TV

Paul de Gelder has gone from shark attack victim to Shark Week superstar

“I'm lucky to be alive!”

By Helen Vnuk

When Navy diver Paul de Gelder was lying in a hospital bed, in February 2009 after having his arm and leg ripped apart by a shark in Sydney Harbour, there was one thing he couldn't stop thinking about: his job.

"What I was scared of was losing my career in the Navy," Paul, 41, explains.

"I didn't really have anything else. I loved my job − I loved my life."

Paul never could have imagined, as he lay there, that he'd go on to a new career in TV and become known around the world for his documentaries about sharks.

"I live in the States now, I have a beautiful home and great friends," he says. "So I'm extremely grateful for all the opportunities that have come out of a really terrible situation."

Paul de Gelder lost limbs in a shark attack.
Paul de Gelder lost limbs in a shark attack.

Paul can still remember exactly how it felt when a bull shark sank its teeth into his right leg and arm while he was testing equipment for the Navy.

"It's like a bear trap," he says. "But instead of those big steel spikes, you've got 36 razor blades on either side. They move in unison in opposite directions, cutting all the way through the flesh, into the muscle, until they meet. Then they tear it out of your body."

Paul somehow managed to swim back to the navy boat, through water turning red with his blood. One of his mates stuck his hand into the flesh remaining on his leg, pinching an artery closed to keep him alive.

Paul's hand was gone and his mangled leg had to be amputated. But three months later, he was back in the sea.

"I just figured, 'What's the chance of it happening twice?'" he says.

Gradually, he reached the point where he was able to hand-feed a bull shark.

"I had to make my peace," he explains. "I realised the more I learnt, the less I had to fear, and actually how much sharks have to fear us. We're slaughtering them at an unprecedented rate."

Paul returned to the Navy, but eventually left to focus on public speaking and TV work. This year, he stars in three docos for the Discovery Channel's Shark Week. He's now working on developing TV shows with other networks.

"I want to make people fall in love with the world − and, hopefully, want to protect it," he says.

This year, Paul made his TV acting debut in the Foxtel drama Fighting Season. He's keen for more roles.

"I'd love to break down that barrier and show that even with prosthetic, robotic limbs you can be an action hero," Paul says. "Or a Bond villain maybe."

Although he describes himself as "super-strong", Paul still feels a constant reminder of the shark attack: a "phantom sensation" in his missing foot and hand.

"It never, ever goes away," he says. "It used to keep me up at night. I'd cry myself to sleep out of frustration, but now I'm used to it. I feel I'm lucky − and, honestly, I feel less pain than a lot of people who are unhappy in their lives.

"I get to live a truly happy life and I'm grateful for that."

Shark Week begins Thursday, 7:30pm on Discovery.

Here, Paul talks us through his three Shark Week docos...

Ronda Rousey Uncaged (Thursday, 7.30pm, Discovery)

Ronda Rousey and Paul de Gelder.
Ronda Rousey and Paul de Gelder.

Paul's a big fan of former UFC champ Ronda (below). For this doco, he trained the 31-year-old to hand-feed a bull shark and swim uncaged with mako sharks.

"There's a reason she's a champion," he says. "She listens and she implements everything she's told. That's why she came back with all her digits."

Bloodline: Spawn Of Jaws (Friday, 8.30pm, Discovery)

In search of great white sharks like the ones that inspired the novel Jaws, Paul headed to Long Island, New York.

"We actually pulled in a baby great white," he says. "I've never seen one that small before. It was cute as hell, but it was also very, very bitey."

Sharkwrecked (Tuesday, December 4, 8.30pm, Discovery)

To see whether sharks are attracted to shipwreck survivors, Paul and former Royal Marine James Glancy spent 48 hours in the sea. They had no food or water, and sharks were circling.

"I did it partly because I love a challenge and partly because I'm an idiot!"

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