Shark Attack!

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Be forewarned. There are no traces of my trademark dry humor to be found
in this story and there’s no happy ending. It’s probably as close as
I’ve come to my trip to Valhalla. In October of 1972 it happened like

Rod Temple and Robbie McIlvaine were waiting for me when I drove up
to the beach at Cane Bay on St. Croix’s north shore. This area of the
Virgin Islands had some of the best wall diving in the eastern
Caribbean and the drop off was an easy swim from shore eliminating a
long boat ride from Christiansted. We unloaded our gear and began to
dress under the shade of the palms while a dozen or so tourists
watched with interest. Diving was still not an every day sport for
most people and the double tanks and underwater camera equipment we
dragged into place and began to assemble held a certain fascination.

We were setting off to recover some samples from a collecting
experiment we have placed on the wall for a local marine science lab.
Six days before we had positioned our large support float right over
the drop off with the research vessel and carefully loaded our
sediment traps, nets and lines so they’d be ready for positioning in
various locations in the shallow patch reef and the deep wall. Today
we planned to inspect one project at 210 feet and shoot some
photography of the area. Rod transferred the dive profile and
decompression information to his slate as Robbie and I rounded up the
remainder of the equipment and walked into the warm ocean to begin
our leisurely surface swim to the float station about 300 yards

We’d done Cane Bay hundreds of times in the last two years both for
work and for fun. And this October morning was no different than
scores of others as we snorkeled over the clear sand a few feet
beneath our fins. As usual, Rod struck a livelier pace and forged on
ahead while we wallowed in his wake towing the photo gear and another
plexi-glass marine specimen trap the lab wanted set in the chute that
spilled over the wall.

Reaching the float, Robbie retrieved the snap swivels that would
anchor the trap into our rope grid strung on the wall face. Rod
reviewed the deco schedule, “Look, if we can get this thing set up
and check out the project at 210 in fifteen minutes, we can save a
lot of decompression. Can you do the photos in that time frame if I
run the lines on the plexi trays?

“Sure,” I replied, “but don’t go wandering off in case Robbie needs
help getting snapped in with the trap. That thing’s a bitch to swim

“No problem,” Rod smiled back. “I don’t mind doing the heavy work for
you lazy Yanks.”

His British enthusiasm belied the fact that Robbie and I were about
twice his size and strength although he was older and more
experienced. We both gave him an “up yours” salute knowing full well
that any heavy lifting always came our way while Rod handled the
paperwork. As the timekeeper and dive leader, he would keep track of
our dive profile, work in progress, remaining air status, and then
run the deco schedule.

He eased away from the float and we began to swim the short distance
over the deep blue that marked the drop off. The visibility was
great, over 125 feet horizontally and even better looking up and
down. A mild swell wrapped around the point and the sea was calm. Two
of the Navy vessels that we worked with on submarine listening tests
were just a few miles offshore and we could hear their acoustical
sound generators pinging away as we descended.

Rod settled in on top of the wall at 100 feet and we joined up to
check gauges before slipping over in a gentle glide to the first
workstation at 180 feet. Robbie re-arranged the open ends of the
traps to aim in the west quadrant this week and I fired off photos to
record the scene. Most of the scientists who contracted us didn’t do
much diving themselves and they insisted on reams of photography so
they could get an accurate idea of conditions in the deep-water zones
they were studying.

Signaling that we were finished, Rod led us over the coral buttresses
and came to rest next to the deep project. It had slid a bit deeper
during the week so Robbie and I eased it back into position and hoped
it would stay put this time. This occupied our attention for most of
ten minutes when Rod excitedly tapped me on the shoulder to point out
the approach of two oceanic whitetip sharks. This was nothing new to
us as we dove with sharks routinely but it was rare to see these
notoriously aggressive open ocean species in so close to shore. They
passed within about ten feet of us and I shot a few photos as they
swam off to the east.

We finished up the required observations and Rod filled out the field
logs on his slate. Right on schedule he indicated; we were going to
get out with only about 20 minutes of deco it looked like. Robbie
started up first and pointed out the sharks again as they swam by him
headed over the coral and down into the sand chute. I remember
thinking how strange it was to see pelagic oceanic whitetips right
here on the wall at Cane Bay. It was kind of like walking off your
back porch and seeing an African lion when you expected an alley cat.

We’d had our fair share of nasty encounters with these whitetips when
we worked offshore. They were immortalized in the classic documentary
movie Blue Water, White Death released about a year and half earlier
starring Stan Waterman, Peter Gimbel, and Ron & Valerie Taylor. Their
daring to swim with hundreds of these predators while they fed on a
whale carcass off South Africa had been permanently etched into every
diver’s memory of that era. The sharks frequently bit our equipment,
the steel cables deployed from the research vessel, and even the
shafts and propellers on occasion. We were convinced that they would
bite us as well once they got going and never turned our backs on
them without another diver riding shotgun. But these two didn’t seem
to pay us any attention and I turned to begin the ascent behind Robbie.

Our plan called for Rod to be the last guy up. I rendezvoused with
Robbie at about 175 just over a ledge and we both rested on the coral
to wait for him to join us. He was late and Robbie fidgeted pointing
to his pressure gauge not wanting to run low on air. I shrugged and
gave him a “What am I supposed to do?” look and we continued to wait.
Suddenly Robbie dropped his extra gear and catapulted himself toward
the wall pointing at a mass of bubble exhaust coming from the deeper

We both figured that Rod had some sort of air failure either at the
manifold of his doubles or a regulator. Since my air consumption was
markedly less, I decided to send Robbie up and I would go see if Rod
needed help. As I descended in the bubble cloud, Robbie gave me an
anxious OK sign and started up.

