Shark! Swimmer Fights Terror in Sudden Attack

Suddenly, the shark drags Denis back up to the surface. He gulps air before being dragged down again.

great white shark
Watt Jim/Getty Images

The clear blue water of the Pacific Ocean looks so inviting. Sitting by the campfire, Denis Udovenko strums his guitar impatiently. He wants to go for an early-evening swim, but his wife, Polina, is fussing with pots and pans at their beach campsite in tiny Telyakovsky Bay on Russia’s far east coast.

It is mid-August 2011, and after two gray days, the sun has finally come out. The peninsula that hides the bay looms large and distant. Their home in Vladivostok, 143 miles away, seems like another world.

“I’m going swimming by myself,” Denis, a computer programmer, finally announces, setting the guitar aside. Tall, dark, and serious, he has dimples that surprise because he smiles so rarely. He flexes his fingers, strong and calloused from plucking guitar strings, and gets up.

Polina, a 25-year-old accountant with long dark hair and a gentle manner, protests. “Please, wait for me,” she says. “I want to go, too, and I can’t see without my glasses!”

Denis, also 25, agrees. He knows that she’s nervous about brushing against spiny sea urchins or cutting herself on the sharp rocks in the water. So they set out, one behind the other, swimming toward the tip of a narrow spit about 200 yards from shore that locals call the Island of the Yearning Heart. He leads with a strong breaststroke, frog-kicking and arcing his arms through the water.

At the island, they dive, splash, and finally lie in the setting sun to dry off. They stay about 30 minutes, until just before 7 p.m., when it starts to get chilly. For the swim back to camp, Denis again starts out first, straining to see ahead of him in the deep, murky water.

All of a sudden, a shadow about ten feet long rushes toward him. He turns to the figure, then feels something sink its teeth into his right hand.

“Swim fast to shore, Polina! Go!” he cries. “Shark!”

“What are you talking about?” she asks in disbelief. There are no sharks here.

Then she sees her husband of eight months disappear underwater.

It takes Denis several seconds to realize that the shark is pulling him to the bottom. Below the surface, the water is much colder, and the current is strong. There is a rushing noise in his ears.

Don’t take in water, he tells himself fiercely. Get to the surface. Breathe.

The shark’s sharp teeth are clamped down on his right wrist, and the fish shakes its head back and forth, trying to bite through sinew, muscle, and bone.

Without her glasses, Polina can barely make out what’s happening. She swims toward Denis’s thrashing. And then something with a smooth back and large fin pushes her away. She can make out a shape: the head of her husband coming to the surface once, twice, three times.

“Help!” she screams. “Shark!”

shark attack victim
Photograph by Claire Benoist, Alexander Gaivoron (couple)

And she starts to swim for her life—and for her husband’s. She’s not sure if she’s swimming toward him or away. All she knows is that she has to get help. “Denis is not going to be your meal. Not today,” she says fiercely. Only she is speaking to empty water.

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Suddenly, the shark drags Denis back up to the surface. He gulps air before being dragged down again. And again: up and down, back and forth. It’s a deadly underwater waltz, with the shark leading the way. Denis fixes on the shark’s eyes as it continues to tear at his nearly severed right hand. And then it is gone, along with his wedding ring.

So this is what my death looks like, he tells himself. In a strange way, he feels relieved. People always wonder how they will die, and now he knows.

Then comes a wave of white-hot anger. I don’t want to die. Not today. Not for a long time.

Punch the shark in the nose.

There it is—an insistent whisper in the back of his mind. He doesn’t know where it came from. Maybe he read it once in a book.

Punch the shark? Am I crazy?

But he has nothing to lose. Besides, the shark’s snout is right in front of him. He balls his left hand into a fist, hauls back, and lets loose. He feels the impact, bone against the shark’s nose cartilage.

The shark seems to be angrier and attacks again, this time sinking its teeth into his left wrist. The deadly waltz starts again. Denis is thrashed back and forth until suddenly, the shark lets him go. His left hand is now gone, and his left hip throbs from the six-inch-wide chunk the shark took when Denis tried to get away.

