The First Rule of Bite Club? Talk About It.
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.
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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.