The odds of being attacked by a shark are less than one in 11 million, which makes it nearly impossible to find people to turn to when you become that one. Enter a support group of survivors called the Bite Club—the most exclusive club nobody wants to join.
Alex Wilton lives in San Francisco, surrounded by water. That was once part of its allure; as someone who spent many years sailing, Wilton had come to associate the ocean with freedom—the freedom to explore, freedom from outside demands.
Recently, though, he could hardly look at open water without his mind wandering to dark places. This was unfortunate, given that the San Francisco Bay bordered his running route along the Embarcadero and glimmered under the bridge he crossed to visit his parents in Marin County. The sea had taken on a sinister quality.
In March of 2019, Wilton, who was 32 at the time, traveled from San Francisco to Troncones, a sleepy resort town on Mexico’s Pacific coast, to attend a wedding with his then girlfriend, Asha Agrawal. When they reached their beachfront hotel, they changed into bathing suits and trotted outside to the sand. After splashing around in the blue-green water to cool down, Wilton had an urge to burn off some energy. He grabbed his goggles, swam out beyond where the surf was breaking, and turned south.
That Wilton would so casually go on an open-water swim was once unthinkable. When he was eight or nine, he watched the movie Jaws, and the experience “knocked him out.” For years he refused to wade into the ocean deeper than where his feet could graze the bottom, afraid that he might see a shark fin slicing toward him. Slowly, though, he became more comfortable, and open-water swimming became a pleasurable, if not entirely stress-free, pastime on sailing trips and vacations.
Even as an adult, Wilton would flinch at shadows as he swam farther from shore, but as a logical-minded Silicon Valley product manager who talks about dividing topics into “buckets” to be “double-clicked on,” he would quell his anxiety through reasoning.
The risk of being attacked by a shark varies based on geography, how frequently a person enters the ocean, and what activities they engage in. But the odds are vanishingly small for nearly everyone. According to the International Shark Attack File, a research group at the Florida Museum, the annual odds of being attacked by a shark in America hover around one in 11.5 million. In California, where Wilton lives, a 2015 Stanford study found that swimmers have a one in 738 million chance of being attacked during an ocean visit. Wilton was more likely to be killed falling from bed or by a fireworks show gone awry than breaststroking in the Pacific.
But that day in Mexico, Wilton thought only of how liberating it was to stretch his legs after hours on cramped planes. He freestyled with a meditative rhythm, reveling in the warm water as it flowed over his skin.
One, two. One, two. One, two. (@*$)#&@)!
Something hurtled into him with what felt like the force of a tank. His right leg ignited with pain. Had he crashed into something? Did a boat just hit him?
Instinctively, he ducked underwater to investigate and spotted the outline of a large gray and white shark just feet from him. He snapped his head out of the water and gasped for air, trying to make sense of what had happened. When he tentatively dipped his head back under a few seconds later, his eyes were immediately drawn to his right leg, which had been torn open, and then the shark’s tail swinging through the water as it swam away.
As blood began to swirl around his body, Wilton bobbed vertically in the water, with both legs pointed toward the seafloor. He could see in every direction this way, but he knew he couldn’t remain there, immobile and watching the water in terror. He’d need to swim to shore before he lost too much blood or—worse—the shark returned. For the first time in his life, he feared he might die.
Stopping twice to peer over his shoulder and scan the water for flashes of steely gray, Wilton struggled toward the surf break, his right leg dragging. Adrenaline had dulled the pain, but a crushing fear gripped him. His heart beat wildly. He was defenseless.
After what seemed like hours, but was probably only a few minutes, Wilton propelled himself into a wave, letting it tumble him toward the shore. When he felt the gritty sand beneath his left foot, he yelled out to Agrawal, his girlfriend, who was sitting on a chaise on the beach.
Agrawal grabbed her sarong and tied a makeshift tourniquet around his bleeding wound. She recruited other tourists who had been relaxing nearby to help carry Wilton off the beach, and sprinted inside for help. The hotel owner began to call an ambulance, but Agrawal convinced him there was no time—he had to personally drive Wilton to surgery or Wilton would bleed out.
As Wilton was rushed into the operating room, a doctor grabbed his hand and assured him: “You’re going to be OK.” The bite had come within a few inches of Wilson’s femoral artery—the main supply of blood to the leg, which, if punctured, can lead to death within minutes—but had not severed it. He would need 27 stitches, but he would survive.
Sharks are one of few creatures that tap into our primal fear of being devoured. Bears, big cats, crocodiles, and alligators are a few others, but if we use pop-culture references as a yardstick (Jaws, Shark Week, etc.), sharks command the most attention, even though crocodiles are estimated to kill many more people each year.
