Australian paddler ecapes shark attack

The Australian paddler who lost the back end of his surf ski to a curious shark says he doesn’t want anyone to stop enjoying the ocean because of it.

Andrew Wheatley was out paddling about 1.5 kilometres off of the south coast of Upolu when he was lifted into the air by a sudden impact on the back of his vessel.

“I was going pretty fast, when I was lifted from behind, flung up and to the right,” he said.

He said he got back into the boat and began paddling back to shore as fast as he could, without too much thought to what might have happened, before he realised the boat was beginning to sink.

“I got on and started going and realised the ski was filling with water, so I just decided to paddle,” said Mr Wheatley.

“As I was paddling, I turned around and had a look and realised my whole tail was gone, right up until the running and worked out that whatever it was, it was quite big.”

Surf Skis are nimble vessels, designed to be damaged, he said, so there is a mechanism in place to drain water from the body of the boat as one paddles. 

With that on his side, he was able to make it back to shore. With his tail gone, the journey back was slow going.

“All I was thinking was that I need to make it inside the reef,” he said.

Mr Wheatley said he has been paddling for nearly twenty years, all over the Pacific and has never seen a shark out in the waters, or even considered encountering one.

“It was just one of those one in a million chances, and you never think it will happen to you.”

“I’ve known sharks are out there, I know I’m in their environment but really thought they don’t want anything to do with me,” he said.

Mr Wheatley said his biggest regret was not paying proper heed to basic safety precautions, which has been a lesson learnt – for him and all his friends who heard the story.

“Normally I paddle in a lifejacket, take a phone in a pouch and wouldn’t probably go out that far without going with someone,” he said.

“I suppose I went out thinking the wind was good, looked out and just went.”

Having a harsh reminder to stay vigilant about safety has been important, Mr Wheatley said.

“Yes, we do this all the time, and yes I’ve been doing this a long time but you just can’t get complacent with this stuff.”

After being bombarded with concerned messages as Mr Wheatley’s encounter travelled the grapevine, he decided to post his story and some photos on Facebook.

His story has been shared nearly 400 times, and his message is only spreading further, with cable news from across the Pacific reaching out to interview him.

But Mr Wheatley said while the shark encounter is exciting, his key message is about safety.

“Sometimes you can unconsciously incompetent at what you do because you do it so often, and I think basically that’s where I was, not thinking about anything.”

No one is invincible, he said, and we shouldn’t get silly, no matter how near or far the paddle trip may be.

Mr Wheatley said before he began telling his friends what he thought had happened to his ski, he needed expert advice.

He emailed the Australian Institute of Marine Science with photos, and within a few minutes heard back from a senior research scientist Dr Mark Meekan. 

He said judging by the triangular shapes of the teeth marks, it was “most likely” a shark, and by the distance between the teeth it was probably a large one.

For Mr Wheatley, the knowledge is not deterring him from jumping back in the sea, and he said it shouldn’t stop anyone either.

“They are not there to attack; they’re not interested in us."

“When they bite it’s because their using their sense, which is biting because they can’t see,” he said.

Sharks have relatively poor eyesight, and as they rise to the surface to fish their prey is silhouetted by the sun, leaving room for error with confusingly shaped vessels, said Mr Wheatley.

“The rudders on our boats flick like a fish… the conditions lined up where that’s basically what I looked like."

“He’s probably thinking tuna, or something big, and he got a mouthful of fibreglass instead. He would have spat that out pretty quick.”

Mr Wheatley said the last thing he wanted was to scare people off of going into the water because of a single shark.

“He was basically trying to see what the boat was by biting the boat, he wasn’t out to attack me.”

More importantly, sharks are a protected species in Samoa; Mr Wheatley said he hopes the new laws are honoured and that no one decides to kill shark in fear.

In March this year, Samoa designated a 128,000 square kilometere Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) would become a shark sanctuary.

At the time, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr Sailele Malielegaoi said Samoa had to stand together to safeguard sharks for the future.

“We will not sit idly by while the demand for shark products robs our future generations of these culturally, ecologically and economically valuable species,” he said.

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