As an Australian Navy diver, Paul de Gelder is used to stressful situations, but five-and-a-half years ago, he faced one of his few fears right in the jaws. De Gelder was participating in a work exercise in the waters near Sydney Harbor when he was attacked by a shark. The diver miraculously survived the terrifying encounter, but the injuries from the attack cost him his right hand and leg.
Instead of letting the trauma keep him out of the water, de Gelder re-qualified for the Navy with his new prosthetics and began to study sharks. Now, the diver has joined up with underwater cameraman Andy Casagrande for the Discovery Shark Week special Great White Matrix. For the project, the pair dive among some of the world’s scariest animals to learn more about their predatory behaviors and what causes some sharks to go after people instead of fish.
De Gelder took a break from the frenzy of Shark Week to talk to PEOPLE and share his harrowing story, shark attack tips and what to expect from the toothy giants of Great White Matrix. Watch the brave diver’s full shark story in the video above, and read on to see why de Gelder is now defending the same animal that took his hand and leg.
Tune in to the Discovery Channel on Saturday, Aug. 16, at 9/8c to see de Gelder’s special Great White Matrix.
Since the attack, how has your relationship with sharks changed?
It’s changed in every aspect. Before, I was petrified of sharks. I was afraid of being anywhere near them. The big sharks, with the big teeth, which sometimes bite us – I was absolutely terrified of them, especially spending so much time in the water as a Navy diver.
Now, I’ve had the opportunity to go to the United Nations and talk about shark conservation, of all things. And that happened through an opportunity with PEW, who approached me and said, “Would you come and talk on the behalf of sharks?” I just thought, “Hell yeah, free trip to New York!”
But when they gave me the paperwork and the things I need to know about, I started to realize how important they are to the ocean, how essential they are to the ecosystems. They keep they oceans healthy. So I jumped on board and just continued to learn more and more. Now, it’s at the point where my name is affiliated with sharks and Shark Week. I get my own show to host with Andy. The sharks and I have become quite good friends.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about sharks?
The biggest misconception is that sharks are after humans, and that they want to eat us and are extremely dangerous. If people knew how much sharks were actually around us when we are in the water, they probably wouldn’t go in.
In the show we go to this place that we discovered was a great white nursery. There were great white sharks everywhere. The families that were going there on vacation coexisted with them. There were people going out surfing, and no one was getting attacked. The biggest misconception is that they want to eat us. We’re not on the menu.
As someone who studies sharks, what is the one thing you want to know about them that experts have yet to discover?
I wonder if they have a consciousness. If they are thinking, and calculating. Some of the great whites in the show, the big ones, were coming up to the surface of the water and doing this thing called “eye popping,” where they stick their heads out of the water and look at us. You could see the eye rotating, and looking at us, and taking everything in, and processing. So I would really like to know if they are cognitive, or if they are just animals going off instinct.
You said before the attack you were afraid of them, so when the day finally arrived, and you realized this was happening to you, how did you survive it?
A lot of things came into play that day. I think my medical training through the military – being put in stressful environments continuously – was part of it. The fact that I was super fit, and my body could function on lowered amounts of oxygen and blood, the medical training of my buddies, who did the first aid, all played a role. I asked the doctor, “Why am I still alive? How did I survive all this?” and he looked at me in all seriousness and said, “It’s because you have a big heart.” I think I was just extremely lucky to have all those factors combined on that one day.
Do you remember the exact day?
Yeah. I’ve talked about it so many times now as I’ve traveled around the world doing motivational speaking, that I relive it all the time. When I do that, I don’t just want it to be a blasé type thing. I want people to feel how I was feeling, so I give it all my emotion and relive that for them. It’s hard work, but it’s worth it.
Describe the most memorable shark adventure you had while taping your specials.
Besides the shark attack, and seeing my first great white, for this show Great White Matrix, it would be going to Fiji and diving for the first time without a cage with bull sharks. And hand-feeding a bull shark.
What did you feed it?
I fed it a fish head. We were filming for 60 Minutes, it was the last dive of the last day. It was only me, the cameramen and the boss diver. I wasn’t supposed to be allowed to do it, but we were getting called up and I was like, ‘This is my last chance,’ so I ducked in the bucket, grabbed a big fish head, and held it out there. And this humongous bull shark came through, opened its mouth and just sucked the fish head right out of my hand.
What do you do with your fingers at that point, when the shark comes up?
Your arm just retracts into your body.
What work with sharks do you have planned for the future?
I have a couple of offers for filming more shark documentaries, so I am looking forward to getting into that, learning more and teaching more. The more chances I have to get paid to go dive with sharks and have adventures with sharks, the happier I am.