Two snorkelers looking for a new adventure got more than they bargained for on Aug. 2 when a decision to explore a coral reef they had never visited before in Candle Reef led to an encounter with a shark.
Melanie Klein and Ingo Schlueter were returning to their boat when Klein was startled by what she suspects was a nurse shark, which clamped down on her left hand in defense. Shark attacks are not common in the waters around the U.S. Virgin Islands, but it was real enough to Klein.
“It was about two in the afternoon and we approached the reef by boat, dropped anchor in the sand and kind of stayed in the breakwater,” Schlueter said. He continued, “We were maybe in three feet of water and the visibility was not great. As we started to swim back, I could not have been no more than 20 to 25 feet away from Melanie.”
Schlueter did not know that Klein was about to have an encounter with what she suspects to be a five-foot nurse shark. Due to the poor visibility in the water, Schlueter says that Klein suspects while swimming, she bumped into the shark. The shark reacted and clamped down on her arm.
“She struggled with the shark for a bit and then the many years of New York self-defense classes kicked in, and she lifted her fins and started kicking,” Schlueter said. “She ripped her hand out of the shark’s mouth and most of the damage she has to her hand was due to pulling her hand out.”
Nurse sharks are described by National Geographic as “Slow-moving bottom-dwellers and are, for the most part, harmless to humans. However, they can be huge – up to 14 feet – and have powerful jaws filled with thousands of tiny, serrated teeth and will bite defensively if stepped on or bothered by divers who assume they’re docile.”
Schlueter was not aware of what was happening until Klein began to yell.
“She held up her hand and I could see something was wrong with it, and before I was on top of her, the water was covered in blood.”
As soon as Schlueter got Klein on the boat, he was able to get a good look at her hand.
“I had a cigar-sized first aid kit, so I took my swim shirt off and I wrapped her hand in my swim shirt. I used the sleeves to tighten down on her forearm to see if I could slow down some blood flow,” Schlueter said.
Schlueter then attempted to contact 911, but the cell service proved to be complicated. However, he was able to contact a friend, who was able to notify 911 and the Green Key Marina.
“As soon as she seemed to be doing OK, I ran for it and pulled up the anchor as soon as I could and sped towards the marina,” Schlueter said. Klein was able to maintain her composure and kept her arm elevated.
As an experienced captain for 25 years, Schlueter was amazed at Klein’s bravery.
“Her energy, along with how brave and calm she remained, helped me to keep focus. It has to be said that she took things well. If it were a different person, they’d probably handle it differently,” Schlueter said.
As he approached the marina, he could hear the sirens coming from the ambulance.
“We had people there supporting and helping out,” Schlueter said.
He commends the job well done by the emergency responders and surgeons who reconstructed Klein’s hand. According to Schlueter, the surgeons at Gov. Juan F. Luis Hospital were able to pull the skin back into place after checking her tendons. She received 100 stitches on the interior of her hand and 98 on the exterior and it took about four hours to complete. Amputation was never put into question, but the tendons and nerve damage was a concern.
“Klein is expected to make a 99 percent recovery, and she can already wiggle her fingers and feel her fingertips,” Schlueter said.
She is currently recovering and recently reunited with her “fur babies.”
The Source reached out to marine biologist Kelcie Troutman, environmental outreach coordinator for the Department of Planning and Natural Resources in the Coastal Zone Management Division with East End Marine Park. Troutman agrees that, based on Klein’s encounter, it may very well have been a nurse shark.
“Sharks will leave a very distinct imprint,” Troutman said. “Nurse sharks are typically tucked into reefs or tucked back into crevices or on sandy bottoms near the reef. They also typically cool out during the day and hunt at night.”
Given that, before the encounter, the visibility was poor and Klein and Schlueter’s movement and shuffling may have caused the shark to go exploring.
“If you startle an animal, they will defend themselves. It is not a random act of them wanting to bite a random snorkeler,” Troutman said.
According to the leading shark attack database, the U.S. Virgin Islands only has four attacks on record between 1749 and present. Although not impossible, shark bites and attacks are not common here in the territory.
“Nurse, reef, blacktip and, in deeper waters, tiger sharks are just a few of the types of sharks you can find here in the U.S. Virgin Islands,” Troutman said.
Troutman offered some tips for swimmers entering the ocean:
– “Do the stingray shuffle. Many people do not know that stingrays are a part of the shark family. The stingray shuffle is shuffling the sand with your feet. Send those vibrations to let sea animals know someone is coming, someone is nearby.”
– “As for sharks, it can be a bit scary but keep your distance. If you are spearfishing, I would say make sure you have your catch container on a rope, separate to your body.
– “Also, leave wildlife in its place, and please do not pull shark tails.”
As for Schlueter and Klein’s plans to return to the water. Schlueter said, “I do plan on returning to the water. Melanie is a fish and loves to snorkel. One of her Christmas gifts was a certificate for scuba diving. I do not see her being afraid of the water. I am sure when she gets the clearance, I will see her back out snorkeling and enjoying the reefs in the territory.”