As the cold ocean water around him turned red, Paul de Gelder’s mind flashed back to a Shark Week show he’d once seen.
“My brain screamed: ‘Punch him in the face! Punch him in the eyes!’ But as soon as I reached my arm back, I realized that I didn’t have a hand,” de Gelder, now 39, tells The Post, recalling the shark attack in 2009 that nearly killed the Australian navy diver.
Less than 10 seconds later, the bull shark lazily swam away. De Gelder struggled to the ocean’s surface, thrashing his gushing limb toward his navy ship, knowing he only had seconds before his blood loss would prove fatal.
He emerged with his life, but his right hand disappeared with the shark — as did his right leg. A second bite had irrevocably damaged the sciatic nerve in his hamstring. Despite an extensive search in Sydney Harbour, the shark that attacked de Gelder was never found.
“During recovery, I sometimes wished the shark had just gotten it over with and killed me. I kept asking myself, ‘How could I live with half a body?’”
But as de Gelder agonizingly relearned life skills, a military training mantra kept popping into his head: Improvise, adapt, overcome.
“I could feel sorry for myself, or I could use the experience and make the most of it,” de Gelder says. That meant heading back to the navy to serve as a trainer, but he soon found the conversations he had surrounding his prosthetics had a therapeutic effect on him.
“At first it was a bit annoying that the central thing about me was the fact that I’d gotten attacked by a shark, but then I realized my story really spoke to people. Plus, the more I spoke about it, the more at peace I felt with what happened.”
De Gelder made the decision to focus full time on motivational speaking. At high schools around Australia, his vivid description of his shark attack has caused 42 fainting episodes by his count (38 boys and four girls). As he relived his attack repeatedly in these talks, he began to feel curious about the creature that nearly killed him.
In 2010, de Gelder was one of several shark attack survivors invited to a United Nations forum against shark finning (removing the shark’s profitable fins and dumping the body back into the ocean). The forum provided the education that de Gelder had been craving.
“Once I began reading up on sharks, [I realized] I was in the wrong place at the wrong time; it’s their ocean,” he says.
Although de Gelder admits that many of his friends find his newfound love of sharks crazy, the experienced diver maintains that the minuscule risk of a shark attack is no reason not to make protecting the species a priority.
“The ocean is not our swimming pool. We shouldn’t expect it to be,” he says.
Having felt the emotional lows that come with experiencing such a vicious attack, de Gelder occasionally counsels other survivors — including now-17-year-old Hunter Treschl, who lost an arm to a shark off the coast of North Carolina in the summer of 2015.
“Because shark attacks are so rare, there are so few people who know what it feels like,” says de Gelder. “I know immediately after my attack, my mind went to some very dark places. I wondered if I’d ever be able to work again. I wondered if a woman would ever fall in love with me again.
“So when I meet someone who [was] attacked, I just want to be there to listen and share my own experiences. I want to let them know that it’s really bad luck, but it’s not the end of your life.”
In fact, de Gelder stressed to Treschl that the attack that nearly killed him was one of the best things that ever happened to him.
“After the shock and fear subsides, most shark attack victims I’ve met don’t blame the sharks,” says de Gelder, who dates regularly and looks forward to getting married someday. “When you love the water, loving its creatures is part of the package.”
‘When you love the water, loving its creatures is part of the package.’
– Paul de Gelder
As for the recent spate of high-profile animal attacks in the US — an alligator recently killed a 2-year-old at Disney World in Florida, a mountain lion bit a 5-year-old in Colorado, and just this week a woman was mauled by a bear while running a marathon in New Mexico — de Gelder argues that animal aggression is not on the rise. Rather, he says, we’re just more aware of such incidents due to social media.
He also believes that the hysteria that surrounds such attacks is leading to the deaths of innocent creatures. In all the aforementioned cases, not only were the animals that attacked killed, but so were others found in the vicinity.
“Retaliation through killing is not the right answer,” says de Gelder. “Are some animals dangerous? Absolutely. But we have to treat them with respect when we’re in their territory.”
He believes that initiatives like Shark Week can introduce viewers to animals they’re curious about in a risk-free way. De Gelder takes the risks upon himself as the host of “Sharks Among Us,” airing Monday at 10 p.m. on Discovery, in which he feeds a bull shark.
“I was glad to hand-feed it instead of feeding it my hand like last time,” says de Gelder, who stresses that what you see on television is educational and absolutely not meant to be replicated on Instagram.
“I’m lucky I have the best shark behavioral experts in the world beside me. Sharks are amazing creatures, but they can be deadly. I know that better than anyone.”