Man Bitten by Shark, Bear, and Snake Had Odds of 893 Quadrillion to One

Outdoor enthusiast Dylan McWilliams has had a rough few years, but he isn't turning his back on nature.

By Stephen Leahy
Published 27 Apr 2018, 16:52 BST
A tiger shark was most likely responsible for Dylan McWilliams' recent bite in Hawaii. But that's ...
A tiger shark was most likely responsible for Dylan McWilliams' recent bite in Hawaii. But that's not all his bad luck.
Photograph by Brian J. Skerry, National Geographic Creative

893.35 quadrillion to one. That’s the likelihood of what’s happened to 20-year-old Dylan McWilliams. He was bitten by a shark, attacked by a bear, and bitten by a rattlesnake—all in just over three years.

Last week, McWilliams of Grand Junction in western Colorado was body boarding off the island of Kauai, Hawaii, when he felt something hit his leg. "I saw the shark underneath me. I started kicking at it—I know I hit it at least once—and swam to shore as quickly as I could,” McWilliams told the BBC. The wound required seven stitches and the teeth marks suggested it was a tiger shark.

Shark attacks do occasionally happen in Hawaii, especially by tiger sharks, said George Burgess, director emeritus of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida. However, the odds of being attacked by a shark in U.S. waters is one in 11.5 million, he said. For perspective, the average American has about a 1 in 5,000 chance of being struck by lightning during a lifetime.

Related: Was This Whale Trying To Save a Diver's Life?

Was This Whale Trying to Save a Diver’s Life?
A biologist who's spent nearly three decades studying humpback whale, Nan Hauser never experienced an encounter like the one in September 2017. For ten minutes, the barnacle-knobbed humpback nudged her, lifted her out of the water, and swept her under its pectoral fin. She thought the whale might kill her. But once she was aboard her boat, she saw a tiger shark in the vicinity. Hauser thinks the whale was trying to protect her. The claim was met with skepticism by Hauser’s peers, and she understands their hesitation. But humpback whales do rescue animals—both other humpbacks and other species—from predators. The reasons for this behaviour aren’t fully known. Her first-person footage puts you right where Hauser was. But it's nearly impossible to know the humpback's real motivation.

While shark attacks get all the media attention, you’re more likely to be attacked by a bear. McWilliams, who has been backpacking across the U.S. and Canada for the past few years, also managed to beat 1 in 2.1 million odds of being injured by a bear. Last July, a black bear bit him on the head while he was sleeping on a camping trip in Colorado. He escaped by poking the bear in its eye. Park authorities caught the bear, found McWilliams’ blood under the bear's claws, and put the animal down. It took nine staples to the back of his head to close McWilliams’ wounds.

“A North American black bear that attacks a human is generally hungry,” said outdoor writer Gordon Grice, author of The Book of Deadly Animals and “Shark Attacks: Inside the Mind of the Ocean's Most Terrifying Predator” (National Geographic Shorts). Such attacks are very rare, and usually because a bear has learned to associate humans with food by eating from bird feeders, trash cans, or pet dishes, he said. Between 1900 and 2009, just 14 people were killed by bears in the lower 48.

Black bears are not known for being aggressive, but attacks on people occasionally occur.
Photograph by Barrett Hedges, National Geographic Creative

Maybe not so surprisingly given McWilliams’ luck, he managed to stumble onto a rattlesnake while hiking in Utah in 2015. He said the bite had little venom in it and decided not to go to the hospital, even though he was sick for a couple of days. The odds of being bitten by a venomous snake in the U.S. are estimated at 1 in 37,500. (The odds of being killed in a car accident are far more frightening at 1 in 112.)

“He’s one of the unluckiest guys on the planet,” says Burgess. How unlucky? Since each event is independent the odds of each are multiplied together, he said, making the odds of this happening 893.35 quadrillion to one.

McWilliams just chalks all this up to being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He encourages everyone to experience the outdoors. "I still go hiking, I still catch rattlesnakes, and I will still swim in the ocean,” he told the BBC.

Related: Sharks A–Z


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