There are over 470 species of sharks, many of which are innocuous, and all of which are more threatened by humans than a threat to them. A recent study in the scientific journal Nature warned that oceanic shark and ray populations have plummeted 70 percent since the 1970s, largely due to fishing, which decreases the volume of food available to sharks as well as proliferates nets and other equipment ensnaring them. Estimates suggest that people kill about 100 million sharks a year. In contrast, across the globe, sharks kill an average of four people annually.
In the rare instances they do target humans, the chondrichthyan culprits can be hard to identify. In the heat of an attack, survivors are usually not focused on distinguishing the gray-brown of bull and tiger sharks from the dark gray of a great white—but most attacks are attributed to these species, called the Big Three for their size, capacity for damage, and teeth evolved to shear rather than hold. (Based on photos and descriptions of his attack, investigators from the International Shark Attack File concluded that Wilton was most likely bitten by a six-to-ten-foot adolescent great white shark.)
Great whites often approach from below, rushing their prey at speeds reaching 15 miles per hour, more than three times faster than Michael Phelps’s record freestyle. Contrary to their bloodthirsty depiction in Jaws, these sharks tend to take exploratory bites of their target before proceeding to eat it (or swimming away if it’s not to their taste). The force of that test bite can be fatal to humans, though. Tiger sharks are less discerning, sometimes devouring license plates and tires in addition to other sharks, seabirds, and dolphins. Bull sharks are notoriously aggressive, often vigorously shaking their victims, and can survive even in freshwater rivers.
“If you think of the evolutionary circumstances of how our brains developed, and the kinds of things that would be particularly traumatic, animal attacks would be high on the list,” says Andrea Roberts, a senior research scientist who focuses on trauma and cognitive health at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Shark attacks can be especially terrifying, she adds, despite their rarity. Our ability to hear and see can both be compromised in the water, contributing to an element of unexpectedness, which correlates with post-traumatic stress disorder. Plus there’s the sense of helplessness felt in an environment where humans are not evolved to defend themselves. A 2018 study by researchers at the University of Sydney, the first ever to look at trauma suffered by shark-bite survivors and their families, found that nearly one-third reported experiencing PTSD in the three months following their attacks.
Finally, there’s the isolation of experiencing something so mind-bogglingly uncommon. According to the International Shark Attack File, there were just 64 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide in 2019, the year Wilton was bitten. The trouble with being one of those few unlucky people—among other things—is that hardly anyone can relate.
Upon returning to San Francisco, Wilton’s physical recovery was surprisingly rapid. He set aside his crutches after a week and soon returned to walking, riding a stationary bike, and using an elliptical machine.
But psychologically, he didn’t feel right. Sometimes while driving home from work or showering, his mind would flood with images and sensations from his attack: the stunning impact, the shark’s body close enough to touch, an undulating tail fading into the blue-green, the fear constricting his throat as he scanned the water for the shark’s return. He hadn’t seen the animal as it approached, but sometimes he imagined what that might have looked like—an open maw careening toward him, teeth like daggers.
According to the International Shark Attack File, there were just 64 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide in 2019, the year Wilton was bitten. The trouble with being one of those few unlucky people—among other things—is that hardly anyone can relate.
Roberts, the Harvard researcher, says that such flashbacks are a common sign of post-traumatic stress. “When we’re threatened, our brains tell themselves to remember the circumstance for our protection,” she says. The brain records markers, like water, as warnings that danger could be imminent again. But you can recall such images at inappropriate times. Shaili Jain, a psychiatrist specializing in trauma and a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, says that how a survivor interprets an event might influence their psychological recovery. “Those of us who watch Jaws as kids assume sharks are really dangerous. But I’ve heard from some wildlife lovers that they don’t necessarily view sharks that way. If you feel like you disturbed an animal in their natural habitat, and then something went down, that might seem like an unfortunate accident but not a predatory act.” Viewing an event as predatory, in contrast, might make for a harder recovery.
Wilton’s feelings were complex. He understood the ecological value of sharks, but it grated on him to hear people portray them as passive creatures that only target humans when provoked. He hadn’t pestered the shark or lured it in. Hell, all he’d done was swim a few hundred yards.
He worked on overcoming his trauma for months, using breath work to banish the images that plagued him. By July 4, the visions had mostly waned, and he happily accepted a friend’s invitation to Lake Tahoe, California. One day they boarded a motorboat and puttered away from shore. It was warm, blazingly sunny, and the water was as clear and enticing as any Caribbean island’s. Wilton dove off the hull and took just a few strokes before his muscles tensed and his heartbeat quickened. He opened his eyes to rapid-fire images of his mangled leg, the shark swimming away, a bird’s-eye view of himself as he bobbed in the water, bleeding and vulnerable. He quietly pulled himself back aboard.
