Four men who have survived shark attacks wade into the cool, choppy ocean on a cloudy morning in Crowdy Head, on the NSW Mid-North Coast. Three are surfers, one rides a bodyboard. There's a wind from the south and a blowy, southerly swell. It's not the best surfing, but every wave is a prize for men who might never again have felt the sea on their skin. The ocean has taken something precious from each of them, although some have lost more than others.
The four belong to Bite Club, a society of shark attack survivors, their rescuers, families and friends. Bite Club founder Dave Pearson, of the nearby village of Coopernook, says the club has 250 members, of whom about 50 have been bitten by sharks. He believes it to be the only organisation of its kind in the world.
I turned around and prayed for a wave big enough to bring me in. All the time, I was looking over my shoulder, expecting it to come back and hit me again.
Pearson is an engineer with a generous sense of humour only occasionally darkened by a slightly puzzled feeling of hurt. He says it's surprising how much hostility can be directed towards people who have done nothing more than get bitten by a shark.
Pearson was attacked at Crowdy Head on March 23, 2011, on his first day out on a new Firewire board. A 300-kilogram, three-metre-long bull shark bit down on his left arm, crunched into the board and slammed its nose into the left side of his face, splitting his skull. "They told me that the best thing to do with a shark is hit it on the nose," says Pearson. "Well, I'd already done that with my head." Man and shark went underwater together. Pearson had one arm in the shark's mouth and his other hand caught in its jaw. The shark's top teeth bit his forearm down to the bone and peeled back the muscle, but its bottom teeth were caught in the board.
Pearson believes the board saved his life. The shark's bite got stuck in the high-density polystyrene foam that fills the Firewire board, and jammed on its balsa wood rail. The shark pulled free, tearing out of the board, and Pearson tried to make for the shore. "A big wave came through," he says, "and I thought, 'Ah, beauty, I'm out.' But it broke right on top of me and I got absolutely smashed and held under water, then I got rolled around and I felt all the skin come off my arm again. So I was under water, trying to hold that down and stop it bleeding, and just as I came to the surface I got hit by another wave, then another.
"After about the third wave, I'd lost all my strength. I thought, 'Shit, I'm going to die in the ocean today.' It was a funny feeling. I thought, 'Well, that's not too bad. I've had a good life.' But at the same time I thought, 'My kids aren't that old yet. Mum and Dad live close. I've got a family.' And I said to myself, 'Not today, Dave.' And I got my feet on the ground and I pushed myself up and got back to the surface."
Once he had struggled, semi-conscious, on to the beach, his surfing mates stemmed the bleeding by tying his leg rope around his arm, then carried him to a picnic table. "There was a trail of blood from the ocean right back to the table," says Pearson. They brought him oxygen from the surf club and kept him talking, making sure he did not lose consciousness. By the time he reached hospital, Pearson had lost 40 per cent of his blood. "I can't bend my hand back," he says, "and my fingers don't work like they used to. So I've got some issues, but none that I'll complain about, because I've got my arm."
After three days in hospital, he was cheered to find the nurses were privately calling him "Sharkbait". "Once I realised they were happy to make a joke out of it, I was happy to make a joke out of it," he says. "I learnt a lot from that."
His wife brought his laptop to the ward, and Pearson began to read online the newspaper reports of his accident. In the readers' comments section, he says, he found posts like: "This idiot! Why does he deserve any attention?" "He was surfing in the dark" – he was actually in the water in the afternoon, but it was 8.30pm by the time the ambulance arrived – "He knew there was heaps of fish out there."
"There were all these stories," says Pearson, "and none of them was true. So I spent four hours defending myself. At the end of the four hours, my last comment was, 'F... you lot. You don't know me.' And that was the last comment I ever made on a news story. The more I was defending myself, the more people were attacking me."
It's an experience common to many shark attack survivors. On social media, says Pearson, the posts will typically run: "What was the surfer doing in the water? It's the shark's ocean anyway;" "Oh, how surprising! A shark in the ocean;" "This guy's a fool. He shouldn't be surfing. It's his own fault he got attacked."
