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 3 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

This attack happened just last week. 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.

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