10 Terrifying True-Life Shark Attack Survival Stories

Maybe it was Steven Spielberg’s 1975 opus, Jaws, that started our fascination with sharks, but they’ve long held a spot in our collective nightmares as the ubiquitous leviathan beneath the murky surface of the world’s oceans.

The idea of a monolithic fin trolling through the water conjoined with music that crescendos as the fin swoops towards us has become a universal symbol for danger, even danger that has nothing to do with sharks.

Mostly this sort of fear is the stuff of fantasy, but for one group it’s a stark (shark) reality.

Surfers spend all their time in the ocean, and that means a lot of time with popular culture’s favorite oceanic villain.

Even though shark attacks aren’t very common, when they do attack, without provocation, it’s often surfers who feel their bites.

Surfers paddle their boards on the surface of the water, largely oblivious to the swift creature plotting dinner plans just a few meters beneath them. A surfers board can resemble the seals that many predatory sharks hunt.

Look at this annotated list of shark attacks along the Pacific Coast from 2000-present.

Surfing is the most popular activity listed–by a landslide. With shark attack incidents rising 25% globally between 2009-2010, surfing isn’t just a battle with the waves.

All is not lost as most shark attack victims survive.

Unfortunately, some are not so lucky, but the surfers that have lived through such an ordeal should be commended for their toughness.

Below are 10 surfers who survived shark attacks that bear no resemblance to the special effect-laden blitz of cinematic shark lore because they’re real, and so the stories of survival are that much more acute.

Bethany Hamilton

Location: Kauai, Hawaii – North Shore

On Halloween morning in 2003, Bethany Hamilton was resting atop her surfboard in Kauai, Hawaii surf heaven, the North Shore.

Suddenly a gray blur swam up to her and took her left arm clean off from below her elbow.

She would tell CNN later:

My left arm was laying in the water and my other arm was just holding on to my board and the shark, just, like came up and attacked me and it, kind of pulled me back and forth. It was about a two- to three-second period and when it…was attacking me all I saw was like a gray blur.

Bethany Hamilton

At the time, she was only 13, but she used her right arm to paddle to the shore where her friend’s father made a tourniquet with the surfboard leash.

The tourniquet probably saved her life because she ended up losing around 70% of her blood that day.

She survived the ordeal after taking her father’s spot (he had been scheduled for knee surgery that day) on the operating table at the Wilcox Memorial Hospital.

That isn’t the end of Bethany’s story though.

Within months of the attack, she was back on her board, and the next year she placed 5th in the National Surfing Championships.

Her placing was enough to secure a spot on the U.S. National Surfing Team. She wrote a book about the ordeal, Soul Surfer, and won Teen Choice and ESPY awards as a result of her incredible perseverance in the face of such horror.

Soul Surfer was turned into a docudrama feature film. She performed all the one-armed surfing stunts seen in the movie and continues to surf competitively even today.

They eventually caught the shark that took her arm.

Todd Endris

Location: Monterey Bay, California — Marina State Beach

It was August of 2007 when the strange narrative of Todd Endris’ brush with death took place. Endris went surfing only a couple of miles from his apartment near the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.

The ocean area is quite large, but it includes the portentously named Red Triangle known for attracting great white sharks especially during the feeding months between August and November.

As Endris waded into the water that day, he saw a group of dolphins frolicking playfully not far from where he and friend, Brian Simpson, were headed.

After catching a wave, Endris pulled up on his board 75 yards from shore to catch his breath.

That’s when he was catapulted 15 feet in the air from a massive force below his board. He landed head-first and knew there was only one thing with the power to do that.

He struggled to find his board and climbed back on to get to shore, but the great white came again and clamped its massive jaw along his back. 

Endris hit the shark repeatedly in the snout, but as he told Reader’s Digest later:

It was like punching a Chevy Suburban covered with sandpaper.

The shark moved his hold from Endris’ back to his leg.