When he had a similar reaction upon dipping into the Colorado River on a rafting trip a few months later, Wilton decided he needed extra help. To find it, he turned to a Facebook group a reporter had introduced him to shortly after his attack but that he’d mostly avoided until now. It was the online gathering place for shark-attack survivors. They called themselves the Bite Club.
The origins of the Bite Club date back to 2011, when Dave Pearson, an affable Australian engineer with a permanent tan and wide smile, was attacked by a ten-foot bull shark while surfing near his home in Coopernook, four hours north of Sydney. Pearson had been especially eager to get out on the water that day to see how his new surfboard carved through the Tasman Sea. He was pleased to pull up to the break and find neat waves rolling in. After catching three good ones, he was paddling back out when he felt something collide with his board, clamp over his arm, and drag him underwater. Only when he popped back to the surface did he recognize it was a shark.
Pearson didn’t feel any pain at first. “If you look at something hot, and you touch it, you can register that straightaway,” he explained later. “But if you’re taken by surprise—all of a sudden your arm’s ripped open or your leg’s taken off—your brain says, Something’s happening and I can’t figure out what it is, so let’s just ignore that and concentrate on survival until we’re all safe and well.”
Pearson made it to shore and was medevaced to a hospital. There, even as his arm hung limply from his shoulder, a nurse asked, “Will you surf again?” He laughed. What a question to ask someone who was just attacked by a shark. But also: of course he would. Luckily, his arm did not require amputation, and within 12 weeks he had returned to the waves.
His psychological trauma, however, felt heavier. “The thought of being eaten while still alive was the hardest thing to understand,” he says. “Once you realize you’re part of the food chain—not sitting on top of it—it’s really difficult.”
By incredible coincidence, Pearson was treated in the same hospital as another bite survivor, who had been attacked by a great white shark the week before as she dismounted her wakeboard. He found chatting with her soothing. “The similarities were so uncanny that we could finish each other’s sentences,” he says.
Once discharged, Pearson collected newspaper articles about shark attacks and reached out to reporters so they could connect him with other survivors. When attacks happened within a few hours of his home, he rode his motorbike to meet the victims in the hospital. “I just needed to talk with others, because I felt alone,” he says.
Shortly after, Pearson organized a gathering for seven shark-attack survivors in Australia: a visit to the Sydney Aquarium to dive with nurse sharks, sizable but sluggish bottom dwellers that are mostly harmless to humans. The experience of connecting with people who could understand his burden was so enlivening that he decided to expand the community to survivors around the globe.
The Bite Club was born. Its first rule? Unlike the cinematic Fight Club, members were encouraged to talk. Not just about their attacks but about their physical therapy, emotional recovery, and anything else they were struggling with or excited about.
Through word of mouth, the club eventually swelled to over 370 people, scattered from Germany to Abu Dhabi to Florida. Due to their dispersed nature, many Bite Club members interact mainly on Facebook. But that doesn’t seem to diminish the value of their connection. “Immediate family members don’t understand, and you don’t want to burden your friends with too much,” one Bite Club member explained. “But Dave Pearson will talk any time. Or you can post on the page and know that the only people who will respond are going to be people that know what you’re going through.”
On the Bite Club Facebook group, which is private, members commiserate about their flashbacks and celebrate each other’s “shark-a-versaries” or “new birthdays”—the dates of their attacks, when they received second chances at life. They compare scars, physical and emotional, and speak about how their attacks have changed their relationships to others and themselves. And they celebrate milestones. When one member announced she’d boogie-boarded for the first time since being attacked the previous year, the message board exploded with congratulations.
When Wilton first joined the Bite Club, he found it comforting to see the range of how members responded to their attacks. One survivor wrote poetically about her choice to leave the coast for the mountains; others expressed how their attacks had further fueled their love of watersports. A few spoke of their resentment of sharks; some announced they had become ardent shark conservationists. It made him feel like any path forward was OK.
Pearson founded Bite Club out of a personal need, but there is scientific backing for the usefulness of peer-support groups. A recent study of survivors of the 1999 Columbine school shooting found that the most effective support came from “similar others,” or those who had experienced like traumas. Such people were more likely to engage and communicate comfortably with survivors. They could offer more pragmatic recovery advice and were less likely to commit the mistakes even well-intended outsiders make: minimizing feelings, attempting to identify with trauma (saying “I know how you feel”), giving advice, encouraging recovery too soon, and demonstrating forced cheerfulness.
