SURROUNDED by dorsal fins sticking out of the waves, pilot Walter Wyatt Jr. decided he wasn’t going to go down without a fight.
Bleeding from a cut on his leg and miles from shore, he tried to defend himself from the pack of sharks circling him with the only weapon he had – his fists.
Wyatt had survived his plane crashing the night before off the coast of the Bahamas, but now his life was in mortal danger again.
Bull sharks, one of the most aggressive predators on the planet, prepared to tear Wyatt limb from limb as he bobbed bloodied and bruised on the surface.
And a gigantic mako shark — the fastest shark known to man — joined the bloodthirsty hunters as they started their attack.
Wyatt said: “All of them are dangerous — they’re all man-eaters.”
Dawn was breaking on the morning of December 6, 1986, and help was still hours away.
To make matters worse, Wyatt had been in the ocean so long that the salt had caused his eyes to swell almost completely shut.
Unable to see and exhausted from treading ice-cold water all night, Wyatt was about to make the last stand of his life.
Lost in the skies
An airline pilot living in Homestead, Florida, Wyatt had originally flown his private plane out to the Bahamas for a relaxing break that week.
He said: “I was over there just having a party — I went over and gambled a little and had a good time and was coming back.”
Wyatt, who had been drafted as a fighter pilot during the Vietnam War, was 37 at the time and had two young children living with their mother in Tennessee.
Having been told the weather would be clear, he decided to fly back home from Nassau, which would take less than an hour if it all went smoothly.
Although some navigational equipment had been stolen from his plane, he thought he’d risk the short trip.
But midway through his flight, alone in his aircraft, he lost sight of the United States in lashing rain and tried to turn back — only to find that, to his horror, storm clouds had moved in behind him too.
He yelled “mayday!” into his radio and a Coast Guard Falcon jet was dispatched to guide him to Cay Sal Island, a remote spit of land where there was an emergency airstrip he could land on.
When he checked his instruments, though, the reality of his situation began to dawn on him — he wasn’t going to make it.
Wyatt said: “There was a problem — one of the fuel tanks didn’t feed.
“And I’m not sure why that occurred and there’s no way to tell now, but one of the fuel tanks had one quarter of a tank, which is enough gas to at least get me to the island, but it was not feeding.”
Six miles from safety, his engine cut, and his plane dropped soundlessly from the sky.
From his low altitude, Wyatt quickly plummeted into the waves.
He said: “There wasn’t enough time to think. I just reacted. I was only a few hundred feet high at that point.”
As his aircraft smashed into the water he cracked his head open on the instrument panel and cut his leg too — but he luckily survived the nightmare plunge.
Grabbing two flares and a life vest, he scrambled out on to the wing of the plane which was floating on the choppy seas to try and attract the coast guard jet before it was too late.
Wyatt said: “He was within 150, 200 feet of me and I was standing on the wing of the airplane waving at him and he didn’t see me, and he just flew on by.”
He tried to light the first of his flares, but it was wet and wouldn’t spark — the second crumbled completely in his hand.
Instead of feeling fear, Wyatt said: “I was pissed”.
From the air, his white plane was now completely invisible in the rough seas.
Wyatt said: “I thought ‘maybe the airplane will float’, but it didn’t float very long.
“It went right on down.”
‘You pray and pray and pray’
Adrift in the freezing water as his plane sank to the seabed, he lay on his life vest, which was leaking air and needed to be constantly topped up by blowing into it.
Night descended, and the ocean’s currents dragged him further out to sea.
Wyatt said:”I had military training so I knew that in the first hour my chances were OK to get found, but after the first hour your chances of being saved go down dramatically.
“If you don’t believe in God, you do when you hit the water. So you pray. And you pray, and you pray, and you pray.
“There’s nobody going to help you — you can scream, you can yell, you can splash, and there’s nobody there to help you.”
No one was there to help him. But that didn’t mean he was alone.
The wreckage of Wyatt’s plane was located by scientists in 2011[/caption]
‘It was like the devil looking into my own eyes’
After a few hours in the water, Wyatt scratched a loving farewell message into the back of an ID card he hoped might make it to his family and girlfriend when his body washed up somewhere.
The icy swells of the sea had calmed in the early hours of the morning — but with the still waters came a new danger.
Wyatt said: “What happened was the water was real rough, so they weren’t able to locate me I guess, and when morning came around the water calmed down considerably — and there they were.”
Looking around him in the breaking light, he saw the sharks’ dorsal fins all around him.
Wyatt said: “There was one very, very large mako shark, and there were several bull sharks.”
Weighing up to 20 stone, bull sharks are known for their aggression, and have the strongest bite of any shark.
“One of them snuck up on me, but it was quite small, and it bumped and I bumped it and it went off.
“But then a large bull shark came up under me and I was able to kick it in the head and it went away — it didn’t know what I was until after but I was fighting back.
