After having his leg bitten off by a Great White shark 10 years ago, “Shark Boy” Achmat Hassiem is the last person you’d expect to be fighting a crusade to save the species.
But then again, 34-year-old Hassiem from Strandfontein is not your average guy.
He is a Paralympic swimmer who won bronze in the 100m butterfly at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, and was a finalist at Rio 2016 from which he recently returned.
In an interview with the African News Agency (ANA) on the sidelines of the 17th Conference of the Parties (CoP 17), Achmat explained how the shark attack in August 2006 during a lifeguard training exercise in Muizenberg changed his life forever.
“My life since the shark attack has become phenomenal and so many opportunities have come my way, opportunities that other people only dream of,” he said.
“Last year I was invited to New York by the United Nations where I was awarded a Global Sharks Guardian Award for my work in shark conservation.”
One hundred million sharks are killed each year, most of it for shark fins which are used in soups and for medicinal purposes.
Reflecting on that life-changing day in August 2006, Achmat said he, his brother Tarek, a cousin and several other lifeguards were practising multiple patient rescue drills.
He noticed a 4.7m great white shark swimming towards Tarek, and in an act of extreme courage started splashing the water to draw the shark’s attention away from his brother.
The shark turned towards Achmat, allowing lifeguards to pull his brother into the rescue boat.
But then the shark started nudging Achmat’s side.
“Panic set in but I tried to push the shark’s snout and jaws away but it kept coming for me. I then tried to swing my right leg over its back to make it harder for it to attack me,” Hassiem told ANA.
“However, as I tried to swing my leg over I noticed that half my leg was already in the shark’s mouth but I still didn’t feel any pain due to the fear and adrenaline and my state of shock.
“The shark then shook me like a rag doll from side to side. I screamed to my brother, ‘Tarek please don’t let me die’.”
Achmat was pulled underwater by the shark for about 50 metres.
As he ran out of breath, he decided to fight, kicking and punching the shark. The shark shook him again, snapping off the lower half of his leg.
He managed to swim to the surface, gasped for air and screamed for help.
Tarek pulled Achmat into the boat and the shark returned, repeatedly battering the bootjie.
“My brother covered my eyes with one of his hands so that I couldn’t see my leg and with the other hand tried to stem the bleeding from below the knee where the shark had bitten the lower half off,” he says.
While in hospital he was approached by Natalie du Toit, the world Paralympic champion who encouraged him to take up competitive swimming.
“I took to the pool like a shark takes to the ocean,” laughs Achmat.