Shark attack

The Kiwi woman who fought back
Daring to get back in the water – AJ with proud dad Glenn

It’s high summer. The waves are warm, the sand swearingly hot. High clouds cast no shadow. Only the gnarled Pohutukawa trees offer any refuge from the sharp rays of the sun. February sees New Zealanders at peak Kiwi-ness – ambling in flipflops to beachside BBQs, boxes of beers, social, jokey. It’s a tribal experience.

It’s been a joy to be amongst my kith and kin and I’ve been busily channelling my inner Kiwi Chick. In only a few days’ time I’ll be back in London, my freckles fading fast, my identity a bit wobbly once I remove myself from my cherished birthplace.
The writer Paul Kingsnorth says, “People don’t tend to talk much about their identity unless it is under threat. The louder you have to talk about it, the more you have lost.”

Unsurprisingly, in these final days I’ve been asking my girlfriends what it means to be a Kiwi Chick. Beyond the extensive list of qualities that is offered up, a unifying idea emerges. It’s about an extreme physical engagement with the environment combined with supreme casualness. It’s ageless too.

AJ grins as she recalls the headline “Girl Punches Shark on Nose”

For instance my mum, in her early eighties and harassed by Parkinson’s, is peak Kiwi Chick. She recently completed an alpine traverse – during a snowstorm. On the same trip she broke her wrist and hiked a further two days in torrential rain, joking all the way. She wears a necklace emblazoned with Fuckit and certainly lives by this maxim.

My son’s girlfriend Beth is also a fully-fledged Kiwi Chick at just twenty years old, though she keeps her many achievements resolutely under the radar. Last month she flew across Cook Strait and up the west coast to her grandmother’s memorial. I only find out later she was actually piloting the plane. When I express awe and amazement, she just laughs. “Oh yeah”.

AJ’s dramatic rescue is as nail-biting as any Hollywood action thriller

Then there’s AJ Rush, who should be crowned Queen Kiwi Chick.

When I first meet AJ, she’s sitting in the sun on my friend’s front porch, in shorts and bare feet. Her gamine good looks and easy manner instantly appeal to me. AJ has great legs. One shapely tanned limb, the other curiously sculpted, possibly by a violent event.

“I have to ask,” I say pointedly.
“Shark attack,” she replies.

It stops you in your tracks, an answer like that, suggesting an ordeal both traumatic and intensely private. Yet when I meet her in a bar later to probe for details, AJ tells me her real-life Jaws experience has proved as life-affirming as it was life-threatening.

Manureva’s young Kiwi crew the day before the attack – AJ is back row, second from right
AJ’s injuries are examined by a surgeon in New Zealand
New Zealand’s rugged and breathtaking Pacific coast belies its hidden dangers

Her story begins with a bunch of largely inexperienced mates crewing a yacht through Melanesia on a sort of post-university adventure. Never mind that the vessel had been a salvaged wreck, lacking refrigeration and GPS. The six young New Zealanders aboard the rebuilt Manureva were in for the time of their lives.

“We were anchored in a place called Port Sandwich when the attack happened,” she laughs. Irony is not lost on AJ. “One hundred and fifty nautical miles from Port Vila.”

In 1992, when the attack occurred, it must have been one of the most remote places on the planet. And one of the unluckiest to moor given there’d been an abattoir at the mouth of the harbour where offal had been washed into the bay. Sharks had become habituated to getting a ready feed there; locals had learned to keep their distance. Nobody likes to be a food source.

Like many of us here in New Zealand, AJ grew up in a coastal community. A competitive swimmer and water polo player as a teen, she was in her element venturing beyond the breakers at Piha, one of the country’s most popular but notoriously risky surf beaches. Supremely confident in the ocean, this Kiwi Chick scarcely registered the dangers posed by huge waves, riptides and apex predators.

Her love of water earned AJ the nickname “Otter” with her Manureva crewmates, after practising aquatic tumble-turns off the side of the 52-foot ketch became an early morning ritual for the 20-year-old.

The Port Sandwich anchorage would have been particularly beautiful on the morning of 19 June 1992: the deserted bay, the apparently uninhabited hills covered in lush foliage.