"And it really gets personally aggressive towards the shark attack survivor – or fatality," says Pearson. "And the family read these comments, too. So, for a little while, I would go on and I would make a comment similar to, 'If you were on the beach on the day this attack occurred, would you run up and down the beach screaming, 'It's your own fault! It's your own fault!' Or would you go to the guy, lend him a hand and try to help him survive and get him to hospital? Please, before you make these sort of comments, think about what you would do if it was someone you knew, or someone you loved.' And, for a while, that would stop all the comments. But then people started to realise who I was, so I was getting hate mail for having the audacity to go into the ocean and get attacked."
In hospital, Pearson met 24-year-old Lisa Mondy, who had suffered shark bites to her face and arm while wakeboarding near Jimmys Beach, Port Stephens, a week before. Pearson realised he was able to cope with the experience more easily than Mondy, and tried to counsel her as best he could. When he was released from hospital, he began to contact other survivors. Each time there was a news story about an attack, he would call the hospital and ask to speak to the victim. This met with limited success, as hospital staff do their best to screen patients from both the media and nuisance callers.
When Pearson rang Dale Carr, a bodyboarder who was bitten at Lighthouse Beach, Port Macquarie, in August last year, Carr says, "He struck a chord with me, because he said, 'Mate, you'll be all right.' But when I first got the phone call, I got off and went, 'Some clown just rang me up and said he was from "Bite Club!" These lunatics will f...ing grab you anywhere.' " Pearson altered his strategy and started to track down survivors using the telephone directory and social media, and correspond with them once they were back at home.
Fatal shark attacks on human beings are not a major problem anywhere in the world. In 2015, 269 more people in Australia died from drowning than from shark bites. Pearson is happy to show the spot where he was attacked to beach-goers in Crowdy Head, but he takes more care to point out the location of the rips since, over the years, he has dragged "a dozen people" out of them, perhaps saving their lives.
Last year, there were 33 shark attacks in Australia, of which 22 were classified as "unprovoked". The great majority of unprovoked attacks happened in NSW, which was the scene of the only unprovoked fatality of 2015, when Japanese surfer Tadashi Nakahara was killed by a shark at Shelly Beach near Ballina in February. But the number of incidents has risen: in 2014, there were only 11 unprovoked attacks. According to Taronga Zoo's Australian Shark Attack File, the reason behind the increase appears to be a greater number of surfers spending a longer time in the ocean in winter, and a larger population of migrating whales attracting sharks to the waters around Byron Bay.
A series of incidents on the NSW North Coast briefly caused the surf scene around Ballina to almost close down. Pearson visited the town several times during the year. "It was really funny to drive through the middle of Ballina, and all the shops have either got surfing names or signs made out of surfboards, and you'd go to the beach and there were perfect waves and not a person in the water," he says.
Local surfers have regained some confidence, in part due to a spotted-and-tagging operation that sees tagged sharks dragged out to sea but, says Pearson, boardriders still group together in the water at Lennox Head. "They're scared up there." During a surf at Broken Head in August, Pearson noticed a school of baitfish and climbed straight out of the water. He looked on amazed as another surfer paddled in among the fish and – as Pearson later observed on film from a drone camera – three sharks. "And he was right beside them," says Pearson. "The guy's got to realise that there were surfers getting out of the surf. There were some standing there, watching. If that guy had been attacked on the way through, all of those people would have been affected. Some of them would have probably swum out to try to help him, so they then would've put their lives at risk. He's got family. All of them would have been affected. As you see in the Ballina area, a whole community has been affected.
"People say silly things. [US pro surfer] Kelly Slater made the comment that it would be 'honourable' to be taken by a shark. There's nothing 'honourable' about ending your life screaming your lungs out, shitting your pants, with blood all around you."
