Why a Shark-Attack Survivor Fights to Save Sharks
One afternoon in 2004, Salamone was enjoying a swim at Cape Canaveral National Seashore in Florida. She was walking toward the shore in shallow water when, all of a sudden, a fish jumped up beside her. Alarms went off in Salamone's head because she knew that fish don't ordinarily do that. Something was terribly wrong.
Just as she was completing that thought, a shark appeared behind her. Due to a storm, the water was rather murky and unruly, but she could see its slithering silhouette. Scientists say it could have been a black tip or a spinner shark, but Salamone doesn't know for sure. The shark clamped down on her foot, and she instinctively kicked to get it off. It bit down even harder, severing her Achilles tendon.
"That's when the terror started ripping through my body and I started screaming, 'It's got me! It's got me,'" says Salamone.
In shock, she was unsure when the shark even let go because there was persistent pressure in her mangled foot. Her friend got to her and carried her to shore, and when Debbie looked down she saw her distorted foot, ripped-apart heel, and blood flowing with the waves. A nurse, who was walking along, saw Salamone and started wrapping up her foot while someone called 911. Salamone recovered after surgery, several months of wearing a cast, walking boots, and therapy. She worried that she would never walk well again, but today she still dances.
Salamone, an investigative reporter at the Orlando Sentinel, switched to the environmental beat, got her masters degree in environmental science and policy at John Hopkins University, and later started working for PEW Charitable Trusts. When she joined PEW, she learned about issues regarding shark conservation. From there, she went on a search to find other shark-attack survivors who wanted to protect their attackers. The result was that nine shark-attack survivors from five different countries started Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation. This group came together to work in conjunction with Pew Charitable Trusts and protect sharks through policy and awareness.
Salamone describes this group as "very forgiving and very passionate about the issue even though they lost arms and legs!"
A central focus for the organization is the Shark Conservation Act. This law addresses shark finning, which is where sharks are hunted, definned, and thrown back into the ocean. These fins are used for the popular shark fin soup that can be found in many restaurants today. The organization decided to conduct a study where it collected samples from restaurants nationwide and performed genetic analysis. It found that the soup samples contained endangered species.
Though Salamone is still afraid of murky waters, she still enjoys swimming at the beach and watching shark week.
"If you're really going to be an advocate for something," says Salamone, "maybe you have to experience the worst of what your issue has to offer."
Watch the video below for more stories from shark attack survivors.
-Image courtesy of Debbie Salamone
Ailsa Sachdev is an editorial intern at Sierra. She is a rising senior at Mount Holyoke College and spent the last semester reporting on witchcraft in Morocco. She is passionate about food and travel, and knows how to say "I'm hungry" in over 10 languages.