But when I reached Rod things were about as bad as they could get.
One of the sharks had bitten him on the left thigh without
provocation and blood was gushing in green clouds from the wound. I
was horrified and couldn’t believe my eyes. He was desperately trying
to beat the 12-foot animal off his leg and keep from sinking deeper.
I had no idea where the second shark was and lunged to grab his right
shoulder harness strap to pull him up.

Almost simultaneously the second shark hit Rod in the same leg and
bit him savagely. I could see Rod desperately gouging at the shark’s
eyes and gills as he grimly fought to beat off his attackers. With my
free hand I blindly punched at the writhing torsos of the animals as
they tore great hunks of flesh from my friend in flashes of open jaws
and vicious teeth. Locked in mortal combat, we both beat at the
sharks in frantic panic.

And then they suddenly let go. I dragged Rod up the sand chute…  half
walking and half swimming. Once clear of the silt I could see Robbie
about 100 feet above us looking on in horror. He started down to us
as I lifted Rod off the bottom and kicked with all my might toward
the surface.

But in less than fifteen seconds the first shark returned and hit him
again and began towing us both over the drop off. The attack had
probably only lasted a minute at this point but Rod had lost a huge
amount of blood and tissue and had gone limp in my grasp. I was still
behind him clutching his right harness strap as the second larger
shark hit him again on the opposite side down around the left calf.
Like the other, this shark bit and hung on as we tumbled down the
wall face.

We were dropping rapidly now completely out of control. My efforts to
kick up were fruitless as the sharks continued to bite and tear at
their victim, all the while dragging us deeper. I felt Rod move again
to fend off another attack and my hopes soared upon realizing that he
was still alive. I clung briefly to the edge of the drop off wall to
arrest our rapid descent. The coral outcropping gave us some slight
protection and for a moment the attacks stopped.

Both sharks retreated into the blue and I watched them circle our
position from about ten feet away. To my horror I saw one shark
swallow the remains of Rod’s lower left leg right before my eyes. The
other gulped a mouthful of flesh it had torn off. I tried to push Rod
into the coral in an effort to shield him from another attack but
there was nothing to afford any real shelter. As I turned away from
the waiting predators, Rod and I came face to face for the first time
during the attack. He shook his head weakly and tried to push me
away. I grabbed for his waist harness for a new grip and felt my hand
sink into his mutilated torso. There was no harness left to reach
for. He had been partially disemboweled.

Shrieking into my mouthpiece in fury, I pulled him from the coral and
took off pumping for the surface with him clutched to my chest.
Immediately the sharks were on us again. I felt the larger one
actually force me to one side as it savagely sought to return to the
wounds that gushed billows of dark blood into the ocean around us.
Rod screamed for the last time as the second shark seized him by the
mid-section and shook him. The blue water turned horribly turbid with
bits of human tissue and blood. Once we were turned completely over
and I felt Rod torn away from me.

I watched his lifeless body drift into the abyss with the sharks
still hitting him. The attack had started around 200 feet. My depth
gauge was pegged at 325 feet now but I knew we were far deeper than
that. The grimness of my own situation forced itself on me through a
fog of narcosis and exertion.

That’s when I ran out of air. I think that subconsciously I almost
decided to stay there and die. It seemed so totally hopeless and my
strength was completely sapped. But I put my head back and put all my
muscle and effort into a wide steady power kick for the surface. I
forced all thoughts to maintaining that kick cycle and willed myself

After what seemed like an eternity I sneaked a look at my depth
gauge: it was still pegged at 325 feet. I sucked hard on the
regulator and got a bit of a breath. Not much, but it fueled my
oxygen starved brain a bit longer and I prayed my legs would get me
up shallow enough to get another breath before the effects of hypoxia
shut my systems down forever.

There’s really no way to describe what it’s like to slowly starve the
brain of oxygen in combination with adrenaline-induced survival
instincts. But I remember thinking if I could just concentrate on
kicking I could make it. After a while the sense of urgency faded and
I remember looking for the surface through a red haze that gradually
closed down into a tunnel before I passed out. The panic was gone and
I went to sleep thinking “Damn, I almost made it.”

I woke up on the surface retching and expelling huge belches of
expanding air. Apparently the small volume of air in the vintage
safety vest I wore had been enough to float me the final distance and
save my life. But I still had to deal with an unknown amount of
omitted decompression and the certainty that I was severely bent.

Swimming to shore as fast I could, I felt my legs going numb. By the
time I reached the beach I could barely stand. A couple on their
honeymoon waded out and dragged me up on the sand. I gasped out
instructions to get the oxygen unit from our van and collapsed. In an
incredible burst of good fortune, it turned out the wife was an ER
nurse from Florida and understood the pathology of decompression
sickness. They got a steady flow of oxygen into me and ran to call
the diving emergency numbers that I directed her to on the dive

I drifted away again into unconsciousness and was revived at the
airport where a med-evac flight was waiting to fly me to Puerto Rico.
But the Navy chamber at the base on the island’s west end was down
and it was decided to take me to the only other functional facility
up on the island’s northwest corner nearly 200 miles farther away.
But the flight crew was afraid I wouldn’t make it when we ran low on
oxygen shortly after passing San Juan. So they had the police stop
traffic on the main divided highway and landed on the road where a
waiting Coast Guard helicopter snatched me away to the hospital roof.

Two days later I was released but with residual numbness in my arms
and legs, substantial hearing loss, and legal blindness in my right
eye that persisted until corrected by modern laser surgery in 1997.

Robbie’s last view of Rod and me was as we were dragged over the wall
in a cloud of blood by the sharks. He never saw my free ascent and so
reported us both killed when he got to shore. It was not until I
called my dad from the hospital a day later that he knew I had survived.

A week later we had Rob’s memorial service at the beach. I resumed
diving the next day. His body was never recovered.

