The sun beat down on Florida’s Canaveral National Seashore, a quiet beach untouched by condos or civilization – just the way Debbie Salamone liked it.
The then-38-year-old, who lived on the coast as a teenager, waded into the water one August afternoon in 2004, floating on her back and jumping in the swells with a friend who enjoyed the waves nearby.
“I’ve always loved the feeling of the sea, there’s just some kind of energy that makes you feel so in tune with nature,” she tells PEOPLE.
That is, until a rare event changed her life – and love of the ocean – forever.
As she bobbed around in waist-deep water, Salamone saw a storm brewing on the horizon and began quickening her steps toward shore. Suddenly, she saw a big fish leap from the water next to her, and then another, when she realized a swarm of fish was escaping from something. Before she could understand what was happening, there, just 50 feet from shore, something clamped onto her ankle.
“I couldn’t see anything because the waves were breaking in front of me,” Salamone says. “I think my brain started processing what was going on, and I realized it was something very bad and dangerous.”
A blacktip shark had taken hold of Salamone’s foot. When she attempted to kick free, the animal bit down harder.
“I imagined being dragged through the water, but I remember screaming and falling down into the waves with my arms outstretched saying, ‘It got me! It got me!’” she recalls.
Suddenly, the shark let go, and as her friend rushed to her side, Salamone staggered to shore.
“I felt my leg folding over my foot … [as I lay down] on my stomach, I looked back once – I only had the courage to look once – and saw my foot completely shredded,” she says, “all the blood running into the waves and pouring onto the sand.”
Salamone’s Achilles tendon was severed without nerve damage, although “it came very very close to a nerve,” she says. After three months in a cast, she was given a walking boot with which she underwent physical therapy.
“My leg had shrunken down to the size of my forearm because all the muscle just went away,” she explains.
Salamone’s road to recovery proved more than physical. As an investigative journalist, she frequently advocated for conservation, writing long pieces on water issues and the environment. But the attack made her think twice about her mission.
“My friend, the one who helped me out of the water, and I were actually planning to eat a shark steak on the anniversary of the attack,” she says. “At that point you could have paved over half the ocean and I would have been okay with that. I felt betrayed.”
After months of reflection, though, Salamone came to the conclusion that the attack was merely an accident – and it was not meant to “derail my plans but to test me along the path.”
After earning a master’s degree in environmental science at Johns Hopkins University and serving as the environment editor of the Orlando Sentinel, Salamone joined the Pew Charitable Trusts in 2009, working with leaders in the United Nations and Congress to create shark sanctuaries where commercial fishing is banned.
Through the use of Facebook, she’s been able to get in touch with other shark attack survivors – including some who have lost limbs – that are looking for “the opportunity to turn tragedy into something positive.”
“Ever since then I haven’t looked back,” Salamone says of her turn to activism. “I have no doubt anymore that this happened for a reason.”