SUR­VIVOR

Glenn Dick­son died six times on his way to hospi­tal af­ter be­ing at­tacked by a bull shark. Now he wants to share his story and help other vic­tims

Herald Sun - - SATURDAY - PE­TER MICHAEL

SHARK at­tack sur­vivor Glenn Dick­son hauls his pros­thetic leg over the soft sand. He’s a su­per-fit hu­man, a kick­boxer and spearfish­er­man, with the ripped six-pack and lean, hard physique of a nat­u­ral born fighter. But it’s ob­vi­ously hard go­ing.

“I’ve got no quad, and only a tiny bit of ham­string,” the 27year-old ex­plains. “My glutes and hip flex­ors do all the work. But it’s bet­ter than be­ing shark shit.”

He swings the ar­ti­fi­cial limb — at­tached to the man­gled stump on his right hip — down the pow­dery white sands to the ocean’s edge.

On Fe­bru­ary 18 last year, while spearfish­ing with three mates in Far North Queens­land, Dick­son found him­self in the jaws of a man-eater. In a spine-chill­ing at­tack, he sur­vived be­ing eaten alive by a 3.5m bull shark.

His story of when preda­tor be­comes prey — and the power of love — made in­ter­na­tional head­lines. Dick­son vir­tu­ally died six times — his heart stopped four times on the 40-minute boat ride back to shore and twice with the paramedics — be­fore he made it to Cairns Hospi­tal.

Each time, he fought to stay alive for now-wife Jessie-lee, 25, and their kids, Reef, 5, Ly­lah, 3, and baby Aurora, 1, with the words to the hit song, I Will

Sur­vive, ring­ing in his mind. “I was a done din­ner,” says the for­mer boil­er­maker.

“(The shark) hit me from be­low and swal­lowed my fin and leg al­most to my hip.”

He had just sur­faced af­ter shoot­ing a par­rot­fish when tragedy struck.

When you see his me­tre-long fin and then add in the length of his leg up to his groin, it is hard to imag­ine how it all fit in­side the gul­let of the mon­ster shark.

“It corkscrewed, 360 de­grees on my leg, like a chain­saw,” Dick­son says.

“It was ro­tat­ing, and sawed its jaws into the bone. It shred­ded my flesh and my main ar­ter­ies in a split se­cond.”

He shows a pic­ture of the wound. It is a bulging red bloom of sinew and tis­sue, with a huge gap of miss­ing meat on the up­per thigh. It is re­mark­able how prom­i­nent the jagged teeth marks are in the torn skin and flesh.

“It pulled me un­der­wa­ter, shook me vi­o­lently, around and up and down,” Dick­son says. “I didn’t get a chance to watch it chomp­ing down on my leg, as it had full con­trol of my body. I was thrown about like a rag doll in the water. The power is im­mense; you feel like you’re in a wash­ing ma­chine. Then it let go.”

Dick­son felt him­self scream­ing un­der­wa­ter, mostly a mass of bub­bles, as he looked into the vast cloud of crim­son fill­ing the water. That’s when the man-eater swam through the blood, up to his face, and stared him in the eye. It was a pri­mal mo­ment of fear that will be for­ever etched into his brain.

He had been spearfish­ing in the glis­ten­ing, turquoise wa­ters of the in­ner Great Bar­rier Reef, near Hinch­in­brook Is­land.

“A bull shark’s eye is like a cat’s eye, it has a ver­ti­cal slit of a pupil. You’ve got a liv­ing thing that is try­ing to eat you. It was The Lion and The Lamb. I got to the sur­face and was try­ing to scream, but I don’t know if any sound came out. I was so scared, I had voice paral­y­sis. I knew it was go­ing to come back to kill me. I’d looked my own mor­tal­ity in the eye.”

Dick­son tried to scram­ble out of the water on to a nearby rock and was still half-sub­merged when the shark took an­other bite. Luck­ily, it was from the same leg, a wa­ter­melon-sized chunk out of his calf mus­cle. He lost two litres of blood be­fore help ar­rived and he was pulled on to the boat mo­ments later.

For­mer US Navy mas­ter diver Rick Bet­tua used a weight belt as a tourni­quet to stem the gush­ing blood flow. Four times, Dick­son’s heart stopped on the race back to shore.

