A moment can change your life—and a moment that felt as though it extended for hours rather than seconds on February 11th, 2009 changed Paul de Gelder’s life forever. The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week host, shark attack survivor and shark conservation champion is a force to be reckoned with; through his incredible story of surviving a nearly fatal attack, his inspiring come-back, and his determinedness, Paul took an incident that horror movies are made of and turned it into something filled with hope, purpose, and motivation.
Prior to the 2009 attack that claimed his right arm and leg, Paul found fulfillment as an Australian Navy diver, an elite position in the military. Before that, he found himself lost and unsure of his life’s purpose. There are many words to describe him: brave, charming, adventurous, funny; but fundamentally, his kindness and courage to never give up, never stop bettering himself, and never stop inspiring individuals to do the same, are what makes him unique.
The motivational speaker, television host, and author is not only someone who encourages people to reach their potential, but through his actions demonstrates that rather than being quick to play the blame game, it’s better to understand the full picture. So, instead of faulting his “shitty day at work” on the shark in the publicity that followed the attack, he instead decided to educate himself on the animal and grew to understand their plight, how humans pose a threat to their populations, and their role in balancing the ecosystem—ultimately, leading him into becoming a shark advocate.
Sitting down with Paul—and his gentle giant rescue pooch, Odus—we chat about the attack, his conservation efforts, and life.
How did you go from shark attack survivor to shark conservation advocate?
That was a slow process. All I really wanted to do after the attack was to get back to work. At that time, I wasn’t concerned about conservation or anything like that—that aspect came afterwards.
While I was doing interviews after the attack, the media was surprised that I never blamed the shark. I was only that way, not because I liked sharks—I was terrified of them—but because I chose a dangerous life. I was riding a big, black Italian sports bike, jumping out of aircrafts, and shooting guns. I recognized that eventually something was bound to go wrong and you can’t really get pissed off when it does.
The attack was so widely publicized that every time another attack occurred, the media would come to me for a comment. Out of necessity of not sounding like a dumbass on television and wanting to be able to give an educated opinion, I decided to learn about sharks and really discovered their plight. I learned how many are killed every minute, every hour, every year—and what for? A lot out of fear, a lot for sport, a lot for status, and a lot for medicines that don’t actually do anything. That’s what really bothered me—these animals getting killed for the stupidest reasons.
The conservation element grew over time. I did 60 minutes twice in Australia. On the second trip I was diving with bull sharks in Fiji because they wanted me to face my fear. Right at the end, it was just the guide, the cameraman, and me. I had been watching him hand feed the sharks the whole time and thought, I’m going to give this a go. They captured it all on film and it was an incredible feeling.
After doing a bunch of media, Discovery Channel reached out and wanted to do a show called I Escaped Jaws. They liked it so much they flew me to L.A. to do Shark After Dark. That grew into a co-hosting job and eventually into a working visa, development money for my own series, and three shows during Shark Week.
The real conservation push came after working with the incredible shark experts on these programs and being exposed to these remarkable animals. The first time I ever saw a great white shark was with Andy Brandy Casegrande, one of the world’s greatest underwater cinematographers. I remember so vividly seeing this great white off the back of the boat and looking back to see Andy zipping up his wetsuit. I looked at him and said, “you can’t just go in there—no one does that!” But in he goes. Watching him in there peacefully with this great white, I thought to myself, maybe the media has sharks all wrong.
Over the years I learned sharks are probably the only predator that could potentially kill us but will allow us to share their space. You can’t go to Africa and slap a lambchop in a lions face, it’ll rip your head off—same as hyenas, bears, and wolves—but you can go up to a shark, swim alongside them, feed them, put your hands on them, and they’ll allow it. It blew me away.
Sharks can’t speak for themselves and they’re being ruthlessly slaughtered. My role in the military was to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Now that I’m not in the military, that has transferred over to the ocean, the sharks, all the animals, and our beautiful planet as a whole. People like me and Andy and a lot of my friends, we have a job and purpose to stand up for these animals who can’t stand up for themselves.
You were on an anti-poaching team in Africa for Fearless, a show that aired on National Geographic. Can you tell us about this project and your experience in Africa.
Africa is an incredible place and I didn’t want to leave. I was embedded in an anti-poaching unit and the goal of the project was to expose the amazing work these rangers do. I went there and fully immersed myself. As soon as I landed, they gave me a five minute lesson on how to handle a snake and then immediately handed me a deadly black mamba—so it really was diving in head first. We then did some shooting to gauge what the poachers are using verses what the anti-poachers are using. Generally the anti-poachers are using single shot rifles against these poachers’ fully automatic AKs and elephant guns. It was incredible to see the sacrifice these guys make to help protect Africa’s wildlife.
