Debbie Salamone led an active life in the early 2000s. A passionate ballroom dancer, she took private lessons to learn complex steps. She swam in the ocean, frequenting the beaches of Florida's Atlantic coast. And she hustled from courtroom to courtroom as an investigative reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, at one point even traveling the state to hand-count ballots following the controversial 2000 presidential election.
"Life moved very fast for me," she tells Mashable.
But it nearly stopped forever one afternoon in 2004. In a violent swirl of surf, blood and teeth, a shark attacked Salomone at one of her favorite beaches.
Remarkably, Salamone would avoid crippling injury and resume ballroom dancing. Even more remarkably, the attack would catalyze Salamone to dedicate her life to saving sharks from overhunting while using Facebook to recruit a passionate team of fellow attack survivors. This is the story of how that happened.
A Terrifying Attack
"Being in the ocean had always made me feel very close to nature," Salamone says. "It was a wondrous place for me."
Salamone bobbed about in waist-deep water about 50 feet from the beach of Canaveral National Seashore on that 2004 day. When she heard the thunder of an impending afternoon storm, she says, she decided to "enjoy a few more seconds of the pleasure the ocean always brought me."
She finally turned to shore and decided to head back in. A large fish jumped out of the water next to her. A bad sign, she thought.
Salamone felt the shark's teeth rip into her right heel seconds later. Pure terror set in almost immediately.
She never saw the shark, only felt its forceful slithering near her feet. She kicked to try to escape, but the pain, which she says had become a "numb pressure," just increased as the shark bit down harder. The shark completely severed her achilles tendon. The front of her leg began to fold frontwards over her foot, in a way legs and feet aren't supposed to interact.
"It's got me! It's got me!" Salamone screamed, now fearing she'd be dragged out to sea.
The friend she'd been swimming with returned from shore, grabbing her outstretched arms. The shark, which experts later estimated to be a six foot spinner or black tip, let go. The friend dragged Salamone back to the beach. They stumbled onto the sand and she sat down.
"I only had the courage to look back once," Salamone says. "There was blood washing back out in the waves and I could see my shredded foot."
Nearly three months in a cast would follow, plus another month in a walking boot. Then weeks upon weeks of rehab. But as she worked her way back into shape and began to dance again, feelings of depression and fear slowly morphed into a different realization.
"Eventually I came to the conclusion that instead of trying to push me off this path of being a supporter of the environment, maybe this was just a test," she says. "Maybe if you can get through this, you really have what it takes to defend the environment, you really mean it."
She returned to the paper, then earned a master's degree in environmental sciences and policy and left in 2009 to join The Pew Charitable Trusts, an NGO that works to save sharks, among other causes. Around that same time, she began to look for other shark attack survivors to help rally public support for the cause something that would not have been possible if not for Facebook.
Survivors Become Advocates
"I went after the worst of the worst [injuries], people who were missing arms and legs," Salamone says of using her investigative skills to track down survivors from around the globe. "I wanted people who would give a visual picture and have the most compelling stories so people would pay attention."
Today their Facebook group, Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation, includes a former Australian navy diver whose leg and hand were lost to an attack while training in Sydney Harbor, as well as a surfer whose leg was ripped away by a tiger shark off the coast of Kauai in 1997. It serves as a way for all the members who Salamone says "have bonded and have a wonderful friendship" to stay in touch while scattered around the globe. But the group, which Salamone recently wrote about for Facebook's "Stories" site, has also become a nexus for the survivors to attract others to their cause. Its page has picked up more than 7,600 likes from fellow conservationists.
Along with The Pew Charitable Trusts, Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation, has targeted the practice of "shark finning" as a chief concern. Fins are cut off to make a Chinese delicacy known as "shark fin soup," then the sharks themselves are dumped back into the ocean to die. In 2009, Salamone and eight other survivors went to the U.S. Capitol to lobby lawmakers to strengthen their ban of the practice in U.S. waters. Two years later, Barack Obama signed the Shark Conservation Act of 2010 into law, eliminating existing loopholes in the previous ban.
The group has since traveled to the United Nations to lobby for increased protection of at-risk shark species, and last year they made undercover visits to Chinese restaurants around the country to gather samples of shark fin soup that were later analyzed in a DNA lab. Testing revealed many of the soups were made with at-risk species. One sample included the scalloped hammerhead shark, which is endangered.
Despite the group's successes, however, Salamone knows truly saving at-risk shark species is a long and difficult challenge. Researchers estimate 100 million sharks are killed each year globally. The community and encouragement Salamone and her comrades find on Facebook, however, makes the struggle seem more manageable.
"To feel like people are behind and pushing you goes a long way when you're working on a cause and victories can be few and far between," Salamon says. "It means so much to see so many people supporting us individually and supporting what we're doing as a group."
Images: The Pew Charitable Trust, Fiona Ayerst/Barcroft Media/Getty Images, Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation