LeRoy French - Underwater Stills and Videos and video sales

Underwater Photographer


Author's note: The following three part story is a true account of one of the first unprovoked Great White Shark attacks off the Northern California coast of the United States. Though I was on the receiving end of this attack, most people who know me know that I am a staunch environmentalist and supporter of the Shark Conservation Act 2009. Sharks are one of the most important members of our marine ecosystem and must be protected. Lose this animal and our ecosytem will start to crumble at a rapid rate.

PART ONE: The beginning: September 1962.

The night prior to this date was a restless one for me. I had a hard time falling asleep and when I finally did it was only for a few hours and then I awoke with my body dripping with sweat. It was the beginning of fall and the weather in the San Francisco area was cool, so I can’t blame my condition on hot weather.

I couldn’t stop thinking about what lay ahead the following day. A group of divers and myself had chartered a fishing boat out of San Francisco’s Fishermans Wharf to take us diving to the unexplored waters around the Farallon Islands 30 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge. As scuba diving was very new at the time we had no idea what the waters surrounding the Islands had in store for us. All I knew was while laying in bed in a cold sweat waiting for dawn to arrive I had a feeling of anxiety. I had this premonition that something was going to happen today but did not know whether it was good or bad. In a few hours I would find out.

When dawn finally arrived I packed my equipment and went to pick up my best friend and business partner Al Giddings. Al and I were the most experienced divers at the time and owners of the first dive shop in Marin County so we were leading the team of divers which numbered 14.

We arrived at Fishermans Wharf at 6:00am and met the captain of the fishing boat. The boat was 65’ long with a very high freeboard. It was one of the normal commercial boats that runs out of San Francisco daily and was not set up for diving. There was no dive ladder so getting in and out of the boat was very difficult. As we discussed the details of the trip with the captain, he made mention of the fact that he had been out to the Islands many times and that the surrounding waters were virtually untouched. In passing he also mentioned that he had noticed on occasion quite a few sharks in the area. We loaded up the boat and departed the dock. The day was shrouded in fog, and as we went under the Golden Gate I couldn’t shake this feeling of anxiety. I chalked it up to the fact that we were on another exciting adventure.

After about 3 hours we approached the southern most Island. I must say that between the fog and the barreness of these rocks sticking up out of the middle of the ocean it was a foreboding sight. The sea was calm but the underwater visibility looked poor. We asked the captain to anchor the boat on a submerged reef that he was familiar with. As nobody had ever been underwater here we had no idea what the marine life would look like. The anchor is set in a depth of 180 feet. We are located about a half a mile offshore and the shallowest point of the dive is about 60 feet.

We pepare to go in and I must say excitement is running high amongst the team. My earlier feelings had disappeared and I am ready for the dive. Al and myself are the first ones in the water and I am equipped with an underwater camera to record the dive. As I look down I notice that the visibilty is very poor but Al and I signal each other to start the dive. As we swim down we are going through a murky layer of water that extends from the surface down to about 30 feet. Once we penetrate this zone the water clears up and we can see the reef very easily. The dive was somewhat anticlimatic as we did not see that many fish. It was almost as though something had chased them all away. Our air starts to get low and we signal it's time to go up. As we started to ascend into this murky zone I got this spine chilling feeling that something was watching me.

PART TWO: Blood in the Water

As I make my ascent the feeling that something is watching me is overwhelming and I keep turning around hoping to see what it is that is causing this feeling. The murky area between 30 feet and the surface seems as though it never ends. The visibility is less that one meter, fortunately there is no current. What seems like an eternity finally comes to an end and I reach the surface. The equipment that I am wearing consists of a set of triple air tanks that extend out past my body on both sides and a new item called an inflateable diving vest. This was the first time I had ever used the vest.

I push my mask up on my forehead and try to locate the boat, it's about 100 yards away. I notice my partner Al reaching the boat and being helped on board. A 100 yard swim for me is not difficult, but what happens next makes it seem like it’s a 100 miles. With my mask on my forehead I roll over on my back, remove the regulator from my mouth and start to swim back to the boat. I am holding a camera housing in my right hand and my left hand is down along my side. After swimming half the distance back to the boat everything was going well until I feel a gentle tug on my left wrist. I thought maybe it was another diver so I look over but see nothing. At a second glance I see this huge pool of blood in the water. Events from this point on start to deteriorate at a rapid rate. I have no idea where this blood is coming from until I lift up my left arm and see this huge tear in my wetsuit and all the flesh torn away from my wrist. I can’t move my hand or fingers. My mind does not seem to register what’s happening until at that moment I see this enormous dorsal fin and tail directly in front of me and I know I’m in trouble. This is a 16 foot Great White Shark and he wants to eat me.

This animal weighs in at about 3000 lbs and anything that happens from this point on to save me is either luck or in somebody else's hands. The shark comes in with tremendous force and grabs me by the midsection. Fortunately the scuba tanks that extend past my body prevent him from doing any major damage. Once he feels the metal he releases me. At this point I start to yell for help. The divers on the boat are now witnessing a nightmare in the making.

