Yesterday, we shared the story of superstar surfer Mick Fanning fighting off aggressive action by a shark in the final heat of the J-Bay Open in South Africa. The video shows a fin emerge from the water, then dip below the surface again, at which point Fanning apparently felt contact and attempted to evade the shark (which he later said was tangled in his leg rope). Wisely, he tried to keep his board between himself and the animal. After a moment, the shark dove again and thrashed below the surface of the water with a fin seeming to hit Fanning in the face.
When the shark severed his leg rope (presumably by biting through it), Fanning was obscured from camera-view by a wave. He began to swim for shore as a safety boat and two jet skis raced toward him. Moment’s later, he was pulled from the water, frightened, but uninjured.
Later in the day, Fanning and fellow finalist Julian Wilson made the joint decision not to re-run their heat, splitting the first and second place prize purses (receiving $70,000 each). In the WSL standings, both surfers will receive the points for a second place finish.
Last night, Uproxx followed up with the World Surf League‘s VP of Communications, Dave Prodan, to shed light on the situation.
Obviously, we can’t start this conversation without saying how grateful we all are that Mick and Julian are safe…
That was the league’s primary concern and we’re very fortunate that neither surfer was hurt. We feel deeply happy about that.
Both athletes, once they were on the beach, met with the commissioner’s office [WSL Commissioner Kieren Perrow] and ultimately decided that they did not want to run the final heat. Neither surfer felt comfortable recommencing tomorrow morning or in the coming days.
What are the conversations and follow-ups being done with Mick and Julian?
It’s a terrifying situation. No one would bat an eye in calling both Mick and Julian’s actions heroic. Mick responding in the fashion he did, sort of a “not today” kind of thing and battling the animal off. Then, he doubled down on the nightmare when he lost his board and had to swim. As he did, he turned around because he felt like the animal was going to come back, and he was prepared to go another round, all the while he was urging Julian to paddle in. To Julian’s credit, rather than head for shore, he paddled straight toward Mick to make sure that he would have support if the animal did come back. Really inspirational stuff from both of them. The rapid response of the water safety team was super impressive, as well, making sure they got both surfers out of the water safely and quickly.
Moving on, the WSL has excellent medical and health care professionals who are at the disposal of all the athletes and staff, so they can deal with any stress related outcome after today. For these guys, their whole careers are in this environment. They kind of have to process it or have already processed it a thousand times in their heads. Provided no one was hurt, I think everyone feels good and can kind of move on. Still, it was obviously a scary, scary situation when it was happening.
Considering the events of the day, will the WSL have to reevaluate J-Bay as a stop on the tour?
Everything following an incident like this requires evaluation, whether it’s the protocols, what worked well, what could be improved upon, or the venue. Certainly the commissioner’s office and the WSL executive team will be hearing from all surfers on their thoughts moving forward. That said, South Africa has been a part of the tour since 1976, and it’s one of the many places around the world that present dangers, that might mean the wave itself, or shallow, very sharp reefs, or active wildlife. The WSL is committed to putting the world’s best surfers in the world’s best waves and I think everyone on the planet agrees that Jeffreys Bay is a world-class wave.
Moving forward, I think there’ll be a lot of discussion from the surfers to determine what their appetite is about continuing to have it on the schedule. I suspect that despite the uptick in activity and certainly today’s incident, most surfers have understood that this [a shark encounter] is a possibility. Having come here for their entire careers, I know they still respect the wave and respect the support they have in South Africa. I suspect that we’ll continue to see it as part of the WSL in some fashion.
As someone who spends a lot of time in the water and knows a lot of surfers, my impression is that everyone seems to have found their own tenuous sort of peace with this risk. Is it a matter of people saying, I understand the dangers, but I love my sport too much to give it up?
I think there are a lot of factors at play, chief among them being the probability question. The likelihood of encountering an animal like that and the likelihood of it being aggressive, resulting in injury or death, is just so small compared to everyday life, whether it’s getting in the car or getting on a plane. Obviously, the chances of something happening drop to zero if you stay out of the water, but that’s not a reality for the guys on tour, and it’s not a reality for surfers around the world. I think there’s an existential processing that goes on when you become a surfer and say, “What am I willing to risk?” I think that surfers naturally — and the WSL by extension — are super interested in sharks, shark behavior, and shark research. Unfortunately, the animals are so elusive and conclusive academic arguments about their behavior are hard to find. We can’t really pinpoint a lot of things at this stage in the game as far as “what should we avoid, what should we encourage, how can we mitigate this problem?” A lot of it is just about practicing safe surfing and trying to be ready should an incident happen. Thankfully, today, Mick responded probably as bravely as anyone in history has ever responded and he came out unscathed.
Do you think we’ll see shark spotting before the contest window become a part of the protocol?
It’s such a hard one. As a colleague of mine is fond of saying, “It’s not the sharks you see, it’s the sharks you don’t see.” There are shark sightings throughout the year at J-Bay, both by locals outside of the event window and professionals inside of the event window. Apex predators are a natural part of the very healthy ecosystem down there. I don’t think a high frequency of sightings will prevent the WSL from coming to a spot, but certainly when sharks are getting aggressive, it warrants reevaluation.
Finally, the WSL has never been anti-shark or pro shark-culling, do you see that healthy respect as part of the symbiotic relationship between surfers and the ocean?
I think the fear of being eaten alive is just such a primal fear. It’s a scary thing, and people that get attacked… it’s so tragic and so sad, and we’re sensitive to that. At the end of the day, the WSL is a huge advocate of research and trying to find a way to keep athletes and ocean-goers safe… and also keep sharks safe. The WSL relies on having a healthy ocean and part of that ecosystem is the existence of apex predators. We do want to protect sharks and their existence in our field of play, which is the most dynamic field of play in the planet.
**Mick Fanning, Julian Wilson, and Kelly Slater are all interviewed in the video below. Though the interviews are emotional, it also offers insight into the mentality of athletes whose playing field is shared with one of the most commonly feared creatures on earth.**