✦ Chantelle Doyle's life-affirming attitude towards sharks after her encounter with one brings hope to protecting the planet.
Shark. What comes to your mind when you see this word?
You get an interesting variety of answers. Whether you think Steven Spielberg, marine life preservation or Chinese delicacy, you’ll never truly experience the power of this word until you’ve had a personal encounter with one.
In 2020, Chantelle Doyle, an environmental scientist, was attacked by a 2.5m shark at Shelly Beach in Port Macquarie. Before you start thinking you know what this story is going to be about, read on. You’d be surprised, and be motivated to act differently.
This is not a harrowing story to shock people. This is a story about why we need to help the shark that bit Chantelle.
Read about our article "The Fin Arts" whose objective is to bring the message of shark conservation efforts into everyday lives, into homes and offices in order to create a conversation, raise awareness and educate people.
An Encounter, not an Attack
Saturday 15th August. Chantelle and her partner Mark had left their little boy Hamilton with his grandparents to head out to the beaches for a bit of surf and fresh air.
As Chantelle was on the waves, she felt something hit her underneath the board. She then felt something grab her leg. That 'something' readjusted itself three times as it clamped its jaws tightly on her leg while Chantelle held on to the nose of her board.
Chantelle described the pains as “like being bitten by a dog - it’s painful but it’s more this intense pressure and squeezing and crushing.”
Mark saw his partner fall off her board and started paddling over to her. He had a gut feeling something was wrong. Seeing the shark, he immediately started punching it as hard as he could. He rained punches down on its head and near its eye. The flesh of a shark is actually really sturdy. It was like hitting a professional boxing bag. The shark finally let go and slipped away.
Other surfers on the beach quickly came to the couple's aid, and Chantelle managed to get to a local hospital before being flown by helicopter to John Hunter Hospital. She was later moved to a hospital closer to Sydney.
Yes, it was harrowing. But being an environmental scientist, Chantelle has a much wider view and a different insight to what happened to her. She actually wants people to know why sharks are important and why our oceans need them.
Chantelle’s story is not one of injustice, anger or revenge in spite of her difficulties. Neither is it one about forgiveness. It’s about understanding, and doing the right thing.
And that is what we love about Chantelle’s story. She made the effort to get people to join in a crowdfunding campaign for the Australian Marine Conservation Society. She even had the grace and good humour to come up with a catchy hashtag #punchingforhealthyoceans.
Road to recovery
The shark severed the nerve in Chantelle's leg below the knee. Over the next two years, Chantelle continued to face physical challenges in the form of endless rehabs, chronic pain and partial leg paralysis. During this time, she has had two major operations. A seven-hour one to repair damage to muscles, tendons, bone and nerves and gashes. And a four-hour one to do a skin graft over an orange-sized hole in her calf.
While many were initially drawn to Chantelle and Mark’s story as a shark attack, they have since been given a different angle to understand what happened.
Chantelle and Mark felt compelled to speak up about what happened. It was about finding the balance to understand the story. They did not want to promote themselves as shark evangelists but rather, to recognise and build awareness of sharks as a keystone species. They are a necessary part of the food chain and deserve to be protected.
Protect our sharks
“I’m actually proud that Australia has marine systems that are healthy and sharks are an integral part of that. Having sharks means you have higher densities of fish, and so we should be proud of that.” - Chantelle Doyle
Both Chantelle and Mark have been careful about how they share their interpretation of the incident. They wanted the conversation to be one that is open to people having entirely different responses. The couple has also been talking with experts on sharks and even speaking to the state’s Department of Primary Industries about its SharkSmart program.
Sharks do not simply go about biting people for no reason. There is a much higher rate of ocean recreation in Australia, which is why statistically we read about more shark bites here than in other countries.
There have been methods to try to avoid shark encounters. Nets on beaches or state-managed hooks in the water have proven to be ineffective because the hooks unfortunately kill the sharks and also other marine animals. One would not be surprised to know that the shark population is declining at an alarming rate.
Australia even wiped out a genetically distinct population of tiger sharks even before we knew they existed. A 2019 study found that tiger sharks have declined by 71% in just 33 years across Australia’s east coast.
Chantelle wants to encourage everyone to just be the best version of themselves. The couple does not want their story to be about two humans against a shark. The true focus is on our marine life and our planet.
We can all make a difference
Chantelle and Mark have been hard at work connecting with different groups and organisations to help protect marine life.
They connected with a charity group called the Bite Club that provides support to people who have been bitten by sharks or families who have lost loved ones from shark encounters.
The Bite Club was started by Dave Pearson, who also had a shark encounter in 2011. His psychological trauma was heavier than the physical pain he endured. He got together with other shark attack survivors to help each other through their recovery, whether it was physical or emotional and to keep each other going through anything that was challenging for them. It became an important source of support to bring together people who would understand such an experience and it is helping many find a new lease of life and move on in spite of their difficulties.
Apart from this, Chantelle is also involved in another personal challenge. She is (literally) fighting for healthy oceans, and this time, in the boxing ring! She is raising funds for the Australian Marine Conservation Society to advocate for shark conservation. She had already taken part in a fundraising two years ago just after the incident. And now, Chantelle is training hard to compete in the Sydney Contender Fight Night in October!
Learn more about why Chantelle Doyle is punching for healthy oceans
Donate here: www.amcs.org.au/punching
Chantelle and Mark are always ready to speak to people and share their perspectives on how we can all do our part to help protect Australia's sea life. The Rotary Port Macquarie Club is organising Encounter - Shark, Human Interface on October 22nd, 5:30pm-7:30pm at Flynns Beach Surf Lifesaving Club. Here you'll get to meet Chantelle Doyle, Mark Raply and Dave Pearson (from the Bite Club) who will be sharing their experiences.
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