When it comes to curiosity about Navy SEAL training, and the SEAL teams in general, one of the most common questions put to this author—and I assume to other former and current SEALs as well—involves shark attacks. People always want to know if SEALs and SEAL trainees are afraid of running into sharks during the countless hours we spend in the ocean.
Truth be told, you hardly have time to think about sharks when you are in Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training, since you are usually more worried about passing a swim or dive evolution than you are about being eaten. Honestly, there were times when yours truly actually wished a shark attack upon someone in the class (not me, of course) so that we could stop a certain painful swim or dive evolution prematurely. Yes, BUD/S sucks that much sometimes.
When it came to dive or swim operations in the SEAL teams themselves, again, you were usually too preoccupied with successfully completing your operation to worry about sharks. A SEAL in the water has to worry about his gear, his compass bearing, his buddy, his level of stealth, and a host of other issues required to get the job done. There was usually not enough brain space available to devote to being terrified that a shark might take a bite out of you.
Nor do the statistics indicate that SEALs and BUD/S trainees should worry too much about shark attacks. Not even in the course of thousands of BUD/S third phase swims executed out at San Clemente Island, off the coast of California—site of a seal rookery, and hence, a fertile feeding ground for sharks—has a shark ever attacked a SEAL trainee.
And yet…there is that one time that a confirmed shark attack killed a Navy SEAL. It was way back in 1963, and took place not during BUD/S in California or Virginia Beach (training used to be run on both coasts), but rather in the tropical paradise of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. A young lieutenant junior grade, who was assigned to an unspecified underwater demolition team (UDT), fell prey to a shark during a recreational swim.
To clarify, the UDTs were precursors to the SEAL teams, and for a time, existed alongside the SEAL teams. A graduate of BUD/S would be assigned to either a UDT or SEAL team, interchangeably, throughout his career. This particular lieutenant graduated from BUD/S class 28E (meaning, East Coast BUD/S), and is the only confirmed case of a SEAL being killed by a shark.
The following is an abridged and edited account of the attack, from the Caribbean Journal of Science. It is pretty horrible, to be sure.
A FATAL ATTACK BY THE SHARK CARCHARHINUS GALAPAGENSIS AT ST. THOMAS, VIRGIN ISLANDS
by JOHN E. RANDALL
Institute of Marine Biology, University of Puerto Rico, Mayagdez, P. R.
Caribbean Journal of Science Vol. 3, Number 4, December, 1963
ABSTRACT: On April 20, 1963, a 10-foot ridge-back carcharhinid shark attacked and killed Lt. John Gibson, USN, who was swimming on the surface in Magens Bay, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, without swim mask or fins. The shark was caught the following day in the bay, with the right hand and other remains of the man in its stomach. The shark was examined by the author and ultimately identified as Carcharhinus galapagensis. This is apparently the first authenticated shark attack in the Virgin Islands and the first record of galapagensis from the western Atlantic.
Although the Virgin Islands has long been a popular resort region, frequented by many bathers and divers, no one could recall any shark attack resulting in injury or death to man. One fatality off Reef Bay, St. John, which occurred in the early 1940s, was attributed by some to a shark; however, upon investigation, it appears to have resulted accidentally from the whirling propeller of an inboard motorboat.
That seemingly unblemished record of the Virgin Islands with respect to shark attacks was resoundingly broken on April 20, 1963, when Lt. (jg) John Gibson, USN, of the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) was killed by a 10-foot shark in Magens Bay on the north shore of St. Thomas, the most popular bathing site on the island. The shark was caught on the following day, and the remains of the man were removed from its stomach. The identity of the shark was variously reported in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico newspapers and news broadcasts as a blacktip shark, hammerhead shark, and thresher shark.
A phone call on April 22 to UDT headquarters on St. Thomas revealed that the shark was still on hand at the morgue of the Knud-Hansen Memorial Hospital in Charlotte Amalie, although in such poor condition that its disposal had been requested by hospital authorities. The author flew the next day to St. Thomas to examine the shark. It proved to be a male specimen of a ridge-back species of Carcharhinus Blainville.
