Professional surfer and three-time world champion Mick Fanning, 34, of Australia, was attacked by a large great white shark during the final heat of the J-Bay Open in Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa, on Sunday. Fanning was competing against fellow Aussie Julian Wilson, 26. In the live feed of the event, Wilson had just caught a wave, leaving Fanning by himself in the lineup. That’s that’s when a large dorsal fin, followed by an even bigger tail fin ripped out of the water, then disappeared. Watching the replay in slow motion, it appears that the shark gets caught in Fanning’s leash, either biting it or snapping it with its weight. Then, as Fanning was trying to get back on his board—now facing the backwards—the tail whipped up and slapped him in the face, knocking him back into the water. It’s at that point, with Fanning separated from his board and in the water with an aggressive shark, that a wave obscured the feed.
Wilson immediately began paddling toward the commotion. A water patrol team on a jet ski raced in to pick him up and whisk him to the safety of a larger boat. The whole episode lasted ten or 15 seconds. Incredibly, neither Fanning nor his board had a scratch on them, though Fanning believes the shark bit through his leash.
Back on shore, Fanning and Wilson emerged from a van and explained the tack to a scrum of cameramen. “I somehow lifted my leg like that,” Fanning demonstrated. “I saw it taking my board away, and I just cracked it,” he said punching his left palm.
In a different retelling of the event, Fanning explained:
“I’m tripping out right now. I just saw the footage of the attack. I was just waiting for my opportunity in the heat and I knew Julian was down the point. I was just about to start paddling and I had this instinct that something was behind me. And then the shark came up from behind me and attacked. I got pulled under water and was being dragged under by my leg rope. Then it kicked me off and I punched it a couple of times. Then my leg rope broke and I was just swimming. I was yelling at Julian to get away but he was coming towards me to help. What a legend. Then I was just readying myself for it to come at me again so I turned around, hoping I could at least see it coming. And then before I knew it the boat was there and I was safe.”
The coast of South Africa is considered one of the places where surfers are most likely to come into contact with great white sharks.
Shortly after the incident, the World Surf League cancelled the event and issued a statement.
"We are incredibly grateful that no one was seriously injured today. Mick's composure and quick acting in the face of a terrifying situation was nothing short of heroic and the rapid response of our Water Safety personnel was commendable—they are truly world class at what they do.”
It’s the first time that a professional surfer has ever been attacked in competition.