They call themselves Bite Club, and the first rule is to actually talk about Bite Club. It all began when a guy named Dave Pearson got attacked by a shark in 2011 and lived to tell his tale. But he wanted to hear other stories like his and create a support group for people who know exactly what he went through.
Here’s a group that might elicit some mixed feelings. One the one hand, it’s a club you never truly want to join, because come on: who wants to be attacked by a shark? On the other hand, don’t we all just wanna belong to something?
(And I will do my best not to make any more Fight Club references in this article)
Becoming That One in 11 Million
Although Pearson’s group has over 400 members, the odds of getting attacked by a shark are less than one in 11 million. That just goes to show how almost impossible it would be to find people to turn to when you become that dreadful statistic.
It’s not like people dream of joining Bite Club, obviously, but once you become that one in 11 million, you want to meet the other ‘ones’ too. For Pearson, an Australian engineer with a perma-tan, his attack actually changed his life for the better. “I got to see what I thought was my last sunset,” he said.
What He Thought Was His Last Sunset
As he laid on a picnic table while his friends administered first aid on him, he watched the sun go down and “thanked everyone for getting me as far as they did and realized I was about to pass away,” Pearson vividly recalls.
Back in 2011, Pearson was attacked by a ten-foot bull shark while doing what he loved to do: you guessed it – surfing. He was riding the waves of the Tasman Sear, near his home in Coopernook (four hours north of Sydney), on a new surfboard. He was satisfied with the waves he was catching and started to paddle back out.
What the —- Is Happening?
That’s when he felt something collide with his board. His arm was then clamped, and he was dragged underwater. He managed to pop back up to the surface but was then pulled underneath by a shark. At first, he felt no pain.
As opposed to touching something hot, he explained, where you can “register that straightaway,” this was different. He was completely taken by surprise; “all of a sudden your arm’s ripped open or your leg’s taken off” and your brain says, “something’s happening, and I can’t figure out what it is.”
Once a Surfer, Always a Surfer
At that point, it’s fight or flight: you enter survival mode. Pearson managed to make it to the shore and was then taken to a hospital. His arm was hanging limply from his shoulder, and he remembers a nurse asking him, in that state, “Will you surf again?”
He laughed in that moment. Who asks that right after someone gets attacked by a shark? But then again, he knew the answer: of course he would get back in the water. Luckily for this surfer, his arm didn’t need to be amputated. Within three months, Pearson was back on his surfboard.
Body? Okay. Mind? Not So Much
The good news is his body is still intact. His mind, however, didn’t fare so well. As it tends to go, psychological trauma feels heavier and lasts longer than physical injuries. “The thought of being eaten while still alive was the hardest thing to understand,” Pearson related.
“Once you realize you’re part of the food chain—not sitting on top of it—it’s really difficult.” But he found solace in the least anticipated way. In a happy accident, at the same hospital he was treated in, there was another shark attack survivor.
When Two Survivors Chat
The female survivor was attacked by a great white shark a week before Pearson’s incident, and it happened as she was dismounting her wakeboard. The two chatted, and Pearson couldn’t help but feel soothed by their talks.
“The similarities were so uncanny that we could finish each other’s sentences,” he recalled. Once discharged, Pearson started collecting newspaper articles about shark attacks. He then reached out to the articles’ reporters to connect him with those telling their tales. Some of the survivors happened to live within a few hours of his home, so he rode his motorcycle to meet them in the hospital.
The Birth of Bite Club
“I just needed to talk with others, because I felt alone,” Pearson shared. Soon, he organized a small gathering for seven shark-attack survivors from Australia. As a group, they visited the Sydney Aquarium to dive with nurse sharks, the sluggish kind that are mostly harmless to humans.
This experience of connecting with people like him who understood his burden was inspiring, and from there, he expanded the community to survivors around the world. Soon enough, Bite Club was born, and its members were encouraged to talk about their experiences.
Let’s start with Alex…
A Sailor Who Once Loved the Sea
Alex Wilton lives in San Francisco, so he’s surrounded by water. A sailor by hobby, Wilton loved being on an island. He associated the ocean with freedom – and exploration. But after his 2019 incident, he couldn’t look out into the open water without getting flashbacks.
It wasn’t something he could avoid – looking at the water – seeing as his daily route ran along the Embarcadero and under the bridge, which he had to cross in order to visit his parents in Marin County. What he once loved and felt comfort in was now too much to bear.
When He Used to Be Casual About Water
In March of 2019, when he was 32, Wilton went from San Francisco to Troncones, a resort town on the Pacific coast of Mexico, for a wedding with his then girlfriend, Asha Agrawal. At their beachfront hotel, the couple put on their bathing suits and walked out to the sand.
