The shark was gliding through the warm Atlantic water, just off the coast of Florida. He was hungry, but for him, that wasn’t a problem: the murky water was full of cobia, a big, fat fish sometimes called a black kingfish or black salmon. He’d get his fill.
But then the 10-foot shark saw the meal of a lifetime: Floating through the water like a dead duck was what the shark believed to be the biggest cobia in the ocean… seventy-year-old Rich Nuemann. Best of all? The grandfather wasn’t looking. For the hungry shark, this was the easiest meal he’d ever have.
It was Good Friday, 2015. Rick Nuemann was celebrating the weekend with his good friend, Julian Cruz, 3 miles off the coast of Florida. They were on a 20-foot vessel, talking politics, grand kids, and fishing.
But for Rick, fishing wasn’t a sport where you kicked your feet up and relaxed with a cold beer. He was a spear fisher. “Spearfishing is like hunting in the fish’s element,” Rick always told his skeptical friends. “It’s a charge.”
That thrill of the hunt saw Rick, below, and Julian sliding into skin-tight wet suits and trading in fishing rods and lines for an old-fashioned spear. In over five decades of “shooting” fish, he never ran into any problems in the water.
This day started out as well as any: right away, Rick shot a 51-pound cobia. He was happy with the catch, but as the morning bled into the afternoon, he grew restless. The visibility in this part of the ocean wasn’t great. They needed to move.
Julian captained the ship to a different reef and jumped into the water, spear in hand. Following spearfishing protocol, Rick waited aboard the ship: having two divers down below would spook any cobia. Finally, his friend returned with good news.
“There are cobia down there,” Julian reported as he slipped back on to the ship empty-handed. This was welcome news for Rick, who was antsy to get back into the water himself. There was, however, a vital piece of information missing from Julian’s report.
The hungry shark knew this was a good spot for cobia, and the hungry shark was on his way to that spot for lunch. Of course, Julian couldn’t have known that, which was why Rick jumped fearlessly into the water with no idea how his life was about to change.
Spear in hand, Rick dove down 40 or so feet, his eye on a cobia. He neared his target, felt his fingers tighten on his weapon, and… was smacked hard in the side of the head.
Spearboard / YouTube
The collision beneath the sea was hard, like a car accident. In a moment of complete disorientation, Rick saw his scuba mask go flying and a 500-pound shark swimming away. He calmed himself. The shark was gone. He was alive. Then he touched his neck.
He felt warmth — his blood pouring from his neck. His adrenaline truly pumping, he swam back to the surface, hoping to scurry back on to the ship. He didn’t know how bad the damage was… until he saw Julian’s face.
What Julian saw was ghastly: Rick’s ear was attached by a thin thread of skin. The cheek the shark had crashed into sported a deep, gushing wound, which gurgled blood onto the deck of the ship and into his wet suit. Without help, he was going to die.
So Julian called 911. He ran to the ship’s controls and steered towards shore as his ghost-white friend — a grandfather — clutched weakly to the ship’s console. Every time the ship hit a wave, Rick spilled more blood on to the deck. His time was limited.
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The 20-foot ship fought hard against the waves. To keep his friend alert and focused, Julian asked Rick how he was doing. “Okay,” Rick said, underselling a bit. “But let’s get back as quickly as possible.”
Wheelpi / YouTube
After 45 minutes, the ship finally reached the Florida shores, where paramedics were waiting. The rescue workers placed Rick on a gurney, hooked him up to some IVs, cut off his wet suit, and shoved him into a helicopter. He was on his way to St. Mary’s Hospital trauma center.
Rick was woozy when the chopper landed. The flashing lights and frantic scrambling of nurses in the trauma ward were a haze to his fading mind. He held on for awhile, but then, the world went black.
He woke up later with 200 stitches in his neck. “They reattached my ear, and closed up my cheek, the gashes down my neck, and some more on my shoulder and back,” Rick said of the trauma doctors. With a clear head, he looked back at the moment.
“The doc said I was lucky,” Rick recalled. “There are all kinds of arteries and glands in that part of the body that somehow didn’t get hit.” But the expert diver believed two things were responsible for saving his life.
The first life saver? The wet suit. “I was wearing a thick one because I’d thought we might hit some cold water,” Rick said. “Looking back, that suit probably saved me from a worse bite.” But there was another factor.
The shark! “He bit through the wet suit, and part of me, then realized neither one was a fish and just went on his way,” Rick said. “He was probably a little confused himself… Normally a shark is not going to go after a human being.”
After spending some time healing, Rick was ready to get back into the water. “I still have a healthy respect for the ocean,” he said. And “I need the exercise.” He felt the same way about the ocean as another diving colleague.
Nattie Up North / YouTube
Videographer Gary Grayson had already seen his share of underwater expeditions. The Brit knew better than anyone that when you broke through the surface of the ocean, it was almost as if you were breaking through the barrier between worlds.
