A day at the beach: ‘It doesn’t hurt to get eaten by a shark’

In 2001 at Brooms Head on the NSW north coast, Mark Butler paddled out for one last wave – and was attacked by a bull shark

Every surfer knows that sharks live in the ocean. But it’s a bit like car accidents – you think it won’t happen to you.

I’ve been surfing since 1966. That day [in 2001], my son and his friends had been out in the water earlier on but luckily, they’d come in and gone, and I was out there by myself. There was no one anywhere on the beach.

I’d been out there for about an hour. It’s a funny thing, how life can revolve around just a little decision – that I thought, “Oh, I’ll just catch one more wave.” It was when I was paddling back out to catch one more that the shark hit me.

Mark Butler, shark attack survivor looks out over Back Beach on the NSW north coast, Australia
Butler looks out over Back Beach on the NSW north coast. Photograph: Mark Butler

I didn’t see the shark before it got me. It came up behind me and bit the surfboard. That saved my life because it bit on to one of the fins, which prevented it from closing its mouth on one side. That may have been the difference between losing my leg and just losing part of my leg – because as soon as the shark hit that fin, which is made of very hard, sharp fibreglass, it would have lost interest really quickly and thought, “Nah, this is not my food.”

It didn’t hurt at all. I often say to people, “It doesn’t hurt to get eaten by a shark.” There’s no pain, initially, because their teeth are so sharp that you don’t feel the bite. It was like if someone puts their hand around your wrist and gives your arm a shake. It just felt like something shaking my leg and I actually thought, what was that? Am I tangled up in something? When I turned my head and saw the blood pouring out of my leg, it didn’t take long to work out what had happened.

Although I never saw the shark, I could see it moving under the water after it bit me. That’s when it became pretty terrifying because I was waiting for it to hit a second time. That was probably the longest minute of my life, waiting for it to come back.

I did nothing at first – I just lay on my board – because I thought, “If I start paddling, it’s more likely to bite me again”, so I just stayed still. It was a pretty hard thing to do because I was bloody scared by that time. I hit the water really hard with my arm about five or six times because I’ve seen surfers do that over the years to scare a shark away.

Then I looked for a wave to ride in and there were no waves coming. Just when you want a wave to help you, nothing. So I had to start paddling to the beach. I probably only went 20 metres or so and a wave broke out behind me and pushed me all the way to the beach.

The injury Butler sustained
The injury Butler sustained Photograph: Supplied
A newspaper article at the time of Mark’s shark attack
A newspaper article at the time of Butler’s shark attack Photograph: Supplied

It wasn’t until I was on the beach that I realised what trouble I was in because the blood was pouring out of me pretty quickly. So I had to take the leg rope off the surfboard and tie it around my groin as a tourniquet. I pulled tight but it didn’t stop the blood, which is when I panicked a bit. I guess you have far greater strength in these moments than you normally do, so when I pulled the leg rope tight and it didn’t work, I gave it another almighty tug to tighten it and it stopped the blood flow after that.

I had 150 or 200 metres of beach to cross. And then there were probably 35 or 40 steps to go up the side of the hill while I’m trying to hold my leg together, because there’s a sizeable bit of my thigh that’s not there. The shark didn’t eat it, it had just torn it off my leg. So it was hanging down below my knee like a big slab of steak. I started off trying to hold it in the wound while I walked along the beach, crab-like. But that quickly became too much for me and I just gave up and let it hang down beside my leg.

Butler’s injury healed up eventually
Butler’s injury healed up eventually Photograph: Supplied

I managed to get along the beach and up the stairs, and although I was extremely fit at the time, by the time I got to the top of those stairs, I was more exhausted than I’d ever been in my life – because when you lose blood, you lose your ability to carry oxygen around the body. I didn’t know at the time, but I’d lost somewhere between 20 and 25% of my blood.

Then I had another 250 metres to walk along a bush track to the first houses in the village and I only just made that. I got to the first house and just yelled, “help”. People came running out of the houses and I lay down on the front lawn of the house. A woman came out and very coolly went and got some towels to try and stop the bleeding. While the few men there panicked a bit and didn’t know what to do, the woman was quite good!

I never think about it anymore now. It was 20 years ago in February this year. I got back in the water nine weeks later. The wound hadn’t even healed and I was putting waterproof dressings on it and getting back out there.

I was unlucky that it happened but I was very lucky to survive. But it wasn’t really a “miracle” that I lived – it was a lot of effort put into surviving. I had three young children and I thought they were too young not to have a father. It was the will to survive.


Mark Butler, as told to Katie Cunningham

The GuardianTramp

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