Eventually, with dolphins jumping over and around the scene, the shark, still thrashing, rose again out of the water and let him go.

Endris swears he saw the dolphins form a protective wall around him after the great white let go the second, and final, time.

A fellow surfer helped him ashore.

Quick-thinking surfers at the beach called 911 after tying a board leash around his leg as an improvised tourniquet to help stop the bleeding and emergency personnel helicoptered him to a trauma unit in Santa Clara.

“He looked like an emery board,” says Maria Allo, MD, who oversaw Endris’ care.

We used a couple of gallons of saline to get the sand off his muscles and skin. The shark’s teeth had nearly punctured one of Endris’s lungs and had missed his aorta by two millimeters. He had lost half of his blood and required more than 500 stitches and 200 staples to close the deep gashes.

Maria Allo – Trauma Dr. who treated Todd Endris

After spending 6 days in a pain-killer haze, he went home but awoke during repeated nightmares about the hard-charging great white.

Eventually, he settled on the bright spots from that horrible day.

“A lot of things came together to pull me through,” he says. “The guys who rushed to help, the dolphins – they all saved my life.”

Bill O’Leary

Location: Off the Gold Coast of Australia

20 year-old Bill O’Leary was surfing off Australia’s Gold Coast on March 20, 2012. He had the awful misfortune to fall off his board and land directly on a shark.

O’Leary was attempting a surfing maneuver known as a “floater” when he fell.

It is believed to be a bull shark, and the shark didn’t take kindly to O’Leary’s inadvertent interruption.

The bull shark retaliated and bit O’Leary’s left leg with such force, it penetrated his Achilles tendon right down to the bone.

There was a second bite that extended down to his ankle, also bone-deep. The lacerations were pouring blood when O’Leary managed to escape and pull himself to safety on Nooby Beach.

Onlookers at the beach included his friend’s father, Noel Kolkka. Kolkka, along with lifeguards that had already sounded the alarm that a shark was in the area, did their best to stop the bleeding before he was airlifted to the hospital. 

He received surgery for the bites the next morning. A close call and the worst fall of O’Leary’s surfing life, we’d imagine.

All three surfers survived, and all three should be applauded for their fortitude for overcoming something most of us just have nightmares about.

Rodney Fox

Location: Aldinga Beach, 50km South of Adelaide

Rodney Fox shark attack survivor

If the name Rodney Fox seems familiar, it’s no wonder, since this man is famous for being a shark attack survivor.

In 1963, the champion spearfisher was swimming in the ocean off Aldinga Beach when all of a sudden, he was attacked by none other than a great white shark!

The shark got a hold of him and violently pulled him into the middle of the ocean. While some people would immediately start to panic, Fox decided he wouldn’t go down without a fight.

He reached around the great white’s head and attempted to gouge out its eyes. The attempt worked, and the shark seemingly let him go, but the fight was far from over.

In an effort to push the shark away, Fox’s arm was caught in the shark’s mouth! Thinking the shark wouldn’t be able to bite him if he grabbed it’s back, Fox held on for dear life.

He soon realized he was running out of breath! It was now or never! He quickly let go of the shark and swam to the surface.

He only had time to take a few breaths before the shark bit into Fox’s fish float, dragging him underwater for the second time.

Miraculously, the line snapped. A nearby boat happened to see all the blood and managed to grab Fox out of the water and drive him to safety.

It’s safe to say that after that, Fox’s life had forever changed. But, even after needing more than 360 stitches all over his body, he didn’t let that event ruin his love for the ocean.

Fox became dedicated to helping people gain a better understanding of sharks and their importance for our planet. He even went on to become a consultant on the set of Jaws!

James Grant

Location: Colac Bay, South Island, New Zealand

James Grant, a doctor from New Zealand

James Grant truly gives new meaning to the phrase as cool as a cucumber.

This junior doctor was out spearfishing near Colac Bay in New Zealand with a few friends when all of a sudden, he felt something tug on his leg.

