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Video: Run-in with shark ‘a terrifying experience’

TODAY contributor
updated 12/11/2008 9:30:47 AM ET 2008-12-11T14:30:47

The video, taken from inside a shark cage, is enough to freeze one’s blood. A great white shark gulps down a hunk of bait, then plows snout-first through the cage’s viewing aperture as the two men inside the cage try to avoid becoming its next course.

But actually being inside the cage was even more terrifying, the men who took the popular YouTube video confirmed Thursday to TODAY’s Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira in New York.

“I knew it was not going to be good,” said Paul Damgaard.

“I definitely thought it was over,” added Pat Walsh, the second man in the shark cage.

Two points of view
But even with a 15-foot, 2-ton great white with gaping jaws tearing the cage apart within inches of their heads, Damgaard and Walsh kept their video cameras rolling. Walsh’s video, taken from just to the right of the shark’s massive head, is the one that has been viewed by more than 800,000 people on YouTube. Damgaard’s video, seen publicly for the first time on TODAY, shows the shark smashing head-on into the cage.

Damgaard, 65, and Walsh, 33, are both experienced divers from California. In November 2007, the two, who did not know each other at the time, signed on for a shark-diving expedition near Isla de Guadalupe off the coast of Mexico.

On the 24-hour voyage to the dive site, they had plenty of time to inspect the boat’s two shark cages, knowing they'd be inside them when they got an up-close and personal look at a great white.

“They’re substantial cages,” Walsh told Vieira and Lauer. “It took a crew of six to get one of them in the water.”

Not like ‘Jaws’
They also knew that the image of great white sharks popularized by the “Jaws” movies does not reflect reality.

“These are not the man-eating, bloodthirsty monsters they’re made out to be in some of the media,” Walsh told Lauer and Vieira.

Even when the shark plowed into the cage, the two divers knew it wasn’t trying to eat them. But that knowledge provided no comfort when they were within inches of its jaws and the shark was thrashing wildly, trying to extricate itself from the cage. Intentional or not, one bite could have meant death.

From left, divers Patrick Walsh and Paul Damgaard recount their narrow escape from a great white shark that invaded their protective cage.

The two divers explained that when sharks attack prey, their eyes roll back and are covered by a protective membrane that momentarily blinds them. The shark that they filmed had taken a bloody tuna head that was hung near the surface of the water to attract it to the cage so the divers could get a good look at it. But it was headed straight at the cage when it gulped down the morsel — and when it opened its eyes, it was already stuck in the bars.

“I think that the shark just got disoriented,” Walsh explained.

An ominous red glow
Sharks have no reverse gear, so when the great white got its head stuck in the cage, the only way to get free was to thrash wildly until it had ripped the front off the cage.

After the shark hit, the videos get chaotic as the two divers scramble to stay clear of the huge jaws. Walsh initially was pinned against the back of the cage by the shark’s snout. “And then I’m just being tossed around,” he said.

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Still, he had the presence of mind to see if Damgaard was safe. When he looked for his dive partner, he saw a red glow around Damgaard’s head.

“I thought it was blood,” Walsh said. “It was definitely a terrifying experience.”

Images: A dangerous diveWalsh managed to push Damgaard toward an escape hatch at the side of the cage. When the shark tore the front of the cage off, Walsh found himself free of the cage, with another shark underneath him.

Neither diver had swim fins, and both had 40 to 50 pounds of weights around their waists to counter their buoyancy. Once they were free of the cage, they had no way to swim to the surface. Both were tethered to the boat by safety lines called hookahs, and the quick-acting crew quickly hauled them to the surface and out of harm’s way.

On the boat, Walsh discovered that neither he nor Damgaard had been injured. When they looked at their videos, they saw that the red glow Walsh had seen was caused by a float on the surface that Damgaard’s head had been silhouetted against.

Most people would probably swear off close encounters with sharks after such an experience, but not Damgaard and Walsh.

“We were back in the water within an hour of the incident,” Damgaard said.

“I was back in the water probably 15 to 20 minutes after,” Walsh added.

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