This article was originally written by Rodney Fox, a Reader’s Digest “First Person” Award Winner. It appeared in the August 1965 edition of Reader’s Digest.
Kay looked quite miserable standing there as I said goodbye at 6:30 that Sunday morning in December 1963. She was expecting our first child, and the doctor had told her firmly: don’t go.
I wish now that the doctor’s advice had applied to me as well. Two hours later, however, found me standing on the cliff at Aldinga Beach—34 miles south of our home in Adelaide, South Australia. This was why I had set out so early. Now I had time to study carefully the dark patterns of bottom growth on the coral reef that shelves to seaward under the incoming blue-green swells.
Aldinga reef is a watery paradise, a teeming sea jungle, a happy hunting ground for underwater spearfishermen like myself. Forty of us––each in a black rubber suit and flippers, glass-windowed face mask, snorkel, lead-weighted belt and spearfishing gun––were waiting for the referee’s nine-o’clock whistle to announce that the annual South Australian Skin-Diving and Spearfishing Championship competition had begun.
Each of us would have five hours to bring in to the judges the biggest bag, reckoned both by total weight and by number of different species of fish. My own chances looked good. I had taken the 1961-62 championship and I had been runner-up the next season. I had promised Kay that this would be my last competition. I meant to clinch the title and then retire in glory, diving thenceforth only for fun, when Kay and I both might want to. I was 23 and, after months of training, at the peak of form. We were “free divers,” you understand, with no artificial breathing aids. I had trained myself to dive safely to 100 feet and to hold my breath for more than a minute without discomfort.
At the nine-o’clock whistle blast we waded into the surf. Each man towed behind him, by a light line tied to his lead-weight belt, a buoyant, hollow fish float. We would load our fish into these floats immediately on spearing them. This would minimize the amount of fresh blood released into the water. Blood might attract from out beyond the reef the big hunting fish––the always hungry and curious great predatory sharks that prowl the deeper water off the South Australian coast. Lesser sharks––like the bronze whaler and gray nurse––are familiar to skin divers and have not proved aggressive. Fortunately, the dreaded white hunter, or “white death” sharks, caught by professional fishermen in the open ocean, are rarely seen by skin divers. But as a precaution, two high-powered patrol boats crisscrossed our hunting area keeping a wary lookout.
The weather was bright and hot. An offshore breeze flattened the green wave tops, but it roiled the water on the reef. Visibility under the surface would be poor. This makes it difficult for spearfishermen. In murky water, a diver often gets too close to a fish before he realizes that it’s there; thus he scares it away before he can get set for a shot.
By 12:30, when I towed to shore a heavy catch of parrotfish, snapper, snook, boarfish, and magpie perch, I could see from the other piles that I must be well up in the competition. I had 60 pounds of fish on shore, comprising 14 species. It was now 12:35, and the contest closed at two. As fish naturally grew scarcer in the inshore areas, I had ranged out to three-quarters of a mile for bigger and better game. On my last swim in from the “dropoff” section of the reef, where it plunges from 25-foot to 60-foot depth, I had spotted quite a few large fish near a big, triangular-shaped rock which l felt sure that I could find again.
Two of these fish were dusky mornings––or “strongfish,” as we Australian skin divers usually call them. Either of these would be large enough to tip the scales in my favor; then one more fish of another variety would sew things up for me, I decided.
I swam out to the spot I’d picked, then rested face down, breathing through my snorkel as I studied through my face glass the best approach to the two fish sheltering behind the rock. After several deep breaths, I held one, swallowed to lock it in, upended and dived. Swimming down and forward, so as not to “spook” them, I rounded the large rock and thrilled to see my quarry. Not 30 feet away the larger dusky morwong, a beauty of at least 20 pounds, was browsing in a clump of brown weed. I glided forward, hoping for a close-in shot. I stretched both hands out in front of me, my left for balance, my right holding the gun, which was loaded with a stainless steel shaft and barb. I drifted easily over the short weed and should have lined up for a perfect head-and-gill shot, but…
How can I describe the sudden silence? It was a perceptible hush, even in that quiet world, a motionlessness that was somehow communicable deep below the surface of the sea. Then something huge hit me with tremendous force on my left side and heaved me through the water. I was dumbfounded. Now the “thing” was pushing me through the water with wild speed. I felt a bewildering sensation of nausea. The pressure on my back and chest was immense. A queer “cushiony” feeling ran down my right side, as if my insides on my left were being squeezed over to my right side. I had lost my face mask and I could not see in the blur. My speargun was knocked violently out of my hand. The pressure on my body seemed actually to be choking me. I did not understand what was happening. I tried to shake myself loose but found that my body was clamped as if in a vise.
