Survivor of shark attack lives to tell tale
A Westmoreland man who was almost killed in a shark attack in 2019 is counting his blessing and also imploring other fisherfolk to be careful when going about their duties.
From his New Market Oval home in the vicinity of Savanna-la-Mar, Audley Lewis’s face bore a pensive expression as he told the tale of his ordeal which sounded like a scene from a horror movie. The only evidence of fact is a maimed left hand which serves as a daily reminder to him that he is lucky to be alive.
Lewis, 61, told the Jamaica Observer that as a boy he had dreams of becoming a soldier but a bad knee shelved those plans. He, however, saw another way to survive at age 15 when a cousin introduced him to fishing. The rest, as they say, is history.
Four decades later would see Lewis, affectionately called Ugly, coming face to face with what he estimated to be an 18-foot tiger shark while on his daily hunt for fish and conch off the coast of the Pedro Cays.
“I knew that one day an attack would happen but I had no idea it would be a fight to survive. I was attacked before — more than five times — but it was nothing like that one,” Lewis said.
The former fisherman explained that on a typical day he would carry a fishing gun and fishing knife, but on the day he was attacked he took a broken bread knife with him as he only intended to get conch and do a bit of spear fishing.
While approximately 75 feet under water, Lewis, armed with his day’s catch of conch, said a turtle about 30 pounds swam past him and two other divers who accompanied him. After marvelling at the sea creature a glimpse to his back would mark the moment his life changed.
“As soon as the turtle swam off and I looked behind me, I saw the shark. It was approaching me straight. I think it was the turtle it rushed but I was in the way. I had my bag with the conch into it. It was about a 16 to 18 feet tiger shark. I know that when a shark approach you so near you can’t take it to the top. We were about 75 feet under so I know I couldn’t make it to the top before him come to me. I had to stay under the water and have my diving fins on the surface at the bottom. I had the bag of conch in front of me same way and him grab the bag.
“When him grab the bag, because it coarse as it is a net bag, him chop the bag. When him chop the bag I believe he was going to go for the rest of the conch because mi let go the conch gi him, enuh. After him rush mi and grab the bag, mi just ease off and gi him the bag. After mi gi him the bag now, him just have the bag a swim wid the bag and a chop it.
Lewis added: “So mi seh mi a go tek weh myself now and go close to the other two divers. When I was moving to the divers one mind seh look behind mi. Is the shark dat a come, as him chop the bag and swallow weh him have inna him mouth already. The current and the wave was rocking the bag. Mi believe more than less seh him a go just tek the rest a bag, chop it up and swallow all the conch dem. [But] him swim over the bag, so that time mi know say a me him a come to.”
Trying not to panic, Lewis said he positioned the bread knife in his hand and quickly devised a plan to escape death, leading to a tussle between himself and the massive tiger shark he was encountering.
“The knife was about the length of a pen as is a bread knife and mi cut off piece. So when he came at me I just slip him side way and start jook him. Him nuh bite mi yet, but me an him a fight and mi a jook him. Now the intensity it was coming at me with and the force I was sticking him with a create bubbles, so mi could hardly see him – only the teeth skinning and coming in same way. I was aiming for the eye but because of the anxiety and the anxiousness, it nah ketch him ina him eye ’cause him a rock him head same way a skin him teeth an a come enuh,” Lewis recounted.
The problem? The knife was dull.
“If the knife was sharp the shark would feel it and move but all the jook mi a jook it is like it rubbing it,” Lewis said, explaining that this underwater tug of war further angered the shark. “It can’t get a bite off me so him a get angrier. Him grab the regulator hose from the compressor and buss it, so I was now dependent on my natural breath. Pure breath mi a use and had to be going up for oxygen. Mi a jook him and a go up, then it grabbed my hand and started sawing it. I was still jooking him but saying please nuh mek him tek off my hand, but him a saw and a rock me hand till mi hear when it bruk like stick. Then it was pure blood all bout and mi watch the shark a chop chop the hand a go weh. That’s when the other two divers came over frightened. Dem nuh realise I never had the regulator hose so I grabbed theirs, took a draw from it and give him back. But him say, ‘No man, use it and tek time go up.’ “
On reaching the surface, Lewis said the men on the boat held on to the maimed arm, which caused him to slip from their grip and fall back into the water, almost in the jaws of the shark.
“I fell back in the water and drop on top of the shark. “I don’t know where I got the strength from but mi just kick him and the heel of my foot slid off him and I pumped up back and they grabbed my other hand and pulled me up in the boat,” he said.
While on the boat, Lewis said he began thinking that death was near as the two supporting boats developed problems and then the weather deteriorated.
“I was about 15 miles to the cay but then the two boats supporting the big boat were not working. Coming into Whitehouse, all I was saying is I just need to see the bluff (lighthouse) to know I am near to land. Half of the journey, here comes the weather. We had to cut off part of my diving suit and tie up my hand, but I was worried as the weather started and the boat slow down. I said, ‘Mi nah mek it, cause mi nah see the bluff and mi a bleed too much,’ “ he recalled.
Today, while he is otherwise healthy and happy to be alive, the ordeal has left him dependent on family and loved ones to survive.
“It has affected my livelihood a lot. It affect me a lot. It’s just my family – my girlfriend, son, siblings and others family members ensure I’m alright now. If that never happened I wouldn’t be here now. I would be at Pedro Cays,” Lewis told the Sunday Observer, while trying to remain upbeat.
Meanwhile, he said the most recent shark attack., which claimed the life of 53-year-old Donovan Haywood, has left fear amongst fisherfolk. However, he had some advice.
“There were too much divers at one place – too much heartbeat. The shark hear that many heartbeats and just come and approach the weaker one with the string. There are some fish that is very dangerous to catch – Wenchman (squirrel), Jack and grunt. The shark can stay miles and hear the grunting and know it’s a wounded fish and come near. But the shark can [also] pick up the heartbeat of a man for miles so all the divers can’t be one place,” Lewis said.
Further, Lewis said while he no longer goes out to sea, he will take a swim “every now and then”, but life, as it is, is learning to get by without his main livelihood.
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