Every time, his mate punched him on the chest to keep the heart and blood pump­ing. “Yes, I did see the light,” the sur­vivor says. “In death, there is a tun­nel with a bright light. But I chose to stay alive, to hold on to the pain, not to let go.”

His right leg was later am­pu­tated af­ter a re­mark­able he­li­copter res­cue and med­i­cal ef­fort, and Dick­son spent a month re­cov­er­ing in Cairns Hospi­tal. He keeps a framed me­mento of the weight belt that saved his life in pride of place on the wall at his Mis­sion Beach home.

Un­der it are the words of his heroic res­cuer, Rick: “You’re not dy­ing to­day, mate, you need to go home to your fam­ily.”

NOT SO LUCKY

DANIEL Chris­tidis was not so lucky. The 33-year-old urol­o­gist from Mel­bourne was sav­aged on the first night of a five-day sail­ing hol­i­day in the Whit­sun­days on Novem­ber 5. He sus­tained hor­rific in­juries to both legs and a wrist af­ter he jumped off a pad­dle­board into the water at dusk in Cid Har­bour. His wounds — sus­pected to be from one or more bull sharks — were so se­vere, not even his highly qual­i­fied med­i­cal friends could save him.

It was the third at­tack in six weeks in Cid Har­bour, a pop­u­lar yacht an­chor­age north of Hamil­ton Is­land in the Whit­sun­days, af­ter the maul­ings of Han­nah Papps, 12, of Mel­bourne, and Tas­ma­nian Jus­tine Bar­wick, 46, two days apart at the same spot in Septem­ber. Bar­wick, a Ho­bart mum, had 18 hours of re­con­struc­tive surgery on her right leg, while Han­nah’s left leg had to be am­pu­tated.

The death of Chris­tidis was the first fa­tal­ity this year of 18 re­ported shark at­tacks across Aus­tralia, with four each in Queens­land, NSW and Western Aus­tralia. But it also seemed to pre­lude an un­ex­plained spate of shark at­tacks na­tion­wide.

Kyle Roberts was thrown off his kayak by a 4m tiger shark and his craft chomped on while fish­ing off Mof­fat Beach on the Sun­shine Coast on Novem­ber 15. Two days later, a Syd­ney man tak­ing a surf­ing les­son was bit­ten on the leg and arm by a shark and flown to hospi­tal from Seven Mile Beach. Bondi Beach has been closed twice af­ter shark sight­ings and pic­tures emerged of a mas­sive 4.6m Great White caught in nets off Maroubra, in Syd­ney’s east.

And Sean Whit­combe, 17, un­der­went surgery to his left arm and leg af­ter he was “mobbed” and bit­ten by a frenzy of reef sharks, spearfish­ing off Groote Ey­landt in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory on Novem­ber 18.

Six years ago, shark at­tack sur­vivor David Pear­son founded the Bite Club. It’s a so­ci­ety for shark at­tack sur­vivors, res­cuers, fam­ily and friends, be­lieved to be the only or­gan­i­sa­tion of its type in the world. These days, there is no short­age of can­di­dates with about 300 mem­bers glob­ally, of whom about 100 have been bit­ten by sharks. “The first rule of Bite Club is you talk about the ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Pear­son, an avid surfer. “It lets the pain go.”

AN­OTHER CRACK AT LIFE

PEAR­SON, now 55, was at­tacked by a 300kg, 3m bull shark at Crowdy Head on NSW’s mid-north coast on March 23, 2001, on his first day in the surf on a new Firewire board. The shark slammed its nose into his face, split­ting his skull, then bit down on his left arm, but its teeth got stuck in the rail of his board.

Pear­son be­lieves the board saved his life as the shark’s up­per teeth peeled the mus­cle off his fore­arm back to the bone. As the shark wrenched its jaws out of the board, Pear­son tried to catch a wave to shore but got smashed un­der three big sets. Semi-con­scious, he dragged him­self up the beach. His mates stemmed the bleed­ing with a leg rope and lay him on a pic­nic ta­ble. By the time he got to hospi­tal four hours later, he’d lost 40 per cent of his blood.

“There’s noth­ing like ly­ing in hospi­tal, think­ing ‘I was just at­tacked by some­thing that could’ve taken my life’,” says Pear­son. “There’s no other feel­ing like be­ing eaten alive by an an­i­mal. We are the apex preda­tor on planet. But sud­denly you re­alise, hang on, I’m not king s---, that thing just took my arm.”

