Shark ‘corkscrewed 360 degrees on my leg like a chainsaw’
Shark-attack survivor Glenn Dickson hauls his prosthetic leg over the soft sand. He's super-fit, a kickboxer and spearfisherman, with the ripped six-pack and lean, hard physique of a professional fighter.
But it's obviously hard going. "I've got no quad, and only a tiny bit of hamstring," the 27-year-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. It's a steamy tropical day in Dickson's home town of Mission Beach in far north Queensland.
Out over the glistening, turquoise waters of the inner Great Barrier Reef, the Cyclone Yasi-damaged former resort of Dunk Island lies just offshore. Beyond that, the Family Group of Islands stretches like a string of pearls on the horizon south to Hinchinbrook Island, off Cardwell.
It was there on February 18 last year, while spearfishing with three mates at Eva Rock, that Dickson found himself in the jaws of a man-eater. Despite 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 died six times - 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, 18 months, with the words to the hit song I Will Survive ringing in his mind. "I was a done dinner," says the former Tully sugar mill 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 fitted 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 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."
'A LIVING THING IS TRYING TO EAT YOU'
Dickson felt himself screaming 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.
"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 onto 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 his mates got to him and he was pulled onto the boat moments later.
One of them, former US Navy master diver Rick Bettua, used a weight belt as a tourniquet to stem the gushing blood flow.
Dickson's heart stopped four times 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 onto 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 as a memento the framed weight belt that saved his life on the wall at his Mission Beach home. Under it are the words of his heroic rescuer, Bettua: "You're not dying today, mate, you need to go home to your family".
THE YEAR'S FIRST FATAL ATTACK
Daniel Christidis was not so lucky. The 33-year-old urologist from Melbourne was savaged on the first night of a five-day bareboat 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 on Whitsunday Island, north of Hamilton Island, after the maulings of Hannah Papps, 12, of Melbourne, and Tasmanian Justine Barwick, 46, two days apart at the same spot in September.
Hobart mother Barwick 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 out of 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, also in Sydney's east.
Sean Whitcombe, 17, underwent surgery to his left arm and leg after he was bitten by a frenzy of reef sharks while 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 that you talk about the experience," says Pearson, an avid surfer. "It lets the pain go."
WHO'S THE APEX PREDATOR?
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, bit down on his left arm, but its teeth got stuck in the rail of his board.
He believes the board saved his life as the upper teeth of the shark 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, where 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 the planet. But suddenly you realise, hang on, I'm not king shit, 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 an 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 shared tender moments, 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."
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 shit 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."
ODDS ARE ONE IN 3.7 MILLION
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 (PTSD).
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.
"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 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 to us."
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 1 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 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."
Healthy populations of animals in the ocean food chain far outstrips public hysteria when many thousands of people die every year by drowning, says Naylor.
CUDDLERS OR CULLERS
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 drum lines, 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 are 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 anecdotal reports that many businesses are reeling from ongoing cancellations in bookings.
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 the Labor Government will 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; there has only been one fatality at a protected beach in 56 years."
AN ABSENCE OF DATA
Shark expert Richard Fitzpatrick, environmental adviser on the state's shark control board, has a different take.
"Tourism bodies have asked us to help explain the spate of attacks," the marine biologist says.
"But there is just no scientific data for us to give anyone an answer. No shark research or tagging activity has ever been done in the Whitsundays. It is a huge unknown."
Fitzpatrick says bull sharks - and not tiger sharks - are the "most likely culprits" in the three attacks at Cid Harbour.
Six tiger sharks were shot dead after they were caught on drumlines set by fisheries officers after the two near-fatal September attacks.
"We need to get the science done before anyone can make any informed decision about chucking in baited hooks on drumlines," Fitzpatrick says.
"Tiger sharks don't do high-speed hit attacks, and judging by the nature of the attacks, and how they bite, the most likely culprits are bull sharks."
Commercial fishermen and fishing charter operators claim bull sharks are bigger and fatter and in plague proportions along the coast.
The state's east coast shark take - sold as "flake" in fish markets - used to be 1200 tonnes a year and is now as low as 100 tonnes.
Under fishing licence buy-backs and bans on netting in rivers and estuaries where bull sharks breed, there has been 15 years for bull shark numbers to spike.
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 he was attacked.
He's been coaching Muay Thai kickboxing and taking fitness classes at his backyard gym set-up, 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, an hour-and-a-half 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.
"How you look at it logically is a big one," he adds. "If sharks really wanted to eat people, there'd be a lot more attacks. We'd be hunted as a food source."
He's in the water, his breath hold is good, down 20m, 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.
"Luckily I stoned it, a shot straight to the brain," Dickson says. "I had to, so there was no struggle, and I got out of there. Wow," he laughs. "It's good to be alive." ■