New lessons in surviving shark bites

A Bull shark roams the ocean floor. Photo: Nalu Photo.

It was ten years ago when Dave Pearson was attacked by a Bull shark at a quiet beach on Australia’s east coast. Dave was there with friends, surfing as he commonly does in his day-to-day routine. Pearson had just bought himself a new surfboard and was keen as anything to give it a go on this particular morning. He was paddling out when a shark swam towards him at high speed with its jaws wide open. The shark’s impact almost knocked Dave out, fracturing two vertebrates in his neck as it then came back to bite his arm, tearing the muscle on his forearm as he paddled forward.

Acting on instinct, he tucked his bleeding arm under his chest as he desperately tried to paddle to shore semi-conscious with one arm. As waves crashed into him and on top of him, Pearson swam for his life. He started to wonder would this be the moment he drowned.

“It was a funny realisation that I was about to die, I was okay about if for a bit. Then I thought about my kids and I said aloud to myself, not today,” Pearson says.

But Pearson got lucky. Two friends assisted him to reach the shore 150-metres away and saved his life.

“Without those two, my situation may have been entirely different,” Pearson continues. “I am pretty thankful that they didn’t get out of the surf but decided to give me a hand, especially when the shark was still lurking beneath me.”

Australians are no strangers to these attacks. They always make big news. Shark attacks are often plastered on the front pages of newspapers and run prominently on prime time news.

But what happens after the initial shock of it all? As well as the awful psychological trauma which sometimes never heals, people bitten by sharks often face a long and painful journey to recover from their injuries. But that could be about to change thanks to amazing new research into shark biology and amazing victim-to-victim support.

As victims of shark attacks are rushed to the hospital they are immediately treated with a large dose of antibiotics to reduce the likelihood of a potentially harmful infection containing bacteria called Virbrio alginolyticus and Proteus vulgaris.

Shark victim Dave Pearson discusses his experience with a post-attack infection. Video: Lainey Smith.

Researchers from Federation University in New South Wales are expanding new research methods to improve the medical treatment for shark bite victims. It involves sharks’ teeth being ‘cleaned’ for microbes which include bacteria in order to get more information on what antibiotics sharks are resistant to or becoming resistant to. Big sharks such as Bull sharks and Great White sharks are primarily targeted for the studies. The research originated in America in the past decade and is only recently followed up and developed in Australia. If successful, this new knowledge will allow doctors when treating shark bite victims to choose the best possible treatment to avoid a potentially life-threatening infection.

Dr Meagan Dewar is leading the research.

“We want to look at what microbes are there, what resistance they might have. This will allow medical practitioners to make informed decisions on what antibiotics might be best to treat infections,” she says.

The studies are set to conclude midway through 2023.

Dave Pearson, from Bite Club, is one of many attack survivors doctors feared might have a bad experience with the infection following the shark bite. He was told in the hospital there was a possibility he would lose his arm all together due to doctors being cautious about the risk of serious infection.

American shark researcher Catherine Macdonald is convinced the research can have significant benefits.

“The seriousness of these events depends on our actions and our preparedness for these infections. There are steps we can take to reduce the risks associated to people in terms of shark attacks without reducing shark behaviour,” she says.

The Australian research is conducted utilising SMART drum lines which have been used previously to tag and monitor sharks in New South Wales. The NSW Department of Primary Industries has installed 21 drum lines off the coast for the research and beach safety.

The drum lines are designed to capture a shark as it is tempted by bait. When the shark puts pressure on the line a magnet is released. This then causes a signal to be sent off, sending its location to the drum line operator. Once alerted the drum line operator and researchers take their vessel to the shark and retrieve microbes from the shark’s teeth with a swab as well as gathering samples from inside the shark’s mouth. The shark is then tagged and released.

But the use of SMART drum lines is controversial.

“Big smart sharks who have been around for a while don’t tend to take these baits on these drum lines. In the past they had to move the baits around in front of them to attract the older sharks. Great White sharks don’t tend to take dead, still bait,” says former shark tagger Rob Carraro.

Marine scientist Mathew Vickers believes fishermen, shark attack victims and mainly researchers need to work together to produce the best solution for research and mitigation.

Abalone fisherman Marc Payne who has lost five of his friends to fatal shark attacks was involved in the initial development of the SMART drum lines. His love for abalone diving has made him subject to many close encounters with sharks, often analysing their behaviour when around him.

“Let the researchers go out and learn about the sharks using research methods. Separate mitigation from research,” he says.

As well as prolonging physical difficulties resulting from shark attacks, victims often endure mental challenges. After Dave Pearson was attacked, he found there were few people to speak to who many have been through a similar situation. He craved someone to relate to and to speak of his mental difficulties following the attack including regular nightmares.

