SA surfer’s incredible recovery from great white shark attack
SAM Edwardes moved to the eastern states in search of safer waters after losing a mate to a shark attack on Yorke Peninsula 20 years ago.
Today, the Adelaide-born surfer is on the road to recovery after his own near-death experience with a great white.
SAM Edwardes appreciates the irony.
The ex-Adelaide schoolteacher left South Australia 20 years ago, in part, because he’d lost a mate to a shark and thought the continent’s east coast would be safer for a surfer. But earlier this year, his logic took a hit when Edwardes only narrowly escaped with his life after a 3m great white shark ripped a chunk out of his left thigh while surfing near Byron Bay, NSW.
“Part of the reason I like being up around the east coast is because South Australia is quite a ‘sharky’ place and we had that death of a friend,’’ he says. “It’s always more enjoyable surfing on the east coast, we didn’t have to worry about that sort of stuff. Which is ironic, isn’t it?’’
Edwardes’s brush with the great white was in February but he’s back in the surf again, though a bit more careful about when and where he puts his board in the water.
Now 42, Edwardes grew up in Burnside. He went to Marryatville High and completed a communications degree at the University of South Australia before heading east.
He was back in South Australia about five years ago, teaching agricultural studies and English at Urrbrae Agricultural High School, before heading back to Byron.
His love of surfing began at 14, when he and his mates would travel to Victor Harbor. They started pushing further afield when cars became an option. “Once we were able to drive when we were 17, 18, me and my friends surfed almost always at Yorke Peninsula and over on the West Coast at Streaky Bay and Cactus,’’ he says. Edwardes was at Hardwicke Bay the day his friend Tony Donoghue was killed by a shark in May 1999. But he didn’t see it happen.
“We went over for the weekend – I think there were six of us – and the wind came up so we decided we weren’t going to surf any more that day,” Edwardes remembers.
“We all went to the pub except Tony, who wanted to go out windsurfing.’’
Donoghue wasn’t seen again.
In his report, South Australian Coroner Wayne Chivell found Donoghue’s wetsuit and windsurfing harness had both sustained damage, “consistent with a shark attack”.
Edwardes says: “It was really devastating for all of us and his family, who we still keep in contact with.
“I think all of us were all really unsettled and probably all a bit rattled and anxious. It really threw us a bit.”
Edwardes was chasing the dawn the morning he encountered his own great white. He and his mate Dane Davidson had woken in the dark, thrown their surfboards into the car and headed north to Belongil Beach near Byron Bay.
“It was a nice day and it was quite good surf,” Edwardes tells The Advertiser. “No one was in the water at that stage; it was too early.”
They had yet to catch a wave when it happened.
“I got out the back first, sat up on my board and I reckon it was literally five seconds later (that) I just felt this massive whack,” Edwardes recalls.
“I knew exactly what was happening instantly. I was like, ‘Oh f .... n’ hell’. I was screaming but I wasn’t confused. I knew I was being attacked by a shark.
“The only way to describe it is like really powerful shaking, almost like a jackhammer on your leg.
“It was a really powerful sensation. It didn’t last very long – about five seconds I reckon – and luckily I didn’t see much. I think I saw the top of its head just for a second.
“I didn’t see gaping jaws, which I’m so thankful for because I reckon if I had, I’d never surf again.”
Edwardes is reliving the nightmare over a lemon cordial in the backyard of the beach house he shares with Davidson.
“All I knew is I just wanted to get my body out of the water,” Edwardes continues.
“I grabbed my board and climbed up on to it backwards … and just started scrambling basically back into shore. At that stage, I was feeling no pain, so I had no idea how bad it was.
“My mate Dane met me as I was paddling in. I kept screaming at him to go in. Dane kept paddling out because he wanted to make sure I was all right. He paddled all the way out to me and then paddled in with me. “He didn’t realise that I’d actually been bitten. And then when he got to me, he suddenly saw this huge, big red trail behind me and was like, ‘Oh, Jesus’.
“It took a long time to get back in. I had to almost stop halfway in and then go again. I was really puffed and terrified. I really did think ‘It’s going to come and bite me again’. The whole way back into the beach, I was just waiting for it to have another go.”
They got to the beach and Edwardes surveyed the gruesome damage.
“I was feeling no pain, so it was seriously a massive shock to me when I got to the beach and I stood up and just looked down at my leg and went, ‘Holy f...’. I was just looking at this huge hole in my leg. There were two small arteries and I remember they were hanging out and they were both literally pouring with blood like a tap.
