Sept. 16, 2003 – A well-known local artist and cartoonist saw his life pass before him Saturday afternoon when he was bumped and then had most of a swim fin torn off by an 8-foot bull shark while free diving for dinner near his home on Water Island.
Paul Borghi was near tears and still shaky on Tuesday as he described his encounter with the "monster," which fortunately took a chunk out of his swim fin and not his body. "I did not think I'd see anybody again in my life," he said.
After climbing down a 100-foot cliff on the southeastern side of Water Island, Borghi said, he sat looking at the roiling water, wondering if it was worth going in to see if he could snare a lobster for a dinner with friends. As the waves were rolling in, rather than crashing against the shoreline, he decided he could do it and plunged into the water with his lobster snare.
Borghi said he had been eyeing the area for 18 months, but normally the water was too rough to enter. Hurricane Isabel passing north of the islands on Saturday caused wind and waves to come from unusual directions, according to one Hull Bay surfer, and may have been the reason the seas were calmer than usual alongside that part of Water Island.
It was about 2:45 p.m. when Borghi was shaken to his core as the broad-headed shark hit him from the side. Then, the creature "swam off between me and the shore — so I had no way to escape," he related. "Then he made another pass close to me and swam off again, hovering between me and the shore.
"That's when he hunched and came straight for me that's when my life passed before me."
Borghi recalls only kicking and fighting after that. "I just remember that smile and the teeth," he said.
And then he started poking the shark with the lobster snare. Finally, after what Borghi said seemed like a lifetime, he hit the shark in the eye, causing the extremely dangerous predator to turn away and disappear.
Borghi was then able to scramble out of the water. It wasn't until he was on the rocks above the small cove that he realized that most of his one swim fin was gone.
In retrospect on Tuesday, he lamented several mistakes he made on Saturday.
As he had sat musing about whether to enter the water, he had a "gut feeling," he said. It was one of "those red flags … a lot of us don't pay any attention to them."
He joked that "I've had them before with relationships," and when he didn't pay attention to them, things always ended badly.
A very experienced diver, Borghi said he made some fundamental diving mistakes, too: "I didn't tell anyone where I was going. I didn't take a buddy with me, and I was splashing around in an area I was unfamiliar with."
Bull sharks are here and can be dangerous
Bull sharks, easily identified by their massive broad heads, are fond of little lagoons with lots of big fish in them, according to details on the International Shark Attack File Web site, which is maintained by the Florida Museum of Natural History's research division. These sharks also can survive quite well in fresh water and are found throughout the world, mostly in tropical and semi-tropical climates.
"And they definitely live in these waters," Donna Nemeth, marine biologist and assistant professor of biology at the University of the Virgin Islands, said Tuesday.
Nemeth verified something Borghi suspected: "Bull sharks are thought to be territorial."
"It seemed like it was his lair … like I was trespassing," Borghi said. "I am sure I dropped right down into his den." He described the subterranean locale as a cove about 25 feet underwater which progressed to a very deep, dark dropoff that he estimated to be about 90 feet deep.
"He was cruising around like I was in his living room," Borghi said, "and he was pissed."
Nemeth said the reason there have been few — in fact almost no — shark attacks in the Virgin Islands is that the water is so clear. Most attacks are a "case of mistaken identity" in murky waters, she said.
The bumping that Borghi experienced may have been the fish "assessing if it was something he wanted to eat," Nemeth said, a normal behavior for bull sharks.
Along with dogs, antelope, other sharks and sea turtles, humans are among the bull shark's favored diet. Fortunately, in most cases, divers are able to scare them off successfully, the International Shark Attack File site states.
Nemeth said she isn't surprised that a bull shark would attack unprovoked. "They are one of the top three most aggressive sharks, along with great whites and tiger sharks," she said.
Tiger sharks also live in the territory's waters and are, according to ISAF, the only predator a bull shark might have.
Borghi said the bull that attacked him was wounded and the wound looked fresh.
Large predator sharks are known to eat shark pups, which are often spawned and left to mature for up to a year in the territoriy's shallow bays. "Water Bay," which is near where Borghi was free-diving, does tend to have shark pups," Nemeth said.
Chances of a shark attack
The chances of being killed by a mountain lion are greater than those of dying in the jaws of a shark — and when compared to being killed by a deer, the factor rises exponentially.
For every 0.4 shark fatality in an average year during the 1990s, 130 people were killed in crashes with deer on the nation's highways and 18 people were killed by dogs, according to ISAF.
And in Puerto Rico between 1959 and 1994, lightning killed 30 people while one person was attacked by a shark and the shark attack was not fatal.
"The ISAF investigated 86 alleged incidents of shark-human interaction occurring worldwide in 2002. Upon review, 60 of these incidents represented confirmed cases of unprovoked shark attack on humans," the Web site states.
ISAF defines unprovoked attacks as "incidents where an attack on a live human by a shark occurs in its natural habitat without human provocation of the shark"
The ISAF has documented only three attacks ever in the Virgin Islands — one in 1963 that was fatal, one unconfirmed in 1972, and one in 1992 that was non-fatal.
The fatal attack was by a Galapagos shark, according to Alexie Morgan, research assistant to George H. Burgess, director of the ISAF and the Florida Program for Shark Research.
Less than an hour after his encounter with the shark that attacked him, Borghi was back in the water at Limestone Beach, half a mile from where the attack took place — partially in another attempt to snare dinner, but mostly to force himself back into the water he loves.
His bravado in returning to the water so quickly after his harrowing experience is not a measure of the impact it has had on him, however.
Borghi, known for his political satire and cartoon characterizations of local people and events, said that since Saturday he hasn't been able to stop drawing pictures of the attack.
He also can't stop pacing the floor and reliving the attack in his dreams.
However, he said, "I feel like I have a second chance at life."
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