It Was Just a Shark, An Interview with Rodney Fox, on Being Attacked, Surviving, and Returning to the Water, Part Two .
Q: After getting attacked by a great white, how did you eventually go back to diving?
Fox: After I was attacked, I went off power-heading sharks with an explosive head underwater. [A power-head is an explosive device that fits usually on the end of the spear and has a bullet for the charge.] I thought, if I could convince myself that this is a weapon I’m proud of or I can use, I won’t be so scared in the water. But we couldn’t find any sharks. Then I spoke to several shark victims — there aren’t that many around — and they hadn’t seen the shark coming. It doesn’t matter how big a gun you’ve got, or how good it is, if you don’t see it coming, if it sneaks up on you, you can’t deal with it. So I looked for other ways to look for sharks and to get my confidence back.
Q: Like what?
Fox: I actually became an abalone diver, a full-time diver in the same waters here, and I worked there for sixteen years. I was one of the first ones in South Australia. I made my living around these islands, where we still went out with film crews and found sharks. In over five to six thousand hours underwater, in my diving career, I only saw three great white sharks when I was taking abalone. I have no doubt that more great whites saw me, because your head’s down and your bottom is up. They weren’t interested in the abalone or us as a scuba diver, and yet I saw hundreds when you just put a bit more fish juice and blood in the water.
Q: You never got attacked after that first time?
Fox: In the early days of power-heading sharks, my friend speared a big fish. All these damn bull sharks came racing in, and we power-headed them off. We drifted well away from shore, and it was a long way back to the boat. I had only one bullet left. “Save the last bullet for yourself,” I was thinking. I think I’d seen some crazy cowboy film. Then this big tiger shark comes straight out of the sun toward me and I thought, “Bugger that!” And I went, “Boom!”
Q: How’d you end up in the business of filming great white sharks?
Fox: My shark attack dragged me into this business. The main reason was because everybody in the hospital didn’t talk about sharks. They said I’d be a good golfer and everything else, but they didn’t talk about sharks. Alf Dean is the world record holder — he’s dead now — for game fishing on great white sharks. In South Australia, he held four of the five records for great white sharks over one ton. He wrote to me in hospital: “Rodney Fox, Shark Victim, Royal Adelaide Hospital.” He said he thinks it was a great white shark of about eleven feet long and that I was really lucky that time. If I’d seen what he’s seen I’d never go back in the water again.
Q: When was this?
Fox: In the 1960’s. They were just beginning to explore the seas. Masks and fins and scuba had just been invented. We were sticking our heads under places people had never seen before. And I knew the world was made up of seven-tenths water, and I wanted to go back in, but of course I was pretty scared after the attack. And so I organized the first expedition to see what he [Alf Dean] meant, and have a look at my attacker.
Q: You just dived right in, so to speak?
Fox: [Points to picture of shark cage.] This particular cage is the first one I ever built. Three shark victims went out to spear, to look at sharks, catch them, kill them and film them underwater. That was in 1965. We made the first underwater film of great white sharks, with underwater cameras.
Q: You do these films for educational purposes, even after you almost got eaten?
Fox: They’re probably many things in the world that need help, but because of my shark attack and the number of people who ask me strange questions — that’s what I’ve focused on now for nearly forty years.
Science has proven we need the shark — they’re not very many, they don’t have many young. They’re at the top of the food chain. The food that they eat is the slowest, the weak, the sick, the ones with viruses. Something underwater we can’t do, so we should protect and look after them. It’s been a hard thing to keep that straight without getting emotional.
Q: Can you describe that time you were attacked?
Fox: I dived down and I was gliding along and I was just going to spear a big fish…. I knew I had it, I was so close, and its head was in the weed, and I couldn’t see it. As I was about to shoot it, this huge thump hit me in the chest so hard that immediately I thought it was a train, and then I thought, “No I’m underwater.” It was such a big thump, and it knocked the gun out of my hand, the mask off my face, and I was just hurled through the water faster than I could swim.
