Life, death and the power of perspective
One reader shares how witnessing a fatal shark attack changed her perspective on life and death.
In June last year, I witnessed something I thought I would only read about in the newspaper: a shark attack. They say you have more chance of getting struck by lightning than being attacked by a shark. I wasn’t attacked; however, my husband and I were the first on the scene at a Northern NSW beach where another surfer was attacked. Sadly, a three-metre great white shark took his life.
The experience was horrific yet humbling. It would have been more traumatic for the two men who paddled him into shore; one his friend and one a stranger. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the bravery of those men and my heart is still with them. Once the gravity of the situation sunk in, seeing the shock on their faces as we stood on the shore was probably the most harrowing part.
Even though I didn’t know the man who died, I felt a strange sense of connection to his life and then his subsequent death. Witnessing a soul leave the body and this physical earth is a surreal experience, especially when you’re not expecting it. I don’t think it happens instantly; I believe it’s a slow fading of an intricate being that drifts away. All the years it took to make that person who they are can’t possibly just evaporate in a second, right? In that moment, a profound sense of surrender took over as we accepted the fact that we couldn’t save him.
Acceptance for the things I can’t control is something I constantly struggle with in my life. I do know though, once we accept what we can’t control, there is peace. It just may take some time to get there.
The experience has made me realise how fragile our human bodies really are. Sometimes life comes down to a matter of millimetres; whether an artery is torn or not is the difference between injury and death. Our close friend Brett Connellan was also attacked by a shark four years ago in Kiama, NSW. However, Brett survived, making a miraculous recovery. We weren’t with Brett when it happened, but we felt its impact more acutely as we supported his recovery, which took many months. This recent attack mirrored Brett’s. Here we were again with another man going through a similar thing. Were we witnessing a second lightning strike? Why were we there at that exact moment? It forced my husband and me into deep reflection as to what it all meant. This was further compounded when three months later my husband was surfing at Queensland’s Greenmount when another man died from a shark attack.
As gruesome as shark attacks are, and with all respect to the victim of these events, I couldn’t help but think what could be more natural than an apex predator hunting for its food. I was witnessing a man dying in the wild — what would have been a normal event thousands of years of ago.
I am also pregnant, so having a life growing inside of me made it radically clear: you can’t have life without death. Everything is full circle. For the first time in my life, I didn’t look at death as a negative thing but a natural thing, the only thing that gives way to new beginnings. It’s quite bittersweet.
In a paradoxical sense, I almost felt privileged going through this experience because I have gained a rare perspective. The traumatic event instantly made the false illusions of life’s securities fall away. Nothing was left but a stark knowing that death is inevitable and that could have been me. And if it was, that is OK. Death shouldn’t be feared. It should be accepted and acknowledged, even when it’s painful. I was forced to face my own mortality, a lesson I rarely get.
We hide death in our western society and we dramatise it in the media, especially when the death is a result of an animal attack. What we should do instead is have open conversations about death. Respect death for the powerful force that it is and use it to make educated decisions about how to live, especially when it involves interactions with predators.
I swim or surf every day in the ocean, and I respect and own the risk I take whenever I enter the water. Now, though, I’m questioning our society’s connection to our environment and its fellow inhabitants. Are we overfishing the oceans and taking the sharks’ food source, messing with the delicate balance of the ecosystem? If we protect the sharks, should we be protecting some of the fish species, too? Are there more shark attacks in places where they weren’t historically common? Why did this great white act so atypically for its species and keep circling the men, bumping them off their boards as they tried to paddle in? Why did the shark stay in the area for such a long time afterwards? Why was it spotted several times that morning when it is an ambush hunter? Should we be more careful in the water at certain times of the year when many sea animals embark on the great migration north to warmer waters and then back down south? The questions are endless; the answers are opaque.
To find the solutions, we need a coming together of scientific research, policy, attention and funding to find solutions. We can’t fully eradicate the dangers of sharks we and shouldn’t want to. Still, we can control how we interact with such an environment and make decisions accordingly. We need to replace fear with education — then we can continue to enjoy one of nature’s most revered playgrounds.