dynamic of the situation?

PDG: It does. But the camera crews we have are so experienced. These guys are the best in the world. Mike Dornellas, Joe Romeiro, Andy Casagrande—these guys all have years, if not decades, of experience. We like to keep the crew small as well, because the more people we have, the more backs you have to watch. If we’ve got one or two hosts and one or two cameras, that’s perfect. If we have too many people, it scares the sharks away. We don’t want them to be nervous, and we don’t want to need to watch everyone’s back.

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AVC: Is there any advice that you give to people to help them stay calm when they’re in the moment and, say, a shark swims toward them for the first time?

PDG: Well, that’s the funny thing that you might not expect. They’re already calm [at that point]. The fear they’ve built up in their mind is the biggest panic for them, so the scariest part is entering the water. When you’re on the bottom and you see these magnificent animals moving around in their element and they’re not even slightly interested in you, it’s like, “Wow! What was I actually afraid of?”

It’s harder to keep people’s hands off the sharks! They’re not scared. They’re like, “I want to touch it.” Mike Tyson grabbed nearly every shark in the ocean. So you don’t have to worry about [someone panicking at the bottom] so much.

AVC: That is a human impulse, to be like, “It’s pretty, I want to touch it!”

PDG: Everyone wants to touch it. Everyone loses their fear. Everyone’s like, “I’m so scared of sharks, I’m terrified of sharks, they’re the worst thing in the world!” Then they get in the water, and [those same people] are the ones who want to touch all the sharks!

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You try to discourage the touching, though. If the shark is swimming directly into your face, which a lot of the time they will do, then you put your hand up on their snout, you run it over their head, and you redirect them by the head. But you don’t reach out and grab them. It’s a respect thing.

AVC: You mentioned swimming with a great white shark. Is that the biggest shark that you’ve been close to?

PDG: Oh yeah. Andy [Casagrande] and I did a show a couple of years ago called Return To The Isle Of Jaws, filmed off of one of the most southern islands in Australia. And we went down in a cage 110 feet, and we counted seven great white sharks. All males, all like 12 foot long. And then we got to the bottom, and we got out of the cage. I spent about 25 minutes on the bottom, no cage, surrounded by great white sharks. It was one of the most incredible things I’ve ever done in my life.

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Andy had his camera, so he could redirect them and push them away [with that]. I had a GoPro. It’s like having a toothbrush with a bull charging at you. So I had to resign myself to the training that Andy had given me, and to the instincts that I had. I’m 25 feet away from the cage sitting on the bottom, and a 12-foot great white shark is swimming directly at my face. Okay—what do you do? You want to panic, but you can’t, because then it’ll chase you down and probably bite your head off. So you stand your ground. Like I said, you’re the predator.

I let it get directly up to me. It got a couple of feet from my face and changed direction, and I could see its eye looking at me like, [makes swishing motion], trying to check me out, thinking “What is this thing?” It was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I hope I get to do it again.

AVC: We’ve been talking a lot about fear. Should people be afraid of sharks?

PDG: No, we shouldn’t be afraid of them. But that’s not to say that they’re not dangerous animals. It’s like a lion, or a bear, or a wolf—you have to take responsibility for your actions, and for the places that you’re going into. The ocean is not your backyard swimming pool. It is a dangerous, wild place. Something like 350,000 people drowned last year around the world. That’s a lot. 

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And seven people, I think, died from sharks, But everyone is afraid of sharks, and no one’s afraid of drowning. You just have to be respectful. You can’t go into the wilderness of North America without a guide, and without taking precautions for bears and wolves. When you go into the ocean, do the same thing. If you’re surfing, go onto the internet. We have the wealth of the world’s knowledge within a few key strokes. Have there been any shark sightings here lately? Are there fish migrations? Could there be great whites, or bull sharks coming out of the nearby rivers? We’ve got to take responsibility for our actions, because sharks are not to be feared, but they do need to be respected.

AVC: Do you have a favorite shark?

PDG: I love them all! They’re all so vastly different. How could you not love the weirdness of a hammerhead shark? And then compare that to a whale shark, and beautiful tiger sharks that will let you interact with them. There’s no other predator on the planet that will allow you to share its home except for a shark. That’s what makes them magical.

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Shark Week kicks off tonight, Sunday August 9, on the Discovery Channel.

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