25 Years Later, Memories of Shark Attack Remain Vivid
It happened 25 years ago, but the image of sharks savagely attacking his diving partner and dragging him to the hazy depths of the Caribbean is as vivid in Bret Gilliam’s mind today as it was in the days after the attack.
Gilliam wishes he could forget.
Telling the story in its entirety for the first time, in a chilling article written for Scuba Times magazine, he describes that fateful day in the Virgin Islands.
Gilliam, now editor of the Advanced Diving Journal and president of Technical Diving International, was with Rod Temple and Robbie McIlvaine on a scientific expedition to recover samples for a research project being conducted at Cane Bay on the island of St. Croix’s north shore.
The plan was to inspect and photograph the deepest project, at 210 feet, located on the wall of a steep drop-off. Temple was the dive leader and timekeeper, in charge of the paperwork and running the decompression schedule during the ascent.
But for him, there would be no ascent.
“I watched his lifeless body drift into the abyss with the sharks still hitting him,” Gilliam writes.
And many believe that the hurried ascent made by Gilliam--from 400 feet with practically no air in his tanks--should have killed him.
Veterans of hundreds of deep dives, Gilliam, Temple and McIlvaine made their way down the wall at Cane Bay. They eventually reached the collection project--set during a previous dive--at 210 feet. As Gilliam and McIlvaine worked, Temple looked around. He spotted two white-tip sharks, one about 12 feet and the other a bit bigger, swimming in the distance.
“This was nothing new to us, as we dove with sharks routinely,” Gilliam says. “But it was rare to see these open-ocean species so close to shore.”
After finishing their work, McIlvaine started up first. He spotted the sharks again, swimming over the coral and down a sandy chute.
But the sharks didn’t seem to be paying attention to the divers, which in itself Gilliam thought odd because he had had “nasty encounters” with white-tips before while diving farther offshore.
“Our plan called for Rod to be the last guy up,” Gilliam writes. “I rendezvoused with Robbie at about 175 feet 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 water.
“We both figured that Rod had had some sort of air failure. . . . Since my air consumption was lower, I decided to send Robbie up, and I would go see if Rod needed help. As I descended into 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.”
A 12-foot white-tip shark had bitten into Temple’s left thigh and was tearing violently at his flesh. Clouds of blood mixed in with the bubbles. The second shark appeared and made a blinding strike, ripping into Temple’s calf.
Gilliam grabbed Temple by his shoulder harness and tried to pull him free. Both divers beat at the sharks with their fists, and the sharks finally let go, but only briefly.
They returned, bypassing Gilliam and striking Temple’s bleeding legs. Temple had lost lots of blood and Gilliam felt Temple’s body go limp in his arms. But he held on, and the divers and the sharks tumbled downward until the sharks finally ripped Temple from Gilliam’s grasp, leaving Gilliam 400 feet beneath the surface, in shock and practically out of air.
“My depth gauge was pegged at 325 feet, but I knew we were far deeper than that,” he recalls. “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 helpless, and my strength was completely sapped. But I put my head back and put all my muscles into a wide steady power kick for the surface.
“I forced all thoughts to maintaining that kick cycle and willed myself upward. After what seemed like an eternity, I sneaked a look at my depth gauge and 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 hypoxia [an abnormal condition caused by a decrease in oxygen to body tissue] shut down my systems 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.’ ”
Remarkably, Gilliam did make it. The small amount of air in his safety vest floated him to the surface.
“I woke up retching and expelling huge burps of air,” he recalls. “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 as 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.”
(McIlvaine, presuming both of his partners were dead, had already reached the beach and had gone to notify authorities.)
“I gasped out instructions to get the oxygen unit from our van, and then I collapsed. In an incredible burst of good fortune, it turned out the wife was an [emergency-room] nurse from Florida and understood the pathology of decompression sickness.”
Gilliam, airlifted to a hospital in Puerto Rico, recovered and was released two days later, still numb in the legs and arms, and nearly blind in one eye. That blindness persists to this day, but in his mind he can still see, all too vividly, the sharks hitting his partner.
LAKE PERRIS--John Whittenburg, Moreno Valley, a 15-pound 4-ounce largemouth bass near middle dam using six-inch purple plastic. Trout stocking started last Friday. Small bass taking night crawlers and purple plastics around the island on the east end.
CORONA LAKE--Prime water temperature and recent stocking producing limits of trout. Fishing best near northwest shoreline and dam. Night crawlers and Powerbait getting most. Mike Werner, Glendora, 11-6 rainbow, trolling with a black roostertail. Hector Santana, Fontana, 13-5 rainbow near the dam on Powerbait.
SANTA ANA RIVER LAKES--Trout fishing good. Powerbait best bet. Two tagged fish remaining from recent stocking. Ron Guy, Phoenix, two rainbow trout, 18-6 and 14-2, at the south shore using Powerbait. Paul Pierson, Santa Ana, 10-3 rainbow at the Bubble Hole using Powerbait.