When examined, the total length of the shark was taken at 9 feet 7 inches. The St. Thomas Daily News reported the length as 10 feet 1 inch, a measurement made when the shark was fresh and hence probably greater than when the shark was somewhat dried. No accurate measurement could be made of the greatest body depth or girth. The body seemed slender in spite of desiccation and removal of viscera.
The specimen was identified as C. galapagensis, a species recorded only from oceanic islands of the eastern Pacific. Previously, specimens of galapagensis had been seen from St. Helena, Ascension, and Bermuda, in the Atlantic. The occurrence of galapagensis in the Virgin Islands is therefore not so surprising. The St. Thomas specimen reported here does, however, represent the first published record from the western Atlantic.
Magens Bay, the site of the attack, is 1.7 miles long and 0.7 miles wide and opens to the northwest. With the usual easterly tradewind it is ordinarily calm and relatively clear, and April 20th was no exception in this regard. The water temperature, judging from readings made in Lameshur Bay, St. John, in April of 1960 and 1961, probably approximated 28 degrees celsius.
Gibson arrived at the beach at the head of the bay with a companion, Donna Waugh. He suggested a swim from the beach near the southwest end across to the rocky northeast shore. She declined and said that she would walk along the shore and meet him on the other side. He entered the water and began swimming at the surface without face mask or swim fins. He was well tanned and was wearing swim trunks of a plaid pattern of deep red. Later, as Miss Waugh paused to talk with someone on the beach, she thought she heard a scream from the water.
Looking out toward Gibson, who was then some distance from shore, she saw no evidence of a struggle, but noted that he had switched from a crawl to what seemed to be a sidestroke. When she reached the northeast shore it became apparent to her that Gibson was in serious trouble, for he rolled to one side, and she saw that one of his hands was missing. Heroically, she swam to him in spite of his warning to her to get out of the water, for the shark was still molesting him. She aided him as he swam for shore. For her bravery, Miss Waugh was later awarded the U. S. Treasury gold life saving medal.
When they neared shore, she perceived that a man, Tim Miller, had come to their aid, and she left Gibson and ran to two fishermen, Paul and Aubry Bryn, who were standing near their 15-foot outboard motor boat at the northeast corner of the bay. The shark continued to menace Gibson, and Miller threw rocks at it, while standing in the shallow water, to try to frighten it away. The boat containing the fishermen and Miss Waugh maneuvered in the bloody water between the shark and the injured man. As Gibson was brought into the boat he was dead or nearly so, and it was noted that very little blood escaped from his massive wounds into the boat. He was pronounced dead at 2 p.m.
In addition to the loss of the right hand, there were enormous bites taken from the left shoulder area and the right thigh and hip. The left foot was bitten, but no flesh was removed. One of the UDT men theorized that Gibson may have been bitten first on the foot and that he subsequently lost his right hand fending the shark off. The huge bite on his thigh severed the femoral artery, and as indicated later by a doctor, the man could not have lived more than about 15 seconds after this wound was inflicted. The wound must therefore have occurred when the man was near the rocky shore, probably either while Miss Waugh was still swimming with him or Miller was trying to assist him.
The first attack on Gibson, which Miss Waugh presumes to have taken place when she heard the scream, occurred at about 1:30 p.m. or slightly before. The depth of the water in which Gibson swam probably did not exceed 40 feet at any place.
Beginning at 8 a.m. the following day, approximately 15 UDT men in two of their vessels set shark hooks from six 55-gallon drums in Magens Bay. The hooks were baited with goat meat. Shortly after 4:30 p.m., one of the drums was observed bobbing in the water. As the men rushed to the scene, a large shark was observed to be hooked. It was killed with a shotgun and transported to the UDT base. The right hand of a man, plus other human remains, were removed from the stomach.
Several of the UDT men remarked that the hand showed little signs of digestion, and this is evident from a photograph. The hand was preserved in formalin and sent to the Navy Pathology Laboratory at Bethesda, Maryland.
It is not known whether galapagensis will prove to be a rare species in the West Indian region or whether it is relatively common and has been recorded previously under some other name or names. It is the author’s opinion from limited observations that the closely related C. springeri, which was not described until 1944, will prove to be the most abundant inshore species of shark other than the nurse shark in the West Indies.