After cooling down in the water, Wilton wanted to burn off some energy. So, he grabbed his goggles, swam into the ocean, and headed south. This was pre-incident, when he would casually enter the water without thinking much about it.
Leave It to Jaws to Scare All the Kids
When he was eight, he watched the movie Jaws, which he said, “knocked him out.” For years, he couldn’t gather the courage to go deeper than where his feet could touch the bottom. A fear of sharks prevented from venturing out any further.
But as he grew up, he became more comfortable in open-water swimming, even finding it pleasurable. He liked to swim on sailing trips and vacations. As an adult he learned to reason his way out of his shark-influenced anxieties. The Silicon Valley product manager would control his anxiety through rationalizing.
What Are the Odds?
The one-in-11-million statistic depends on geography, how frequently you enter the ocean, and what activities you engage in. In California, a 2015 Stanford study found that people have a one in 738 million chance of getting attacked while swimming in the ocean.
In other words, the chances of Wilton being killed falling from a bed or by fireworks was more likely than a vicious meeting with a shark in the Pacific. But there he was, that day in Mexico, swimming in the ocean and thinking about how nice it was to be in the water with the waves flowing with him.
It Felt Like a Tank Crashed Into Him
Suddenly, something crashed into him, and it felt like a tank. His right leg was suddenly in extreme pain. Did a boat just hit him? What was happening? Just as Pearson described, Wilton just couldn’t figure it out in the moment.
He ducked underwater only to find the shape of a large gray and white shark a few feet away from him. He immediately sprang above water and gasped for air, trying to figure out what to do next. When he looked down at his leg, he could see that it was torn open.
Bobbing in Terror
He then saw the shark’s tail flapping through the water as it swam away. The shark took its bite, leaving his victim to bleed helplessly in the water. Unable to move much, Wilton was bobbing in the water, both legs pointed downward. But he knew he couldn’t hang around there.
He looked at the water around him in terror, knowing the only way to save himself was to swim to shore before he lost too much blood. And what if the shark came back for seconds? For the first time ever, Wilton feared for his life.
What Felt Like Hours
He made a swim for it, stopping twice to look back and scan the water for any gray fins peeping over the water. It was a struggle, to say the least, for him to make it back to shore, with his right leg dragging. But adrenaline is one hell of a pain reliever.
His nerves dulled the pain in the meantime, while his heart was beating wildly. It felt like hours but, in reality, it was a matter of minutes until he made it to the shore, letting the waves drag him there. As soon as he hit the sand, he called out to his girlfriend.
Back to Safey, but Not in the Clear
Agrawal was sitting on a beach chair when he stumbled onto the shore. Thinking quick, she grabbed her sarong to create a makeshift tourniquet and wrapped it around his bleeding wound. She got other tourists to help carry Wilton off the beach while she ran inside for help.
The hotel manager called an ambulance, but Agrawal told him there was no time. What she needed was for him to drive Wilton to the emergency room or he would bleed out. Once in the operating room, a doctor held Wilton’s hand and assured him: “You’re going to be OK.”
27 Stitches, and He Kept His Leg
The bite on his leg was merely a few inches from his femoral artery, which supplies blood to the leg. If punctured, it can lead to death within minutes. Amazingly, Wilton’s artery was still intact. Nonetheless, he needed 27 stitches. But at least he was going to survive with all his limbs attached.
Upon his return to San Francisco, he recovered at a surprising speed. After only week, he didn’t need his crutches anymore. He was walking and using a stationary bike in no time. But his head wasn’t in the right place.
As His Mind Wanders Back…
Sometimes, while showering or on his drive home from work, his mind would wander back to that day in the sea. He would see images and feel sensations from the attack: the impact, the shark’s body, the tail fading away, and the fear constricting his throat.
While he didn’t see the shark coming at him, Wilton would imagine the beast careening toward him, teeth long and white. According to the International Shark Attack File, in the year Wilton was bitten there were 64 unprovoked shark attacks… in the world.
Predatory or Accidental?
And there’s that dilemma again – when you’re an unlucky statistic and feel as though no one can relate. Andrea Roberts, a Harvard researcher, says flashbacks are a common sign of post-traumatic stress. “When we’re threatened, our brains tell themselves to remember the circumstance for our protection.”
Shaili Jain, a trauma psychiatrist, explains that how survivors interpret an incident can influence their psychological recovery. “If you feel like you disturbed an animal in their natural habitat, and then something went down, that might seem like an unfortunate accident but not a predatory act.”
Passive Creatures or Human Hunters?
