Katarina Zarutskie feels right at home in the ocean. So she was comfortable as she floated off of the Bahamas' Staniel Cay island last month, posing for some impromptu photos as 20-30 nurse sharks surrounded her.
She was definitely more comfortable with it than her boyfriend or his family, with whom she was vacationing at the time.
"I've been in the ocean since I was two," the Laguna Beach, Calif. native told McClatchy. "I went into it with a healthy respect for its animals, particularly sharks. My boyfriend and his family were freaking out a little, but I went into it with a little prior knowledge on nurse sharks. It seemed safe."
It's true — nurse sharks are usually bottom-dwellers that pose no threat to humans, according to National Geographic. Still, the marina owner told NBC that signs posted nearby warn swimmers that if they mingle with the sharks in the water, they do so at their own risk.
As her boyfriend's father reluctantly snapped some photos of her close encounter with nature, most of the nurse sharks seemed utterly uninterested in the fact that she was in the water with them. But all it takes is one.
The photos also captured a 5-foot shark making a beeline for Zarutskie's left arm, which was outstretched in the water. Though she says that the sharks weren't feeding at the time, her fingers may have resembled something tasty to the shark.
Then she felt the tug. Her left arm was being pulled down.
"I was leaning back, reaching out for 10 seconds or less. It was this incredible pressure near my wrist," Zarutskie said. "You think, 'What?' very briefly. Then the adrenaline took over."
The shark pulled her under the water, but she immediately started taking steps to minimize her injuries — and to minimize the amount of blood in the water. She tried as hard as she could to keep the bite above water as she struggled to get back on her feet and back on dry land.
"These are wild animals. I was in their domain," Zarutskie said. "You think you know the situation. You feel comfortable with it, but you can't predict what a wild animal is going to do at any given moment. I think he mistook me for food."
Despite the bloody turn the vacation took at that moment, she was able to get out of the water and walk away from the sharks gathered near the marina. She cleaned up her wound and bandaged it, but flew back to the mainland early the next day for further medical treatment in Florida.
She's still recovering, more than a month after the bite. She got six stitches, and her doctors tell her that a piece of one of the shark's teeth is still lodged in one of the wounds. She posted the photos of her close call on Instagram this week.
"It's the biggest puncture wound. It's still very puffy and red," Zarutskie said. "On that one, we're kind of playing the waiting game to see if it expels itself. Surgery would just mean another scar, so I'm going to see if I can avoid that."
Since her trip, she's moved to Miami after transferring to the University of Miami before the start of her sophomore year. She says the experience hasn't soured her on swimming with sharks in the future.
"I would, but I think I'd be more cautious about it," Zarutskie said. "I might keep my hands and arms outside of the water next time."