Shark bite survivor Caleb Swanepoel reclaims his love for the ocean

Shark bite survivor Caleb Swanepoel reclaims his love for the ocean
Caleb Swanepoel competes on day one of the SA Para Surf Championship, in the above-knee stand division, in which he took first place. (Photo: Greg Chapman)

After losing his right leg to a great white in a shark attack in 2015, Caleb Swanepoel has made his way back into the water and become one of South Africa’s best para surfers.

Business developer, public speaker, theatre and performance art graduate, shark attack survivor and national representative at the World Para Surfing Championship…

At only 28 years old, Caleb Swanepoel has already gone through a few lifetimes’ worth of experiences.

On the weekend of 20-21 May, Swanepoel claimed first place in the SA Para Surf Championships – in the Above Knee Stand division – at Surfers Corner in Muizenberg.

Swanepoel fought strong winds and choppy currents to be crowned champion in his division.

The victory means the multitalented athlete has qualified for the International Surfing Association World Para Surfing Championship in California later this year – the second successive year he will compete at the global event.

Survival mode

In June 2015, while on holiday with his family in Buffalo Bay in Knysna, 19-year-old Swanepoel came face to face with a great white shark.

shark bite swanepoel

Para surfer Caleb Swanepoel lost his right leg in 2015, a year before he took up surfing. (Photo: Keanan Hemmonsbey)

Swanepoel was enjoying a midyear break from his theatre and performance degree studies at the University of Cape Town and, then an inexperienced surfer, he wandered into deep waters, on a bodyboard, alongside his brothers Joshua and Alexander.

“We were quite far out – about 60 to 70m – and as I came over the crest of one of the waves, there was a great white shark in the water,” Swanepoel told Daily Maverick at the championships.

“Not a lot goes through your mind when you see that in the ocean. I went into complete survival mode.

“I warned my brothers and started swimming towards the beach.

“Next thing I knew, this thing came for me, pulled me under the water, had my right leg and essentially started eating me alive.

“There are multiple ways to tell that story, but it’s quite something when you get attacked by a shark.”

On witnessing the attack, Alexander immediately swam towards his older brother.

“My brother actually turned around, swam back towards me and when he got to me my whole leg was off, but he said: ‘It’s just a scratch, you’re going to be fine’, so he calmed me down,” said Swanepoel.

But as the brothers gingerly made their way to the shore with the threat having seemingly subsided, the great white returned for another go.

“We started swimming towards the beach, but before we could stand the shark actually came back, circled us and bit into my left leg, so I’ve got a laceration on my left leg – luckily, I still have it.

“My brother scared the shark off after that and my mom ran into the water and I fell into her arms. From there it was the journey to the hospital and [eventually] back to varsity,” he said.

The fact that the shark snapped Swane­poel’s leg off cleanly helped to save his life.

“It’s a miracle to still be alive. My femoral artery went into spasm, which was the miracle that saved me that day,” he said.

“If that hadn’t happened I would have bled out within two minutes … I was on the beach for 45 minutes [before the ambulance arrived]. Every day is a gift.”

‘Equalising the narrative’

Since 27 June 2015 – the day Swanepoel lost his right leg to one of the most feared predators of the ocean – his relationship with the sea has turned into a healing one.

“Sharks aren’t aggressive and I’ve got no animosity towards sharks. In fact, I have a lot of respect for them,” he said.

“My relationship with the ocean has changed since my attack, even though I did lose my right leg in the water.”

The year following the attack, Swanepoel rekindled his bond with the vast open waters, and it happened on a surfboard – he’d committed to learning the sport after going for a fun surf with his family in 2016.

“I only learnt to surf after I lost my leg, which is kind of crazy,” he said with a laugh.

“Since 2016 I’ve been in and out of the water. I really find it an incredible place to connect with other people and also connect with myself.

“It’s [also] been an opportunity to represent my country; it just brings a community together,” he said.

“Surfing is such a beautiful way of equalising the narrative. The ocean treats everyone the same. When you can share something like a wave together, it changes your perspective on life.”

Swanepoel finds humour in the fact that, despite where he was raised, he is now an accomplished swimmer and a world-class surfer.

“I’m from the Karoo actually,” he said. “People always laugh when they hear about my story and how I got into surfing and how I lost my leg when I actually come from the dusty streets of Prince Albert in the Karoo.

“Home was more than two hours from the beach.”

 ‘Healing experience’

Swanepoel took up surfing as part of his physical therapy, before being invited to the first-ever SA Para Surf Championships in 2017.

There were a few hundred spectators in full voice along with about two dozen helpful volunteers assisting the athletes at this year’s SA Para Surf Championships, despite the sporadic inclement weather.

“No one here wants you to feel sorry for them; no person with a disability wants you to pity them, but they need support; they need help,” Swanepoel said, as he reflected on the support shown throughout the event.

The athlete has chosen to turn his deep blue antagonist into a protagonist in the remarkable life story he continues to write daily.

“My journey into surfing has been a healing experience. The ocean takes but it’s also given a lot back to me. From friends to an opportunity to represent my country to a healing experience and to a bigger story,” he said. DM

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.


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