Elite navy diver Paul de Gelder made worldwide headlines when he was attacked by a bull shark in Sydney Harbour in 2009… and you won’t believe what he’s doing now
A former elite Australian Navy diver who lost an arm and a leg in a horrific shark attack has found a new career as a conservationist working to protect the top predators.
Paul de Gelder, 45, was swimming on his back ‘from point A to point B’ as part of a naval counter-terrorism exercise on iconic Sydney Harbor in 2009 when the shark attacked and he barely survived escaped with his life.
“One moment I was swimming … the next my right leg was clamped in the jaws of a nine-foot bull shark,” Mr de Gelder said.
He initially assumed that his fellow soldiers had gotten too close in their boat and bumped him – because he felt a ‘slap’ but no pain – until he looked down and saw two black eyes staring back at him.
Mr. Growing up near the ocean in Melbourne and a lifelong avid swimmer, De Gelder said it was a moment he had dreaded since he was a boy.
‘As every schoolboy knows, if you’re attacked by a shark, punch it in the eye. It was the one option that was denied to me as my right hand was pinned to my own leg with its teeth,” he said.
‘I tried a counterattack with my left hand and that’s when it started shaking me like a rag doll. Folklore may have Great Whites as the most feared denizen of the deep, but there is nothing as frighteningly aggressive as a bull shark.’
Former Navy diver Paul de Gelder lost both an arm and a leg when he was attacked by a bull shark during an anti-terrorism exercise while swimming in Sydney Harbor in February 2009.
Since the attack, he has forged a career as a conservationist and motivational speaker, hosting specials for Shark Week on Discovery and writing three books.
Paul de Gelder said his first encounter with tiger sharks in the Bahamas was particularly memorable. A few years later, he taught Will Smith how to greet them
Shark attacks are extremely rare. Millions of people take to the water in Australia every year and there are an average of three fatal shark attacks.
But that fact would have been of little comfort to Mr de Gelder.
As the shark clamped down again with its multiple rows of razor-sharp, inch-long teeth, he said the initial shock and confusion gave way to a wave of excruciating pain.
“All the fight went out of me and I started choking in the bloody water … sure I was going to die,” he said.
‘I’ll never know why it let me go. Perhaps it had tasted enough of my flesh to know I was not its usual meal. Whatever the reason, it loosened its grip and descended to find more familiar prey.’
But Mr. De Gelder’s ordeal was not over yet – a ‘thick layer of blood’ pooled on the surface of the water and grew bigger with every second.
“Fortunately, I was in Sydney Harbor as a member of the Royal Australian Navy’s specialist diving unit, taking part in a counter-terrorism exercise which involved swimming around the warships of naval base HMS Kuttabul.”
de Gelder during his Navy diver bomb disposal training on a Sydney beach (photo below)
The former naval officer said he had been afraid of sharks since childhood but had learned to love them since the attack
“I had the presence of mind to hold my torn arm out of the water and above my heart to slow the bleeding as I headed for the safety boat.”
‘I saw the horror on the faces of my teammates when they dragged me in and then I did what soldiers do and made a joke. Then I closed my eyes and prepared to bleed to death.
‘I owe my survival to the nerve and quick thinking of one of the guys who stuck his hand into my leg and held my severed artery closed with his fingers until I passed to a battalion of doctors, nurses, service staff and blood donors who combined to save my life.
“Several operations later, I woke up to find I was missing half an arm and a leg.”
More surgeries, including a difficult decision to amputate the damaged limbs, followed, as did months of rehabilitation.
Fast forward to January 2024 and Mr. de Gelder just wrapped filming off the coast of Mexico for a new round of specials for Shark Week, the long-running and wildly popular programming block on The Discovery Channel.
Despite his ordeal, Mr de Gelder has become one of the leading advocates for the protection of sharks, which are slaughtered in their millions every year by the fishing industry.
The strange shift came after a producer asked him to take part in a documentary in which he faced his fears and went swimming with bull sharks off the coast of Fiji.
He described the experience as mind-altering with more than 150 sharks in the water around him, but none attacked him. This sent him on a journey to gather every bit of information he could about them.
In 2014, shortly after he left the Navy when he realized he could never go back to active duty, The Discovery Channel approached him and asked him to host a show on Great Whites. His relationship with the network grew from there.
He has also written three books – No Time for Fear, Uncaged and Shark – with the aim of shedding light on his experience, how he bounced back from adversity and what can be done to help the little-understood marine wonders.
In addition to his books and documentary work, he is also a motivational speaker, was a guest coach on The Biggest Loser and accompanied Hollywood A-Lister Will Smith and UFC star Ronda Rousey on shark swims.
He now lives with his wife in Marina del Rey, California.
The 45-year-old, who grew up in Melbourne, lives with his wife in Marina del Ray, Calfornia
De Gelder is also involved in scientific conservation work (photo shows a shark that was subsequently released)
In January, de Gelder and co-presenters of the Dicsovery channel finished filming a special about Great Whites off the coast of Mexico (pictured) for Shark Week 2024
“If you do to land-based wildlife what we do to sharks, you’ll go to jail for it,” de Gelder previously told The Observer of the fishing industry.
‘But because it’s invisible, out there in the deep blue sea, it goes unnoticed. Spend time with sharks and you’ll realize it’s barbaric and not sustainable at all.’
According to some research estimates, shark populations have declined by as much as 71 percent since 1970 due to overfishing.
“I don’t want you to stay out of the water. But if the choice in a particular hotspot is to eradicate sharks, or surf more, then I’ll save the sharks’ lives every time.
‘Shark attacks are rare and we should think of them as accidents rather than murders.
‘With the exception of shipwreck survivors, almost all victims of shark attacks are in the water because the sea is a magical place they love.
“Sharks are part of that magic and we must always remember that our guests are in their home.”