Aftermath: this attack in 1972 was widely reported and shark experts
speculate that the oceanic whitetips may have been attracted and then
stimulated by the low frequency sound in the water from the nearby
submarine testing. The previous deepest depth that a diver survived a
free ascent from was 180 feet. Gilliam was probably closer to 400
feet. He was cited for heroism by the Virgin Islands government for
risking his own life to try to save his partner. In 1993, British
television (BBC) produced a special on the incident as part of a
series called “Dead Men’s Tales”.

This piece was included in the books Great Shark Encounters! (1999)
and Mark of the Shark (2001)

Additionally published in Outside, Scuba Times, Rodale’s Scuba Diving
and several foreign magazines.

Author notes:

Bret Gilliam has been diving professionally for 38+ years with over
18,000 dives logged. His diving companies included publishing,
manufacturing, resorts, liveaboards, cruise ships, training agencies,
and operations consulting. He now makes his home on an island in
Maine while still traveling the world leading specialized diving
expeditions. He can be contacted at:

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44 comments for “Shark Attack!

  1. Jonathan Edwards
    September 12, 2009 at 7:39 am

    Fantastic article–fascinating! I had always heard vague stories of this tragedy and never knew what to think about what may have happened. It’s great to finally hear the real story and try to imagine what it must have been like to be so intimately involved with this savage attack and still be here to relate the play-by-play description of the events. Great writing.
    Write us some more. Tell us more adventures

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  2. "Digger" Rowe
    September 12, 2009 at 4:52 pm

    What a read!!!

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  3. September 14, 2009 at 9:38 pm

    What a compelling story! I read the blog this morning and am still haunted by the images this afternoon. The fact that I once saw a large black tip shark lurking near the wall during a dive at Cane Bay made the story even more poignant. Glad you’re still with us Bret.

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  4. Lauren Greider
    September 21, 2009 at 11:40 pm

    OMG…my heart rate is racing just reading this. I’m surprised the sharks didn’t go after you. We apparently had an oceanic white tip hanging out above us on a night dive in Raja Ampat and never knew it. Would you dive the blue water mangroves of Misool (crocodile risk) or have you become more cautious?

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  5. Bret Gilliam
    September 22, 2009 at 12:51 am


    Your comments are well-addressed and I’ll share some perspective.

    Although I didn’t know it then, it turns out that most shark attack victims are the sole target and rescuers usually are not the main subjects of interest. I got pretty banged up with contusions, scrapes, and skin tears from the sharks’ fins and rough exterior but wasn’t bitten. In fact, I mentioned that one shark actually pushed me out of the way to gain access to the victim’s wounds where he had already been struck. It was a horrifying experience but what should have killed me was running out of air at nearly 400 foot depth and then omitting nearly an hour of decompression. But I was young, an ex-college football player in great physical condition, a champion free diver who could regularly hit 150-175 foot depths holding my breath and spearfishing, and extremely strong with a fierce will to live. That’s what got me back to the surface. The immediate access to 100% O2 by demand mask helped control the DCS until I was evacuated to the chamber. In all, I was both lucky and tragic simultaneously.

    My good friend Al Giddings, the famous underwater Hollywood director who did everything from The Deep, The Abyss, to Titanic as well as scores of documentaries once jumped into the water from the safety of a dive boat off San Francisco’s Farallon Islands around 1965 when his friend was nearly swallowed whole by a great white shark. Al swam to the victim, grabbed him, and beat off the shark while he dragged the guy back to the boat where he was hauled aboard. In this instance, he also was spared attack although he got banged up pretty badly as well.

    As to the crocs: the guy who was recently attacked is a good friend of mine (David Shem-Tov) from London. He has been on many of my custom trips to Cocos, Indonesia, the Solomons etc. It’s a miracle that he survived but he did so by fighting back with such vigor and poking the croc in the eyes that it finally released him. He suffered a broken arm and two broken wrists as well as massive skin trauma. He was evacuated to Singapore for nearly two weeks of treatment and called from the hospital for some special medical and legal advice. He will recover completely but with some interesting scars to win any bar room tales of diving bravado.

    I was attacked/pursued by a croc in the Solomons in November 2008 but it was my own fault as I approached it way back in a shallow water cave and my camera strobe finally pissed it off as I was taking photos. I fended it off with my camera housing and fought my way out of the cave and up onto the reef to safety. But it was my own actions that precipitated the croc’s aggressive behavior. If I had not approached so closely taking photos with a 12mm lens, it would probably have left me alone. So I can’t blame anyone but myself for that incident. Don’t you know that all great photographers are completely insane underwater?

    I’m not sure what the policy about diving that area of Misool is after Shem-Tov’s attack. I had been in the same region only about a week before. Go figure…


    Thanks for your input!

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  6. kay
    March 2, 2010 at 4:12 am

    Hi – I have been swimming with sharks for many years and have never seen an “attack” that actually had the shark consume part of an actual body. Shark attacks are mistaken identity or something else is going on. While any death of a diver/swimmer is horrible and tragic we need to also look at what we were doing when it happened. The noise from the research vessle, equipment being deployed in the water all lends itself to the situation. Two of my very close friends were diving about 1 1/2 miles off some sub testing and had physically issues that were later confirmed as a result of the testing. We know that ocean animals have also been stranded and have had other issues due to this. I have dove with tigers, hammerheads, oceanics, makos, blues in open waters and unless something is triggered or you are splashing around there are no attacks. My question is this – it appeared that Rod was left by himself at a depth that you shouldn’t be by yourself especially when it was known that there were sharks nearby. I should tell you at this point that I am a solo diver as well however to be alone at that depth is not responsible even if you have sucessfully done it before.

