Understanding the animal that changed his life

South African conservation organisation WILDTRUST has released Caleb: Beyond the Bite: a short film following award-winning actor, para-athlete and shark bite survivor Caleb Swanepoel, and his relationship with the ocean.

In hopes to reconnect with his experience and better understand the animal that changed his life, the short film follows Caleb as he contemplates swimming in the ocean with sharks at Aliwal Shoal, KwaZulu-Natal for the first time since he lost his leg to a white shark in 2015. The film pulls on the heartstrings as Caleb takes the viewer on a journey of loss, growth and insight into his perspective on sharks.

The film has been launched as part of Sharks Under Attack, a marine campaign with a goal to improve the protection of threatened sharks and rays in South Africa. One of the core objectives of the campaign is to shift the negative perceptions people have of sharks in the hope to ultimately see them better understood, respected and protected.

“I am so grateful for this opportunity to reconnect with sharks,” says Caleb. “I make this choice to continue to process my experience through leaning into new challenges and opportunities, to learn more about sharks and to help protect these incredible animals.”

Shark conservation

As a species, sharks and rays are in trouble globally. Perception is one of the key threats to their survival, with sharks often targeted and killed as a result of our fear of them. WILDTRUST marine biologist and shark specialist Leigh de Necker joined Caleb in the water and was in awe of his passion for the ocean and willingness to help and learn more about sharks.

“Changing our perception is one way we can help ensure their survival,” says De Necker. “The more we can encourage people to better understand sharks, to acknowledge their importance, and to recognise their vulnerability, the more they may be inspired to help protect them. Caleb gives me hope for shark conservation – because if he can shift his perception around sharks, then I feel anyone can!”

South Africa is a top 5 global hot spot for shark and ray diversity, harbouring around 200 species with a large proportion being endemic to South and southern Africa, meaning they are unique to our waters and found nowhere else in the world. 

This film aims to create an awareness of the importance of protecting the many diverse shark species in our waters and that there is strong scientific evidence proving how important sharks are in balancing our ocean ecosystem and keeping it healthy.

“Honestly, Caleb is one of the most inspirational people I have ever met,” says campaign lead at WILDTRUST, Lauren van Nijkerk. “He approached us over a year ago to find out if he could help with our marine conservation work under the WILDOCEANS programme and had a specific interest in learning more about sharks. His zest for life is infectious – and for someone to wants to attach meaning and purpose to such a traumatic event and give back to the very species that took something from him is mind-blowing.”

Caleb’s connection to the ocean is a testament to his strength and determination. Since his incident, he has become one of South Africa’s top para surfers, with seven National Championship titles in his division.

In addition, he has a huge passion for theatre arts, and studied a degree in Theatre and Performance at the University of Cape Town. His career in acting has won him Best Supporting Actor in a Play for his role in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the recent 2024 Naledi Theatre Awards at the Joburg Theatre, as well as the Lesedi Spirit of Courage Award for returning to his acting career after losing his leg, having to face new challenges and adapt while challenging the status quo. 

“Lying in my hospital bed in 2015 after my attack, I would never have imagined swimming with sharks in the ocean again, yet here I am,” says Caleb. “We can never tell what lies beyond taking a leap of faith, but so much can be gained from leaning in. So go for it! Thank you to the team: Devin, Leigh, Sven, Mnqobi, Thuthukani, Lauren, Janelle, Nicola and Megan for your awesomeness and for telling stories.”

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