Diver and shark attack survivor Paul de Gelder embraces adventure

Paul de Gelder, Photo credit: Indigo Industries

Former Australian Defense Forces diver Paul de Gelder was afraid of two things: sharks and public speaking.

Which is why the author of “No Time for Fear” now hosts documentaries for Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” and is a motivational speaker who is in demand across the United States and Australia.

“The only thing I was more afraid of than sharks was public speaking,” de Gelder said. “We can turn our greatest fears into our greatest strengths if we face them head on.”

He has, perhaps, more reason to fear sharks than most people. When de Gelder was participating in an anti-terrorism exercise in Sydney Harbor in 2009, he was attacked by a 9-foot long, 600-pound bull shark that chewed off part of his leg and arm.

“I was in the fight for my life,” de Gelder said. “It tore me to pieces. I was in agony.”

Eventually, the shark’s teeth sawed all the way through de Gelder’s leg and ripped out his hamstring. Since he wasn’t attached anymore, he was able to make it to the surface and began swimming back with one hand and one leg, through a pool of his own blood.

“When (my fellow Navy divers) got in close, the blood was so thick they could taste it in the air,” de Gelder said. “They got to me before the shark came back.”

He underwent emergency surgery and, partly because it was the first time in 60 years that there had been a shark attack in the harbor, de Gelder became the center of media attention. The chief of the Navy pledged in public that as long as de Gelder wanted a career, he would have one. That became a motivator for de Gelder.

“I was not going to be pushed under a desk,” de Gelder said. “I used that total fear of losing my career as a motivator to get me off my drugs earlier than I was supposed to, on prosthetics earlier than I was supposed to, and to get to the gym and relearn how to use my body and be physically fit.”

De Gelder managed to convince the Navy that he would be useful at diving school.

“I kept the impossible dream in front of me,” de Gelder said.

The Westside was the first place that de Gelder visited when he came to Los Angeles in 2016 and he was immediately enamored. As a health and fitness devotee, he sought out Gold’s Gym, known as the mecca of bodybuilding, and immediately began training there.

“I kind of stand out with a robot leg and a weightlifting arm with a big steel hook,” de Gelder said. “I train pretty hard, and I have a lot of people coming up to me constantly for a chat.”

He now resides in Marina del Rey because he needs to be near the ocean and LA holds a lot of work opportunities.

“I realized how little we have to fear from sharks and how much they have to fear from us,” de Gelder said. “We are wiping them out. My military training was about standing up for those who can’t stand up for themselves. This is just a transfer of standing up for others, for another species that can’t speak for themselves.”

During the pandemic, de Gelder wrote a new book, “Tough AF,” which addresses all the military physical training he went through. He also rewrote his first book, “No Time for Fear: How a Shark Attack Survivor Beat the Odds,” which is now called “Uncaged” and includes updates from the past eight years.

De Gelder continues to seek out adventure and insists that there is nothing wrong with being scared and doing something anyway — that being scared won’t kill you.

“I think that the worst thing you can do is decide to quit on your own happiness and your own drive,” de Gelder said.

“Happiness is found in adventure. Growth is found in uncomfortable scenarios. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. You’re never going to talk about those days you sat on the couch watching television. I like a little adventure.”

— Bridgette M. Redman