At first, he thought one of his friends was playing a dumb joke on him. He turned to tell off the culprit. But there was no one there!

He instantly knew he was dealing with a shark. Instead of being terrified, he was slightly agitated. 

The first thing that came to his mind was to stab it. He already had his knife handy, so he went for it. Sure enough, the shark let go of his leg.

Grant bolted to shore and took off his wetsuit to examine the damage. His leg had bites that were up to 5 cm long and required stitches.

According to Grant, he had two options. He could either go to the hospital and seek medical treatment, or he could stitch up his leg on his own, and pop to the pub for a beer.

Like a real-life Aquaman, Grant decided to go for the latter.

Obviously, Grant visited the hospital afterward in order to get proper stitches, but this story is pretty fascinating nonetheless!

Nicole Moore

Location: Cancún, Mexico

Nicole Moore survivor of shark attack

Nicole Moore was on vacation in Mexico with some friends when her life took an unexpected turn. She had just finished playing volleyball and was relaxing in the warm water. Since it was around lunchtime, the beach was pretty much empty.

After a while, Moore saw two people riding a jet ski, and (seemingly) waving at her. They were also yelling at her.

Unfortunately, the people were speaking Spanish, and Moore couldn’t understand them. The jet skiers had spotted two bull sharks near shore and were trying to warn her.

They had tried to scare them away, but they only managed to drive one-off. Unfortunately, the other one was far more persistent.

Before she knew what was happening, Moore felt sharp teeth digging into her left thigh. The shark’s teeth were so sharp that they tore her flesh down to the bone. Moore lost over a foot of skin and muscle, and a lot of blood.

As Moore recalls, her adrenaline kicked in, and she felt no pain. However, she knew she had to get out of the water immediately. Since her left leg was now useless, she could only use her hands.

As Moore was struggling to get to shore, the shark grabbed her left arm and started to drag her underwater. Instead of losing hope, she decided to fight back with all the power she had left.

Using her right fist, Moore smashed the shark’s nose and the creature mercifully let go.

The jet skiers rushed to her aid and pulled her to shore. But the fight was far from over.

It took eight hours to pump her body with enough blood to keep her alive, and several surgeries to get her stable, but Nicole Moore had survived the shark attack.

After the attack, it took a while for her to mentally cope with what happened. But, in the end, she got through it like a champion.

Nicole now works with organizations that support survivors of shark attacks, as well as organizations that work towards conserving the world’s shark population.

Henri Bource

Location: Lady Julia Percy Island, Australia

Henri Bource with a picture of a shark

Getting attacked by a shark is scary enough, but imagine capturing the attack on tape?

Henri Bource was a 25-year-old amateur photographer and filmmaker at the time of the attack. Bource, along with two divers, was in the ocean diving, playing with some seals, and shooting an amateur film.

After a while, the seals started disappearing into the ocean, and the water became eerily silent.

Bource and the other divers dove into the ocean in search of the seals, but couldn’t find them. As they were coming up to the surface, Bource was grabbed and pulled through the water by an incredible force.

He screamed for help before the shark dragged him underwater.

At first, he couldn’t make out what was dragging him, but he soon realized that he was the victim of none other than the great white shark.

Bource clawed towards the creature’s eyes, but to no avail. Finally, as quickly as it had happened, the attack was over. He resurfaced, gasping for air, and knew something was wrong.

He felt for his legs and immediately found out that the shark had severed his left leg below the knee.

The shark tried to attack Bource five more times, but the other divers managed to fend it off.

Before Bource entered the water, he was petting a dog on the beach. The scent of the dog may have attracted the shark to Bource.

There’s no denying that the attack was terrifying. However, Bource didn’t let it affect his life. He even used the raw footage of the attack in his documentary Savage Shadows.

Achmat Hassiem

Location: False Bay, off the shores of Cape Town’s Muizenberg Beach

Achmat Hassiem Paralympian swimmer shark attack survivor

Achmat Hassiem is a Paralympian swimmer who came face to face with a great white shark.