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  7. kay
    March 2, 2010 at 4:16 am

    The other question I would have is why did you run out of air? No extra tanks slung or dropped waiting? In no way am I trying to make light or point blame but 1 person died and 1 nearly died. Clearly there should have been better dive decisions made as well. Thank you.Kay

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  8. Leanne Bentley
    March 2, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    Wow. What a shocking story. As a diver with, I have always felt quite safe around sharks, and have dived with lots of them – from masses of night-feeding white tips to tigers. I had never heard of an unprovoked attack on a diver before, so this shocked me. On a recent trip to the southern Red Sea in Egypt, there were more oceanics than I have ever seen before. They followed our dive boat between dive sites – we watched them doing it! They circled our dive boat all day and night. They circled us as we were trying to surface and one was inches from my backside as I tried to get into the zodiac. We also heard tales of aggressive behaviour towards divers at a popular site called Elphinstone, again, harassing people as they were trying to surface. I have dived the Red Sea for 14 years and have decided I probably won’t go back because of the oceanics and their clear escalation of aggressive behaviour. They are becoming accustomed to divers and expect food from the diveboats with which they are associated.

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  9. Bret Gilliam
    March 2, 2010 at 1:50 pm

    Let me offer some clarity to the posts made by “Kay”. While your input is probably well-intended, you have to remember that this dive and the attack was nearly 40 years ago. Equipment was not what it is today. For example, the low pressure BC inflator had only been invented about 10 months before and the BC itself had barely evolved past the original CO2 powered “safety vests”. There were not a lot of options for how we rigged ourselves. Also, our team were professional divers, not sport divers. Independence and diving at great depths were all part of the job. This stuff was way beyond the reach of sport divers then… and now. We were equipped for the dive plan that day: double Navy-90 cu. ft. cylinders, Scubapro Mark V regs with inflators, BCs, and octopus 2nd stages. Also, heavy tools and camera gear. In this type of diving, you dress for the “occasion”. We were supposed to be working a maximum of around 190 feet.

    You ask, “How did I run out of air?” Well, I was pulled down to close to 400 feet while trying to fight off two sharks attacking my friend. I ad already done a nearly 20 minute working dive at 180 ft. Do you think your air would last under those circumstances? Do you think could survive a free ascent from that depth? Your SpareAir or sling tank (in today’s era) wouldn’t get you up either…

    Also, it seems you don’t have much experience with pelagic oceanic whitetip sharks. They will attack anything, unprovoked. And they do so without warning. About six months after this incident I was hired for a project with the Cousteau’s on Calypso filming whales in the open ocean miles offshore. Phillippe Cousteau told me then he thought oceanic whitetips were the most dangerous animal in the water and he freaked out about the numbers of them we had to work with. He knew about my attack survival and thought it was a miracle. By the way, the Cousteau team then didn’t even wear BCs… much less extra second stages or other such gear. That was standard practice 40 years ago.

    Oceanic whitetips are responsible for some of the most massive attacks in history including killing nearly 900 sailors that drifted on the surface following the sinking of the navy ship Indianapolis in 1945. They are also the ones that get most passengers in aircraft that do down in the ocean. Jump in sometime with a few oceanics in blue water and then get back to me about your “experience” when they get aggressive.

    The bottom line is that working professional divers in that era did not follow sport diving protocols and any attempt to apply sport procedures in the 21st century to pros in 1972 just doesn’t have any relevance.

    Be careful out there. And regardless of how much gear you might like to layer on, you better bring a healthy amount of pure survival skills and the ability to physically overcome contingencies at times.

    Bret Gilliam

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  10. kay
    March 5, 2010 at 9:11 am

    AH that would explain a lot, thought it was a recent incident. Oddly enough there are so many conflicting reports on the oceanics. We have had approximatley 30-40 dives with them and never an aggressive behavior. Either I hear reports of them being extremely aggressive or nothing at all. I do hate to hear that dive boat are feeding especially sharks. While I dive with all kinds none of the boats we use will feed at the surface. Just another issue up for debate in the diving world. Thanks for sharing your insight.

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  11. Richard Merritt
    May 4, 2010 at 9:42 am

    Kay, how big are the Oceanics you have dived with? Most of those seen today are juveniles because the shark finners have had almost all the large adults. I have read that it is thought that, just a few decades ago, the Oceanic was the most abundant large animal on the planet. Bret describers the attacking shark as a 12-foot animal.

    As someone who started diving in the mid 70′s, I remember well the primitive nature of the equipment compared to that of today. Bret’s tragic dive was a couple of years earlier than my first and from his comments, it sounds as though he was using the best equipment available. Diving was high risk and not like the sanitised shallow water recreational activity of today. At that time commercial divers working for the UK oil industry in the North Sea frequently died on the job. It was a very different era.

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  12. Jim Rogers
    May 16, 2010 at 3:20 pm

    Thank you for sharing this tragic episode. I agree with Phillippe Cousteau about OWT. I have dove with lots of sharks myself but when OWT’s come around I get out of the water. I don’t trust them.
    I fear that one of these days there is going to be a OWT attack during one of the night dives offered off of Hawaii. They go out in very deep water, hanging from lines, banging on tanks to attract other divers, firing and charging strobes. There was an incident a few months ago when 2 OWT’s come in to investigate and started to get aggressive. In my opinion that is no place for a sport diver. I did the same dumbass thing when I lived and had my own boat in Oahu. My buddy and I went out about a mile, dropped the anchor down to about 40 feet and then one of us would sit on it while the other one drove the boat. We called them Live Bait Dives. A lot of fun until an OWT comes at you from below out of the dark. Scared the crap out of me. Never again.