Viewing it as predatory, though, can make recovery harder. For Wilton, his feelings were complicated. One the one hand, he understood the ecological value of sharks, but then again it irritated him to hear people portray the animals as passive creatures that only target humans when provoked.
He knew perfectly well that he hadn’t bothered the shark or lured it to him at all. He was simply in the water at the wrong time. Regardless of his perspective on the attack, he worked on his trauma for months, using breathing techniques to get rid of the mental images that plagued him.
Back in the Water
By July of that year, he was in a better place and gladly accepted a friend’s invitation to Lake Tahoe, California. They went a motorboat and Wilton had the courage to dive into the water and swim a few strokes. But it didn’t take long for his muscles to tense up and his heart to start beating fast.
He then had a flashback – the leg, the shark, the blood – and quietly pulled himself back onto the boat. A few months later, he went on a rafting trip on the Colorado River. This time, he wanted some extra help.
He Joined the Club
Wilton turned to a Facebook group that a reporter introduced him to after his attack. He had consciously avoided the group until this point. He just knew that they called themselves the Bite Club. He joined the group and was comforted by how different members were responding to their attacks.
Sharks happen to be one of the creatures that command the most attention. There are other wild animals, like bears, big cats, crocodiles, and alligators that are just – if not more – dangerous. In fact, crocodiles are estimated to kill more people each year than sharks.
There are more than 470 species of sharks; many are harmless, and all are more threatened by humans than vice versa. There have been estimates that people kill nearly 100 million sharks a year. Yet, around the world, sharks kill an average of four people a year.
When they do target humans, great white sharks often approach from below, rushing at speeds of 15 miles per hour, and tend to take trial bites of their target before going ahead and eating it (or swimming away if they’re not a fan of the taste).
One Third Have PTSD
“If you think of the evolutionary circumstances of how our brains developed, and the kinds of things that would be particularly traumatic, animal attacks would be high on the list,” Roberts, the research scientist at Harvard, explained.
Shark attacks are especially terrifying, despite their infrequency. A 2018 study at the University of Sydney was the first-ever study to look into trauma suffered by shark bite survivors. They found that one-third of the survivors reported experiencing PTSD in the three months following their attacks. Then, there’s the feeling of isolation.
The Boy Who Was Born Swimming
Most Bite Club members interact mainly through social media, but some, like 61-year-old Damon Kendrick, are especially engaged. Born in Zimbabwe to a swimming coach mother, Kendrick said he “could basically swim before [he] could walk.”
After moving to South Africa when he was young, he and his family were involved in the local lifeguard club. As part of his own training, Kendrick learned to treat shark-bite victims. And even after an attack occurred at the local beach when he was 14, he still wasn’t worried about himself. The kid was fearless.
From Once in a Lifetime to Twice in a Month
Kendrick remembers when, after that attack, an anxious girl came up to his lifeguard chair to ask if the water was safe for swimming. He told her, “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. It’s never going to happen again.” Three weeks later, that once-in-a-lifetime occurrence became a twice-in-a-month occurrence.
Kendrick was swimming in the ocean with other trainees when a shark attacked one of the boys in his group. Kendrick started swimming hurriedly toward the shore. As he was only yards from the sand, where the water was less than waist deep, he was pulled backwards and underwater.
Back in the Water, Minus a Leg
What was likely a bull shark had clamped down on Kendrick’s calf and shook him vigorously. The shark finally released him, but the bite it took was severe enough that doctors had no choice but to amputate his right leg below the knee.
The other boy, by the way, only required stitches. Like many other survivors in Bite Club, Kendrick found his way back to the water. For him, it didn’t take long. He got back into competitive diving, a sport he was passionate about before the attack.
“I Am a Dolphin”
Despite having only one foot to push off of, he has earned multiple national championships. He then took up equestrian sports, excelling in those, too. Eventually, he moved to Australia and fell in love with open-water swimming.
In Australia, he still competed in swimming, and, yes, he often thought of the sharks. In those moments, he used a technique that a former swim-competition rival once told him – to create and repeat a mantra whenever he felt afraid. His mantra is: “I am a dolphin. I am a dolphin. I am a dolphin.”
Becoming a Devout Member
Why a dolphin? Well, dolphins are actually known for their speed and ability to defend themselves against sharks. His mantra helped him and being in the water wasn’t too much of an issue anymore. But he still wanted to connect with other survivors.
After decades of healing from that early shark attack, he thought he might be helpful to others. Soon after he joined Bite Club, Pearson paid Kendrick a visit. The pair “got on like a house on fire,” Kendrick recalled. Kendrick also started making hospital calls on Australia’s new attack survivors.
