Face-off with a Great White

From Eyewitness, 5:00 am on 30 September 2021

Out in the ocean, a dark shadow lurks beneath the surface unbeknownst to the person swimming above. And what that individual doesn’t know is that he’s about to be caught in the teeth of an unwieldy, man-eating shark.

Barry Watkins has always had a love of surfing

Barry Watkins has always had a love of surfing Photo: Courtesy of Barry Watkins


The thought of coming face-to-face with a Great White is terrifying. And anyone who has ever seen Steven Spielberg’s 1975 thriller, Jaws, will probably agree. The film (featuring a mechanical shark) terrified viewers on its release, and its impact made people afraid to go into the water.

But five years before that movie, Bryan Watkins would find himself staring into the eyes of this deadly ocean predator. 

There had been five shark attacks in Dunedin between 1964 and 1971. Three had been killed, with one of the bodies never to be found again. And Bryan Watkins was one of only two survivors.  

Not much was known about the habits of sharks around this time and people suspected they preferred warmer water. But if you were to encounter one, defending yourself was simple.

“Punch it in the nose, they don’t like it,” Watkins says of the advice on offer.

“But if anyone can put that into practice while they’re being attacked, I would certainly congratulate them.” 

It was a Tuesday morning on the 30th March, 1971 when Watkins, then 16-years-old, headed out to St Clair Beach. He was skipping school with a couple of friends. An avid surfer he was keen to try out a new board. 

“It was in a time when surfing was going through what was called the short board revolution. We were going away from surfboards that were in the 8-9 foot range and boards were getting shorter and shorter.”

Watkins' brand new board was only 6-feet-long, and he says they were considered 'the perfect new design.'

It took two years before Barry Watkins could get back in the ocean after the shark attack in 1971.

It took two years before Barry Watkins could get back in the ocean after the shark attack in 1971. Photo: Courtesy of Barry Watkins


There are 30 beaches within a half-hour drive from the centre of Dunedin, which is known for great surfing with its wide open swells from the South West to the North East, ranging from up to six metres or more during winter. And St Clair Beach was no exception. 

Despite local residents’ awareness of the previous shark attacks, Watkins wasn’t deterred from getting in the ocean. 

His friends headed out near the saltwater pools to the right, and Watkins headed left where he could see a rip. Catching a wave and surfing it back a few times, he is suddenly pushed under water with a driving force. 

“I was in the process of paddling back over to where I caught the previous wave and there was an almighty impact.”

Watkins had no idea of what was happening.

“I could actually feel the water pushed off my back...I was being pushed along like I’d been grabbed in a vice,” he says.

In a daze, Watkins thinks he's been accidentally hit by a boat that is forcing him around the bow and under the water. It is only when he emerges towards the surface that he realises he has been mauled by a shark - estimated to be around two-and-a-half metres in length. 

“I could see the blood and I could see my leg,” he says. 

Watkins had received the shark’s top row of teeth on his upper thigh all the way down to the bottom of his knee.

The bottom row had gone underneath Watkins’ surfboard, which saved his life, and left his leg intact. 

“He’d made a bite that had not been completed and that’s why he released," says Watkins recalling the incident. 

Barry Watkins pictured with his broken surfboard after the shark attack

Barry Watkins pictured with his broken surfboard after the shark attack Photo: Courtesy of Barry Watkins


But the attack was not over yet. By the time the shark starts making it’s second round, fear begins sinking in. 

“I start thinking, ‘Is this what it’s like to die?' And I was saying goodbyes. I wanted to apologise to my mum...it was quite incredible.”

His friends are aware of the danger and head towards the seaweed for safety. There was a belief that sharks couldn't swim amongst seaweed. However, recent studies have revealed that great whites will manoeuvre their way through kelp forests. 

Frightened, Watkins is on his own, but says he would have done the same thing.

“You hear these stories of some attacks where guys have gone to their rescue, and I admire them. But it’s whether you can do any good. I can’t see how another guy on a board could actually stop a great white,” he says.  

While his body bobbed up and down in the ocean, he was aware the shark was still lurking beneath him. And when it reemerged, it began circling the 16-year-old who was scrambling to keep hold of the remaining 3-metres of surfboard, with his eyes fixated on the approaching dorsal fin. 

But there was one image that remains firmly imprinted in Watkins’ memory to this day. 

The shark emerged from the water close to Watkins.

“This amazing looking creature had picked its head up, and plonked it [on the surfboard]...and was looking at me. It seemed like 10 seconds, it just lay there...there were these big clicking noises, and it looked like the lenses in its eyes were closing and opening.”

Listen to the podcast episode from Eyewitness to hear about Barry Watkins' miraculous survival, his sometimes candid attitude to sharks, and why we should be wary of getting into the ocean.