“No one talked about the mental side of what was going to happen after the attack,” Pearson continues. “You are all over the news for days it is all about you, but when you leave the hospital, the kids go back to school, the wife is back at work and you are by yourself with your dog and a handful of painkillers. I started to wonder if I would ever be able to work again and all kinds of things.”

Pearson speaks of his experience with nightmares following the attack.

“I would wake up in the middle of the night screaming and shouting, I had a recurring dream that I was on the rock ready to jump into the ocean and was shouting at myself to not go in the water.”

Because of those difficulties, Pearson founded Bite Club alongside fellow victim Glen Folkard in 2011. The pair decided to start the club after meeting up and sharing their personal stories.

“I just wanted to understand what I was going through. I reached out to anyone I could anyone I knew that had been through a shark attack that was in the media,” he says.

“I tried reaching out to people in high profile cases that had been involved in documentaries and Discovery Channel series, but they weren’t too interested in giving me answers.”

Pearson has continued reaching out to as many people as he can.

“I found I was beginning to find people who were in the same boat as I was, who didn’t have anyone to talk to,” he says.

“When there has been an attack on the news, I instantly call the hospital, introduce myself and I offer my number to the victim.”

Bite Club now has more than 400 members and serves as a peer support group for people who have been bitten by an animal. “We now have victims of shark, hippo, lion, tiger, bear, dog and more attacks,” he says.

Pearson tries to ensure that Bite Club serves as a supportive community for the psychological traumas and physical injuries following a shark attack, or any other animal for that matter. Pearson has always strived to include those who have not only been in recent attacks, but also attacks that happened decades ago.

Perth man Cameron Wrathall was approached by Bite Club after he was attacked by a Bull shark last year whilst swimming in the Swan River. Wrathall speaks candidly about his experience after he had to be resuscitated because of the amount of blood he lost as a result of the attack.

“There was a big pool of blood surrounding me. I knew then and there I needed to get back to the shore before I drowned,” he says.

“I didn’t know it at the time, but I died. I was dead for a few minutes before the paramedics performed CPR and bought me back to life.”

Cameron Wrathall sitting in front of where he was attacked in the Swan River. Photo: Lainey Smith.

As soon as Wrathall arrived at hospital he was treated with intravenous antibiotics to combat the infection.

“They were very concerned with infection, particularly being in river water where there are a lot of germs,” he says.

“I was very lucky to have responded to the treatment well.”

While Wrathall was undergoing his time in hospital he received ongoing support from people who’d had similar experiences.

“I had numerous visits from people in WA associated with Bite Club.”

As well as face-to-face contact Wrathall also received messages from members nationally and internationally with whom he spoke to frequently.

“It was extremely handy and interesting to hear of others’ experiences, treatments and to get an idea of what to expect going forward after an attack like mine,” he says.

” I am really grateful for having that resource.”

Bite Club continues to provide help to those who have been a victim of an animal attack. The club has been a supportive environment for members to share their experiences and hardship with each other and relate to one another. Some members have just recently gone through that experience, whilst others like Damon Kendrick are still moving forward from it almost 50 years later.

Kendrick was attacked 49 years ago in South Africa when he was just 14 years old. He was a surf life saver at his local beach when a Bull shark grabbed onto his leg from behind him and dragged him underwater.

“It is hard to put an experience like that into words, When I took the breath before going underwater it was like a certainty in my head that this might be the last breath I ever take, I accepted I was going to die,” he says.

Friends of Kendrick assisted him out of the water and his brother tied his surfboard leash around his leg where he had been bitten. He is adamant that if it wasn’t for his brother, he wouldn’t have survived that day.

Kendrick experienced an infection in the wound of his bite for two weeks. He now has large keloid scars on the back of his right knee as a result of the infection.

As a result of his attack also, Kendrick’s right leg was amputated. He says Bite Club has given him the opportunity to share his experience and guidance with recent victims and assist in supporting them through their recovery. He aims to inspire others with his long list of impressive accomplishments including completing the Rottnest Channel Swim solo in 2011, becoming a flying trapeze artist, and setting an unbeaten record in the Geographe Bay swim in 2011. Kendrick insists his attack does not define who he is or what he can accomplish.

Many members of Bite Club have had hard experiences with the resulting infections following the attacks as well as mental challenges. It’s a minority of people, but a strong community.

“It’s just like any other mental illness and should be treated the same as any other mental illness,” says Marc Payne.

Shark attacks are still occurring in Australia with 13 unprovoked shark attack bites in Australia so far in 2022.

Post attack infections remain a great concern for doctors when treating victims. They are hopeful more research into sharks can improve the antibiotics battling any infection and give survivors the the best possible treatment.

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