Paul de Gelder's Incredible Journey After a Navy Diver Shark Attack

From Prey to Protector – Paul de Gelder’s Incredible Journey After a Navy Diver Shark Attack

Written By Kayli Wouters Writer BS Environmental Management

Last Updated On

The Life-Changing Event

Sydney Harbour, February 11, 2009. 

On this day, Paul de Gelder’s life changed forever. 

In the middle of a routine swim exercise at dawn, Paul was halfway back to the training boat when a 9-foot bull shark suddenly gripped his right side, biting into his thigh and his right hand. Fighting for his life, dragged underwater and out of air, Paul thought this was the end. 

But just when he gave himself up to the shark, it released him and swam away. At that moment, Paul’s military and medical training kicked in, and he swam back to the boat, with one arm and one leg. He was helped up, kept alive, and rushed to the hospital by his army mates and paramedics. 

Little did he know that this life-altering event was the spark that would later burst into a passion and dedication towards environmental conservation and advocacy for the worldwide protection of sharks.

Paul de Gelder's Incredible Journey After a Navy Diver Shark Attack

Pre-Military Adventures

Paul de Gelder grew up near Melbourne and struggled as a child in the Australian suburbs. He spent a lot of his time by the ocean and in the water, however, he was always terrified of sharks. In his early adulthood, he worked various different jobs and struggled with finding a true purpose. 

This changed when he joined the Australian Defence Forces. First as an army paratrooper, next as a peacekeeper in East Timor, and then joining the Australian Navy as a clearance diver, resulting in the incident that altered his life forever.

Shark Attack Recovery, and Advocacy

Following the incident in Sydney Harbour, Paul spent two months recovering in hospital. Determined to go back to his role within the Navy, he was back to full-time employment 6 months later. This, however, did not last long. 

Paul’s encounter with the bull shark sparked a drive in him to understand and learn more about sharks, at first just so that he would know what to say when being interviewed on TV. This grew into a genuine interest and passion for the conservation of the species. 
in 2012 Paul left the Navy and began his journey in public speaking and shark conservation advocacy. Working to educate the public on the importance of marine ecosystems and sharks specifically, Paul has since engaged with schools, organizations, government bodies, and the United Nations. He has become an icon in shark conservation. Losing limbs to a shark inspired Paul de Gelder to study these creatures and understand their threats. He turned his tragedy into mission, believing his journey could inspire global change in how we perceive sharks, which are more harmed by humans than we realize.

Media Presence and Shark Week

Paul’s most iconic endeavors include collaborating on shark documentaries and co-hosting the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. In these documentaries, he can be seen diving with different types of sharks that are generally thought to be ‘aggressive’. He wants to show the public that sharks are not aggressive if we follow a respectful code of conduct. Through his work, he aims to correct misconceptions and reintroduce sharks as peaceful, beautiful animals that deserve protection.

Beyond retelling the shark attack, Paul de Gelder is an inspiring public speaker on accepting change, overcoming adversity, and turning fears into strengths. He has delivered powerful talks at prestigious venues, including the United Nations in New York, the US Navy in San Diego, and numerous corporate and charity events worldwide.

Furthermore, he has also authored several books: 

Shark: Why We Need to Save the World’s Most Misunderstood Predator – A book about the importance of sharks in our marine ecosystem and why their existence is vital for the health of our planet. 

No Time for Fear: How a Shark Attack Survivor Beat the Odds – A story of Paul’s survival through life. 

Uncaged: Soldier, Survivor, Shark Guy – An autobiography of Paul de Gelder’s life, from days in the military to now being a motivational speaker. 

Big Red Bruce: The Kangaroo Who Lost His Tail – The first book in a series to come aimed at helping children learn and deal with emotional, social, and physical issues.

FAQs about Paul de Gelder:

Was Paul de Gelder a Navy SEAL?

No, as Navy SEALs are Americans. He was a clearance diver for the Royal Australian Navy, conducting underwater bomb disposals, counterterrorism training, and maritime tactical operations. 

What kind of shark bit Paul de Gelder?

Paul de Gelder was bitten by a 9-foot-long bull shark in Sydney Harbour. As a result of the incident, Paul lost part of his right arm and leg.

How long was Paul de Gelder in the hospital? 

Paul de Gelder was held in the hospital for two months. After extensive rehabilitation, he returned to full-time Navy service only six months after the incident. 

What does Paul de Gelder do now?

Paul de Gelder is now a prominent shark conservation advocate. He shares his experience, story, and knowledge of sharks to spread awareness of their importance as a key species in the marine ecosystem. Paul does this through public and motivational speaking, working with environmental organizations, and education programs, and through his own books and social media platforms.

What happened to Paul on Shark Week?

Paul de Gelder hosts documentaries for the Discover Channel’s Shark Week, where he shares his knowledge about sharks. He takes people diving with sharks to win over their fear and to demonstrate that sharks are not the killing machines we have been led to believe.

What was the greatest shark attack in history?

The largest shark attack recorded in history is that of the USS Indianapolis, a heavy cruiser that sank in 1945. Out of a crew of 900 left stranded in the ocean, only about 300 were still alive when rescuers found them four days later. Many of the sailors died of starvation, dehydration, salt poisoning, and shark attacks. Estimates for the number of people taken by sharks range from a few dozen up to 150 – it is impossible to know for certain.

Final Thoughts

An unprovoked shark attack changed Paul de Gelder’s life forever. Since then, he has dedicated his life to inspiring others to never give up on themselves and to learn about sharks so they can be protected. 

His incredible survival story, resilience, and compassion for the animal that nearly took his life are truly remarkable. He is more than an inspiration to us at The Reef and Shark Collective; he is an Ocean Hero. Let’s join his call for shark education and protection so that more people can enjoy the ocean without fearing them.