IRVINE LAKE--Don Neu, Anaheim, 8-2 rainbow trout off the west shore on orange Power Bait. Fifty-eight rainbow trout five pounds or better caught last week. Trolling best outside the west shore buoy line and along the red clay cliffs. Tony Vercich, Santa Fe Springs, 7-6 rainbow on an inflated night crawler off the west shore. Crappies hitting lures. Catfish taking chicken livers. Some bass on crankbaits.
GREEN VALLEY LAKE--Fishing fair. Keith Driver Jr., Moreno Valley, 4-4 trout using a night crawler. Dennis Travis, Gardena, 5-2, on a trouteaser.
LAKE CACHUMA--Red-ear perch best off the point at Cachuma Bay, taking night crawlers or worms. A few bass near Stork Flats taking night crawlers, lures or crankbaits. Despite trout plants, very few biting. Some caught trolling deep with needlefish.
LAKE CASITAS--Bass fishing spotty. Bigger fish 30-40 feet deep. Lenny Kerley, Ventura, 8-8 bass on deep-running crankbait. Catfish biting deep, 80-110 feet, on mackerel. Tremaine Larkin, Oxnard, 2-4 red-ear perch on a night crawler. Jim Griffin, Oxnard, 18-8 catfish on mackerel.
PYRAMID LAKE--Striped bass bite good near the dam. Some limits trolling with Z-plugs. Crappies hitting crappie jigs near the marina and the dock.
LAKE PIRU--Bass action good. Dayton Grant, Canoga Park, limit of bass, 13-5 total, largest 4-5, using shad crank at the north end. Anthony Moreno, Simi Valley, five-pound bass in Bobcat, using a rattle-trap. Trolling needlefish and Castmasters down center of lake producing trout.
CASTAIC LAKE--James Parker, Pacoima, three-pound bass and 17 bluegills on night crawlers. Tim Buckley, Palmdale, 6 1/2-pound largemouth on crawdads on the fish arm. Pat Buchley, Castaic, 12-3 largemouth on crawdads in the fish arm. Bass in lower taking crawdads, night crawlers and plastics. Striper action slow.
SAN SIMEON (Virg’s Landing)--14 anglers (1 boat): 30 lingcod, 10 red rock cod, 150 assorted rockfish.
MORRO BAY (Bob’s Sportfishing)--9 anglers (1 boat): 4 lingcod, 64 red rock cod, 9 snapper, 52 bass.
AVILA BAY (Avila Beach)--9 anglers (1 boat): 135 rock cod, 1 ling cod, 1 halibut.
VENTURA--15 anglers (1 boat): 149 rockfish, 75 red snapper, 14 lingcod, 1 cow cod.
OXNARD (Cisco’s)--25 anglers (2 boats): 35 blue perch, 5 lingcod, 150 rock cod, 100 rockfish, 2 sculpin, 5 whitefish.
MARINA DEL REY--47 anglers (2 boats): 16 halibut, 46 sand bass, 14 calico bass, 117 sculpin, 11 rockfish.
REDONDO BEACH--37 anglers (3 boats): 60 sand bass, 4 white sea bass, 2 halibut, 1 black sea bass (released), 190 rockfish.
SAN PEDRO (L.A. Harbor Sportfishing)--12 anglers (1 boat): 1 white sea bass, 7 sand bass, 4 calico bass, 2 whitefish, 1 red snapper, 12 rockfish. (22nd St. Landing)--6 anglers (1 boat): 4 sand bass, 8 sculpin, 25 whitefish, 31 rockfish.
LONG BEACH--21 anglers (2 boats): 1 calico bass, 1 sand bass, 25 whitefish, 1 sculpin, 224 rockfish.
SEAL BEACH--22 anglers (1 boat): 150 rockfish.
NEWPORT BEACH (Newport Landing)--25 anglers (2 boats): 2 sand bass, 23 rockfish, 42 sculpin, 1 rock sole, 1 black sea bass (released), 147 mackerel.
DANA WHARF--32 anglers (2 boats): 1 barracuda, 7 bonito, 7 calico bass, 17 sand bass, 200 mackerel, 1 halibut, 8 sculpin, 4 sheephead, 1 whitefish.
OCEANSIDE--32 anglers (2 boats): 10 calico bass, 19 sand bass, 567 sculpin, 3 sheephead, 40 rockfish, 37 mackerel.
SAN DIEGO (Seaforth)--63 anglers (3 boats): 16 bonito, 2 sand bass, 117 rockfish, 137 mackerel, 18 sculpin. (Islandia)--29 anglers (2 half-day boats): 53 rockfish, 1 sculpin, 2 whitefish, 98 mackerel. 3/4-Day boat, 11 anglers: 20 bonito, 64 rockfish.
LOS ANGELES COUNTY: Belvedere Lake, Crystal Lake, El Dorado Park Lake, Elizabeth Lake, Legg Lake, Lincoln Park Lake, San Gabriel River (East, North and West forks), Santa Fe Reservoir, Willowbrook Lake. RIVERSIDE: Lake Hemet, Lake Perris. SAN BERNARDINO: Mojave Narrows Park Lake.