Now Denis just floats in the water, waiting for the shark to come back.

Denis is white from loss of blood, but he refuses to close his eyes. He’s scared he might never open them again.

Kirill Zenkov and Sergey Torokhov, who are staying at a busier campsite the next beach over, are leaving the bay after loading firewood into Kirill’s boat. As Kirill carefully guides the 13-foot-long rubber dinghy through the rocky shoals along the shore, they hear a cry.

“Shh, cut the engine,” Sergey, a 33-year-old economist, tells his friend.

Kirill, 35, a sugar salesman, lets the boat idle. They can make out only the word help, high and panicked.

“She’s drowning,” Kirill says, starting the boat again and going full-speed ahead. But when they get near, they’re surprised: She is still swimming.

Swimming and screaming at the same time. The boat pulls up beside her, and Sergey pulls her into the boat. She’s weeping.

“Save him!” Polina gasps, pointing. “Shark!”

Startled, the two men turn to the left and notice that the sea has turned red around them. Then Sergey sees a shark’s fin racing through the water and the head of a man moving with it.

There is no thinking, just instinct powered by adrenaline. The man is just a yard away! Turn the boat!

Kirill pulls up beside Denis.

Sergey says, “Give me your hands.”

“I don’t have any,” Denis replies, holding up his stumps.

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Sergey reaches into the water, hoists Denis, bleeding and naked, by his armpits and settles him in Polina’s lap, instructing her to hold up the stumps to stem the flow of blood. She does what she’s told, even though she can’t stand the sight of blood. She rocks her husband and murmurs, “It will be OK. I love you. It will be OK.”

Denis is white from loss of blood, but he refuses to close his eyes. He’s scared he might never open them again.

As he guns the engine, Kirill sees the shark’s huge shadow moving beneath the boat. There’s no time to think about being tipped over. It takes seven minutes to get around the peninsula and back to the bay. When they lift Denis out of the boat, people on the beach fall silent. Even now, Denis is shy about his nakedness and asks them to cover him up. Someone brings a towel. Others rifle through first aid kits, looking for antiseptic ointment, hydrogen peroxide, and bandages. Kirill calls the police and an ambulance.

“We need a helicopter. There’s been a shark attack,” he begins.

But the man at the other end of the line is dismissive. “You’re drunk. There are no sharks in that area,” he says.

Kirill just hangs up. He doesn’t have time to argue. Both his parents are doctors, and he knows Denis must get to a hospital immediately.

The two men tie off Denis’s arms as best they can with tent rope, cover the backseat of Sergey’s Land Cruiser with canvas, and set off for the hospital, about 40 miles away. Polina sits in the back, too, talking with Denis to keep him conscious.

It’s a bumpy race against death, much of it on a single-lane, unpaved road. Sergey shaves the driving time in half, making the first village in 40 minutes. By then, Kirill, who has a mobile phone pasted to each ear, knows they are looking for an ambulance that has been sent from Slavyanka. They meet up with it and follow it to the hospital.

The next afternoon, Polina takes a deep breath before walking into the hospital room to see her husband for the first time since she left him the night before as he was being rushed into surgery. He looks so tiny in his bed, surrounded by machines, she thinks.

What remains of his arms is hidden under swaths of bandages. Then he smiles, showing his dimples.

“I’m so happy nothing happened to you,” he says.

She wants to hold him tight. “The danger has passed,” she whispers. “Everything is going to be OK.”

Funded by well-wishers, Denis travels to South Korea and Germany for skin grafts to his hip and physiotherapy to adapt to his new prosthetic hands. He and Polina, both now 27, move to Sakhalin Island, off the eastern coast of Russia, where he went to school, and he starts work again as a programmer. He has taken up playing the drums, trying to find a rhythm to a life that nearly wasn’t. Sometimes he misses a beat. But he is grateful that he has the chance to try again.

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