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  13. April
    June 5, 2010 at 5:56 am

    Thank you for sharing what was and I’m sure still is a horrifying experinence to re-live. I can not imagine loosing a good friend in such a way. I know it was long ago, but I am sorry for your loss and am grateful you survived to share your story. By now everyone should understand that sharks while perhaps not always in “predation mode” are unpredictable and therefore always potentially dangerous. Just because something hasn’t happened doesn’t mean it can’t or won’t.

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  14. Anne
    June 5, 2010 at 6:48 am

    Thank you for sharing this. As I read it my jaw kept hitting the keyboard in amazement. I can’t imagine (and don’t think I want to) even witnessing such an encounter, much less being involved in it. And I don’t think I could get back in the water again if I had. Was your return to diving a “get back on the horse” thought process? Glad you’re with us to tell such stories.

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  15. bret gilliam
    June 5, 2010 at 2:11 pm


    When I was released from medical care, I was told to sit out of diving for a week. I did exactly that, seven days, and then went back on the dive team with Temple’s replacement and we resumed our various projects. I don’t think I ever really thought about a threat of another attack. It was sort of like wondering if you’d be hit by lightning twice. It just wasn’t in the realm of likelihood as far as we were concerned. We considered it a freak situation and moved on. The only change we made was to add explosive tipped “bang sticks” of the era to our carried equipment. But we never had to use them. My career ended up with dives to extreme depths (setting the world depth record twice; last to 475 feet) and filming sharks of all kinds all over the world. I had some other adrenaline pumping encounters but no attacks. But I do counsel all divers to treat the oceanic white tip with an extremely high level of respect and caution.

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  16. Rick Cassell
    August 19, 2010 at 1:00 am

    Hello Bret,

    I read your account of the shark attack on Rod with horror. Needless to say, I cannot imagine the terror of being eaten alive, and of your witnessing it. I’ve been a diver since ’75, though not an expert like yourself. I’m merely a sport diver…..a proud member of the 80-80-80 club. In fact I didn’t even own a wet suit until a few years ago….after being stung too many times on a particular dive by a man-o-war. Decided that at least a wet suit can protect from that or sea lice somewhat.

    May I ask a few questions sir?

    1) Have you heard of oceanic white tips being seen the last few years in the Caribbean? (I ask because I have seen a big decline in the numbers of sharks I’ve seen…of any kind…in the Caribbean over the last several years. I personally think the warming of the tropical waters in the Caribe, as well as overfishing and pollution, have dwindled the numbers considerably. I’ve never seen “man eaters” in the Caribe…..not tigers, no whites, no white tips…..just bulls, reefs, and hammerheads.

    2) This may sound silly….but were you and Rod wearing wetsuits that day? (I have heard that at least a wetsuit may provide some protection…at least it may help keep the flesh from being so easily torn into…and may help keep a little pressure on an open wound.) And because I dove for many years with just a t-shirt and swimtrunks…..wondered if my white flesh was more of a beacon to the occasional shark.

    3) Usually, attacks happen on or near the surface, whereas Rod’s happened at 200+ feet. Is that rare? (You indicated Giddings helping the diver off the Farallons in the mid-60′s who was hit by the white shark. By the way, that diver, Leroy French, a friend of mine, owned and operated a dive shop in St. Maartin for many years. Leroy mentioned that he was floating on the surface of the water, waiting for the dive boat to pick him up, when he was hit by the 20′ white….probably looking to the white…like a seal. In those days it wasn’t known that the Farallons were one of the top two or three places on Earth, for great whites. Leroy felt that because he wore twin tanks, and had a large camera housing that day which he used to beat the head of the white….he survived, but not without major damage and a years recuperation in the hospital.

    Finally Bret, I respect your experience and your accomplishments. If you’re ever in the DC area, please get in touch. Dinner is on me.


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  17. Ed Traylor
    November 30, 2010 at 2:36 pm


    What an amazing recap of a very unfortunate situation! Thank you for sharing it with the rest of us!

    I have to comment on one of your readers unbelievable comments….

    Kay says:
    “Hi – I have been swimming with sharks for many years and have never seen an “attack” that actually had the shark consume part of an actual body. Shark attacks are mistaken identity or something else is going on. While any death of a diver/swimmer is horrible and tragic we need to also look at what we were doing when it happened. The noise from the research vessle, equipment being deployed in the water all lends itself to the situation. Two of my very close friends were diving about 1 1/2 miles off some sub testing and had physically issues that were later confirmed as a result of the testing. We know that ocean animals have also been stranded and have had other issues due to this. I have dove with tigers, hammerheads, oceanics, makos, blues in open waters and unless something is triggered or you are splashing around there are no attacks. My question is this – it appeared that Rod was left by himself at a depth that you shouldn’t be by yourself especially when it was known that there were sharks nearby. I should tell you at this point that I am a solo diver as well however to be alone at that depth is not responsible even if you have sucessfully done it before. ”


    You obviously have enough experience to know that sharks are wild animals. It’s obvious you’re an experienced diver based upon your comments. With that being said, why on earth would you make such outlandish statements like “Shark attacks are mistaken identity or something else is going on.’???

    Sharks are predators and they are at the top of the food chain in their underwater world! Sure, the ultrasonic sub testing may have brought the white tips in closer than normal, but these sharks were hungry and to try to allude that it was a case of mistaken identity (or “something else going on”) trivializes the bottom line and seems like a stretch at best! *dislike button*

    Additionally, you make the following statement, “My question is this – it appeared that Rod was left by himself at a depth that you shouldn’t be by yourself,” which begs the question Kay – who did your tech training???

    When diving at Technical depths most folks solo dive. It’s ill-advisable to partner at those depths as you have *enough* to worry about by yourself. You don’t need to be concerned about your buddy. If you recall, however, they did have a team lead in his story who was responsible for the GROUP.

