A teenager who had a leg and several fingers amputated following a shark attack has become a champion for the marine predators after urging the public not to view them as villains.
Paige Winter, 17, has received well wishes from around the world and the promise of a free prosthetic limb and bionic technology to help her walk again, after she was seized in waist-deep water off Fort Macon Beach, North Carolina, last weekend.
She was saved by her father, Charlie – a firefighter, paramedic and former US Marine – punching the shark in the face, in line with advice issued by marine researchers who first started documenting attacks in 1959.
“She wants everyone to know that sharks are good people,” revealed her mother, Marcy Winter.
In a new statement issued from her hospital bed last night, Paige said: “I want to thank everyone for all of the support and encouragement that is really helping me stay positive while I’m getting better. It really means a lot. World Oceans Day is June 8 and I’d like to ask everyone to get involved however they can to protect and preserve our oceans and all the life in it.”
The teenager’s call for mercy has touched conservationists working to transform sharks’ reputation from scoundrels of the seas to environmental saviours.
Debbie Salamone, who survived a severe shark bite in 2004 while paddling 50ft offshore at Cape Canaveral, Florida, now runs Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation, a volunteer group that works with The Pew Charitable Trusts, a non-profit organisation.
“I have to admire this young lady – she has the makings of a great shark advocate,” she said.
“At first, after my injury, I really hated sharks. I felt ‘If you eat me, then I’m not a fan of you.’ I was planning revenge, I wanted to eat shark steaks on the anniversary of my bite. We have these animals that are extremely powerful, rows of really sharp teeth…it can seem the stuff of nightmares and horror movies.
“But I think far more people are realising there’s a really bright side and a really vulnerable side and we need sharks. They are performing tremendous services in the ocean, keeping our ecosystem healthy.”
Salamone, from Orlando, founded SASSC in 2009 to lobby for better protections for sharks, recruiting more than 20 other survivors including several who lost limbs. They have become part of a growing global community of advocates that has helped to shape policy such as the 2010 Shark Protection Act in the US, and the adoption by the 2013 Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of trade protections for five commercially valuable shark species.
Seventeen shark sanctuaries – bodies of ocean where commercial shark fishing is banned – have been established worldwide and regulations introduced to set shark catch limits in regional fisheries.
Yet while shark attacks on humans average around 80 a year, an estimated 63 million to 273 million sharks a year are killed globally. Putting public fears into perspective and educating them on the value of sharks, who as the ocean’s apex predator help regulate the entire food chain below them, has become a calling for Salamone and fellow survivors.
“We’ve experienced what people would consider a nightmare scenario. Now we have credibility,” she said. “I feel more and more people are realising their nightmares aren’t going to come true.”
If they do, however, experts at the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida, which maintains the official global record of incidents, advise: “Repeated blows to the snout may offer a temporary reprieve…If a shark actually bites, we suggest clawing at its eyes and gill openings, two sensitive areas.”
“You should not act passively if under attack as sharks respect size and power,” they add.