It’s a tale of extreme irony. It flies in the face of everything you might believe. It doesn’t make sense. Why would a person who was almost killed by something turn around and become a champion of the very thing that almost took their life? Is it insanity, or is it something else, something spiritual that only the victim can understand? Maybe the idea of becoming a victim is the loss of power, and becoming an advocate brings back that power. Whatever the case, or whatever the cause, many shark attack survivors are not only getting back into the water, they are doing it with courage and grace. They are some of the species’ biggest defenders. Here are just a few of their stories.
Eight years ago, Achmat Hassiem lost his right foot in the deep waters of South Africa’s coast to a shark he affectionately calls Scarlett. If you think the Paralympic swimmer holds a grudge against Scarlett, or any other shark for that matter, think again. In February he was named a Global Shark Guardian by the United Nations Save Our Sharks Coalition, and plans pursue his conservation role full-time when he retires from competition after the Rio Games. That’s right. He not only doesn’t hate sharks, he believes he is supremely qualified to help keep them from extinction. Since the day of his encounter with Scarlett, he says his life has changed for the better in so many ways. He says Scarlett has allowed him so many opportunities and he just wants to repay the favor by protecting her.
You might say that Al Brenneka is one of the original shark survivors. After all, he was bitten just a year after the blockbuster JAWS released havoc among the populace. At the time, Brenneka was 19 and had just surfed one of the best waves of his life to shore at Daytona Beach when something tugged on his right arm. The attack was brutal, and Brenneka lost so much blood he was DOA at the hospital. Miraculously he survived, and for a time afterward became a shark hunter. But one day, upon catching a hammerhead far from shore, he realized the shark wasn’t harming anyone, and that they were just being sharks. From that day onward, Brenneka decided he would devote his time to protecting the very animal that almost killed him.
Mike Coots says a lot of his friends and people he knows think he’s an idiot. Who in their right mind would turn around and try to protect a shark when a shark nearly killed him? In 1997, Coots was a promising body boarder in Kauai. He never thought he’d have a problem with sharks while surfing. He was wrong. After losing his right leg to a tiger shark, he says most people think he should be anti-shark. But he’s far from it. He preaches about the scourge of shark finning, overfishing, and ocean acidification. When asked about how he can be an advocate for sharks when one almost killed him, he says it’s a no-brainer.