She Was Attacked by a Shark—Now She Works to Save Them

  • August 13, 2018
  • by Debbie Salamone

Survivors have become some of the most effective advocates for the world’s sharks.

Pew Project: Global Shark Conservation

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After the Fact Podcast: Save the Sharks

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Debbie Salamone still has trepidations about wading too far offshore in the Canaveral National Seashore, but has spent the time since her 2004 attack rallying other survivors to become advocates for shark conservation. 

I was wading 50 feet off the Florida beach in waist-deep water, lulled by the waves and relaxed by the sight of my friend body surfing to shore, when a shark clamped on my right ankle.

Screaming, “It’s got me, it’s got me!” I kicked wildly. But the shark only bit down harder. I could feel other fish slithering between my legs and told myself, “Don’t seem like prey. Fight!”

After the first piercing bite, all I could feel was the pressure of the shark’s jaws tightening on me. I couldn’t see my attacker in the dark, breaking waves, but I imagined the predator eating my foot and was scared it would pull me under and drag me out to sea. As my blood flowed into the water, I feared it would attract more sharks. I kept shouting and kicking.

And then suddenly, after only seconds, the shark let go.

I pushed through the waves, stumbling toward shore; as the water grew shallower, it became harder for me to stay upright. I collapsed and crawled toward the beach. My friend sprinted over, scooping me up and carrying me to dry sand. The surf was stained red.

It was then that I had the courage to look down, and saw that my life had changed forever. My Achilles tendon was severed, my heel shredded. I figured that my hobby as an amateur competitive ballroom dancer was over.

Survivors have helped people understand that sharks have more to fear from humans than we do from them.

A nurse who had been enjoying the beach came running. She wrapped my foot in my green- and white-striped beach towel and held it high to slow the bleeding. Despite a looming thunderstorm that shot lightning across the sky, she stayed with me and held my hand until an ambulance arrived.

After three days in the hospital, I returned home. My glittery ballroom gowns hung in the closet. My high-heeled satin dance shoes sat perched on the shelf.

As I looked at them, I felt betrayed. I had spent years of my professional career as an environmental journalist—and this injury was my reward? The outdoors now seemed dangerous, not beautiful. As weeks passed, I found myself preferring pavement to beaches. I vowed to feast on shark steaks on the anniversary of my attack.

But even as I questioned my lifelong passion for the environment and my work for it as a journalist, I also found myself wondering if my attack had been a test: Was I truly committed to conservation? Could I reignite my love for the sea? The only way to know was to decide if I could forgive the shark that attacked me—and, more importantly, actually go to work on sharks’ behalf.

It took some time, but I came to realize that what happened in the waters on that August day in 2004 had to be less about me and more about sharks. They are under siege in the world. Tens of millions are killed each year, and their demise has severe consequences for the ocean ecosystem.

So I abandoned my plans for a shark dinner, became an environmental editor at my newspaper, and earned a master’s degree in environmental sciences and policy from Johns Hopkins University. In 2009, I joined Pew as a shark advocate and founded Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation—which has since become an international group of some of the world’s worst-injured survivors who have become effective advocates for sharks.

sharks

The survivors have helped people understand that sharks have more to fear from humans than we do from them. While about 80 people are bitten by a shark each year, at least 63 million and as many as 273 million sharks are killed annually in commercial fisheries. About half of all shark species are threatened or nearly threatened with extinction, and research has shown alarming ecosystem imbalances in some places where shark populations have declined.

Shark finning had been a major cause of shark deaths, and Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation worked with Pew to encourage policymakers to close loopholes in the nation’s shark finning ban. The group also urged the United Nations to protect threatened and near-threatened shark species.

And the survivors have spoken in favor of shark sanctuaries, where commercial shark fishing is banned. Pew has helped governments set up 17 sanctuaries around the world that span 7.5 million square miles—an area larger than South America. From Palau to The Bahamas, shark sanctuaries have not only proved to be good for the environment but also are paying economic dividends. A study published last year showed that sharks and rays contributed $114 million to the Bahamian economy in 2014 alone.

The survivors also have supported Pew’s efforts to encourage international trade safeguards for more shark species. In 2009, when Pew’s sharks work began, only three species had protection. Today, an additional 20 shark and ray species have safeguards through the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora—the world’s premier wildlife conservation treaty.

To help countries implement these regulations, Pew and a group of shark scientists produced shark fin identification guides and quick-reference posters for officials working at docks and ports throughout the world. Pew also helped provide shark identification training workshops to more than 60 governments in dozens of locations around the globe, including Hong Kong, where officials have stiffened penalties and increased enforcement of illegal shark fin trading.

Numerous governments cite a lack of scientific evidence to justify not having basic management rules for shark populations or comprehensive restrictions on the global fin trade. So in 2017, a Pew and Roe Foundation-funded study used genetic testing to analyze samples from more than 4,000 fins obtained in retail markets in Hong Kong, the global hub of the shark fin trade. The study identified nearly 80 different species and species groups of sharks, rays, and chimaeras, including endangered ones. Pew is hopeful that governments can use the new data to enact strong protections for any species that enters the global fin trade.

I returned to dancing briefly but eventually had to pack up my gowns and heels. Today I live mostly in sneakers. I’m stiff in the morning, hobbling around a bit until my daily foot exercises get me moving.

I’m one of the lucky ones in our survivors group. Others contend with prosthetic legs or arms, turning a walk up the steps or the ironing of a shirt into a struggle. Yet we take comfort in knowing the good that has come from our injuries. I’ve never questioned my life’s purpose again—and each of us in our group has his or her own individual story to tell.

But together, our story is so much bigger—and it’s made a real difference for the world’s sharks.