Saving the Shark that Bit Me: the Encounter

Grey Reef Sharks (Carcharninus amblyrhynchos)

[Editor’s note: The following post is written by Kydd Pollock, marine biologist for The Nature Conservancy in Hawai‘i. Kydd’s 2010 encounter with a reef shark is profiled in Discovery Channel’s Shark Week segment, Shark Fight, which aired August 15. This is the second post in a series about his encounter. Read the first and third posts.]

Shark Week is upon us. That time each year when people gather around the TV to see one of the most feared-yet-fascinating animals on Earth and wait for the right moment to announce “we’re gonna need a bigger boat.”

It’s natural to have some caution for sharks, but we must learn to co-exist and respect them. Healthy shark populations are essential to thriving coral reefs. We need sharks in the ocean.

And yes, I still maintain this view two years after I was injured by a grey reef shark at Palmyra Atoll. Here’s what happened.

I’d love to begin with “the sea was angry that day” a la George Costanza, but in reality November 11th of 2010 was a beautiful day with calm, crystal-clear water and warm temperatures. I was assisting a University of Hawaii research team placing sonic tags on Napoleon Maori Wrasse, impressive and quirky-looking fish that can grow to up to five feet long. Despite being very shy and difficult to capture, Maori Wrasse have been so heavily overfished that there are very few places left in the world where they can be studied. Palmyra Atoll is one of them.

We were using a barrier net in the water to try and capture a large wrasse when a passing six and a half foot female grey reef shark became entangled in the netting. Our team stopped immediately to untangle the shark, but once free, she began swimming slowly toward another portion of the net.

Seeing this, I quickly swam below to hold the net down so the shark could pass freely. When she veered away, I turned my attention back to the net.

But moments later, I looked up to see that the shark had made an abrupt turn and was heading back towards me. Fast.

The shark came at my face so quickly that my only reaction was to put my head down. The first bite was on top of my head. A second bite immediately followed, with my snorkel mask taking the worst of it. The shark began to shake me violently, and I remember thinking “This is really happening, isn’t it?”

The movement dislodged the mask from my head and into her mouth, causing the shark to release my head and spit out the mask. My vision was blurred, and I could just make out a large shape once again bearing down on me. A third bite came across my nose and eye, and then the shark swam away as if nothing had happened.

This all took place over a few seconds. At the time, I was unable to see out of my left eye, so the question in my head was: “how bad is it?”

Our team’s response to the accident was prompt and exceptional. I was rushed to the station where several on-island personnel with medical training successfully patched me up, with guidance from the Pacific International Maritime Medical Services (PIMMS). Over the next few hours they secured staples and stitches for several cuts on my head and for my eyelid. When it was finished, my injuries were manageable… and I could see!

I was lucky that day — the outcome could have been far worse. Still, I have never considered this incident an “attack.” It was simply a shark bite. The difference is crucial. This was a frightened animal and I just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Most sharks at Palmyra are reef sharks — grey, white-tipped and black-tipped — and they are not aggressive unless provoked or threatened. It’s likely that this shark was confused or felt threatened by its encounter with our net, and she reacted in a completely natural way.

My own beliefs about sharks are echoed by Dr. Jonathan Gardner, a marine scientist at Victoria University of Wellington, who also conducts research at Palmyra.

“Sharks may be unpredictable but they generally don’t cause significant problems for human populations,” he says. “They deserve our respect and admiration and perhaps more than anything they deserve our protection. We need far less hysteria about sharks and far more understanding of their biology and their natural role in marine systems.”

Unfortunately, the opposite appears to be true. Recent research shows that there are 90% fewer sharks in waters near where humans live than in uninhabited islands and coasts.

It’s important to see this incident for what it really was — an encounter with a shark that thankfully didn’t result in permanent injury. That’s how I see it. And I went back in the water to keep gathering new data.

I still love being around sharks. Indeed, this incident has only strengthened my respect for these magnificent creatures. My hope is that sharing my story will help others learn to love sharks and allow them to live, too.

[Image: Grey Reef Sharks (Carcharninus amblyrhynchos) near Inglis Shoal of West Britain in Papua New Guinea. Image source: Jeff Yonover]

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