Sunday, 5 August 2012

In search of Graham: The Great White Shark who infected me with HIV

I can’t remember much about the attack. I have been told by spectators who watched in horror from the shoreline of Cottesloe Beach, while filming on their smart phones, that, prior to the incident, I had cut a commanding figure, standing astride the shell of a leatherback turtle, reciting passages from Finnegan’s Wake for the edification of a circling school of Yellow Fin Tuna.  Seconds later a tremendous blow pitched me into the foaming surf that was already tinged pink with my blood.

It was 2007. I had been spear-heading a radical conservation project aimed at educating marine life on the Western Australian coast. Thousands of miles away on High Streets up and down the UK, students in green tabards were out fundraising  on my behalf, affecting hitherto unseen levels of twattish behaviour in their attempts to prise personal details from passing shoppers, who they bombarded with inane factoids, e.g. 90% of sea lions haven’t read The Glass Bead Game or anything by Andre Gide.

My day had begun auspiciously. As I stripped naked before the breaking waves, the shadow cast on the sand by my massively proportioned genitalia acting as a sundial, I was approached by an Australian man, who had been barbecuing shrimp and drinking tins of Fosters nearby. He was in his early 30s and had sandy blonde hair. His sun-bronzed skin had the texture of leather. The corks, dangling on short lengths of string from the brim of his hat, danced merrily in the light breeze as he warned me of the “bonzer” shark that had been sighted at a nearby bar earlier that morning.

I showed him the four shark’s head tattoos on my upper left arm, each one indicating the life of a shark taken with a single punch to the face. He nodded in silent awe of my bare-handed shark-fighting prowess.

“You are a true credit to your nation,” I said and then kissed him tenderly on the brow in the manner that has long been the custom of my people.

The man was not there when they carried my bleeding body from the indifferent ocean. (While I was recuperating in hospital I received a get well card from him apologising for his absence. Immediatley after our meeting, he had gone home to watch the latest episode of Neighbours and then listen to some Midnight Oil albums).

I am told that I was saved that day by the ghost of Rolf Harris. He tenderly gathered me in his arms and carried me 70 miles on foot to a hospital staffed by former Aussie soap actors and actresses who had retrained as nurses and doctors . It was Dr Vanessa Downing - the actress who had originally played Pippa Fletcher in Home and Away who I credit with my miraculous recovery.

I was later informed by another doctor that my attacker had infected me with HIV.

“You will never be able to touch your toes again because both of your legs were wrenched off below the knee,” he added, as he left the room.

I have since read that the majority of Great White Sharks living in Australian waters are habitual heroin users, with many hooked on a potent variant of the drug known as ‘Rottnest Red.’ There is an enormous  problem with them stealing things off boats to pay for their habits. The Shark who had attacked me had most likely contracted the retrovirus as a result of sharing needles with another infected shark.

In the years that followed I thought about the shark who attacked me many times. I wanted to ask it why it had infected me with HIV. I also wanted to meet other people who had contracted the HIV virus as a result of shark attacks.

Jason has been haunted by the spectre of HIV ever since he was attacked by a Great White Shark at an indoor public swimming pool in Romford. He seemed keen to talk about his experiences of living with the disease, however when I began mentioning sharks he stopped returning my calls. He later emailed me the following statement:
“I was infected with HIV as a consequence of years of intravenous drug use. It was a dark time in my life for which I have paid a heavy price - the end of my first marriage, my continuing estrangement from my two children who I love more than I can put into words, not to mention the distress my poor choices caused to my parents, whose house I burgled on three separate occasions in order to raise money to fund my drug habit. I have never been attacked by a shark. To my knowledge Lamniform sharks such as the Great White are incapable of being infected by the HIV virus or transmitting it to humans. Your thoroughly tactless and ignorant line of questioning is both absurd and offensive to myself, to anyone living with HIV and to our brave marine biologists who put their lives on the line time after time in order to protect the freedom that we take for granted. Please do not contact me again.”

Reading between the lines I surmised that Jason was either in denial about his shark attack, or more likely was being held at gunpoint by a shark and was unable to communicate freely. I contacted the police voicing my suspicions, phoning it in as a 447 (the police radio code for a man being held at gunpoint by a shark) on the off-chance that Jason’s kidnapper might be listening in on my calls. The police in turn pretended not to know what I was talking about and later arrested me for wasting their time.  

I soon found other victims of shark attacks who like myself had been infected with HIV.

Jane is a 54 year old librarian from Harlow. She was diagnosed HIV positive in 2009, following a shark attack that occurred as she playfully jumped over a puddle in Kensington Gardens. It is a little known fact that the majority of shark attacks take place in no more than 2cms of water, with 40% occurring while the victim is drinking from a glass of water or fruit cordial. 

Jane and I spent the afternoon leafing through a big pile of library books about sharks, searching for photographs of her attacker. Like Jason, she remained in denial about her attack. In The Junior Oceanographer’s  Book of the Sea she pointed out a picture of a cuttlefish who she claimed to have married to in 1987 and divorced three years later.

I had almost given up hope of ever finding my attacker, when out of the blue I received a call from an AIDS hospice for pelagic sea creatures in Melbourne. I immediately booked passage on a series of trains boats and buses. Eleven weeks later I arrived at the hospice. It was here that I met Graham – the shark who had infected me with HIV - for the second time. As soon as I laid eyes on him any anger I felt evaporated. I asked him how he was doing and we watched the latter half of The Truman Show together.  He apologised for attacking me:

“ I was troubled young shark who fell in with a bad crowd. I’m doing everything I can to make amends for my past transgressions.”

“It’s okay bro,” I said.

One of the nurses, taking note of my compassion remarked:

“You are a wonderful man to forgive Graham after he almost killed you and infected you with HIV.”

“Yes I am,” I replied modestly.

Graham died in my arms the following day. Before his death he carved a poem into the flank of a manatee. It stands as a fitting epitaph for the life of a shark who went badly after the rails, but who found redemption at the 11th hour.

My home is in the Ocean

By Graham



Bloody, toothy, toothy

Blubber, toothy blubber


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