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  18. Diane Williams
    December 12, 2010 at 2:22 am

    Rob McIlvaine was in my class (’73) at St. Dunstan’s school. I couldn’t then, and still can’t now, fathom the horror he must have felt. I know he died a few years later from an embolism. Thanks for publishing this story.

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  19. Bret Gilliam
    December 19, 2010 at 8:21 pm

    To Diane Williams,

    I think I remember meeting you when I spoke at St. Dunstan’s once back in 1971 or so. Robbie was a dear friend and courageous diving buddy. He was horribly conflicted when he had to surface on the day of the attack in 1972 since it meant leaving me alone to try to save Rod Temple. He also initially thought we were both killed since I made my emergency ascent away from his line of sight and was flown out to Puerto Rico for DCS treatment before he came out of the ocean from his own long deco. His embolism was triggered by a diabetic episode underwater; he passed out from low blood sugar and the embolism resulted when he drifted up. I recovered his body out at Buck Island. I think that was in early 1975 if I remember correctly. It’s astounding to think that I lost two of my closest friends to diving accidents within a little over two years of each other. Robbie was a great guy; full of life and he really appreciated the whole scene in St. Croix back then. I have so many fond memories of him. We were both privileged to know him. Thanks for your note.

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  20. divingblueberries
    February 8, 2011 at 5:34 am

    It must have been hard to relive this experience but thank you for sharing your experience. As I read this, I kept gaping at the screen as your tale took increasingly worse turns.

    I am well aware of the statistics and all but how the bloody hell, after such a traumatic experience, do you NOT get the heebie jeebies (along with the urge to exit the water in hysterics) when you see a huge shark?

    Of course, just by the fact that you returned to diving within a week of your treatment, you are clearly made of something stronger than I. (Just for the record, if it had been me, my return to diving would have started with a toe in my bathtub. The next step would have been rubber duckies, then maybe the kiddie pool….)

    Your other posts are awesome. Keep them coming, please.

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  21. bret gilliam
    February 8, 2011 at 2:40 pm


    Thank you for your caring comments and compliments. As to returning to diving and not being haunted by the appearance of sharks… I did resume diving a week later as soon as I was cleared by the doctors from the aftermath of decompression sickness. I don’t think I ever thought twice about it. Diving was my life.

    Sharks were misunderstood a lot then and I did adopt a heightened vigilance when oceanic white tips or other requiem sharks came across my dive path. But I think I also looked at it as akin to being struck by lightning… it was unlikely to happen twice. Not too many years later, we learned that the extreme aggressive behavior of the ocean white tips was probably stimulated by the flood of low frequency sound being put into the water by the nearby Navy test ships that were working with the submarines. Ironically, I had served as a diver on these ships a year before.

    The loss of my friend was a tragedy that I’ll never forget. The subsequent nearly forty years of diving has brought other tense moments and close calls of other kinds. But I love the ocean environment with an unbridled passion and the creatures that inhabit it. That day in October 1972 was probably a fluke in the great scheme of things. I’m glad that I continued down the path of diving. It’s enriched my life in so many ways. It will enrich yours as well.

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  22. terry g
    March 24, 2011 at 5:49 pm

    A great read Bret, and as usual with your writings, something to take with me every time I dive.

    I have to quickly take small issue with Ed Traylor, however:
    “Sharks are predators and they are at the top of the food chain in their underwater world! Sure, the ultrasonic sub testing may have brought the white tips in closer than normal, but these sharks were hungry and to try to allude that it was a case of mistaken identity (or “something else going on”) trivializes the bottom line and seems like a stretch at best! *dislike button*”

    I have spent a lot of time in the water with sharks, of many varying species, and have spent a lot of time culling information from colleagues as well as reading as much research as I can find – and I’m forced to agree with Kay.
    Shark “attacks” are NOT common, shark MISTAKES are what occur about 99% of the time. I have yet to be convinced of most of the recorded “unprovoked” attacks in the history of diving – even Bret’s story here, as we don’t know what happened immediately prior to the attack (even though I have to say it does actually *seem* “unprovoked” based on Bret’s account of the sharks hanging around for some time during the dive, so I’m entirely open to that. You are certainly a man of considerable experience & knowledge, Mr. Gilliam).

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  23. Ed Leibowitz
    April 26, 2011 at 8:22 pm

    I’m going to St. Croix for a week of recreational diving on May 17. I’m what you call a once-a-year diver. Your article describing your experience on this particular dive scared me.

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  24. bret gilliam
    April 27, 2011 at 5:20 pm


    The incident I was involved in was nearly 40 years ago. It had some extenuating circumstances (low frequency sound inputs into the ocean nearby from Navy test vessels) that stimulated the pelagic shark behavior. Also, the population of oceanic whitetips has been reduced dramatically. And I don’t think one has been seen in the vicinity of any of the near-shore sites in two decades. You can feel free to dive St. Croix with confidence. But watch out for yourself downtown after midnight…


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  25. Jack
    July 19, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    I remember reading this story in a magazine a few years ago. Chilling then & still chilling now. I can’t express enough my sincerest condolences for the loss of your friend, for the ordeal you endured, and for the decades of these memories. You risked your own life, and then continued to embrace life and diving; you are, indeed, a brave hero.

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  26. Sandy Taylor-McKinnon
    August 4, 2011 at 12:31 am

    Thanks for sharing this story. Your bravery was incredible. I guess you never know how you will act until you are put to test. I lived in St Croix 1977-1981 but never knew about this until right now. And I used to go diving recreationally with your company DIVE LTD? quite a bit. I too had a scary experience at that north shore area on the wall. I think it was in 1979. But my experience was due to my mistakes I made and my youth (I was only 18 years old) One day on your boat some tourists from Florida invited me to go on a deep dive with them. They said they were instructors and wanted to see a cave that was at 220 feet down the wall. I had just met them and said I did not have proper equipment for a deep dive. In fact I told them I had just recently gotten certified. They said it was ok, to trust them and they would take care of me. That was my first mistake. When we reached the cave they went in. I stayed outside and started motioning them to leave when our bottom time was up. They wouldn’t come out. Instead they kept motioning me to come in the cave. This went on for too long. I don’t know what came over me but I left them and headed alone for the surface. I did not know what depth I was at or even what direction I was going. I somehow made it back to the boat. Much later the tourists came up. They said a large mako shark was behind me and that is why they wouldn’t come out of the cave. They all got the bends. I luckily did not. I have beat myself up for doing such a foolish thing leaving. Had I been affected by nitrogen narcosis I could have went down instead of up and never made it back to the boat. But if I was back there again and could not get them to come up at what point do you have to leave and save yourself? Your article brought back memories. I am proud to have met you. You were a very intelligent, smart guy back then and it sounds like that hasn’t changed much.

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  27. Sandy Taylor-McKinnon
    August 4, 2011 at 12:39 am

    I too returned to diving the following week after my diving experience although my experience was nothing compared to the trauma of yours. But it is important to keep living your life. Life is too short to give up the things you love.

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  28. bret gilliam
    August 4, 2011 at 7:16 pm


    I vividly remember that incident and the bozos that precipitated it. I would like to talk to you. My direct email is:

    Shoot me an email with your phone number and I’ll call you.


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  29. August 23, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    What absolute courage! I offer condolences for the death of your friend and congratulations to you for your bravery and willingness to sacrifice yourself to save him. What more could any of us ask of a friend! As to the equipment issue, I went through the U.S. Navy Underwater Swimmers’ School at Key West during the late 50′s as part of my EOD training. I still dive now (at the age of 75) and I can vouch for the primitive nature of the scuba equipment and the art of diving compared with that of today. We were taught that sharks were indeed wild animals and not to be taken for granted. So little was known about shark behavior in those days that we never knew what to expect, especially on night dives. I have since learned to admire the grace and pure efficiency of sharks in their element and enjoy my encounters with them. I am, however, mindful of the more aggressive species that i encounter (mostly Bulls). Hopefully I shall never have an encounter with an OWT.

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  30. Dana Mardaga
    October 20, 2011 at 5:28 pm

    Wow! I’m going to be more careful when I go diving (though I don’t dive that deep.) All the sharks I’ve ever seen while under water have taken one look at me, turned around, and taken off!

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  31. J0esm00
    December 18, 2011 at 9:34 pm

    Wow, I am without words. Such great courage, although your friend joined Davey jones, your actions surely made him realize he was blessed to have such a great friend.

    Oh and Kay really? You really had to go there. You are one of those people that no one likes because you think you know it all. Your comments were down right rude and disrespectful. Im willing to bet you wouldbe the first to run insteaded of trying to help your friend.

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  32. Ann Norman
    May 22, 2012 at 10:43 am

    Dear Bret,

    Rod Temple was a close friend of mine from University days back in the late 60′s/early 70′s. We were good friends for three years, then went our seperate ways after Uni, like so many do. We never had time to restablish contact before he died.
    I heard about Rod’s death from a mutual friend when I was working up in the North of England in 1072. I didn’t know any details other than that it was a ‘diving accident’. I remember the disbeleif and despair that such a promising life should have been cut so cruelly short.
    Now, 40 years later, I’ve read your account and know what really happened. I thank God that Rod had such a true friend with him at the end.

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  33. George
    July 13, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    Thanks for posting this; always wondered about the story. Has a particular resonance for me because when I was a kid in Sprat Hall in the early 1980s we’d go snorkelling to the dropoff at Cane Bay (back when it was empty except for the ruins of the old hotel). There were a couple of times I saw Very Big Sharks way down there swimming along the wall.

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  34. Tkatrob
    May 22, 2013 at 3:01 am

    Bret–incredible story. I admire the OWT sharks, but am respectful they can turn on a dime! As any APEX predator. Thank God you survived the horrific death of your friend and fellow diver. You are one brave man to attempt the rescue! i think we all know in our heart of hearts what we would do in a similar situation…………..

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  35. Chris Boulet
    June 26, 2013 at 5:07 am

    Great story Bret. I actually read this for the first time before making a dive trip to St Croix. I’m posting this comment after making my last 2 tank dive at Cane Bay today. Needless to say, I had this story in the back of my mind this week. They have been killing lion fish in st croix and leaving them for the sharks to eat. During our dive today, I stopped swimming to film the carribean sharks. Well, when I stopped swimming, 3 reef sharks approached aggressively and hung around like they were waiting to be fed. Makes great video but a little concerning that they are associating divers with a free meal. Thanks for sharing your story, and the contributions you’ve made to diving.

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  36. Eric Schindler
    June 29, 2013 at 4:35 pm

    Born a Cruzan in 1964 I can just barely remember when this happened, and had always thought that it had never been conclusive that he had been killed by sharks. Boy, was I wrong that is one of the most horrifying stories I have heard in a long time. I never knew it went down like that, and probably most here on island have never heard
    poignant story in such detail. I have pure respect for you for having the ability to overcome this ordeal and your will to survive. Much Respect de man!

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  37. JohnRon
    September 12, 2013 at 7:12 pm

    Really sad story, couldnt imagine losing a friend in that manner and entering the water again. You’re really strong

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  38. Neal
    October 8, 2013 at 5:47 am

    I keep reading this story and wonder why Robbie did not stay over your bubble stream. Why did he not stay as you started to ascend. Why did he leave the beach and yet your van and O2 and everything was still there? There is something very odd about this story. It does not look like Robbie was a very good buddy to beat such a fast exit.

