Buffels Bay shark bite survivor swims with sharks

He approached Wildtrust a year ago to find out how he could help with marine conservation, specifically sharks.

South African actor and para surfer Caleb Swanepoel lost his leg in a shark attack during a family holiday in 2015. A recently released short film, Caleb: Beyond the Bite, captured his incredible spirit when he got into the water with sharks for the first time after his traumatic encounter nine years ago.

The then 19-year-old Swanepoel was a first-year drama student at the University of Cape Town. He was on a two-week holiday with his family in Buffels Bay in June 2015.

The 19-year-old was bodysurfing in the bay on Saturday 27 June, when a great white shark severed his right leg above the knee.

He was flown to Mediclinic George by helicopter and the surgeon who operated on Swanepoel, Dr Michael Ray Sunshine, attributed his survival to the fact that the main artery in his leg clotted when the shark released its grip, causing the artery to go into spasm, which minimised the bleeding.

The young man was lucky to be alive.

Understanding sharks

In hopes of reconnecting with his experience and better understanding the animal that changed his life, Caleb: Beyond the Bite, follows him as he contemplates swimming in the ocean with sharks at Aliwal Shoal, KwaZulu-Natal.

Swanepoel takes the viewer on a journey of loss, growth, and insight into his perspective on sharks.

Watch photos of his encounter here: Inspirational Caleb swims with sharks to highlight their plight

The film has been launched as part of ‘Sharks Under Attack’, a marine campaign to improve the protection of threatened sharks and rays in South Africa. The campaign aims to shift the negative perceptions people have of sharks to see them better understood, respected, and protected.

“I am so grateful for this opportunity to reconnect with sharks,” says Swanepoel. “I make this choice to continue to process my experience through leaning into new challenges and opportunities, to learn more about sharks and to help protect these incredible animals.”

At the end of the film Caleb tells viewers with intensity that if you’ve survived something, you remind yourself that you are still here, ‘and [that] you can still reflect on how precious time is – it hasn’t gone yet’.

Shark conservation

As a species, sharks and rays are in trouble globally. Perception is one of the key threats to their survival, with sharks often targeted and killed because humans fear them.

Wildtrust marine biologist and shark specialist, Leigh de Necker, joined Caleb in the water and was in awe of his passion for the ocean and willingness to help and learn more about sharks.

“Changing our perception is one way we can help ensure their survival,” says de Necker.

“The more we can encourage people to understand sharks better, to acknowledge their importance, and to recognise their vulnerability, the more they may be inspired to help protect them. Caleb gives me hope for shark conservation, because if he can shift his perception around sharks, then I feel that anyone can!”

South Africa is a top 5 global hotspot for shark and ray diversity, harbouring around 200 species with a large proportion being endemic to South and Southern Africa, meaning they are unique to our waters and found nowhere else in the world.

This film aims to create an awareness of the importance of protecting the many diverse shark species in our waters and that there is strong scientific evidence proving how important sharks are in balancing our ocean ecosystem and keeping it healthy.


“Honestly, Caleb is one of the most inspirational people I have ever met,” says Campaign Lead at the Wildtrust, Lauren van Nijkerk.

“He approached us over a year ago to find out if he could help with our marine conservation work under the Wildoceans programme and had a specific interest in learning more about sharks. His zest for life is infectious and for someone to want to attach meaning and purpose to such a traumatic event and give back to the very species that took something from him is mind-blowing.”

Swanepoel’s connection to the ocean is a testament to his strength and determination. Since his incident, he has become one of South Africa’s top para surfers with seven National Championship titles in his division.

Passion for theatre

In addition, Swanepoel has a huge passion for theatre arts and studied for a degree in Theatre and Performance at The University of Cape Town.

His career in acting has won him Best Supporting Actor in a Play for his role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the recent 2024 Naledi Theatre Awards at the Joburg Theatre, as well as the Lesedi Spirit of Courage Award for returning to his acting career after losing his leg, having to face new challenges and adapt whilst challenging the status quo.

“Lying in my hospital bed in 2015 after my attack, I would never have imagined swimming with sharks in the ocean again, yet here I am,” adds Swanepoel.

“We can never tell what lies beyond taking a leap of faith, but so much can be gained from leaning in. So, go for it! Thank you to the team: Devin, Leigh, Sven, Mnqobi, Thuthukani, Lauren, Janelle, Nicola, and Megan for your awesomeness and for telling stories.”

Read original story on www.georgeherald.com

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