On December 29, 2014, 17-year-old Jay Muscat was spearfishing with a friend when he was killed by a shark off Cheynes Beach, 470 kilometres south of Perth. His mate shot the shark with a speargun, and the Department of Fisheries – following the WA government's morally dubious serious-threat policy – dispatched boats to destroy the shark. There was a huge outpouring of grief for Muscat, but also substantial public sympathy for the shark. Pearson says one of Bite Club's WA members received death threats. Another held himself responsible for the death of a shark during an earlier WA shark cull, and had to be talked down from suicide. Eventually, the vitriol towards attack survivors on social media grew to such an intensity that Bite Club resolved to operate in private, and began to look for media coverage only towards the end of last year.
But Pearson wants people to know they are there and can help. "We go to a pub or coffee shop and just chat about life," he says. "Inevitably we talk about death, injuries and stuff like that, but it's all about somebody you can let out your story to, and feel comfortable in letting it out. And it does work. It's like a family. People form bonds that you'd never normally get with a mate. There's no judgment among us. We don't all agree on stuff. We've got people who want to become conservationists – and people who get attacked by sharks sometimes go into shark conservation, because it's kind of expected that you need to do something after your attack. Some want to go the other way: some people who've lost a lot of their life, they want answers, so they hate the fish." But the first rule of Bite Club, says Pearson, is to talk about it.
The quietest Bite Club member in the surf at Crowdy Bay is Bruce Lucas, a miner who lives in nearby Cundletown. Lucas had not surfed for 10 years when he decided to get back onto a board in December, 2014. "And, basically, six months after, I got attacked," he says, dryly. "Like you do." He was paddling out at Saltwater Point on May 3 last year when he was hit. "I didn't know what was going on," he says. "I was getting driven around clockwise on the board, and I looked up and all I saw was the nose and the teeth, just there, in my face. I instantly came up with my right hand and just went 'crack', right on its nose. It must have been enough to startle it off. I turned around and prayed for a wave big enough to bring me in. All the time, I was looking over my shoulder, expecting it to come back and hit me again, and just yelling out 'Shark!' to the people on the shore."
Lucas needed about 35 staples in his arm and four stitches in his hand. At first, he didn't want to talk about the attack, but he couldn't forget it. "I'd just lie there and see it all the time," he says. "I guess, to a certain degree, I still do." Since he joined Bite Club, he has discussed the episode more, but dwelt upon it less. He got back in the water after about a month, but he is much more careful. "Last Sunday, I was at Saltwater," he says. "I'd been out for about an hour and a mullet jumped up behind me. I just came straight in. If I'm not comfortable, I won't stay out there."
Lucas also believes in the healing power of humour. "The first time I went back to the pub," he says, "I walked in there and everyone had Cronulla Sharks hats on." The memory makes him smile.
The bodyboarder among the group at Crowdy Head is Dale Carr, a big, thoughtful, tough man, a former first-grade footballer, surf-lifesaver and nightclub security guard. He was surfing off Lighthouse Beach, Port Macquarie, paddling towards a swell over a shipwreck, when, he says, "I kicked my foot really hard over a wave – and I just got belted. It hit me square under the board and sent me up in the air and, as I was in the air, I looked down and saw this shark come out from underneath. We both went down onto the water at the same time. Its tail swished across and slapped me across the face."
Carr kept his hands on his bodyboard and used it to fend off the shark's head but, he says, the shark "just went 'bang!' and clamped on my arse, and my left thumb got trapped". He responded like the Kings Cross bouncer he used to be. "There was no thought process or anything," he says. "It was just a reflex: strike, right-hand closed fist. That did f... all. It was like hitting a suitcase full of concrete. I struck it again, very hard, and my thumb came loose, and I managed to put my left hand on its nose and I saw the black eye, and I thought, 'You f...ing beauty!' – right index finger, straight into the eye. It just went in, sweet as. You've never seen something so big just freeze. Time stood still. It tried to retract its bite. I saw a whitewash come towards me, and I just rolled."
Like Pearson, he was saved by his mates. He made it to the sand and they dragged his 100-kilo frame up the beach. He was shouting at them to get a clamp on the flap of skin hanging off his thigh; "It was like an episode of MacGyver," he says. Carr had fastened his flippers to his ankles with shoelaces, and his friends used the laces to tie up his arm and tried to stem the bleeding with a shirt. He stopped breathing twice and lost 2 1/2 litres of blood. It took two operations to put him back together.