At the time of the attack, Achmat and his brother Tariq were training to become lifeguards. As part of the training, Tariq had to pretend to be drowning, which involved him splashing around on his back.

Achmat saw a shark approaching his brother and heroically tried to distract it. Knowing that sharks are attracted to sound, he began splashing the water. Luckily, the plan worked, and the shark left Tariq alone.

Unfortunately, it decided to go for Achmat instead.

The four-and-a-half-meter long great white shark managed to grab Achmat’s right leg and drag him underwater.

Achmat refused to go down without a fight, and he used his other leg to kick the creature in the nose. The plan worked, but the shark severed Achmat’s right leg below the knee.

A nearby boat saw all the commotion and helped Achmat get to shore. Once he was on dry land, he was taken to a nearby hospital.

Due to the severity of the bite, his leg had to be amputated.

But, this story doesn’t have a sad ending.

Instead of avoiding the water for the rest of his life, after the accident, Achmat started swimming at the Sports Science Institute of South Africa. He has since competed in the 2008 Summer Paralympics and the London Summer Paralympics. 

Michael Coots

Location: Coast of Kauai, Hawaii

Mike Coots shark advocate and survivor

Michael Coots is proof that when you love doing something, nothing can keep you from doing it. Not even a shark attack.

Coots was in Hawaii, doing what he enjoyed most — surfing. All of a sudden, something pulled him underwater.

As Coots explained, the shark didn’t just grab him. It swung him around like a chew-toy! Fortunately, Coots didn’t freeze in terror, but instead, punched the shark right in the nose. That’s when the shark let him go. However, the surfer’s leg was completely torn to shreds.

Coot’s then got back on his board and headed towards the shore. There was a crowd of people on the beach, and as soon as he felt the sand, Coots lost consciousness.

Coots woke up for a second as one of the men from the crowd was driving him to the hospital, and passed out again. Coots recalls waking up a few more times during the drive to the hospital, but only for a few seconds at a time.

After almost an hour, he regained consciousness, seeing that he was in the local hospital. After several surgeries, he started to regain his strength. 

Most people would vow to never approach a body of water for the rest of their lives, but Coots was back in the ocean three weeks after the incident.

Instead of fearing them, Coots respects sharks. He still swims and surfs regularly, as if the attack had never happened.

Brook Watson

Location: Havana harbor, Cuba

Watson and the Shark

The majority of famous shark attacks happened in the not-so-distant past. However, this one happened in the 1700s. Nonetheless, it’s still one for the books!

Brook Watson was only fourteen when he was attacked by a ferocious shark. The fateful attack happened in Havana, in 1749, and was later depicted in a painting by John Singleton Copley.

Watson was carelessly swimming in the harbor when the attack took place. Amazingly, the shark attacked him two times.

During the first attack, the shark ripped off the flesh from Watson’s right leg just below his calf. During the second one, it completely severed Watson’s foot all the way up to his ankle.

Watson’s trading ship crew pulled him from the water and saved from another attack. Unfortunately, the damage to his leg was severe. The doctors had to amputate it below the knee. 

On a positive note, Watson didn’t let the attack ruin his life. He even went on to work in the House of Parliament for nine years and became Lord Mayor of London.

Watson was the first known survivor of a shark attack, and the incident is forever documented as a work of art under the name Watson and the Shark.

About the Author

CM Burns
CM Burns
CM Burns has been a music video director, a cameraman for Nat Geo, has recorded ancient Tibetan chants in India and swum with whales in Baja, California. Currently living in the Philippines you will find him anywhere Adventure happens.
CM Burns
CM Burns
CM Burns has been a music video director, a cameraman for Nat Geo, has recorded ancient Tibetan chants in India and swum with whales in Baja, California. Currently living in the Philippines you will find him anywhere Adventure happens.
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