The wife of a shark attack victim eventually had to give up her desperate attempt to pull him back onto their boat when she realised his "eyes were open but he was unresponsive", a WA inquest has heard.

Experienced recreational scuba diver Gary Johnson had just entered the water with his wife of 14 years Karen Milligan when he was mauled at Devils Rock off Esperance on January 5.

The WA Coroner's Court heard on Tuesday that Mr Johnson was wearing a wetsuit, an oceanic computer on his left wrist, a torch on his right wrist and a knife strapped to his leg.

He was also wearing a buoyancy compensator device, a 15 litre air tank, blue fins and a shark shield, officer assisting the coroner Craig Robertson said in his opening address.

"Ms Milligan described Mr Johnson as being a very cautious diver and it was his habit to attach a black rope to a rock on the seabed as a secondary anchor in case the wind picked up," Senior Constable Robertson said.

"Mr Johnson would turn off his shark shield when he reached the bottom to tie off the rope ... because the rope had previously tangled on the shield and given him a shock.

"He would religiously turn it back on again when the rope was secured."

Esperance shark attack victim Gary Johnson with his wife Karen Milligan. Mr Johnson’s remains have never been found. Picture: Supplied by the family.
Esperance shark attack victim Gary Johnson with his wife Karen Milligan. Mr Johnson’s remains have never been found. Picture: Supplied by the family.

When the couple reached the bottom, which was a depth of about 15 metres, Mr Johnson disappeared over a mound, then reappeared and Ms Milligan could see him from his thighs up.

"She thought it unusual as it was not normal for him to do this," Constable Robertson said.

Ms Milligan swam towards her husband, but when she arrived at the mound the water became "full of blood and sand", then she saw a large shark tail "flapping" up and down.

"She swam forward in an attempt to strike the tail with the camera she was holding and is unsure if she made contact," Constable Robertson said.

When normal visibility returned, Ms Milligan could not see the shark or Mr Johnson, so she swam towards the surface and bumped into her husband.

"His eyes were open, but he was unresponsive," Constable Robertson said.

"She saw that he had suffered a traumatic injury to his right arm and was no longer wearing his mask or air tank."

Ms Milligan swam with Mr Johnson back to their boat but she could not get him on-board.

"Ms Milligan had formed the belief that her husband was no longer alive and her attempts to get him on-board the boat were futile," Constable Robertson said.

Once she released her grip on Mr Johnson, he sank beneath the waves.

An emergency search began soon after, but only a small piece of Mr Johnson's wetsuit was found floating on the surface.

Divers later recovered his diving vest, buoyancy compensator device and oxygen tank.

"The items showed clear signs of a shark attack," Constable Robertson said.

An inquest is being held to formally declare Mr Johnson is dead.

Gary Johnson is among several people who have died as a result of a shark attack in waters off Esperance. Picture: Facebook
Gary Johnson is among several people who have died as a result of a shark attack in waters off Esperance. Picture: Facebook

In a statement shortly after Mr Johnson's death, Ms Milligan described him as a kind, gentle and strong man.

"He and I were at home in and on the ocean," she said.

"We would go out diving in our boat whenever we could, most weekends.

"We were always aware of the risks and often told each other that if we were attacked by a shark that would just be unlucky."

In a social media post from November 2017, Mr Johnson said he wore a shark protection device because it gave him peace of mind like a car seatbelt.

"In my nine years diving in Esperance (most weekends - weather permitting) I have only seen one shark - a bronze whaler who showed absolutely no interest in me," he wrote.

Esperance has some of Australia's most beautiful beaches, but it is also notorious for fatal and serious shark attacks.

Following the attack on Mr Johnson, the state government installed three shark warning towers at popular beaches around the area.

The most recent fatal shark attack in the area was just last month when surfer Andrew Sharpe was mauled at Kelp Beds.

Originally published as Shark attack victim's eyes were open


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