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Shark attack survivors to beachgoers: Keep calm and swim on

A number of shark attack victims are shunning fear and the urge for revenge in favor of understanding and conservation.

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    Al Brennaka poses for a photograph in Pompano Beach, Fla., Aug. 5. Mr. Brennaka lost half his arm at age 19 after being attacked by a shark while surfing off Daytona Beach. Despite his injury, Brennaka is one of more than a dozen attack survivors who have become shark advocates, trying to educate the public about sharks' declining populations and their importance to ocean ecosystems.
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It’s easy to understand the hard feelings that a person might have against sharks after been bitten by one, but a loose network of shark attack survivors is instead urging swimmers to get back in the water and advocating for shark conservation and research.

Organized by the Pew Charitable Trust about six years ago, the group has taken their efforts away from the beach by lobbying Congress to shore up the nation’s shark finning ban and by pushing for the United Nations to look at shark conservation at a conference about migratory species.

The group also participated in a study that used DNA testing to link vulnerable shark species to shark fin soup served in the United States.

Al Brenneka’s story is indicative of the change in mindset that the group’s members go through.

At the age of 19, Mr. Brenneka was on cloud nine after riding one of the best waves of his life off the cost of Daytona Beach in Florida. While attempting to paddle back to shore, however, he felt a searing pain from his arm and when he went to check it he saw a massive lemon shark chomping down on his elbow.

In order to escape, he had to knee the shark in the gills.

After being brought to shore, Brenneka lost consciousness and was declared dead on arrival when he was carted off to the hospital. After extensive blood transfusions and a three-day coma, he defeated the odds and pulled through.

Brenneka woke form his coma to find he lost his right arm at the elbow in the attack. And while his physical wounds were patched up with stitches and skin grafts, the struggle to mend his mental health was longer term battle.

"To be hunted and stalked, and then have something try to consume a part of your body, it sends a trigger in your brain that changes everything," he said.

After a while, Brennaka dived back into the water, this time hunting the creatures that had once hunded him. But in 1986, when he reeled in a 200-pound hammerhead shark that he realized he couldn’t eat, he had an epiphany.

What was the point of going offshore and killing sharks if the meat was simply going to waste?

"That's hard to just throw away 150, 200 pounds of meat. We had to do it with the hammerhead shark, and I really felt bad that I was killing these animals for no reason," Brenneka said.

That experience plunged him into shark conservation and advocacy, often helping to tag and release sharks for research purposes.

"I felt it was best to not kill them out of revenge or anything like that anymore. It was more like, why should I even kill them when I could put a tag into them if I happen to catch one?" he said.

For Mike Beach, the realization of shark vulnerability happened quite a bit quicker, actually almost immediately after being bitten.

Mr. Beach had been feeding sharks off the coast of the Bahamas as part of a tourism expedition and almost immediately, while still losing blood, he said he became concerned that the incident would be used to vilify the animals.

"People would villainize the shark and I would be made to look like the victim, and I knew that wasn't true. So, I tried to do whatever I could immediately from placing blame on the shark and immediately place blame not just on me but on the culture of shark feeding for the purpose of recreation or tourism," Beach said.

Members of the group that Brennaka and Beach are part of say shark conservation benefits coastal communities that depend on healthy reefs and fish populations for tourism and commercial harvests.

Less than 100 shark attacks happen annually worldwide, with only a small portion proving fatal, according to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History. But a spate of attacks off the North Carolina coast this summer has raised the public fear of the creatures.

Brenneka offers a message of forgiveness to new members of the shark attack community, even though he said anger is a completely natural response.

"To try and seek revenge against the shark is really wasteful. You can't blame it on the shark for what happened to you," he said.

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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