“I just looked up at Dane and went ‘Oh s..t’. And then I said to him: ‘This is heaps worse than I thought ... I’m done’.’’
Davidson – a teacher at Mullumbimby High School who has been good mates with Edwardes since their younger days playing with the Byron Magpies football club – returns home from work during the interview.
“I could hear Sam screaming, just this weird scream that I’d never heard before,” Davidson says. “He started screaming ‘Go in, go in’. As I much as I wanted to go straight in, I thought ‘I can’t leave him out here’. I paddled towards him a bit so I could escort him in.’’
On the beach, as the sand stained red, Davidson fashioned his surfboard leg-rope into a tourniquet. “Then I yelled out to a couple of guys who were checking the surf to call an ambulance,” he says. “It took about 20 minutes for the paramedics to arrive – and it was a very long 20 minutes.’’
For Edwardes, it was “the strangest 20 minutes of my life”. “It was surreal, like a dream, because I was really, really relaxed and at peace,” he says. “I was definitely in shock and starting to black out.”
By the time the ambulance arrived, Edwardes had lost about four litres of blood.
“I was finding it really hard to breathe and they said that was because I wasn’t getting enough blood going around my body,” he says. “I was thinking ‘This is not good’. I was quite aware that things were pretty dicey.”
He was loaded on to a rescue chopper for the 15-minute flight to Gold Coast University Hospital.
Edwardes awoke in ICU after 36 hours’ surgery and looked down.
Massive relief – his leg was still there. Even better, he could move his toes.
Doctors had performed a marathon skin graft, taking about 60 sq cm from his right upper thigh to repair the badly mauled left thigh.
He spent a month in hospital, the first fortnight bedbound.
“At that point, I thought it was going to take months and months before I walked again,” he says.
“But then at about the three-week mark, my leg just started to get better really quickly and I was soon walking. I had a pretty noticeable limp at first but I was back at work after about 10 weeks.’’
The damage has left Edwardes with a dodgy knee, which he will probably have for the rest of his life.
“I can walk absolutely fine but I can’t run more than 100m because my leg just doesn’t work properly; it feels like a chunk of muscle is missing,” he
says. But Edwardes can surf. On a sunny April Saturday, just seven weeks after the attack, he summoned the courage to venture back into the ocean. A couple of friends from Adelaide, Jason Smith and Charles Fowler, flew up and, together with Davidson, they took Edwardes surfing at Suffolk Park beach.
“It was great because the sun was out, I had my mates with me,” Edwardes says. “I was definitely a bit nervy and had to just settle in it. I think I fell off on my first wave.’’
Edwardes says his family – parents Gillian and David and siblings Roly, 46, Lorelei, 45, and Monty, 38 – never tried to talk him out of going back into the surf.
The shark that attacked him was judged by police and doctors to have been a 3m great white.
Despite his experiences, Edwardes isn’t swayed either way in the shark-control debate.
“I just don’t think there’s a right or a wrong answer,” he says.
The attack has changed the easygoing Edwardes mentally, as well as physically. “I reckon I’ve been happier since; it makes you appreciate life, definitely,” he says. “It’s also made me really appreciate people more, because I’ve never been vulnerable like that before.’’
The special-needs students he teaches at Southern Cross Primary at Ballina and his fellow teachers sent him flowers and cards – some with graphic drawings of ferocious sharks chomping on poor old Mr Edwardes. The attack has radically altered Edwardes’s surfing habits.
“I’m too scared to surf early in the morning now – I only enjoy it once the sun’s properly up,” he says. “If the water’s dark and gloomy, I just won’t surf now. I haven’t been back to Belongil and I won’t.”
Edwardes admits he’s still nervous but his love of surfing overwhelms the fear.
“Obviously, it still plays on my mind but I try not to let it interfere with the one thing I love doing, which is the ocean and surfing,” he says.
“I don’t want to give it up.”
ATTACK: Former Adelaide surfer Sam Edwardes is back on his board, determined to not let a mauling by a great white shark dent his love of catching waves.
GREAT ESCAPE: Surfer Sam Edwardes and, inset, his shark bite scars.
SURF’S UP: Sam with mates Jason Smith, Dane Davidson and Charles Fowler and, below, with Dane on Belongil Beach.