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Weird News

Shark Attack Survivors Fight to Save Sharks

Oct 6, 2010 – 6:43 AM
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(Oct. 6) -- Captain Ahab would be appalled. A group of shark attack survivors, all of whom either lost limbs or suffered permanent injury in their attacks, came together in New York City recently to fight for the very predator that nearly killed them.

On Sept. 13, the Pew Environment Group held a press conference in which the survivors called on the United Nations to adopt shark conservation measures, including a ban on "finning," or killing sharks solely for their fins.

Three of the survivors recounted their attacks in gory detail before explaining why they had turned to defending sharks. In characterizing the animals, they used words such as "beautiful" and "phenomenal."

Shark attack survivors
Diane Bondareff, AP
Shark attack survivors organized by the Pew Environment Group gather outside the United Nations in New York on Sept. 12 before advocating for shark conservation measures.
One of the survivors, Paul de Gelder, an Australian navy diver, was on a counterterrorism drill in Sydney Harbour in 2009 when a shark grabbed him by the back of the leg.

"We looked eye-to-eye for three seconds," de Gelder recalled, "and I decided he wasn't supposed to be there. I tried to go for the eyeball, but my hand wouldn't move. I realized it was stuck in his mouth."

De Gelder, who lost a hand and lower leg in the attack, was quick to stick up for sharks, however, stating, "I really do not believe that we as a people have the right to drive this beautiful animal to the brink of extinction."

Another survivor, Achmat Hassiem, a South African lifeguard, was conducting lifesaving exercises in open water in 2006 when he spotted a 5-meter shadow racing toward his brother, also a lifeguard. To distract the shark, Hassiem thrashed about in the water. The gambit worked – the great white attacked him.

The animal got hold of his right leg and tossed him like a rag doll before dragging him underwater for 75 meters.

"I remember being dangled on the side of this thing's body," Hassiem said, "and me being a really big boy, I was so far from actually trying to reach its tail. I saw the huge size of this thing and I thought to myself, there's no way I'm going to survive."

Hassiem, who, in a screenplay-worthy twist of fate, was eventually rescued by his brother, lost a leg. Far from harboring bitterness, however, he expresses a healthy respect for the oceans' predators.

"Sharks are a phenomenal thing," Hassiem said. "It's a species that you've just gotta keep on admiring."

The way the survivors tell it, the sharks are the victims -- nowhere to be found is the all-consuming hatred that drove the fictional Ahab to ruin after losing his leg to the giant whale Moby Dick. The nearest hint of malice comes from Debbie Salamone, a Pew Environment Group employee and survivor of a 2004 shark attack in Florida, as she recalled her state of mind in the days after the incident.

"I was plotting my revenge," she said," and I was making plans to eat shark steak."

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In time, however, she came to see the attack as a test of her commitment to environmental conservation. While recovering from her wounds, a severed Achilles' tendon, she quit her job as an investigative reporter for the Orlando Sentinel and took a job working as a communications manager for Pew.

A large part of her job is to play publicist for a client with an image problem.

"We're trying to get the attention of average people," she said in an interview with AOL News. "Sharks are not cute, cuddly animals. They need some PR help."

According to a 2006 report in the journal Ecology Letters, up to 73 million sharks are killed annually to support the international fin trade.
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