In March this year, avid ocean swimmer and member of the Merimbula Merpeople, Michele Bootes, was bitten by a shark while ocean swimming at one of her favourite swimming spots in Merimbula, on the New South Wales South Coast.
Although the encounter hasn’t put her off the open water altogether – she returned after only two weeks – it has changed her perspective of the ocean and ocean swimming.
In this feature, Suzie Ryan talks to Ms Bootes about her unlikely encounter, how she now approaches the ocean differently now, the support she gained from a new ‘survivor’ community and her advice to those battling a fear of sharks.
The unlikely encounter
On the 13th of March this year, a typical Saturday morning, Michele Bootes was swimming with a friend in the shallows of Merimbula’s Main Beach when out of nowhere she was bitten by a shark.
“I was just swimming along and all of a sudden it struck,” said Ms Bootes.
“The shark came up from behind and I didn’t see it beforehand.”
Ms Bootes had swum the same popular swim route the week prior, leaving Mitchie’s on the sheltered lake’s entrance side and swimming out into the ocean and along Main Beach, only changing to swim closer to shore on the day of the incident.
“We were a little earlier than normal, which is why we were being extra careful and staying close to shore, rather than swimming further out like normal,” said Ms Bootes.
“I was only in waist depth water and actually Russ, who I was swimming with, his knuckles were scraping the sand as he was swimming, so we were really close to shore.
“I reckon we would have only been a maximum of 20 metres offshore when it happened.”
We have chosen not to describe the encounter in detail, however, if you would like to view a photo of the injuries Michelle sustained, you can click here.
Home is where the water is
You would think that being bitten by a shark would put someone off ocean swimming, right?
Not for Ms Bootes, she was eager to get back in the water as soon as she could.
“I got straight back into the water as soon as I was allowed, which was two weeks after the incident,” said Ms Bootes.
“I would have been back sooner but I had to wait for the doctor to be happy that my wound had healed up enough.”
Ms Bootes said getting back into the ocean was like being home again.
“It felt pretty good to get back in the water for a swim even if it was just in the lake and not the ocean yet.”
“I truly did just feel like I was back home again, which was amazing. It’s amazing how the water has that effect on me.”
A different perspective
The shark encounter hasn’t stopped Ms Bootes from enjoying the water and ocean swimming but she has become extra aware of what is happening around her.
“I still love swimming and being in the ocean, but I am just hypervigilant and a little apprehensive whenever I swim now,” said Ms Bootes.
“I am just much more cautious when swimming and I pay more attention to what my surroundings are even when I swim in the lake.”
Ms Bootes has also changed her ocean swimming habits slightly to include some lake swims into her routine.
“I still swim in the ocean but when I have to do my early morning swims, I swim at the lake now rather than the ocean,” said Ms Bootes.
“When I do swim in the ocean, I always make sure I’m within a group now and the guys I swim with have been amazing. They always swim one on either side of me because they know the feelings I still have around the encounter.
“They are always just so supportive of me whenever we swim now which is really lovely because it just shows how great the community of swimming is.”
I had a laugh and thought, you idiot, it’s just a dolphinMichelle Bootes
Ms. Bootes can find a funny side to all this, recalling a moment that happened while swimming in the lake recently that shows just how hypervigilant she has become.
“The other day I was swimming in the lake with a friend and we kept running into a baby seal, well actually we weren’t running into the seal, we kept diverting to give it some space but it just kept popping up next to us wanting to play,” said Ms Bootes.
“We kept swimming away from it and then we saw a huge ray swim under us, which was ok, cause we are used to that but then all of a sudden I saw this thing that I thought was a shark come straight for me.
“It wasn’t huge but it was torpedoing towards me which was a little scary, but then it went straight past me. I turned around and I saw that it was a dolphin just playing in the water.
“I had a laugh and thought you, idiot, it’s just a dolphin, but it looked different underwater and it did scare me that I was about to be bitten again for a minute.”
Support from the ‘Bite Club’
Ms. Bootes has not only received support from her local community and swim group but also a survivor’s group called the ‘Bite Club’.
The Bite Club is a Facebook group started by shark bite survivor Dave Pearson to help support those who have been bitten by a shark, alligator or hippo, beyond the bite.
“When I got bitten the guy from primary industries recommended I join the ‘Bite Club’, but I didn’t do it initially because there was a lot of fuss around my incident and I just wanted it settled,” said Ms Bootes.
“I eventually joined when my hypervigilance wasn’t leaving me during my swims and decided to ask the group ‘how long would it last for?
“Everyone bar one person said it would be with me forever, so I am learning to live with it.
“But everyone in the group has been so supportive. I even had one guy say that I could ring him day or night if I needed support.”
Michelle’s advice for ocean swimmers
Ms Bootes is pragmatic in her advice for swimmers who might be afraid to get into ocean swimming because of a fear of sharks.
“Look, you take a risk when you get into your car every day and go about your business, there is a far less chance of getting bitten by a shark than getting into a car accident,” said Ms Bootes.
“Ocean swimming is an amazing sport and you shouldn’t miss out just cause you’re scared of getting bitten by a shark.
“I would say, just know the risks and accept the risks of ocean swimming and if you enjoy it and the enjoyment outweighs the risks then you should just give it a go.
“If you’re worried about swimming in the ocean start by swimming in a big group so you feel comfortable in the number of swimmers around you.
“And for me, I figure that I’ve already been bitten by a shark once so the chances of that happening twice are very slim. So I just go and enjoy myself while swimming in the ocean and lake.”
OceanFit’s ONSHORE Podcast – Michele Bootes
Listen to OceanFit’s podcast with Michelle Bootes (recorded before the incident) to hear about her passion for the ocean and how she started Same Wave, a surf lifesaving program for people living with disabilities.
The ONSHORE Podcast is available on all popular Podcast apps.
Read on OceanFit: Shark bite first aid for ocean swimmers