Bite Club gives sur­vivors a fo­rum to know they are not alone and to share the jour­ney of the trauma of the at­tack and the long road to re­cov­ery. “We are about peo­ple, not about sharks,” Pear­son says. He in­vited Glenn Dick­son into Bite Club and they’ve met, and he has also reached out to Jus­tine Bar­wick and Han­nah Papps.

“The gift you get when you sur­vive a shark at­tack is you get to have an­other crack at life,” he says. “That shark gave me the gift of the pre­cious­ness of life.

“I wish every­body in the world had a near-death ex­pe­ri­ence to re­alise how pre­cious life is.”

Pear­son sud­denly chokes up, the flood of tears comes in a rush, and sur­prises him, as he was think­ing of what might have been his fi­nal sun­set as he lay on the pic­nic ta­ble with his lifeblood drain­ing away.

“I spent end­less days star­ing at the ocean won­der­ing if I’d ever go back in again, but I did. I miss the bliss­ful, ig­no­rant days be­fore my shark at­tack. Now most days in the surf are great; when I do get a bad vibe, I just get out of the water.”

What hurts and puz­zles most shark at­tack sur­vivors is how vi­cious the so­cial me­dia on­slaught be­comes when there is blood in the water.

“Man, the nasty s--- that gets dumped on you by com­plete strangers,” says Pear­son. “Sim­ply for hav­ing the au­dac­ity to be out in the water and get bit­ten by a shark. Stuff like ‘this guy’s a fool’, ‘it’s your own fault’, ‘it’s the shark’s ocean’. I’d like those on­line trolls to think about how they’d feel if it hap­pened to some­one they loved.”

THE OTHER PREDA­TORS

JEN­NIFER Tay­lor, lead re­searcher at Syd­ney Uni­ver­sity’s Brain and Mind Cen­tre, found shark-bite sur­vivors who are at­tacked in the me­dia were 12 times more likely to

say they had symp­toms of post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der. She re­cently pub­lished the pa­per, Di­rect and In­di­rect Psy­cho­log­i­cal Im­pact of Shark Bite Events, where a third of re­spon­dents, all mem­bers of the Bite Club, re­ported PTSD symp­toms af­ter neg­a­tive me­dia at­ten­tion.

“The 24-hour news cy­cle, and the meth­ods of some jour­nal­ists, may feel preda­tory to shark-bite sur­vivors and their fam­i­lies,” Tay­lor says. She blames the 1975 movie, Jaws, for our mor­bid fas­ci­na­tion with shark at­tacks. “They are writ large in films as one of the few re­main­ing megafauna, these lurk­ing mon­sters of the deep, which still pose a threat.”

Yet the odds are ridicu­lously in favour of not get­ting eaten by a shark. Ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Shark At­tack File, the odds of get­ting killed by a shark are one in 3.7 mil­lion in a life­time. Gavin Nay­lor, di­rec­tor of the US-based Flor­ida Pro­gram for Shark Re­search, who com­piles the Shark At­tack File, says that, on av­er­age, six peo­ple a year die from shark bites. This year, there have been 57 un­pro­voked shark at­tacks and four fa­tal­i­ties world­wide.

“It turns out that there have been no sta­tis­ti­cally sig­nif­i­cant in­creases in global pat­terns of shark bites around the world in the past five years (in­clud­ing 2018),” Nay­lor says. “While in­di­vid­ual in­ci­dents can be dra­matic and are un­doubt­edly in­cred­i­bly scary for the per­son, sta­tis­ti­cal pat­terns give us no rea­son for alarm.”

SHARK CON­TROL

IN Aus­tralia’s Bite Club, there’s a wide range of views on the use of drum­lines and nets for shark con­trol on the na­tion’s pop­u­lated beaches.

“We have shark cud­dlers and peo­ple who want to be shark cullers,” says Pear­son. “It can get narky. I tell peo­ple to pull their head in and look at it from a dif­fer­ent per­spec­tive. It’s an emo­tional touch­stone, when­ever we get asked what our opin­ion is on shark culling. I tell them we’re a peo­ple club, not a shark club. Sharks brought us to­gether and we’re not go­ing to let them tear us apart.”

In the Whit­sun­days, de­bate is rag­ing about why the area is the only tourist spot on the Queens­land coast from Cairns to Coolan­gatta not to be part of the state’s highly ef­fec­tive shark-con­trol pro­gram. Since 1962, there has only been one fa­tal­ity at a pro­tected beach in Queens­land.