You’re a man who has worn many hats—from former Australian military, to ex rapper, to current motivational speaker and television host—what would you say you’re most passionate about?
Whatever I do I try and throw myself into wholeheartedly. I really enjoy inspiring people to change, to become more mentally determined to live a better life, to be driven, and to search for their happiness. I love taking people through emotional rollercoasters on stage. Making them cry, making them laugh. When I do the shark shows, I love inspiring people. Although I’ve been bitten by a shark, I can teach people that a great white shark doesn’t always want to kill you. Andy and I can swim with four of them without a cage and show people another aspect of life, living, happiness, motivation, and positivity—something they might not otherwise have had the opportunity to see.
Have you always had such a positive outlook on life?
Hell no. It’s really evident that the negativity you embrace in your life replicates throughout your life; whatever you focus on is what you replicate into reality. I was negative and depressed as a teenager and setting a poor example for my siblings. It just kept getting worse and worse and worse. I was replicating that negativity in my whole environment. It got to a point where I couldn’t take it anymore. My parents did lay a great foundation of believing in doing the right thing, which came to the forefront when I hit about 21. I didn’t do well in high school but I was very well read. I read all the time. I knew about this incredible world of adventure and I so badly wanted to be a part of it but I was stuck in a little town in Australia. So I left. That period did teach me a lot though. I think that’s one of the greatest things about going through hard times. If you look at those difficult situations as lessons, then you can turn your struggle into something that motivates you. For instance, one of the reasons I didn’t get addicted to my pain meds after the attack was because I already knew what it was like to live in a fog—with depression and no motivation. I always swore to myself I would never be that person again and so that was the motivation for getting me off the painkillers and nerve blockers. I used the struggles I had in my past life as a motivation to pull me out of it and bring me here—to this incredible life.
You’ve said that you’ve never blamed the shark that attacked you. This year you were a part of the Shark Week program Laws of Jaws, which reenacts circumstances of shark attacks to test how things might have gone differently and uncover the keys to survival. Being a shark attack survivor, how was filming this for you?
In the moment, I always believe I can handle any scenario I’m put into—which I guess is from my military training. But now, I watch it back and I think about it increasingly. I took Al Roker diving with sharks for the Today Show and got bitten on the hand. I was wearing chainmail but it was the first time since the attack that I had gotten bitten. It gave me a bit of a reality check. All it takes is one bite. I didn’t plan to get bitten—just as someone who jumps in their car doesn’t plan to get into a car accident. Sometimes those things just happen. But it made me think I’ve really been pushing the boundaries over the last couple of years and that maybe I need to be a little safer and wiser. Maybe this too is a lesson. I recognize I can still do everything I’m doing, but maybe mitigate the risk a little better.
Shark Week draws quite the audience, but as with everything, it also draws criticism. As much as it seeks to educate and instill fascination in people, it does utilize the fear tactic too. Do you ever worry this does a disservice to the underlying messaging of conservation that usually accompanies Shark Week programming?
Andy said something very relevant to this a few years back: You don’t film the greatest football player in the world sitting on his couch eating grapes, do you? You show him on the field, scoring a touchdown—and that’s what we’re trying to do with sharks.
The ferocity, the predatory nature, and the predation out of the water, that’s the stuff a lot of people want to see. I think the trick is to combine that with the science. A lot of people get onto Shark Week about this and what they fail to realize is that Shark Week is about everything to do with sharks, not just the science. This year we did a silly celebrity program which brought in a whole new audience that might not have ever wanted to watch Shark Week. Through this we were then able to teach by proxy and insert our knowledge to this new audience.
Overall I think they’re doing an incredible job. The whole team is. So many cameramen and scientists do a fantastic job behind-the-scenes teaching the me, the team and the audience about sharks, exposing these amazing creatures to the world. They deserve a lot of credit.
How can we get involved?
Think locally. Volunteer your time. There are a lot of conservation groups that would love your help doing beach cleanups and working at their fair stalls. Donating your time goes a long way. Also, sign the petitions, they make a huge difference.
If you could offer advice to anyone about anything, what would that advice be?
Something funny happens when you come as close to death as I have. You work out what’s important. My worst nightmare was sharks and public speaking; now they’re my greatest strength. When you’re dying, you’re not thinking about how terrified of death you are, you’re thinking about your regrets. All the missed opportunities and missed dreams come flooding back—and that is way more scary than dying.
So my advice is don’t waste time being sad, unmotivated and complaining about everything. Chase after the things that you really want out of life.
Keep up with Paul de Gelder on instagram @PauldeGelder.
For more lifestyle, fashion, and culture — follow us @HOLRMagazine.