Paul de Gelder Headshot

There's Nothing Left To Be Afraid Of

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Jeff Rotman via Getty Images
Paul de Gelder Headshot

There's Nothing Left To Be Afraid Of

Posted: Updated:

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

I must surely have a unique perspective on the subject of being eaten alive because, well, I have been. I lost my right arm from my elbow down to a shark and most of my right leg. But, strange as it might sound, I still don't bear the creatures any ill-will. In fact, I'm the first person to support the cause of shark preservation.

I've always been terrified of sharks. So even I found it a bit odd that I chose a career as an Australian Navy Clearance Diver. Then again, I've never been accused of doing anything too smart. But, doing my job, even my buddies knew that I was scared and used to pin pictures of giant Great Whites on my locker at work. Yet it was never enough to stop me. I had a job to do, a mission to complete, a task at hand and that always came first.

Besides, I told myself, I had more chance of dying on my motorbike on the way to work than when I was diving. That's what I reminded myself when I was underwater and started seeing shadows moving in the murk anyway. And the fateful day, four years ago, that a bull shark finally got me, I didn't see it coming... I was taking part in an anti-terrorism exercise, and I'd been swimming on my back.

So as someone growing up scared of sharks, I completely understand other people's fear; that all-encompassing terror of being torn to shreds in front of your own eyes. I get it, and I've coached many people to battle that and to be able to enter the ocean for the first time.

Because, of course, from the beginning of time, humans have feared what they don't understand and then tried to kill their enemies. We're seeing that happening right now with the Western Australian government deploying drum lines and killing sharks indiscriminately. They reckon that is much easier than to live happily alongside them. Meanwhile, those who preach saving animals and the planet are routinely portrayed as tree-hugging hippies with dreadlocks and smelly armpits.

But the world is changing and that's just as well because the planet and its inhabitants are in dire trouble. All of us.

Is it really logical to fear being eaten by a shark so much when far more people get killed crossing the street while looking at their smart phones? We have exponential world population growth creating massive shortages in food stocks, civil war in a post U.S.-stabilized Iraq disrupting fuel supplies, religious zealots murdering thousands, storm fronts wiping out whole towns, sink holes sucking up streets, mosquito-borne diseases killing over 700,000 people a year and more people killing themselves each year than are ever nibbled by sharks. We clearly need much more protection from ourselves.

On the plus side, science and technology are allowing us to re-align the balance between mother earth and ourselves. And thank God for those smart people, I say. Without them, I'd be walking around on a peg leg with a hook hand instead of this electronic leg with six micro processors, a gyroscope, an accelerometer and a hand that functions by measuring the electrical impulses created by the flexion of my forearm muscles. For a double amputee, I have an incredible quality of life.

At the same time, scientists have created a banana with six times the amount of vitamin A, which could potentially save so many lives blighted by malnutrition around the world. An Australian solar plant has generated "supercritical" steam that rivals fossil fuels. Tesla has created the first commercially available electric sports car, and it looks awesome. And another bunch of scientists, we now know, have created a shark-deterrent wetsuit to protect ourselves and, in turn, protect our sharks.

What a great idea! As well as looking after ourselves, we really need to look after our wildlife, too. It's the breadth and diversity of the animals that exist on our planet that help make our own lives so rich and meaningful. David Attenborough and the late Steve Irwin have for decades been attempting to share this wondrous world with all of us in the hope that we might find the same love for it that they have and to inspire others into acting as guardians against those that would do them harm.

There are not many of us who are going to go through an encounter with our worst nightmare that leave us with vital bits missing and with nothing left to fear. But our world is made more amazing by its danger, more exciting with its risks. People are hurt and killed every minute of every day, and yet we're not cave-dwelling troglodytes living in fear of everything around us.

Instead we embrace our world and relish in its grandeur. My message is to be inspired and amazed and frightened at its beauty and danger but, more importantly, do what you can to protect it and all that it holds before there's nothing left to love... or to be afraid of.

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