Shark attack turns victim into a hunter and then an advocate
Aug. 27, 2015
POMPANO BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Forty years ago, "Jaws" thrilled Al Brenneka like any other moviegoer, but he figured his chances of encountering a shark in the ocean were slim to none.
Until he went surfing and nearly lost his life.
In the decades since, he's come to accept his membership in the small community of shark attack survivors and changed his feelings toward the animal that bit him.
Over a year after the summer 1975 debut of Steven Spielberg's blockbuster thriller, Brenneka was 19 and rode one of the best waves of his life into shore at Delray Beach. As he paddled back out, something tugged on his right arm.
His arm broke the surface with a yellow face more than a foot wide attached — and gnawing into his elbow.
The lemon shark wouldn't let go until he stuck his knee into its gills. Amid his own screaming and the sound of his blood gushing from the wound, Brenneka realized how alone he was.
A couple of dozen other surfers had fled to the beach when the shiver of sharks darted beneath their boards. Brenneka said some told him later that they had seen "Jaws" — and it had made them too afraid to come to his rescue.
He lost consciousness at the shoreline and he was dead on arrival at the hospital. The average adult has about 10 pints of blood in his body — Brenneka needed more than twice that amount to stop the bleeding. He was in a coma for over three days, and doctors feared he would have brain damage, if he woke up at all.
He lost his right arm at the elbow. He still wears a sock over the stump to protect the skin grafts that closed his physical wounds.
For years after his attack, he thought the victims in the movie had it easy with their quick deaths — not long, painful recoveries like his.
"To be hunted and stalked, and then have something try to consume a part of your body, it sends a trigger in your brain that changes everything," he said.
He resumed diving and fishing, and his prey included small sharks he could turn into dinner for friends.
"Everybody's mentality was the 'Jaws' mentality. Everybody thought every shark was a bad shark," Brenneka said.
But in 1986, he reeled in a 200-pound hammerhead shark that he soon realized wasn't good to eat. Dumping the carcass back into the water triggered a change of heart: the shark had been far from shore and wasn't bothering anyone, so he had had no reason to kill it if he wasn't going to eat it.
"That's hard to just throw away 150, 200 pounds of meat. We had to do it with the hammerhead shark, and I really felt bad that I was killing these animals for no reason," Brenneka said.
Since then, he has advocated for shark conservation, helping with efforts to tag and release sharks for research. It was an easy transformation — to go from wanting to kill sharks to wanting to help them — because killing them was wasting valuable resources, he said.
"I felt it was best to not kill them out of revenge or anything like that anymore. It was more like, why should I even kill them when I could put a tag into them if I happen to catch one?" he said.
Fewer than 100 unprovoked shark attacks are confirmed worldwide each year, and very few are fatal, according to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History. But eight attacks off the North Carolina coast this summer made it seem like swimmers faced a bigger threat from sharks than usual.
One of those victims, Patrick Thornton, of Charlotte, North Carolina, would rather keep sharks offshore than help them.
A shark bit him three times on his leg, back and buttocks while he was swimming June 26 in waist-deep waters with his 8-year-old son in the Outer Banks. He cautions other swimmers that he didn't see the shark's fin until after it first bit him.
"I would tell them that no place is safe," he said. "It's just not safe right now. It's just been a very awkward year and you can get attacked at any minute."
That's not the message Brenneka and other attack survivors who've become shark advocates want sticking. They say: Get back in the water. There's more to learn from sharks than fear.
Brenneka's advice to the newest members of his unique community: Some anger after such a traumatic event is natural, but it's nobody's fault.
"To try and seek revenge against the shark is really wasteful. You can't blame it on the shark for what happened to you," he said.
Associated Press writer Emily Masters in Charlotte, North Carolina, contributed to this report.