A former elite Australian Navy diver who lost his arm and leg in a horrific shark attack has found a new career as a conservationist dedicated to protecting the world’s top predators.
Paul de Gelder, 45, was swimming on his back ‘from point A to point B’ as part of a Navy counter-terrorism exercise in Sydney’s iconic harbor in 2009 when the shark attacked and he narrowly escaped with his life.
“One minute I was swimming… the next minute my right leg was wedged in the jaws of a three-metre bull shark,” Mr De Gelder said.
He initially assumed his fellow soldiers had gotten too close in their boat and nudged him – feeling a “blow” but no pain – until he looked down and two black eyes stared back at him.
Having grown up close to the ocean in Melbourne and having been an avid swimmer all his life, Mr De Gelder said this was a moment he had dreaded since childhood.
‘As every schoolboy knows, if you’re attacked by a shark, hit it in the eye. “That was the only option I was denied because my right hand was stuck with its teeth to my own leg,” he said.
‘I tried to counter-attack with my left hand and it started shaking me like a rag doll. In folklore, the Great White may be the most feared denizen of the deep, but there is nothing more terrifyingly aggressive than a bull shark.”
Former Navy diver Paul de Gelder lost both an arm and a leg when he was attacked by a male bull shark while swimming in Sydney Harbor during a counter-terrorism exercise in February 2009
Since the attack, he has built a career as a conservationist and motivational speaker, hosted specials for Shark Week on Discovery and written three books
Paul de Gelder said his first encounter with tiger sharks in the Bahamas was particularly memorable. A few years later he was allowed to teach Will Smith how to greet them
Shark attacks are extremely rare. Millions of people in Australia take to the water every year and there are an average of three fatal shark attacks.
But that fact would have offered little comfort to Mr De Gelder.
As the shark clamped down again with its multiple rows of razor-sharp, inch-long teeth, he said the initial shock and confusion gave way to a wave of excruciating pain.
“All the fight went out of me and I started choking on the bloody water… I was sure I was going to die,” he said.
‘I’ll never know why he let me go. Perhaps it had tasted enough of my flesh to know that I was not the usual meal. Whatever the reason, he loosened his grip and ducked away to seek more familiar prey.’
But Mr De Gelder’s ordeal was not over: a ‘thick layer of blood’ had collected on the surface of the water and was growing larger by the second.
‘Fortunately, I was in Sydney Harbor as a member of the Royal Australian Navy’s specialist diving unit, taking part in a counter-terrorism exercise swimming around the warships at HMS Kuttabul Naval Base.’
de Gelder during his bomb disposal training with the Navy on a beach in Sydney (photo below)
The former Navy officer said he was terrified of sharks as a child, but has learned to love them since the attack
“I had the presence of mind to hold my torn arm out of the water and above my heart to slow the bleeding as I made my way to the safety boat.”
“I saw the look of horror on my teammates’ faces when they brought me in, so I did what soldiers do and made a joke. Then I closed my eyes and prepared to bleed to death.
“I owe my survival to the courage and quick thinking of one of the boys who stuck his hand in my leg and held my severed artery closed with his fingers until I could be handed over to a battalion of doctors, nurses, soldiers and soldiers. blood donors who together saved my life.
‘Several operations later I woke up to find I was missing half an arm and a leg.’
More surgeries followed, including a difficult decision to amputate the damaged limbs, as well as months of rehabilitation.
Fast forward to January 2024 and Mr. de Gelder has just wrapped filming off the coast of Mexico for a new round of specials for Shark Week, the long-running and highly popular programming block on Discovery Channel.
Despite his ordeal, Mr De Gelder has become one of the leading advocates for the protection of sharks, which are slaughtered by the millions every year by the fishing industry.
The strange shift came after a producer asked him to take part in a documentary in which he confronted his fears and went swimming with bull sharks off the coast of Fiji.
He described the experience as mind-blowing with more than 150 sharks in the water around him, but none attacking him. It sent him on a journey to soak up all the information he could about them.
In 2014, shortly after he left the Navy when he realized he would never be able to return to active duty, Discovery Channel approached him and asked him to host a program about Great Whites. His relationship with the network grew from there.
He has also written three books – No Time for Fear, Uncaged and Shark – with the aim of shedding light on his experiences, how he recovered from setbacks and what can be done to help the little-understood marine wonders.
In addition to his books and documentary work, he is also a motivational speaker, was a guest trainer on The Biggest Loser and guided Hollywood A-Lister Will Smith and UFC star Ronda Rousey while swimming with sharks.
He now lives with his wife in Marina del Rey, California.
The 45-year-old who grew up in Melbourne lives with his wife in Marina del Ray, California
De Gelder is also involved in scientific conservation work (in the photo a shark is tagged which was subsequently released)
In January, de Gelder and fellow Dicovery channel presenters completed filming a special on Great Whites off the coast of Mexico (pictured) for Shark Week 2024
About the fishing sector, De Gelder said: ‘If you were to do to wild animals on land what we do to sharks, you would end up in prison.’
‘Because it is invisible, there in the deep blue sea, it is not noticed. Spend time with sharks and you will realize this is barbarism and not at all sustainable,” he told the Observer.
According to some research estimates, shark populations have declined by as much as 71 percent since 1970 due to overfishing.
“I don’t want you to stay out of the water. But if the choice in a particular hotspot is killing sharks or surfing more, I’ll spare the sharks’ lives every time.
‘Shark attacks are rare and we should regard them as accidents rather than murders.
‘With the exception of shipwreck survivors, almost all victims of a shark attack are in the water because the ocean is a magical place that they love.
“Sharks are part of that magic and we must always remember that we are guests in their home.”