The results of peer groups are powerful. Research has discovered that in most cases, Alcoholic Anonymous, which centers on the idea of “fellowship,” helps people avoid drinking more effectively than professional psychotherapy. Similarly, studies of veterans with PTSD have found peer-support networks to be just as therapeutic as clinician-led support groups. One study found that online versions of these groups, like Bite Club, can also provide some sense of connectedness and belonging. And while most Bite Club members primarily interact through social media, some have become especially engaged, responding to nearly every post and migrating their relationships to real life. One such person is 61-year-old Damon Kendrick.
Born in Zimbabwe to a mother who coached swimming, Kendrick says he “could basically swim before [he] could walk.” After moving to Durban, South Africa, when he was young, his family became involved in the city’s lifeguard club. As part of his training, Kendrick learned to treat shark-bite victims. But even after an attack occurred at his local beach when he was 14, he didn’t worry about being bitten himself. When an anxious girl approached his lifeguard chair after the attack to ask if the water was safe for swimming, he responded: “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. It’s never going to happen again.”
“The thought of being eaten while still alive was the hardest thing to understand,” he says. “Once you realize you’re part of the food chain—not sitting on top of it—it’s really difficult.”
Three weeks later, Kendrick was swimming with other trainees when a shark attacked one of the boys in the group. Kendrick swam furiously toward shore. He was about to set his feet down, just yards from the sand, in water that was less than waist deep, when he felt himself pulled backwards and underwater. Experts would later say that likely a bull shark had clamped down on his calf, shaking him vigorously. The shark ultimately released him, but the bite was severe enough that doctors were forced to amputate his right leg below the knee. (The other boy’s injuries required only stitches.)
After recovery, Kendrick quickly got back into competitive diving, a sport at which he’d excelled before the attack. Even with just one foot to push off of, he racked up multiple national championships. Later he threw himself into equestrian sports, dominating those, too. Eventually, he fell in love with open-water swimming and moved to Australia, where he frequently competed.
As he glided through the water during races, he’d often think of sharks. Recalling what a former swim-competition rival once called him, he created a mantra to repeat whenever he felt afraid: “I am a dolphin. I am a dolphin. I am a dolphin.” Dolphins are known not only for their speed and grace but also for their ability to defend themselves against sharks.
A few years ago, Kendrick had an urge to connect with other shark-attack survivors; after decades of healing, he thought he might be helpful. He joined the Bite Club Facebook group, and soon after, Pearson rode his motorbike to where Kendrick was living. The pair “got on like a house on fire,” says Kendrick. Like Pearson, he also began making hospital calls on new attack survivors in Australia. When survivors had to undergo amputations, Kendrick would regale them with stories of his athletic triumphs as a uniped, telling them, “You’re no less of a person.” Mostly, though, he assured them that they were not alone.
Wilton was initially cautious about engaging with the Bite Club. While the average number of reported shark attacks in the world has hovered around 80 in recent years, that’s still more than one a week. And every time one does occur, that person is likely to show up in the Bite Club’s Facebook group. Someone will post a recap of their attack, or the survivor will introduce themself and share their story. Hearing about attacks so frequently was hindering his recovery, Wilton thought, so for a while he muted the notifications.
He may have been experiencing re-traumatization, which can happen when a person shares their traumatic story or hears the stories of others. One study on the survivors of rape found that participating in support groups could “present challenges for survivors” for just that reason, but that “there is a mutuality and interconnected benefit between the triggering of difficult emotions due to participation and the healing experiences gained.” Ultimately, the study found that the “overall gains appeared to outweigh the pain and distress.”
As he continued to struggle with flashbacks, Wilton reconsidered his avoidance of the Bite Club. In a post about eight months after his attack, he wrote to the group about his desire to get back in the ocean and the images that haunted him even in fresh water.
The responses flooded in. Pearson suggested he take small swims—if only in the pool—to retrain his mind. Kendrick shared a video of a 12-mile solo swim he’d completed post-attack and encouraged Wilton to create his own mantra. A triathlete who had been attacked during a training session in Orange County, California, offered to swim with Wilton.
Heeding the Bite Club’s advice, Wilton decided to practice swimming in the Belvedere Lagoon. Though it borders San Francisco Bay, the lagoon is separated from open water by narrow strips of land and ranges from just four to six feet deep. That it happens to sit in the town of Tiburon, which translates to “shark” in Spanish, was an irony not lost on Wilton.
