Real Life

What it's like to be attacked by a great white shark: Barry Watkins' survival story nearly 50 years on

After getting a surfboard as a youngster, Barry was hooked. But an unlucky encounter meant that he never surfed on his home beach again.

On March 30, 1971, Barry Watkins, then 16, was attacked by a great white shark while surfing on St Clair Beach in Dunedin. In his own words, he tells how that event still impacts him today...
I was wagging from school the day the shark got me.
I was 16 and had a new surfboard I bought off a guy in Christchurch for $70. I'd only used it half a dozen times.
There had been recent deaths from shark attacks on that beach, including a friend of the family, Bill Black, who basically got eaten whole. But I was young and silly, and I loved surfing. It gets to you.
After getting a surfboard as a youngster, Barry was hooked and even wagged school to ride the waves.
There were guys out there surfing the afternoon after I got taken to hospital from the shark attack.
When it happened, I thought I'd been hit by a boat because I was dragged below the water and held under. It was like a vice clamp held me there. I couldn't get to the surface and I was running out of air when it let me go.
I looked down and there was this huge head of a fish holding on to my leg and my surfboard.
I remember the eyes – these huge bloody eyes. From the bite marks, we worked out that the shark was about four or five metres long.
I managed to get on my board and paddle back to the beach. They stitched me up in hospital and I was mobile again after two weeks.
A news clipping shows the gory scene when Barry was brought out of the water, on the beach where a surfer had been eaten whole in a previous attack.
The attack changed my life in a lot of ways. First it taught me that I had been given a second chance at life and that I might as well enjoy everything I can. When you have that experience, you realise how quickly your life can disappear.
I now know how lucky I was that day because a zoologist examined my surfboard after the attack and told me that because the broken surfboard lodged in the back of the shark's mouth, he couldn't do what they usually do when they bite, which is clamp their jaws together and thrash their heads around to rip out the flesh. This shark couldn't close his mouth, so he released, and that is why I still have a leg and a life today.
My leg has never really caused me any pain, although I have got a hernia, so there's a bit of a bulge where the internal stitches broke and a bit of meat pokes through the hole. Cold mornings aren't great – it aches like hell then.
I'm 64 now, and I realise that the attack made me respect the environment more and improved my common sense because I tended to just get in there holus-bolus. But now I think a little bit more and approach things in a different way.
I used to think I was bulletproof, but now I realise there are a lot of greater powers out there than what I know.
I am quite obsessed with shark attacks and follow every one of them really closely. There was one just the other day that was similar to mine and I am still amazed that another attack hasn't happened in Dunedin.
I can't surf in Dunedin.
The broken board is a reminder of that fateful day.
I did try, but I'd go paddling out there, then the first thing I'd do was find some other surfers and go sit in the middle of them. I'd be breathing really fast and my head would be spinning around like a top looking in all directions. I was too scared.
So I took up scuba diving because I wanted to get back in the water, just not on a surfboard. But that didn't work out either. I breathed so fast that I went through a tank of air 20 minutes faster than anyone else.
I moved to Levin when my marriage broke up – not because there is no surf. I have been a single dad to my two kids for 20 years.
Barry's scrapbook is another reminder. "I am obsessed with shark attacks and follow every one of them closely," he says.
When I can, I'll drive over to Wairarapa for a surf, and I've travelled to Australia, Indonesia and the Phillipines to surf – just not Dunedin.
Recently, I went down in a cage to look at some great white sharks. I just wanted to have another look at what those things are like and I was not disappointed.
What has been amazing to me, and a real life-changer, is that so many people love to talk about the shark attack, especially kids – they just love a good shark story and I'm always happy to give them one.
Barry went on to surf overseas, just never again in Dunedin. "I was too scared," he admits.
My kids wound me up through their school years because I was wagging when it happened. When I got back to school, the headmaster at the assembly got up and said, "I just want to let all you pupils know that it is not school policy to feed truants to the sharks."
Everyone started applauding and I thought, "You cunning bugger – you had the last say after all."
Barry Watkins is a tiler and stone layer in Levin. He has two children who don't surf.

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