IT was beautiful Saturday afternoon in June and the perfect conditions to catch some waves. The weather was warm, the sky clear and the water glassy. 20-year-old Caleb Swanepoel and his family were on holiday at Buffelsbaai in the Western Cape last year, and were renting a cottage on a hill overlooking the beach. He and his two brothers decided to enter the famous surf break, not knowing that a 3m Great White shark was lurking below. Caleb’s perfect day was about to become a nightmare.
”I’ve always loved the ocean,” says Caleb, who lives in Prince Albert and is a drama student at University of Cape Town (UCT). “Growing up my mom and dad would always take us to the coast for holidays and we would spend hours every day swimming in the sea. My granddad taught my brothers and I how to body surf so that was something we always used to do together. Ironically, my dad’s cousin was taken by a Great White a few years ago in Fishhoek and died but I had honestly never thought it would ever happen to me and I was never afraid of sharks.”
With just two pairs of flippers between them, Caleb and his younger brother Alexander, 19, shared one flipper each while his oldest brother Joshua, 22, donned the other pair. The boys put on wetsuits and headed into the waves, venturing far away from the shore at Murphy’s Point (about 80m), just up from the main swimming beach. There had been a few surfers catching waves earlier in the day. Caleb and his brothers swam out to the backline to body surf the bigger waves.
“We couldn’t stand and we were treading water,” he says. “After some waves we decided to catch the next big one back to shore. A wave formed and I swam towards it. That’s when I saw the shark, framed in the crest of the wave. I could see its whole body. It was about 3m long. I turned to my brothers and shouted, ‘Shark! Swim!’ They knew by the panic in my voice that I wasn’t joking and immediately put their heads down and started swimming. I was closest to the shark and remember telling myself, ‘swim fast, swim hard’. I knew in the back of my mind that it was onto me. I felt this thing hit the right side of my leg with such a massive force it was as if a bus had ploughed into me. It gripped down and shook me, pulling me under the water. There was a brief moment where I tried to come up for air and breath. I remember trying to push it off my leg and feeling its sandpaper skin, but I felt no pain. Even though it happened so quickly it played out in slow motion. It felt surreal, as if I was having an out of body experience. Just when I thought, ‘this is the end, I’m not going to make it’ my body started fighting back. That’s when the shark shook me around and ripped my right leg right off. I was free from its jaws but I felt so weak I hardly had the strength to swim away.”
Putting his own life in danger a brave Alexander rushed to help his brother, while Caleb’s family who had seen the attack unfold from their beach house, had run down to the shore. “My brother was pulling me by the back of my wetsuit towards the beach when the shark came back for us. It bit into Alex’s flipper, narrowly missing his toes, and then grabbed hold of my other leg but for some reason it let me go. It circled around us a few times and then it swam away. I remember seeing my mom and just flopping into her arms. Up until then I’d been conscious the whole time but then my vision went white. I could hear sounds but couldn’t see anything. My family together with a group of surfers tied a belt around the stump that once was my right leg to try and stop the bleeding and someone called the National Sea Rescue Institute.”
Caleb drifted in and out of consciousness while waiting for the NSR,I who took just 15 minutes to arrive. “I remember waking up momentarily and looking into my mother’s eyes. She was holding my hand and smiling and telling me to stay awake and to keep breathing. I just tried to focus on her face but all I wanted to do was close my eyes and sleep,” he says. “While I knew the shark had bitten me at that point I didn’t know how bad it was. I didn’t know it had taken my leg. The best way I can describe the feeling is similar to when you go to a dentist and they inject your gum before working on a tooth. You know something hectic is happening but you can’t feel anything, and so you don’t know exactly what is missing at the end of it.”
After 45 minutes, a helicopter arrived and airlifted Caleb to the Mediclinic in George. By that stage the pain had set in. “I could feel this burning, searing sensation going up my leg. It was so intense. When I got the hospital the staff rushed towards me. I was immediately given a blood transfusion and taken into surgery. They cleaned and stitched the stump. I was in ICU for two days and in a general ward for 10. I was lucky I didn’t get an infection. Sharks’ teeth are so filthy that often you land up losing more of the leg because of infection. I was also fortunate as my femoral artery (the large artery in the thigh and the main arterial supply to the lower limb) clotted after the shark released its grip on my leg, causing the artery to go into spasm, which minimised the bleeding. The orthopaedic surgeon said that had that not happened I would probably have bled to death on the beach and he called it a miracle. My other leg had a gash but it wasn’t serious. I later found out that just the day before the attack, another surfer and fellow UCT student was bitten by a Great White.” 19-year-old Dylan Reddering was attacked at Lookout Beach and suffered severe lacerations and muscle damage to the right side of his body, undergoing surgery soon after the incident.
While in hospital, Caleb’s sister Rebekah set up a Facebook page to keep his friends up to date with his progress. “It became quite fun for us because we’d take photos each time something happened and then post them. Eventually we had quite a big following, with people commenting on my recovery and sending good wishes. It was so great to get such awesome support. Without the support of my home town of Prince Albert and the love I’ve received from family and the people around the country, my recovery would have been much harder.”
The shark had amputated Caleb’s leg about 20cm above the knee so it could still be fitted with a prosthetic. “Many people think that learning to walk again is a simple matter of putting on a prosthetic but it’s a much more challenging and complex process than that,” says Caleb. “While in hospital I started working with a physiotherapist doing exercises. Melissa Van Rensburg from Physio Junction came in every day and helped develop my upper body strength, helped me use a walker, and then helped me progress to crutches. After my stitches were removed I started a process called ‘coning’.”
One of the most difficult problems facing amputees is swelling of the limb (edema), which makes fitting of the prosthesis difficult. This is where ‘coning’ is useful. It involves the use of bandages and elastic shrinker socks to control edema, Caleb’s limb was bandaged constantly, but the bandage changed every day. Caleb then started trying different prosthetics. “It’s kind of like renting a car,” he laughs. “You ‘rent’ different prosthetics and then you choose which ones work best for you. You can rent prosthetic feet and knees!”
Caleb went back to varsity and was able to complete the year while still focusing on rehab and learning to walk on a prosthetic knee. “The drama department at UCT was so incredible. They really are like my family. My lecturers gave me a program and schedule that was flexible and they made allowance for all my rehab and the classes I would miss. I was on crutches most of the classes as the coning process takes a while but it was a good space to be in because I had my peers and my friends around me, which was a great distraction. When I set my mind to something I refuse to give up and walking again was something I was determined to do. If I have learned anything through this experience it’s the need for patience. I’m now more patient with myself than ever before.”
Caleb says despite his ordeal, he is not afraid of the sea. “I’ve gone back in the water countless times already but I am a bit more cautious of what might be in the water than I was before. If something brushes up against me I sometimes do get chills down my spine but I’m not haunted by what happened to me.”