By Mike O'Neal
An overflow crowd gathered Friday night in the Tennessee Aquarium's auditorium to hear fish tales with a twist.
Instead of "ones that got away," champion spear-fisherman Rodney Fox spoke about his adventures since he nearly became a great white shark's catch of the day off the coast of Australia on Dec. 8, 1963.
"I thought I'd been hit by a train," he said. "I'd never been on a train, but I knew it was something big."
During a spear-fishing tournament, the shark, estimated at 10 feet long, bit him.
One chomp crushed the ribs on his left side, ripped his abdomen open, punctured his diaphragm and left lung, exposed his spleen and aorta, pierced his shoulder blade and cut tendons and tissue on his right hand.
Mr. Fox said that someone said a priest should be called while he was on the operating table.
Mr. Fox said that though married in the Catholic Church, he had been raised as a Methodist.
"I sat up and said, 'I'm a Protestant,' " he said. "I didn't need last rites. I wasn't going anywhere."
Then, as now, Mr. Fox said there are two main passions in his life.
"My wife ... and my love of diving," he said.
Kay Fox said it seemed that fate intervened in any number of ways to assure both her husband's survival and his return to the sea.
"He wanted to get well to get back in the water," she said.
Her husband remained in an Adelaide, Australia, hospital for eight days -- "they were waiting for him to go into shock" -- before being released, and within three months he was diving again, Mrs. Fox said.
In addition to the scars of more than 450 stitches, Mr. Fox carries a another reminder of that day when he became prey: a fragment of shark's tooth remains embedded in his right wrist.
At the time of being attacked Mr. Fox said, "I knew nothing about them. Sharks were on the level of the devil."
Instead of seeking revenge, Mr. Fox dedicated his life to protecting and learning about the fish he describes as the sea's keystone predator because nothing eats them.
Mr. Fox has participated in more than 100 films and videos, including those produced for the Cousteau Society, Imax and Disney.
It was Mr. Fox who designed the first steel cages that allowed filming of great whites, and subsequent films and research have led him to believe the great whites and other sharks should be protected.
One story that had the Tennessee Aquarium audience laughing involved his work on the 1974 film "Jaws."
To make it appear more menacing, a half-scale shark cage and scuba gear, along with a midget stunt diver, were shipped to Australia for filming among 13- to 14-foot sharks. Peter Benchley rewrote the script after one of those sharks attacked the boat, biting its propeller, during shooting, Mr. Fox said.
"We worked for more than six weeks," he said. "They only used a minute or two of the real footage in the movie. It made their rubber shark look too unreal."
Mr. Fox said the mission of his museum and shark dive operation continues to be debunking myths and finding the truth about sharks.
"We need them in our oceans," he said. "There is still a lot of studying to do."
E-mail Mike O'Neal at firstname.lastname@example.org
SHARK ATTACK FACTS
* The worldwide yearly average of unprovoked shark attacks on humans is 75, about 10 fatal. Chances of dying from a bee sting, lightning or a dog or snake bite are greater than from a shark attack.
* There have been 232 confirmed great white shark attacks, worldwide, in the years 1876-2006.
* The greatest number of great white attacks, 88 attacks including seven fatalities, were reported in the western United States.
* Australia reported 43 great white attacks, with 27 resulting in death.
* The last great white fatality occurred in 2005 in Australian waters.
Source: University of Florida