Wilton Wasn’t So Eager
When there were survivors who needed to undergo amputations, Kendrick would tell them his personal stories of his athletic triumphs. “You’re no less of a person,” he would tell them. His main message was that they’re not alone.
As for Wilton, he wasn’t as involved as Kendrick. In Bite Club, with every new member comes a story, and for a while, Wilton muted the notifications, as he felt the constant updates on other people’s trauma was hindering his own recovery. There is actually something called re-traumatization, which can happen when one shares a traumatic story or hears the experiences of others.
Time to Ask for Help
Wilton was still struggling with his flashbacks, but he tried reconsidering his avoidance of the Bite Club. Eight months after his attack, he wrote a post to the group about his wish to get back in the ocean, but the harrowing images were haunting him whenever he entered the water.
And just like that, the responses started flooding in. Pearson suggested he take small swims, even if it’s only in a pool, as a way to retain his mind. (The brain is a muscle, after all.)
The Support Flooded In
Kendrick chimed in, too, sharing a video of a 12-mile solo swim he accomplished post-attack. He also encouraged Wilton to find a mantra. There was another member, a triathlete who was attacked during a training session in Orange County, who offered to swim with Wilton.
Taking his peers’ advice, Wilton decided to practice swimming in the Belvedere Lagoon on the border of San Francisco Bay. Funnily enough, the lagoon sits on the town of Tiburon, which means “shark” in Spanish. Wilton couldn’t help but note the irony.
What Doesn’t Kill You…
The first few times were shaky, as Wilton had to stop to collect himself. The water unnerved him, and it didn’t help that white boys were bobbing in the water. When he got too scared, he would stand, remove his goggles and watch residents paddle board nearby.
This ritual helped keep him grounded and quelled the flashbacks while in the water. After a few months of this practice, he graduated to less protected waters. He decided to push himself even further. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, right?
A One-Mile Swim Across the Bay
One day in November, Wilton was going to embark on a one-mile swim across Richardson Bay to Belvedere Island. Wilton’s father, John, put it plainly: “Alex was attacked by a shark, and this is his first time back in the ocean. We’re going to kayak next to him as he swims.”
Wilton wasn’t alone, though; he had three swimming companions with him – friends from childhood, college, and business school. As they put on their wetsuits, Wilton thought of something Kendrick told him the previous day. “It’s okay to feel things like apprehension, excitement, fear,” Kendrick wrote to him.
One Last Huddle
Kendrick added: “Know that I am right there beside you in spirit.” Before they dipped in, Wilton gathered his friends in for a mini huddle. He thanked them for their support and made sure they knew that even though he hoped to finish the swim, he didn’t want them to feel uncomfortable.
If anyone got too cold, scared, or tired, they should simply speak up. “This experience is a first for all of us,” he announced in the huddle. His mother, Deborah, told him, “Stay close, OK?” while his father commanded, “Don’t die.” Such a dad…
Traffic in the Bay
The water was cold, but Wilton broke into a speedy freestyle stroke; his friends rushed to keep up. When they got to the point of the channel where the boats travel to reach the wider San Francisco Bay, Wilton was wary of stopping for the oncoming traffic.
“Alex is motivated to do it as quickly as he can,” Wilton’s dad explained at that moment from the back of the kayak. Wilton’s friend, Erik Osterholm, was right by his side. After about 15 minutes, the guys regrouped, bobbing in the water.
The Bay Has Its Sharks
When he was sure his son was out of earshot, Wilton’s father whispered, “The scary part is there are sharks in the bay.” A flock of seabirds landed on the water close to the swimmers. “I wish those birds weren’t so close. That’s a fish run,” Wilton’s dad said.
“You don’t want to swim through that.” Baitfish can attract large predatory fish. So, he directed his kayak between the birds and the swimmers. “Stay on the left side of my boat,” he shouted out to the guys. A fishing boat was making its way towards the birds.
“I’m not psyched about that fishing boat,” Wilton declared, panting to catch his breath. Fishermen themselves can also attract larger fish. John then urged them to keep moving as seals were starting to appear on the bay, too.
They started swimming again, quicker than before. They were a few minutes away from land. Later, after the adrenaline rush subsided, Wilton sat down at his computer and wrote a message of gratitude to the Bite Club. He was now an involved and appreciative member of the group.
Bite Club eventually reached over 370 people, from Germany to Florida, and with shark attacks – although rare – continuing to occur, the number will surely grow. In the group, which is private, members relate their flashbacks as well as celebrate each other’s “shark-a-versaries” — the dates of their attacks.
They also call them “new birthdays” as they received a second chance at life on these days. Members also like to compare scars, both physical and emotional, and explain how their attacks changed their relationships with themselves and others.