Shark attacks: Savagery in the ocean haunts victims for life

By Amelia Wade

Shark attacks have a profound effect on those who face the ferocity. Amelia Wade talks to three survivors of ocean savagery.

The  Herald 's front page story on John Leith's death in 1976. Photo / File
The Herald 's front page story on John Leith's death in 1976. Photo / File

January 2, 1976
Te Kaha
John Leith

Thirty-seven years ago, Trevor Watkins watched a shark attack his best friend. Mr Watkins tried to save John Leith, but his wounds were too bad and he died in Mr Watkins' arms.

The pair and Mr Watkins' older brother Grahame, all from Tokoroa, were spearfishing from a dinghy one afternoon off Te Kaha.

They were about 150m offshore in water about 4m deep.

"I heard him scream and I looked over to him and he was waving his arms. I swam over to him and the water was thick with blood and I knew something had happened," Mr Watkins said.

"I knew it was probably dangerous to go over there, but you'd do anything for your mates, wouldn't you?

"I held him out of the water until my brother brought the boat over. We put him in the boat and I tried to revive him and stop the blood.

He'd been bitten right up in the groin. He'd been bitten a couple of times.

"I brought him back to life a couple of times, but by the time we'd gotten back to the rocks, he'd died."

Mr Watkins has no idea what type of shark bit his best friend, he couldn't see any sign of it by the time he reached him in the water and was too busy trying to keep Mr Leith alive to look when they were in the boat.

Mr Watkins, in his early 20s at the time, said Mr Leith, 27, was his best mate and his death hit him hard.

"It was quite traumatic. I couldn't sleep for a few weeks.

"We were great mates, we worked together and everything. It affected me a lot when he died. It took a while to get over it.

"But in life, things happen," Mr Watkins said. "But I can say that now because it was a long time ago."

Mr Leith left behind a wife, Lynn, and two young children, Barry and Sharon.

About a year and a half after Mr Leith died, Mr Watkins and Mrs Leith started to grow close.

"I didn't really know her. Me and John were just mates, we hunted together, fished together. And then about a year and a half later I started seeing her and it all happened. We married about five years later.

"I brought his two kids up and we had one of our own."

The marriage ended about nine years ago.

Mr Watkins now works at the Kinleith Mill and still lives in Tokoroa with his new partner, Rita Van Houtun.

And even 37 years on, Mr Watkins hasn't dived since that day in January.

"I tried about six months after it happened, but I couldn't do it."

Grahame Watkins, who lives in Waihi, also hasn't been able to dive since Mr Leith's death.

But Mr Watkins said: "I'm not putting anything against sharks.

"The way I look at it is, we're swimming in their domain and if you want to swim in their domain then things like that happen. I don't think sharks are really that bad."

April 24, 1992
Campbell Island
Mike Fraser

Mike Fraser was snorkelling off the remote Campbell Island when he felt a "big hit" - and the next thing he saw was his arm in the mouth of a 4m great white shark.

Mr Fraser, then 32, was leading a group of Metservice staff carrying out weather observations on the Southern Ocean island, 600km off the coast of Invercargill.

"I was about to come in and I just felt this great big hit on the right-hand side and got shoved underwater.

"The first thing that raced through my mind was that I was being done over by a sealion, but then I got back to the surface and flicked my head back over to have a look and saw my right arm down a shark's mouth, which took me by surprise.

"That's when I got pulled down a second time and when it bit right through. I flipped back up to the surface and in those few seconds, it ripped up my left arm as well."

Mr Fraser rolled on to his back and kicked as hard as he could to get back to land, where his workmates were watching in horror.

Jacinda Amey, then 23, met him 30m out from the shore and pulled him to safety from the 4m great white. She was later awarded the New Zealand Cross, the highest bravery award, for her actions.

But his ordeal was far from over - in intense pain, suffering blood loss and shock, the group had to wait for a helicopter to be called from Taupo to rescue him.

Pilot John Funnell was chosen for the mission because he had flown to Campbell Island the year before in an exercise to cope with just such an emergency.

Flight paths were cleared for Mr Funnell and his co-pilot Grant Biel as they began their mission.

Fresh blood supplies were given to the rescuers when they reached Invercargill, and they flew out to the island in darkness.

All the while, Mr Fraser's colleagues tended to his wounds and talked him through the night.

To manage the pain, he was given shots of pethidine.

After each injection, Mr Fraser remembers throwing up - he later was told it was because he'd been given twice as much as he should have.

When day broke, Mr Funnell was able to perch the helicopter precariously on a rock outcrop at the island and Mr Fraser was bundled onboard.

He lost his right arm just below his elbow and about half the muscle on his left forearm "got ripped out, the nerves got cut and there's about three or four tendons missing."

Mr Fraser, now 53, is able to use thumb, fore and middle fingers, but his ring and little fingers have limited functionality.

February 27, 2003
Foveaux Strait
Alistair Kerr

Alistair Kerr happened to look down just as the white pointer surged upwards towards him, mouth open and teeth bared.

"I never, ever look down in the water, but something told me to look down and there it was, coming straight up at me with its mouth open. That's what's stayed with me.

"Then I felt it grab my catch-bag and got my left arm, it just sort of latched on and lifted me out of the water. The guys on the boat could see that. It felt like it took such a long time ..."

Mr Kerr's friends fended off the 2.5m shark with sticks. When it let go, they pulled Mr Kerr to safety.

The attack happened off Stewart Island.

"We were just looking for somewhere to dive ... we found out later it was the breeding ground for the great white."

Mr Kerr, 54, said there was "a lot of luck around that day".

He has the catch-bag mounted on a wall at home. The shark severed all the tendons in his left hand leaving him limited movement in that arm which is deeply scarred from 60 stitches.

For months he was haunted by the experience. He wanted to get back into diving as soon as he could to "get back on the horse".

"You get worried you'll get munched every time you go back in.

"A few months afterwards, I came across a sandshark, just a normal one about a metre long, and I just really freaked out. I went up and broke down and cried like a baby."

About 10 weeks after the attack, he went to Adelaide to watch great whites - from the safety of a cage.

"And that helped. Then a few years later I went on another dive and came across lots and lots of sharks and that made me feel more comfortable. So you can get past it, but it takes a bit of effort."

Locations of fatal shark attacks in New Zealand

1852 Wellington Harbour
1886 Napier
1896 Kumara
1907 Moeraki
1964 St Clair, Dunedin
1966 Oakura
1966 Manukau Harbour
1967 St Kilda, Dunedin
1967 Moeraki
1968 Aramoana Mole
1976 Te Kaha
2013 Muriwai Beach

* 2009 in Whangamata - Not confirmed whether kayaker Maurice Phillips drowned before being bitten.

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