The first few dips into the lagoon, Wilton had to stop several times to collect himself. The sensation of water running over his new wetsuit unnerved him. He was also spooked by white buoys bobbing in the water or when he grazed his hand against the lagoon’s bottom. His mind began whirring, wondering if maybe, just maybe, a shark could squeeze through the pipe connecting the lagoon to the bay.
When such thoughts crept in, he would stand and remove his goggles, watching as residents calmly paddleboarded nearby. The ritual helped remind him where he was and kept him from wandering to images of his attack.
Wilton practiced week after week for three months until he paused less frequently. He felt ready to graduate to less protected waters.
The owner of the kayak-rental stand in Sausalito furrowed his forehead. Four in the group of eight people standing before him were going to swim the mile across Richardson Bay to Belvedere Island? Why? Though it was a gorgeous November day, with hardly a cloud obstructing the view of San Francisco’s jagged skyline and the Golden Gate Bridge, the green water was a chilly 53 degrees.
Wilton’s father, John, explained matter-of-factly, “Alex was attacked by a shark, and this is his first time back in the ocean. We’re going to kayak next to him as he swims.”
The owner’s face blanched and contorted slightly, but he didn’t ask more questions. Instead, he pushed play on a safety video about how to navigate Richardson Bay’s currents and boating channel.
As Wilton and his three swimming companions—friends from childhood, college, and business school—wrestled on black wetsuits, Wilton thought of a message he’d received the day before from Kendrick. “It’s okay to feel things like apprehension, excitement, fear,” Kendrick had written. “Know that I am right there beside you in spirit.”
Pulling on a neoprene hood and mirrored goggles, Wilton gathered his friends for a hug and pep talk of his own. He thanked them for their support and assured them that, though he hoped to finish the swim, he didn’t want any of them to feel uncomfortable. If they got too cold, or scared, or their legs began to cramp, he urged them to be vocal. “This experience is a first for all of us,” he said, before they awkwardly waddled to the water in their fins.
“Stay close, OK?” Wilton’s mother, Deborah, urged. “Don’t die,” his father deadpanned.
Grimacing as he entered the cold water, Wilton broke into a quick freestyle, with his friends rushing to keep up. When crossing the channel that boats travel to reach the wider San Francisco Bay, he was loath to stop for the oncoming traffic. “Alex is motivated to do it as quickly as he can,” Wilton’s dad explained from the back of a yellow kayak.
Studies of veterans with PTSD have found peer support networks to be just as therapeutic as clinician-led support groups. One study has found that online versions of these groups, like Bite Club, can also provide some sense of connectedness and belonging.
Wilton’s childhood friend, Erik Osterholm, stuck tightly by his side. Once, Osterholm swam too close for comfort, and Wilton winced. But when they paused to regroup after about 15 minutes, bobbing like otters as sailboats jutted from the water behind them, Wilton told him, “I like having you next to me.”
When the group was about halfway across and out of earshot, Wilton’s father muttered, “The scary part is there are sharks in the bay.” Shortly thereafter, he noticed a flock of pelicans, gulls, and other seabirds land on the water not 40 feet from the swimmers. “I wish those birds weren’t so close. That’s a fish run,” he said, as the birds dove underwater, reappearing with full bills. “You don’t want to swim through that.” Baitfish sometimes attract larger, predatory fish of the sort the Wilton family would be happy never to encounter again.
Wilton’s father inserted his kayak between the birds and the swimmers. “Stay on the left side of my boat,” he yelled. As Wilton swam over and grabbed onto the kayak, a fishing boat cut its way toward the birds. “I’m not psyched about that fishing boat,” he admitted, panting to catch his breath. Fishermen will sometimes chum the water to attract fish, which, once again, can attract larger fish.
“All right, let’s get going, the fish are moving this way, and then there’ll be seals,” Wilton’s dad said with urgency. Sure enough, slick brown heads began popping to the surface nearby. The men began swimming again, a little quicker than before.
After a tense few hundred yards, the group pulled farther away from the birds, and Wilton’s dad relaxed. It would only take a few more minutes to reach land.
“Enjoy the last bit, Allie!” he shouted.
“That’s right,” Wilton agreed, turning onto his back to take in the glittering bay, the hills of Sausalito, and San Francisco’s towering skyscrapers.
Later, after the adrenaline rush of his first time back in open water had subsided, Wilton would sit down at his computer and peck out a message of gratitude to the Bite Club, along with photos of his swim. He would hear back from both Pearson and Kendrick, who would call the Bite Club a “family.”
But for now, Wilton just floated, alone with his thoughts. Then he flipped over, swam his last few strokes, and pulled himself onto the rocky shore.