That’s when the shark hit.

“I just felt a massive of shock of pain. You know, a great big bite around my leg. And it’s a 30-centimetre bite, so…” AJ pauses in her retelling and looks down at her leg. “That’s it there.”

A smile plays about her lips but there’s no trace of mirth in her eyes. Perhaps morbidly, I can’t help but look. Her leg is an extraordinary sight.

“Those are the surgical wounds. That’s where the leg swelled, the lost muscle, the actual shark’s mouth with the front row of teeth there. It had completely severed the main artery.”

Judging by the jaw size, the shark was about three metres and probably a tiger shark. Officially a man-eater, it was certainly capable of killing a woman of AJ’s size. In one bite.

“Then it dragged me under the water.”
AJ remembers entering a nightmare state.

“I didn’t know where I was. I could have been dreaming. You lose reality. You don’t know when you’re going to be let go, or if you’re going to be let go. You can’t breathe. My hand just whacked it. It got all cut up from the denticles on its skin. Later it got infected.”

AJ grins as she recalls the headline: Girl Punches Shark on Nose.

Surfacing in a slick of blood, her adrenaline kicked in. “I did the fastest ten-metre backstroke of my life.”

Once she’d been hauled aboard, the extent of AJ’s injuries became apparent. One crewmate held the layers of flesh together while a another fashioned a tourniquet from a belt to slow the spurting blood. In the absence of anything better, towels were wrapped around her leg. The black humour of a crewmate telling her to “get hard”, Kiwi slang for “be strong”, perversely helped to reassure her.

“I kept my eyes closed so I don’t know what it looked like but I kept thinking… ‘get hard’…it can’t be that bad,” she says. Though the unspoken consensus among the others was that she was either going to die or lose her leg.

The stats are sobering. Only 40 per cent of shark victims survive to tell the tale. Blood loss, shock and infection can still claim the lives of those who manage to fight their way ashore, even when medical facilities are at hand. People have died of wounds inflicted in Sydney Harbour.

AJ’s dramatic rescue is as nail-biting and filmic as any Hollywood action thriller, the key plot twists including no radio signal, a lost dinghy, a terrifying paddle on a surfboard, zero pain relief, no oxygen, and a pick-up truck driven at speed up a rutted four-wheel drive track to a dilapidated airstrip in an old French settlement.

AJ braving shark infested waters for TVNZ’s Natural History Unit

Finally a small aircraft was diverted from another island. AJ was loaded into the baggage hold, a white-faced bundle wrapped in a blood-soaked duvet. Back in Port Vila, the call went out to the Royal New Zealand Air Force who flew a mercy mission. The clock was ticking. When she was finally wheeled out onto the tarmac, twelve hours after the attack, she was very near death.

“My thinking was: I can’t manage the four-hour flight home to New Zealand, but I can wait until the air force arrives,” AJ tells me. “Then, when they wheeled me out and there was the Orion aircraft with the big Kiwi logo on the side, our guys in their uniforms, and they were speaking with their New Zealand accents… they were totally my heroes.”

Her tears start to flow. “I never used to cry when I told this story,” AJ says.

And this is just the start of her narrative. Afterwards, there’s the medical miracle of saving her limb, of learning to walk again, the media attention, the falling out with fellow crew members, and the subsequent love affair with an internationally renowned shark documentary maker. There’s also her landmark achievement of not just getting back in the water again but also competing in ocean swims and diving professionally with sharks for Television New Zealand’s Natural History Unit.

AJ’s soon to be completed memoir is a courageous account of a life lived wholeheartedly. From her unconventional childhood in a polyamorous household to the joys and challenges of life with her adored, differently-abled, seventeen-year-old son Charlie, AJ embodies the defiant spirit that helped her survive the attack:“Get Hard”.

To me, that’s now the battle cry of the quintessential Kiwi Chick.

Gee, I’m going to miss them.

Joanna Grochowicz is a polar historian and author.Her latest book “Shackleton’s Endurance: an Antarctic Survival Story” is out now (Murdoch, £7.99)

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Letter from Elsewhere, Life, March 2024

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