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Shark attack turns victim into a hunter and then an advocate

POMPANO BEACH — Forty years ago, Jaws thrilled Al Brenneka like any other moviegoer, but he figured his chances of encountering a shark in the ocean were slim to none.

Until he went surfing and nearly lost his life.

In the decades since, he has come to accept his membership in the small community of shark attack survivors and changed his feelings toward the animal that bit him.

Over a year after the summer 1975 debut of Steven Spielberg's blockbuster thriller, Brenneka was 19 and rode one of the best waves of his life into shore at Delray Beach. As he paddled back out, something tugged on his right arm.

His arm broke the surface with a yellow face more than a foot wide attached — and gnawing into his elbow.

The lemon shark wouldn't let go until he stuck his knee into its gills. Amid his own screaming and the sound of his blood gushing from the wound, Brenneka realized how alone he was.

A couple of dozen other surfers had fled to the beach when the shiver of sharks darted beneath their boards. Brenneka said some told him later that they had seen Jaws — and it had made them too afraid to come to his rescue.

He lost consciousness at the shoreline and he was dead on arrival at the hospital. The average adult has about 10 pints of blood in his body — Brenneka needed more than twice that amount. He was in a coma for over three days, and doctors feared he would have brain damage, if he woke up at all.

He lost his right arm at the elbow. He still wears a sock over the stump to protect the skin grafts that closed his physical wounds.

For years after his attack, he thought the victims in the movie had it easy with their quick deaths — not long, painful recoveries like his.

"To be hunted and stalked, and then have something try to consume a part of your body, it sends a trigger in your brain that changes everything," he said.

He resumed diving and fishing, and his prey included small sharks he could turn into dinner for friends.

"Everybody's mentality was the Jaws mentality. Everybody thought every shark was a bad shark," Brenneka said.

But in 1986, he reeled in a 200-pound hammerhead shark that he soon realized wasn't good to eat. Dumping the carcass back into the water triggered a change of heart: The shark had been far from shore and wasn't bothering anyone, so he had had no reason to kill it if he wasn't going to eat it.

"That's hard to just throw away 150, 200 pounds of meat. We had to do it with the hammerhead shark, and I really felt bad that I was killing these animals for no reason," Brenneka said.

Since then, he has advocated for shark conservation, helping with efforts to tag and release sharks for research. It was an easy transformation — to go from wanting to kill sharks to wanting to help them — because killing them was wasting valuable resources, he said.

"I felt it was best to not kill them out of revenge or anything like that anymore. It was more like, why should I even kill them when I could put a tag into them if I happen to catch one?" he said.

Fewer than 100 unprovoked shark attacks are confirmed worldwide each year, and very few are fatal, according to the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

"To try and seek revenge against the shark is really wasteful. You can't blame it on the shark for what happened to you," Brenneka said.