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  39. bret gilliam
    October 8, 2013 at 1:46 pm


    Robbie was an excellent buddy and dive team partner. But he was in impossible conditions that day. He was very low on air and I sent him up. He would not have been able to help me with Rod with nothing to breathe. At that point, neither of us were aware that sharks has caused Rod’s delay in joining us at the rendezvous point. When Robbie ascended to do his deco, he was committed to that process. He did observe the sharks coming after Rod and me later but there was nothing he could do as we were dragged over the drop off wall. Our battle moved us away from his position and he could no longer see us. By the time he reached the surface after his deco (about 35 minutes), Rod was dead and I had done my emergency ascent, swam to the beach, and had been evacuated to Puerto Rico. He thought we both were dead and reported that news with anguish. There was no reason for him to stay at the beach. He didn’t have keys to the van (they were in Rod’s “dry bag” attached to him) and he was taken back to Christiansted devastated. He didn’t learn that I had survived until Monday.

    He was an excellent diver and friend. He continued to dive with me and joined my staff a year later as part of the dive guide team. He was killed in 1975 when he had a seizure underwater related to a medical condition. I recovered his body at Buck Island, off St. Croix. Robbie was a great guy.

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    May 11, 2014 at 5:58 am

    In a world that depicts sharks as innocent creatures, it’s valuable to see a different perspective. Very well written, sad and traumatic situation. Thank you for sharing

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  41. Kathy
    May 18, 2014 at 4:21 am

    What an amazing recount of a horrific event, I have the utmost respect for you divers. You have to be so athletic and focused to handle a “routine” dive, let alone one where you encounter a predator! I love reading about sharks but have no illusions that they are anything but wild animals, and as such, you have to observe with them with caution. It breaks my heart to hear about the senseless hunting and fishing of sharks and other majestic animals, I can’t understand how anyone can think that is a “sport”. The world is definitely worse off without sharks in it, they are such fascinating creatures.

    Stay safe, divers! I will continue to read about you and stand in awe of what you do for sport and for your livelihood. Maybe in my next life, I’ll take up diving!

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  42. Lisa
    August 2, 2014 at 6:53 pm

    What a real life horror story. Thank you for sharing what had to have been a life-changing experience. As a long time diver, I think we should all remember that although we may have had many, many safe and exciting shark encounters, they are wild animals and we are visitors in their environment. Who knows what may have provoked this, and the point is that we should recognize inherent risk in the sport we love.

    I love St. Croix and northshore/Cane Bay. Interestingly enough, I haven’t seen Caribbean reef sharks get as close or act as curious as those I’ve encountered on almost every Cane Bay and Salt River area dive. I was told by locals the same thing as was mentioned in a previous comment – that divers feeding the sharks lionfish have made them equate divers in the water with food handouts.

    Lastly, thanks Bret, for paving the way for future divers with all your hours underwater back when it was way less routine and easy than it is today!

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  43. Lesley
    January 28, 2016 at 11:00 pm

    I am utterly speechless at both the horror and heroism in this tragedy. I am here in St. Croix on a dive trip with my husband right now. We did the wall at Cane Bay 2 days ago. We saw 1 small reef shark 3-5 ft. long cruising near the wall at what looked like 120 ft. Although slightly disappointed we couldn’t watch it for a bit longer, we were relieved to see it dart off at the presence of my husband’s flashlight. It seems we can all enjoy the ocean if there’s a mutual respect and appropriate fear between sharks and people. I hope fellow readers will not take that statement out of context. The local dive companies all seem to agree that feeding sharks anything is irresponsible for the bigger picture. Anyway, I will return to the wall tomorrow to complete the last of my five dives needed to be Advanced Open Water Certified. It’s just another small step for many, but for me, I have type 1 diabetes – so this is actually a big step for me and a huge accomplishment! I am interested to learn more about safe diving/distances with sharks and also what you can recall of your friend’s diving experiences with diabetes, if any. It may sound sad and it probably is, but diving is one of the few hobbies I really love. I don’t want the fear of apex predators or the complications of diabetes to ever keep me from it, and I would love to help assist in research to make diving safer for people who may never enter the water because of similar reasons. I just don’t even know where to start or who to talk to. I am extremely disappointed in what I have been able to read about diving with diabetes. I disagree with the guidelines, and my primary care team has left it up to me to manage myself underwater as they know nothing about diabetes. I have yet to meet a single person who is an expert on both diving and diabetes. As for shark attacks, I feel people like you deserve a lot of credit for all you have done to spread awareness and take the risks in order to get the data. Thank you for what you have done for the world, and thank you for inspiring anyone who reads this to truly think about the meaning of a dive buddy. I know a lot of people have commented on what you did to try and save Rod, but I would also like to comment on how you recovered Rob’s body after his dive accident. This too was an act of bravery and could not have been without great difficulty. Human to human, diver to diver, I think you’re extraordinary. Thank you for sharing.

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  44. April 6, 2016 at 3:59 am

    April 5, 2016 Thank you Brett for standing up for my brother Robbie ( Robert Mcilvaine). I really appreciate you defending him. I dived with my brother Robbie at Cane Bay and saw the biggest ocean shark I have ever seen come out of the dark drop off towards the reef ledge and turn around and go back into the deep at aabout 120 feet. My heart leaped, I felt it was hunting fish on the drop off and would of gone after me if I was closer. We had shotgun sticks.
    Robbie told me later what happened. It is the same as you shared with a few more details of the awfulness of the attack
    I’m so surprised to see this on Facebook after all these years. My sister Ellen found it. Robbie loved diving and knew the risks of going into diabetic shock while diving but did so anyway. Wish my only brother was still alive but remember our times skin diving for aquarium fish and all the other memories. He was a special person and loved. Trustinghe is in Heaven with JJesus and that we will see him again. April 5, 2016, .

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