Lo­cals and tourist op­er­a­tors are split be­tween the need for per­ma­nent drum­lines, or a shark cull, to con­trol shark num­bers. In Cid Har­bour, now a de­clared no-swim zone, fish car­casses and food scraps thrown over­board from moored yachts is be­lieved to have at­tracted large packs of sharks in an un­nat­u­ral ecosys­tem.

Tourist com­pa­nies in the Whit­sun­days, in par­tic­u­lar the bare­boat char­ter in­dus­try, are anx­ious about the global head­lines gen­er­ated by the lat­est spate of shark at­tacks. There are re­ports that many busi­nesses are reel­ing from on­go­ing book­ing can­cel­la­tions.

Queens­land Tourism Min­is­ter Kate Jones has ruled out a cull, say­ing the at­tacks in Cid Har­bour were “un­prece­dented” and that more needed to be un­der­stood about shark be­hav­iour.

She says a fed­eral La­bor gov­ern­ment would al­lo­cate $250,000 to­wards sci­en­tific re­search into shark preva­lence and be­hav­iour in Cid Har­bour. There will also be a cam­paign to ed­u­cate tourists and lo­cals about shark safety.

Surfer and shark con­trol pol­icy com­men­ta­tor Fred Pawle, of the Men­zies Re­search Cen­tre, says the de­ci­sion is a rep­re­hen­si­ble tilt to en­vi­ron­men­tal zealots.

“Here is a spot on the Queens­land coast, one of our na­tion’s most pop­u­lar tourist des­ti­na­tions, fa­mous world­wide for pris­tine beaches and beau­ti­ful scenery,” says Pawle, who is also a jour­nal­ist. “And now it is also fa­mous world­wide for tourists be­ing at­tacked and killed by sharks. It’s al­most neg­li­gence. It should be part of Queens­land’s shark con­trol pro­gram. Drum­lines work.”

BACK IN THE WATER

UP at Mis­sion Beach, Glenn Dick­son has done a lot with his new lease on life since his at­tack. In Oc­to­ber, he mar­ried his child­hood sweet­heart, Jessie-lee, in a small cer­e­mony with fam­ily and friends on Gar­ners Beach, north of where they live. They’ve had baby Aurora, with whom Jess was preg­nant at the time of the at­tack.

He’s been coach­ing Muay Thai kick­box­ing and tak­ing fit­ness classes at his back­yard gym, un­der the logo Sur­vivorFit­ness. And he’s back in the water do­ing what he loves — div­ing on the Great Bar­rier Reef, shoot­ing fish and get­ting a feed for the fam­ily.

It’s a glassed-out day at Ot­ter Reef, 90 min­utes by boat from the coast, where vis­i­bil­ity is 27m to the sea floor. Be­neath the boat, the co­ral bom­mies are a kalei­do­scope of colour — blues, reds, yel­lows — with big clams and other abun­dant marine life. Fish of all sorts — groupers, nan­ny­gai, goldspots, co­ral trout, schools of co­bia and tuna — swim through the un­der­wa­ter won­der­land. There are a few small, black­tip reef sharks, noth­ing to worry about, Dick­son says.

He’s in the water look­ing like a one-legged crea­ture of the sea in his cam­ou­flage wet­suit. Out of nowhere, two 5m tiger sharks ap­pear, cu­ri­ous but cau­tious, and cruise along the edge of the reef in the deep blue.

Dick­son watches them. He doesn’t freak out. He doesn’t jump back into the boat. He keeps an eye on them, watches them dis­ap­pear, and duck­dives back down.

Mo­ments later, he spears a red em­peror and rises back to the boat, hold­ing the fish aloft like a tro­phy from King Nep­tune’s locker. “Wow,” he laughs. “It’s good to be alive.”

(Clock­wise from far left) Glenn Dick­son is back in the water af­ter his hor­ror en­counter; with his fam­ily at Mis­sion Beach (pic­ture: MARC McCOR­MACK); Jus­tine Bar­wick in a Bris­bane hospi­tal with her hus­band, Craig; Dan Chris­tidis, who died in the Whit­sun­days last month; Bite Club founder David Pear­son (right); a shark caught in Cid Har­bour; and Dick­son in hospi­tal in Fe­bru­ary 2017.

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