With awful revulsion, my mind came into focus, and I realized my predicament: a shark had me in his jaws. Here are 13 things you didn’t know about shark attacks.
I could not see the creature, but it had to be a huge one. Its teeth had closed around my chest and back, with my left shoulder forced into its throat. I was being thrust face down ahead of it as we raced through the water. Although dazed with the horror, I still felt no pain. In fact, there was no sharp feeling at all except for the crushing pressure on my back and chest. I stretched my arms out behind and groped for the monster’s head, hoping to gouge its eyes. Suddenly, miraculously, the pressure was gone from my chest. The creature had relaxed its jaws. I thrust backward to push myself away—but my right arm went straight into the shark’s mouth. Now I felt pain such as I had never imagined. Blinding bursts of agony made every part of my body scream in torment. As I wrenched my arm loose from the shark’s jagged teeth, all-encompassing waves of pain swept through me. But I had succeeded in freeing myself.
I thrashed and kicked my way to the surface, thudding repeatedly into the shark’s body. Finally, my bead pushed above water and I gulped great gasps of air. I knew the shark would come up for me. A fin brushed my flippers and then my knees suddenly touched its rough side. I grabbed with both arms, wrapping my legs and arms around the monster, hoping wildly that this maneuver would keep me out of his jaws. Somehow I gulped a great breath. We went down deep again––I scraped the rocks on the bottom. Now I was shaken violently from side to side. I pushed away with all my remaining strength. I had to get back to the surface.
Once again I could breathe. But all around, the water was crimson with blood—my blood. The shark breached the surface a few feet away and turned over on its side. Its hideous body was like a great rolling tree trunk, but rust-colored, with huge pectoral fins. The great conical head belonged unmistakably to a white hunter. Here was the white-death itself! It began moving toward me. Indescribable terror surged through my body.
One tiny fragment of the ultimate horror was the fact that this fearful monster, this scavenger of the sea, was my master. I was alone in its domain; here the shark made the rules. I was no longer an Adelaide insurance salesman. I was simply a squirming something-to-eat, to be forgotten even before it was digested. I knew the shark was attacking again and that I would die in agony when it struck. I could only wait. I breathed a hurried little prayer for Kay and the baby. Then, unbelievingly, I saw the creature veer away just before it reached me, the slanted dorsal fin curving off, just above the surface! Here’s what you should do to survive a shark attack.
Then my fish float began moving rapidly across the water. The slackline tightened at my belt, and I was being pulled forward and under the water again. At the last instant, the shark bad snatched the float instead of me and had fouled itself somehow in the line. I tried to release my weight-belt to which the line was attached, but my arms would not obey. We were moving very fast now and had traveled under water 30 or 40 feet, my left hand still fumbling helplessly at the release catch. Surely I’m not going to drown now rushed through my mind. Then the final miracle occurred: the line parted suddenly and I was free once more.
They tell me that all I could scream when my head reached the surface was: “Shark! … Shark!” It was enough. Now there were voices, familiar noises, then the boatful of friends that I’d been praying would come. I gave up trying to move and relied on them to help me. In this new world of people, somebody kept saying, “Hang on, mate, it’s over. Hang on.” Over and over. I think without that voice out there I would have died.
The men in the patrol boat were horrified at the extent of my injuries. My right hand and arm were so badly slashed that the bones lay bare in several places. My chest, back, left shoulder and side were deeply gashed. Great pieces of flesh had been torn aside, exposing the rib cage, lungs, and upper stomach. Police manning the highway intersections for 34 miles got our ambulance through in record time. The surgeons at Royal Adelaide Hospital were scrubbed and ready, the operating table felt warm and cozy, the huge silver light overhead grew dimmer … until late that night or early next morning I opened my eyes and saw Kay alongside my bed. I said, “It hurts,” and she was crying. The doctor walked over and said, “He’ll make it now.”
Today, a year and a half later, my lungs work well, although my chest is still stiff. My right hand isn’t a pretty sight, but I can use it. My chest, back, abdomen, and shoulder are badly scarred. God knows I didn’t want to, but Kay realized right from the start that I had to go skin diving again. A man’s only half a man if fear ties him up. Five months after I recovered, I returned to the sea to leave my fears where I had found them.
But my skin diving is different nowadays. I’ve got my confidence back, but with it came prudence. You can’t count on getting through a second round with a shark; anyhow, there are plenty of risks you have to take in this world without going out of your way to add needless ones.
So now I stay away from competition and leave the murky water to the daredevils who’ve never felt a shark’s jaws around their chest.
Next, find out about the 22 animals that are even deadlier than sharks.