"You never go back to the way you had your life," says Carr. "My wife will never be able to have a conversation in the shopping centre without the shark being brought up. Because, before my event, nobody in Port Macquarie knew someone who'd been attacked by a shark. Now, everyone knows someone – me. I take the time to talk about it because, after I've told it a thousand times, I feel heaps better. And people love it. Every time we talk about it, we sort of shed some of our trauma onto others, so you can empathise with us and understand who we are and how we work."
Carr says there are Bite Club members with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, but he has never experienced a flashback to the attack. He went straight back to his business as a consultant engineer and was inspecting concrete slabs 10 days after he was bitten.
Carr doesn't believe his experience qualifies him to make comments about shark conservation. "Just because you've been involved in a car accident doesn't make you a traffic expert," he says. His mates say he has an awesome story but "I don't feel amped by hitting a shark", he says. "What I've done since the attack is what gets me amped: I've been awoken to how people deal with trauma. I don't want my event to be for nothing. We've got to accentuate the successes of how I was treated, how I got up off my arse and got back into the swing of things, the new normal life I've managed to create."
While Bite Club is, in part, about surfing, it is not really about sharks. The members are united more by their drive to give meaning to an essentially meaningless experience. In one sense, the club is about comradeship. In another, it's about love. When Pearson was in hospital, cracking jokes and playing Sharkbait for the nurses, he was asked how he could take his experience so well. He said it wasn't the worst thing that had ever happened to him. He had lost a child at 9 1/2 months, a life that was loved but never had the chance to flourish. Both Pearson's father and his brother had suffered crippling accidents, and each man now walks with a limp. When Carr was younger, he was driving in a car that was hit by a semi-trailer, killing his father. He responded in a similar way as he faced the shark attack. He tore open the car door, pulled out his father and tried to resuscitate him.
Carr wonders if the way a person reacts to their first major trauma sets a template for the rest of their lives. Bite Club members have offered themselves as study subjects to psychologists, to help determine what factors provoke resilience to trauma. But Pearson speaks from the depths of his heart when he says that something that hurts someone you love is far more painful than anything that could harm you.
The attack survived by the third Crowdy Head surfer, Kevin Young, was not his own. Two years ago, Young lost his 19-year-old son, Zach, who was mauled by a tiger shark while surfing off Riecks Point, north of Coffs Harbour. Both father and son were evangelical Christians. Young, a builder and developer, talks animatedly about the consolations of his faith and his conversations with God – who addresses him as "Kev" – but he cannot keep the tears from his eyes when he remembers his beautiful boy, and eventually he gives in to his grief and weeps. Young believes in an afterlife, an eternal reward in heaven. He speaks of Zach's death as "coming home". But his story, like the others', has layer upon layer. Zach was not his first loss.
Young's father died when he was 11 years old, and Young became a teenage drug user and later a dealer. He contemplated suicide, and he overdosed. Shortly afterwards, he found God. He had nine children, and the first was stillborn. Zach was the youngest, and he lived with his dad after his parents divorced. Both of Zach's legs were bitten off in the attack, and Young identified the body in hospital. "He was basically in a bag with his face and his arm out," says Young, "and I gave him a kiss. I knew he wasn't there."
A week after Zach died, a group from his church tried to raise him from the dead using prayer. "Obviously, he wasn't raised from the dead," says Young, but he believes he and others saw and spoke to Zach after he died. His son put his arm around him and joked with his dad.
Zach's funeral was a celebration: more than 1000 people attended the service at Town Beach, Port Macquarie. Hundreds paddled out to make a circle for him in the water. From above, they looked like the teeth in the jaws of a shark. A friend who was with Zach when he died said Zach's last words to him were, "I love you, brother."
"You asked me what I think about the ocean," says Young. "I love the ocean. Zach's ashes went into the ocean. His blood was spilt in the ocean. For me, Zach's essence is in the ocean. Zach is actually part of that ocean now. So when you dive into the water, you're diving into Zach's love."