Fox: I thought, “What can I do to get out of its mouth?” Its eyes were probably the most vulnerable thing. My arms were over the top of it, so I gouged its head, and it seemed to stop. I thrust my hand out instinctively to push it away and my hand went over its teeth in its mouth. I quickly dragged it out before it could close its mouth, but I lifted it and — rrip — I ended up with ninety-seven stitches.
Q: Just in your hand?
Fox: I had ninety-seven stitches in that hand and four tendons cut, so I couldn’t use that hand anymore. I thought I’d grab the shark in a bear hug around its belly so it couldn’t bite me. I grabbed it around the belly and I held on, but I’m snorkeling and I’m still forty feet underwater holding my breath.
Q: I thought you were scuba diving.
Fox: I’m out of breath and my chest is bleeding. And so I thought, “I’m going to drown.” So I pushed off, went to the surface, took a big breath of air and I looked down. And the memory I have, this memory of looking down through the blood red water, which is my blood, and this great big head coming up with its mouth wide open — is the scariest one in my whole memory, because I had nothing to protect myself with. I thought, “What can I do, What can I do?” And I kicked at the head as hard as I could as it came up to bite me, its mouth wide open. I kicked at it, thinking that’s the only thing I’ve got. But everything underwater is twenty-percent further away, and so I just touched it with the fin, and not smashed it as I expected to.
Q: This doesn’t get better, does it?
Fox: Then it swam up and swallowed the fish float I was towing behind me, a buoy, with a piece of wire with two small fish, because I’d weighed in most of them and I was on my way up. It swallowed that whole and did a circle, tightened the rope to my belt — it must’ve thought something was wrong, and it took off.
As it swam down it towed me down and I’m spinning, spinning, spinning. So with my left hand — my brain knew that my right hand wasn’t working, and I ran my fingers over the lead weights trying to find the quick release and I couldn’t find it. I’m just about to gasp water, and the line snapped! The shark had actually bitten the line three-quarters the way through when it had bitten me the first time. [Laughs].
I couldn’t work out which way was up, and I remember as a leaf drops from a tree I remember just leafing up to the surface. When I got there I took a couple of breaths and yelled out, “Shark! Shark!” But it was an absolute miracle because we never had boats in these [spear-fishing] competitions. We’re all too poor. We just went off the shore and back again. Somebody had brought a boat down. They’d seen all this bright red water and came over to have a look, and I came up in the middle of it. They rolled me into the boat before the shark came back and raced me to shore.
Q: This is going to sound stupid, but did it hurt?
Fox: The fear of dying and the fear of having to fight for your life overcomes pain as we know it. But it’s a worse pain, the fear of dying. That you’re in really big trouble is something equal to pain. When I was in the boat and they picked up another guy and were racing to shore, I felt waves of pain that continued on for many, many, many days after that. But you know, it never occurred to me to give up, even though my lung had collapsed. I was trying to breathe through my right lung — [makes chortling sound] — and it was so hard. I hardly had any blood left, and I was weak, it was just — I just kept trying.
Q: What did they do at the hospital?
Fox: They had no idea at first about what to do and how to do it. There was so much morphine. I went on these incredible Mardi Gras marches — the colors I saw! Now that the drug scene is in and people have told me that they see these incredible colors I understand it, because I’d never really taken drugs until then. I thought the colors were so incredible, that if I could only remember them and reproduce them I’d make a fortune.
Q: Did you know it was a great white that had attacked you?
Fox: I didn’t know what it was at the time. We didn’t know much about sharks in those days. I couldn’t have named three or four sharks in those days. Sharks were sharks. It’s like saying, Religion or Death, or Hell or Fear. It was just a shark. I knew bronze whalers, we had a few swim around us, and a few of the little ones, but this was the King Terror himself. It was quite an introduction!
Q: Do you ever have nightmares about it?
Fox: I tried to sleep to disappear, because of the pain. I remember laying in the hospital, panting, just a little bit, because every time I fell asleep I imagined stretching my lungs, the crunch and creak, and all those bones and everything. I was strong enough to wake up during a dream and stop it. I’d think of other things. Like food, and what I’d do. But the only thing that was really strong enough was boobs — girls’ boobs, and sex and stuff like that. You can think about pretty flowers and cars or Ferraris. None of that was strong enough…. I don’t know if you should print it up quite that way.
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