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(BBC) – The Exuma islands in the Bahamas are famous for their white sandy beaches, crystal clear waters and endless photograph opportunities.
So when model Katarina Zarutskie visited with her boyfriend and his family last month, she was keen to make the most of the beautiful sights.
After a family lunch in an area known as Staniel Cay, Katarina spotted people snorkelling and interacting with a pack of nurse sharks nearby.
Despite concern from her boyfriend’s family, she was keen to get into the waters to get some photographs with them.
‘Child of the Sea’
The 19-year-old is due to start a double-degree in nursing and business in Miami, and is no stranger to the ocean, having grown up doing water sports in her native California.
“From my previous knowledge from surfing and scuba diving, I know nurse sharks are usually very safe,” she tells the BBC. “I’ve seen countless photos of people with them on Instagram.”
The fish have become a local tourist attraction, encircling the local docks and featuring in thousands of tagged photographs online.
She says that after a few minutes posing, a local resident on the pier encouraged her to lie back and float in the water.
“At this point people were starting to take photos and right as I lay back, after a few seconds, I was pulled under,” she says.
Her boyfriend’s father was photographing Katarina at the time, and accidentally caught the whole incident in a series of images.
The shark held her underwater for several seconds before she managed to tear her wrist from its grip.
The photographs show her instinctively covering the wound and raising her arm up in an effort to stop the blood spreading through the water.
“At that point your body has so much adrenaline going and you just have to get out of the situation, but I stayed extremely calm,” she says.
“I think if someone was screaming and flailing around it definitely could have changed the situation.”
Katarina had to get stitches and antibiotics for her injuries, and still has some fragments of teeth left in the wound.
The bite will leave a nasty scar, but the model says she feels blessed that the situation was not far worse.
Since her story was featured in US media, Katarina has been inundated with thousands of new followers and comments online, including a barrage of negativity from online trolls.
‘Stupid Instagram Model’
She is upset at the way she has been stereotyped and accused of being social-media obsessed and careless. The model did not even plan to upload the images to her social media page until she was approached by journalists about her experience earlier this week.
Katarina also rejects accusations she ignored local advice or went into the water during feeding time.
“They took the information they wanted and really spun the story in a way that I’m a stupid blonde Instagram model,” she says.
“I’ve definitely received a lot of rude and hateful comments from people that were saying ridiculous things.”
“But it’s the internet right? I guess you know you have to take it with a grain of salt and it comes with the territory.”
She does not want the experience or photographs to put off others from visiting the area or interacting with local wildlife when abroad, and describes the Exumas as the “most beautiful place” she has ever visited.
“I’m not afraid of the ocean and if anything I respect and love it more,” she says.
“He didn’t mean it: he’s a wild animal, and I think anyone that goes and swims with nurse sharks needs to realise it is an uncontrollable situation.
“You can’t even predict how another human is going to react to situations, let alone an animal. I definitely will be thinking twice but it won’t be scaring me away!”