All photos: Jimmicane
Just the other day I was joking with Peter Mel in the competitors area overlooking J-Bay, and he told me: “I hope I see a shark when I’m webcasting from the water. How cool would that be?”
Pretty damn cool. Because what sells better than sex? Sharks. And today, in front of a live audience, Peter not only saw a shark while webcasting from the water — but four minutes into the final versus Julian Wilson he saw a shark attack Mick Fanning.
I watched it unfold in slow motion from the balcony of the competitors area and it all seemed surreal. Like, how could this be happening? I saw splashing and I saw Mick disappear, only to reappear without his board, swimming towards the beach. Had he lost a leg? An arm? Those were valid questions. The crowd was screaming. Horrified. Everyone feared the worst. It took about half a minute and thumbs up from the Ski for us to realize that Mick was, in fact, OK. Alive. All limbs in tact.
At that point the vibe relaxed, if only a bit. It was still scary. Still the craziest thing to ever happen to professional surfing. But we all knew Mick was unscathed and at that point, that was all that mattered. Kelly Slater said it’s the only time he’s ever been happy he didn’t make the final. We were all glued to webcast. Watching for updates. Waiting to hear from Mick. Instagram exploded with well wishes and holy-shit-I-can’t-believe-that-happened updates. If you were watching the webcast you posted about it. If you were on the beach you posted about it, too.
Because it was crazy. When I saw it happen my heart sank. It was a big shark and it dragged Mick underwater. That’s not a recipe for survival. Like everyone, I assumed the worst. But somehow, someway, Mick came out without so much as scratch. Whether it was the grace of God or the hand of Karma, something intervened. If you don’t know Mick, you know he’s one of the best athletes in the world. And if you do know Mick, you know he’s also also one of the best people on Earth. He’s the favorite surfer of every guy on tour. And thankfully, he’s still around. Crazy to even consider the flip side. Crazy that it could have gone terribly bad. Just crazy.
Now that I’ve had some time to rewatch replays and think more about it, I’ve come to two conclusions:
1) It was the best possible thing to happen to the WSL. Had Mick been injured, (or worse), I wouldn’t consider saying that. But Mick is physically OK. And remember when I said sharks sell? Well, yeah. This scene will be on CNN and ESPN and to the greater public, Mick Fanning will forever be remembered as the surfer that was attacked in a ‘CT competition at a notoriously sharky wave in South Africa. Forget his three world titles. White Lightning? After today he’s Great White Lightning. Last week the Discovery Channel sensationalized sharks during “Shark Week” and tried to scare the shit out of everyone. With all the attacks in North Carolina, West OZ and Reunion Island, sharks were already on our minds. And now, in front of a live audience, we saw one attack a three-time world champion. Talk about a ratings bonanza. But it’s the “attack” part that leads me to conclusion number two.
2) It didn’t exactly “attack” Mick. I spoke with one local afterward, who’s been surfing J-Bay for 21 years. “If that shark wanted to attack him, it would’ve,” he told me. “I think it was coming in to check Mick out, got caught in his leash, thrashed around and then took off.” After re-watching the WSL’s video, I think I agree. I’m not downplaying it. Not saying Mick wasn’t in danger. Might that shark have been planning — or even trying — to bite Mick? Yes. But let’s not forget: As sharky as J-Bay is perceived to be, nobody has ever been bitten at Supers and other than one swimmer, there hasn’t been a death at J-Bay. Rosy Hodge told me Greg Emslie had a similar shark “encounter” some time back, and he said that once the adrenaline wore off it was tough to handle mentally. I’m sure Mick can relate.
A few minutes after the encounter, this is what Mick had to say:
“I’m tripping. On the boat I was still full of adrenalin, and then I saw Ace [Buchan], Jarrad [Howse] and Fletch [Rip Curl tour manager], and that’s when it all just kicked in. And then I saw the footage. I’m totally fine, got nothing wrong with me, just a small depression ding in my board, but I’m just totally tripping out. It’s weird, I was cruising, waiting for my opportunity and I knew Julian was down the point and I was just about to start paddling, and I had this instinct that something was behind me, and all of a sudden I started getting pulled underwater and the thing came up. I was on my board and I saw the whole thing just thrashing around. I was being dragged underwater by my legrope. I felt like I punched it in the back a couple of times. It was dragging me underwater and then I felt my legrope break and I just started swimming. I was screaming. I was yelling at Jules to move as well but he was coming at me, what a legend he is, and then I turned around in case he [the shark] was coming for another go at me, and then the skis and the boat and all of that was right there. I just can’t believe it. It’s so gnarly. At this point, I’m happy to not ever compete again. [laughing through tears] Seriously, to walk away from that, I’m just stoked to…[big sigh]. I just want to let all my friends and family know I’m OK. It’s all just kind of setting in now.”
And just now, with a few friends gathered around at a very intimate BBQ, Mick wanted to make sure everyone knows how much of a legend Julian is, and reckons Jules flying over to help gave him the energy to fight that shark off. There were other speeches and maybe even a few tears. This is a day we’ll always remember, and thankfully, a day when everything turned out OK. Who won? We all did. Mick is alive. He beat the ocean’s scariest competitor in the biggest heat of his life. — Zander Morton