The water around me becomes very calm and I feel as though the shark has left, but this was not to be. At that moment this huge mouth and head come out of the water and the shark grabs my left leg. Now I know that I am in a fight for my life. The shark pulls me underwater by my leg and starts thrashing back and forth. I’m about 10 feet underwater with no mask on and no air, and all I can think about is drowning. I immediately start to fight, and using my camera I hit the animal repeatedly on the nose and head and at the same time instinct and training kicks in and I pull the CO2 cartridge to inflate the diving vest and try to create some buoyancy. I continue hitting the shark, and during this time I remember saying the words ... ”please God make it go away”. I am not a real religious person, but I do attend church on occasion and I obviously believe in God because the most amazing thing happened at that moment. The shark let go and I floated to the surface. I start yelling again for help and my friend Al does the bravest thing a human can do for another. He goes the ultimate extra mile and puts his life on the line for me. He dives in the water and swims to me and tows me back to the boat without knowing whether the shark was still there or not. An incredibly brave feat.

We have no idea how badly I am hurt, but I can attest to the fact that there is a tremendous amount of blood in the water and I am going into shock.

PART 3: Rescue & Recovery

As I am being towed back to the boat by my friend Al Giddings all I can think about is the shark coming back and finishing me off while I leave this huge trail of blood behind me. Fortunately this does not happen and what seems like a lifetime finally comes to and end at the side of the boat.

The other divers onboard are looking down at me and wondering how they are going to get me in the boat considering its high freeboard and the absence of a ladder. After a quick evaluation it is decided that two divers will jump in the water with Al and help him boost me up high enough so the divers on board can lift me in. As they have no idea as to the extent of my injuries they try to do this as delicately as possible.

After an enormous effort they managed to get me in the boat and lay me on the deck. I am drifting in and out of shock and not fully aware of what is happening to me. One of the divers who has had training in first aid takes charge and swiftly looks me over. He examines my left leg and quickly applies a tourniquet to my thigh in the hopes of stopping the bleeding. (It turns out that this action saved my leg and my life). Another tourniquet is applied to my left arm and a makeshift t-shirt bandage is applied to my wrist. They decide to leave the wet suit on as it seems to be helping to stop the flow of blood. There are various other tears in the suit in the hip area and the right thigh. As they have done everything possible for me and have somewhat stabilized my wounds the Captain radios the U.S. Coast Guard for an emergency evacuation.

After an hour and a half the helicopter arrives and they lower a basket down and lift me into the chopper. I am flown back to Harbor Emergency Hospital which is located close to Fishermans Wharf and wheeled into an emergency room. On the way in the news media has heard about the attack and over 20 photographers and reporters are trying to get a story.

While in the emergency room the only person on duty was a nurse in training. She comes in and sees me on the table and immediately starts removing some of the wetsuit. As she is totally unfamiliar with a shark attack she peels back the sleeve on my left wrist and all I hear is a large gasp and “Oh my god!” This does not make me feel any better. She stops trying to remove the suit and asks me who my family doctor is. I tell her and she calls him to find out which hospital to send me to. Now the interesting part of all of this is at no time did I ever feel any pain. The shark's teeth were like razor blades so they went through my skin with out any hesitation.The fact that I was in shock also helped reduce any pain I might have felt. The nurse gave me some painkillers and put me in an ambulance to St. Mary’s Hospital. On arrival the media was going crazy, making it very difficult to get me into the emergency entrance. Finally once I was in I was wheeled up to the operating rooms. My doctor arrives who is our family physician and also a surgeon. I still have my wetsuit on and he takes one look at me and as he is not known for his bedside manner says “LeRoy this doesn’t look good!”

He orders my wetsuit off and finds over 25% of my left calf missing. All the tendons are severed in my left wrist. The sciatic nerve in my left hip has been damaged. My left ankle has numerous cuts and punctures. The back of my right thigh has punctures in it. I have lost over half the blood in my body. Keep in mind that this is one of the first shark attacks in this area and my doctor has never seen or treated one before.

I won’t go into any more details but I spent 8 hours on the operating table that day and had 4 blood transfusions. I awoke the next day and the first thing I asked the nurse was, “do I still have my leg?” She nodded and said yes and explained that my doctor had done a fantastic job. Unfortunately it’s not quite over, I had to have three more operations and a skin graft. During the 3 months I was in the hospital I got a staff infection that delayed my eventual release. I was interviewed by the Shark Research Institute, TV stations, Smithsonian Institute and countless reporters.

Finally when I was released from the hospital I spent 4 months going through physical therapy and rehabilitation. During this time I had not gone back in the ocean and knew that some day I would have to face it. Well that day came when my brother said, “we are going up the Northern Coast tomorrow to go diving.” I said I didn’t feel well enough and he said “I’ll be by in the morning to pick you up.” We arrived at the seashore and I put on my wetsuit. My brother took my hand and led me into the sea like a child. A piece of kelp touched my left leg on the way in and I practically broke my brother's hand. And so my love affair with the ocean continues after a minor interruption.

So here I am today over 40 years later and thousands of hours underwater, with all the wounds a thing of the past, filming and defending the magnificent creature that almost cost me my life. We as humans must use all means at our disposal to protect our oceans and reefs. This area is vital to human existence.

The main question everybody asks me. Do I have any of the sharks teeth that attacked me? The answer is yes, I still have a tooth in my left leg that was not removed during surgery, and no, I have never experienced nightmares about the incident.