Mercury Press / Nigel Wade
In 2014, Gary and one of his pals set out on an expedition with a scuba group called Dive Life. Both men had gone on more dives than they could count, so neither expected this trip to change their views of the ocean forever.
A boat brought the adventurers to the coast of the Isles of Scilly, located to the southwest of England. It was a great spot to explore, as the island’s warmer temperatures attracted a wide array of flora and fauna.
Naturally, Gary and his chum weren’t going to make the plunge without packing at least some of their video equipment. They would absolutely kick themselves if they came across a once-in-a-lifetime sight and forgot to record it.
Strapping on his fins and mask, Gary plopped into the water and surveyed his surroundings. Most of the group headed off together, but the two videographers chose to peel off in a different direction. It paid off — something caught Gary’s eye.
Down in the cracks between two rocks, a curious seal poked his head up. He clearly looked intrigued by these human visitors, but made no move to swim out from his hiding place.
Still, Gary hoped that he could get near enough to see the seal up-close. After all, these animals had a reputation for being especially playful with each other. But, he wondered, how would they react to a completely different species?
Flickr / Ella Garnett
Before Gary and his friend even had a chance to think up a plan, however, the seal came out of the rocks on its own! He was staring straight at the divers, almost as if he was welcoming them — or feeling threatened.
Either way, Gary felt willing to risk getting up close and personal. Besides, he’d gotten within biting distance of sharks and other underwater beasts in the past. He figured that if they hadn’t attacked him, neither would a seal.
Gary swam closer to the animal and tried to make it as clear as possible he meant no harm. Of course, that’s easier said than done when you can’t speak and are covered in scary diving equipment.
Amazingly, Gary’s nice guy act worked like a charm! The seal came face-to-face with him and sniffed the surrounding water. Gary’s captivated friend started rolling the camera to capture the rare interaction.
However, the amiable greeting took a sudden turn. The seal grabbed Gary’s right hand — not too roughly, thankfully — and pulled the human down toward him. One instinct told Gary to pull away and get out of there, but he waited to see what would happen.
Soon enough, any fears about a serious seal bite vanished. Instead of tearing at his arm, the seal simply moved Gary’s hand down toward his abdomen. Did this wild animal really want a…belly rub?
That’s exactly what he was after! The seal twirled and rotated through the water so Gary could pet him at every angle. Even for all his nautical expertise, the diver had never heard of a seal acting like this.
As a matter of fact, he appeared to be acting more like a dog than a sea mammal! Gary could only figure that the entire animal kingdom loved getting their bellies scratched. That much was universal.
Unfortunately, Gary knew he couldn’t stay down there with his new seal pal forever. He and the other videographer rose back up to the surface and excitedly described their encounter to the other divers.
There’s no doubt that the seal would also treasure the meeting forever. Who knows — maybe he would seek out more human friends in the future. The seal, incredibly, wouldn’t be alone in that endeavor.
See, at first, National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen was shaken when he was asked to dive with wild leopard seals. That’s because, well, they’re terrifying.
The leopard seal, also known as the sea leopard, is absolutely huge. They can grow to 10 feet in length and weigh as much as 1,300 pounds! The only pinnipeds bigger are elephant seals and walruses.
Still, he was a seasoned photographer, so years of experience told him you can never be too careful around a wild animal. He recounted his first —oddly friendly — encounter with the sea leopards…
“I slipped into the water, terrified of what might happen, and I swam up to this leopard seal,” Paul said. “My legs were shaking, I had dry mouth…” And then?
“She took my whole head and my camera inside her mouth and did this threat display,” Paul recalled. “But then the most amazing thing happened.”
“She went off and got me a live penguin,” Paul said. “And she came up and started to feed me a penguin.” Paul stared in awe as this massive seal approached him with what was some kind of offering.
“And right away she dropped the penguin. She came up to me and she opened her mouth,” Paul said, knowing the sea leopard could’ve snatched his camera if she wanted. “Her head is twice as wide as a grizzly bear’s the head. Just huge.”
Paul said, “She kept letting these live penguins go and the penguin would shoot past me and she’d look disgusted as she’d go by me. She did this over and over…” It was almost as if she was annoyed Paul was allowing the penguins to get away.
“She started to bring me weak penguins, then dead penguins, then she showed me how to eat penguins,” Paul said. “She would offer me partially consumed penguins.” Was she trying to be his mother?
“She started to take penguins and actually push them into my camera. I think she thought the camera was my mouth, which is every photographer’s dream. This went on for four days.”
Paul continued, “And then I think she realized that I was this useless predator in her ocean, probably going to starve to death and I think she became quite panicked.”
The experience was one he’d never forget. “So, here I came to Antarctica, to photograph this potentially vicious animal,” he said, “to have this predator, this top predator in Antarctica, take care of me, and nurture me, and feed me for four days straight.”
“It was the most incredible experience I’ve ever had as a National Geographic photographer,” said Paul. The iconic magazine has allowed other incredible photographers like Paul to chase amazing shots. Just look at these incredible photos…
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