Diver Paul Egleston is healing and in good spirits after being bitten by a nurse shark on Saturday.
Egleston, 70, had been hunting for lionfish on the north side of Grand Cayman in a culling tournament when the nurse shark bit him behind his left knee. The veteran diver made it back to the surface and is being treated at Cayman Islands Hospital.
“It was actually not bad,” said Egleston of the damage to his leg. “It just tore a chunk off. It didn’t do any nerve damage or any ligament damage. It hurts when I move. It hurts when I get up. If you touch it, it hurts pretty good. Lying still, it’s not bad. … Right now, we’re just staying here and keeping it from getting infected for a few days. We’re going to put on a skin graft on it probably tomorrow.”
Egleston, a dive instructor who teaches a lionfish hunting course, said that he had never had reason to fear an encounter with a nurse shark before. Moray eels are a known concern when culling lionfish, he said, but he has been around nurse sharks while culling before and never seen this type of behaviour.
“This one started bothering me. At first, it came up from behind and banged into me,” he said. “I thought, ‘What the hell was that?’ I thought [a fellow diver] was tapping me to tell me something. It just kept harassing me and harassing me. In my mind, it’s a nurse shark so it’s not going to do anything. I’ll just go about my business. But then I was just swimming along and looking for fish, and it wasn’t that long later. It just [attacked] my leg. I turned around, the thing had grabbed on and was shaking my leg.”
Egleston said there’s no doubt in his mind that the nurse shark that attacked him has been conditioned to eat lionfish. He could tell by its behaviour, he said, that the shark had previous encounters with divers that had fed it. That practice isn’t just illegal; it endangers anyone who happens to be following the law.
Mark Orr, a chief conservation officer with the Department of Environment, issued a general statement on Sunday speaking to the reasons why regulations have been placed on lionfish cullers.
“Lionfish culling licence conditions require cullers to place all lionfish in containers and remove them from the water once caught,” said Orr in an email to a request for comment. “No feeding of marine life is allowed while scuba diving or snorkeling except in designated wildlife interaction zones.”
Jason Washington, president of the Cayman United Lionfish League, said that Egleston is an old friend and former employee of his at Ambassador Divers. Washington was in a boat around 100 yards away from Egleston’s on Saturday, and he said all cullers are endangered by the practice of a few divers.
“What’s happening is a few bad players are swimming around with spears but without their containment device,” he said. “When they do come across a lionfish, they’re able to take it. But when they do take it, they don’t have a place to put it, so they swim around and try to find something to feed it to. … The problem comes when responsible cullers like Paul are out culling and they put the fish in a bucket. The nurse shark swims up and they want the fish. You don’t have the ability to feed it the lionfish. You’re trying to do the right thing and take them to the surface responsibly.”
Washington said there is an obvious danger in conditioning sharks to associate divers with food. He said that local divers do not carry a shark trauma kit because it’s “super rare” to be bitten by a nurse shark. Egleston reacted to the attack in textbook fashion, said Washington, because of extensive training.
“He was very composed,” said Washington. “He did a safety stop. He didn’t drop his bucket. He came up with his spear. He came up with all his stuff intact. Paul worked for me for years. He’s a dive instructor and not too many people in that situation would’ve handled it as calmly as he did. That’s a great thing, because if we’re talking about a tourist, we’re talking about a whole different ball of wax.”
One of Egleston’s Australian friends texted him Sunday and joked that he might be in the Guinness Book of World Records for worst attack from a nurse shark.
Egleston, his sense of humour intact, said Sunday that he drove his own boat back to shore because he didn’t want anyone else banging the boat around and further injuring his leg. He’s currently on a sabbatical from working as a dive instructor, and he said he’ll have no fear about getting back into the water once his leg heals.
And if he could impart one message to fellow divers, it would be this: They shouldn’t be worried either.
“People shouldn’t feel that they have to be concerned about nurse sharks. They’re not aggressive,” he said. “On a positive note, what I would say is that a lionfish is not something a nurse shark naturally eats. For people afraid to try lionfish, here’s a nurse shark that went to all that trouble just to eat lionfish.”