“It was instinct. I wasn’t going to let him come up and take a bite out of me, that’s for sure.
“Not without a fight.”
But even after slamming his foot into the bull shark’s face, the mako was the menace that really terrified Wyatt.
Mako sharks are incredibly deadly hunters, capable of swimming 60mph and known to launch lightning-fast attacks from below.
But this mako didn’t attack Wyatt, it watched him — at one point, the monster fish raised its head above the water, and looked directly into Wyatt’s salt-swollen eyes.
He said: “I was freaked, I tell you — that was like the devil looking into my own eyes.”
Bull sharks are best known for their aggressive behaviour.
Their name comes from their stocky, broad body, along with their trademark violent and unpredictable temperament.
They can live in both salt and fresh water, and are often found in warm shallow waters – making them an extremely dangerous threat to humans.
Bull sharks normally eat fish, turtles and even other sharks.
But they will attack anything which enters its territory.
Bull sharks are considered one of the “big three” sharks responsible for the majority of serious attacks on people, along with tiger sharks and great white sharks.
In May this year, 28-year-old surfer Kim Mahbouli had his leg ripped off by a bull shark in the Indian Ocean.
He bled to death following the horror attack on holiday in Madagascar.
Sharks three times the size of me
When the coast guard plane spotted Wyatt in the water on its search mission that morning, it also spotted the dark outline of the mako shark, three times the size of Wyatt.
It was clearly visible from the air — and terrifyingly close to him.
With no time to lose, the plane dropped a flare at his location and radioed for the cutter Cape York to rush to his aid, warning that a giant predator was stalking Wyatt.
By the time the rescue was underway, Wyatt was completely exhausted and his eyes were almost entirely swollen shut.
He said: “Because I was getting delirious, I thought: ‘Why am I being tortured? Why is he flying by and not doing anything?
“‘Why doesn’t this plane, if he sees me, drop a raft or something?’ But I couldn’t see the flare, and the flare wasn’t more than 50 yards away.”
Within half an hour, the bow of the coast guard cutter came cleaving through the waves to Wyatt.
But he still didn’t feel like he was out of the woods yet.
Wyatt said: “When the boat came up there was all these guys standing around with guns.
“And you’ve got to understand, I’ve been swimming for 15 hours so I’m pretty messed up, and I kept yelling at them: ‘I’m unarmed! I’m unarmed!’
“But what they were doing was looking for the sharks.
“Because sometimes a shark will rush somebody when a boat comes around, they’ll rush whoever is in the water.”
The armed crew unfurled a rope ladder over the side of the boat for Wyatt, but he didn’t have the strength to climb it.
Two sailors reached down and dragged him into the boat before turning the vessel round and sailing full-throttle to Key West, where Wyatt was immediately taken to hospital.
‘It was pretty horrifying’
Wyatt’s harrowing experience of crashing at sea, being lost in the waves and then hunted by sharks took a terrible toll on his mind.
Even in the hospital, despite his state of complete exhaustion, he didn’t sleep a wink until the night after the day of his rescue.
He said: “There’s no doubt I had PTSD, but in 1986 no one knew what PTSD was.”
Wyatt found it difficult to talk about what had happened and the unimaginable trauma he’d lived through.
He even kept hold of the life vest and other mementos which had just about kept him afloat during his trial at sea as a daily reminder of the miracle that he was still alive.
But Wyatt said: “I kept it for a year or so, then I said ‘I’ve got to get rid of some of this stuff’, it was like skeletons in the closet.
“Because I’ve got to say, it was pretty horrifying.”
Eventually, he addressed some of his trauma by scuba diving, and even went back to work as an airline pilot in time.
Now 70 years old, he runs a property management and insurance company with his wife in the small town of Dozier, Alabama, away from the coast, after his house in Florida was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
But he says he no longer dwells on the hellish experience he survived at sea.
Wyatt said: “This is about life. You can’t give up. You’re gonna go through something bad in your life.
“If you don’t, you’re a very lucky person. You can never quit.
Mako sharks are famous for being the fastest of all sharks.
They’ve been recorded swimming at 60mph and are a large species of shark, capable of growing over 12ft.
There are two types of mako – shortfin and longfin, with the shortfin being the faster fish.
They live in tropical seas around the world and are normally very far from land.
And their diet mainly consists of mackerels, tunas and sword fish.
Of all known sharks, they have one of the largest brains compared to their bodies, making them extremely intelligent.
Makos may well be the most dangerous shark to fisherman.
Only great whites have been known to attack boats more than makos – with one recorded mako bite sinking a boat.
And they’ve even responsible for two fatal attacks on people, with accounts of makos still attacking their catchers after being hauled into boats.
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“There’s been a lot of bad things that’ve happened in my life. A lot.
“My daughter got killed in an automobile accident, and mom and dad died, I’m on my third marriage.
“I’ve put myself through a lot, but I just keep putting one foot in front of the other. That’s what you do.”
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