A top surfing journalist who watched Australia’s Mick Fanning being attacked by a shark at a competition event in South Africa says it was “the best possible thing to happen” for the sport because of the blaze of publicity that has followed the incident.
Writing at Surfing Magazine, former surfer Zander Morton says the attack at the J-Bay Open World Surfing Open World Surf League event is the “craziest thing to ever happen to professional surfing” because “sharks sell”.
He also adds that the shark probably really wasn’t trying to eat Fanning in any case.
Fanning is returning home to his family in Australia and is reportedly so shaken up by the incident that he hasn’t spoken about it since the interviews he gave immediately afterwards.
Horrified onlookers watched the attack from the beach and live on television as the shark approached Fanning who frantically fought it off, disappearing below the surf at one point before re-emerging and returning to the beach.
Fanning said afterwards: “I saw the whole thing just thrashing around … I punched it a couple of times, but I felt like it was dragging me under water.
“Then all of a sudden my leg rope broke and I was swimming and screaming.”
In his article Morton shares his recollection of the incident and says that initially, like everyone, he feared the worst. “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.”
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.
The incident has indeed made headlines around the world. But the surfing community is horrified and relieved that Fanning survived.
We’ve approached Morton for comment and will update with any response.
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