Science

Surfer Mick Fanning was NOT Attacked by a Shark

This morning, the World Surf League event at J-Bay in South Africa saw one of the most incredible things to ever happen during a live pro surfing broadcast: finalist Mick Fanning encountering what appeared to be at least one very large shark.

The video is incredible, as you can see Mick turn just as the shark’s dorsal fin breaks the water inches behind him. He falls off his board and gets pulled underwater just as a wave goes by and blocks the view of him from the camera. When it passes, he’s swimming hard away from the shark. He turns and waves off his competitor, Jules Wilson, who had started swimming toward him to help. The rescue boats quickly swoop in and pick him up, where he finally holds up his broken leash to have a look.

In an interview back on shore, he’s trembling with adrenaline and says he thinks he may have punched the shark in the back as it thrashed beneath him. He’s clearly out of it, and just thankful to have escaped completely unscathed.

I can’t stop watching the footage, in part because I surf now. I’m not in South Africa, but I am in Northern California in a place known for its high density of adult Great Whites. Every time I get in the water, I know I’m in there with a bunch of apex predators I can’t see.

I do it anyway, because I love surfing and I love the wildlife. I haven’t spotted a shark yet (for sure – there was one time a woman called me in to shore because she swore there was one just behind me), but I have surfed with many birds, seals, sea lions, dolphins, and porpoises, and it’s been one of the most awe-inspiring experiences of my life.

I know that there’s a chance I may be bitten at some point, but I know that chance is outrageously small. Shark bites are rare, even here, and deaths are even rarer. There have only been 35 deaths due to sharks in the United States…since 1580 (until 2014).

Humans aren’t sharks’ preferred meal. We’re bony and stringy, not at all like nice plump seals. Of course, mistakes happen, especially when the human is looking particularly nonhuman, like with a wetsuit on and sitting on top of a surfboard.

There are many tales of surfers getting away from sharks with a nip taken out of them or out of their surfboard. But what’s particularly interesting in the case of Fanning is that he was completely unscathed. Not even his board was damaged. The only damage was a snapped leash (the rope that attaches a surfboard to the surfer’s ankle). That’s astonishing considering that the shark appeared to be right on top of him.

And that’s why I’m bristling a bit at the headlines proclaiming that Fanning was attacked by a shark. I can understand if he walks away feeling that way — after all, having an enormous set of teeth that close to you without your permission can feel like an attack no matter what they’re doing.

But it seems more likely to me, in my completely amateur opinion, that this shark wasn’t trying to “attack” at all — he may have been just curious, cruising in a wave and checking out what Fanning was up to, when he got tangled in the unseen leash and panicked. That would explain how all that thrashing around happened without Fanning or his board being bitten in any way.

So yes, it’s an absolutely jaw-dropping moment in surfing history, and both Fanning and Wilson, as well as the safety team, should be commended for keeping their cool and getting everyone out of the water safely. But let’s not jump to the conclusion that this was a shark that hunted down and attacked Fanning. That’s the kind of language that leads to more fear and misunderstanding of a fascinating creature, and that fear and misunderstanding is what leads to misguided efforts to keep humans safe, like murdering as many sharks as possible. Let’s not.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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14 Comments

  1. July 20, 2015 at 2:19 am —

    I suspect you’re right, but it still would’ve scared the crap out of me. The part where he gets hit in the face is really scary.

  2. July 20, 2015 at 4:42 am —

    Rebecca, your take on this is eminently sensible as usual.

    Some more good advice from a local expert:
    http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-07-20/shark-attacks-how-to-avoid-fight-off-encounters/6632874

    I’m delighted that you have discovered the joys of surfing. My son has been a surfer since 8 years old and I think it helped him not only to be physically fit but in a lot of other ways as well.

    It is said that your chances of being killed by a shark are less than being killed by lightening but guess which makes the headlines?

  3. July 20, 2015 at 5:50 pm —

    I was confused by this piece at first, but I’m now wondering if it is in fact a very clever and subtle satire of people who attempt to mansplain away rape culture and ideas such as Shrodinger’s Rapist, including hints of #notallsharks and a dismissive reference to how what one wears can bring additional risks.

  4. July 21, 2015 at 3:48 am —

    Great article. This is a surprising site to find the fact that this was NOT a shark attack: no injuries, no teeth marks in the board, no attack. It WAS a very close inspection of potential prey by a relatively small white shark (that is, small by white shark standards). In that situation, I would have been terrified to the point of paralysis and the calm demeanour of these two surfers was heroic. However, the fact remains that this was not an “attack” and almost all the mainstream media have avoided that fact. So, well done Rebecca!

  5. July 21, 2015 at 9:12 pm —

    Rebecca I have had the utmost respect for you…been a big fan since I first heard you as originally a guest with the SGU, later to become a critical part of that podcast (Just not as entertaining without you).
    However I am going to have to take issue with you here on your analysis. I would think with all that skeptic experience you would have realized that your back seat driver analysis as a recently converted surfer of an event that you weren’t even present at was an exercise in confirmation bias and post hoc rationalization. Your conclusion is no different from the rationalization of a drunk girl at frat party in a back room who in moment clarity punches her would be rapist in the balls and runs out of the house WASN’T a Rape attempt because well she didn’t end up raped. That is the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, BTW.
    Compared to the many professional surfers who have spent A LOT more time in the water catching waves and had way more close encounters than you and the shark experts who do study Great White behavior and concluded that the shark’s behavior was consistent with how they attack (approaching from the rear with a close inspection, take a bite circle back after the prey has died). Added to the fact that if you bothered to listened to Mick Fanning’s own description of the events immediately after the attack… you would have realized that the shark did have it’s mouth open to take a bite, he realized there was a shark just as he felt his leg being pulled down by his leash and his board away from him just fortunately for Mick the shark got the leash first which ruined his ATTACK strategy and gave Mick the vital seconds he needed to get free and get away. None of this is say that we shouldn’t protect sharks and that what it did was wrong. When surf we are in their house and if they mistake us for prey well that’s on us not them. However you don’t like it when people second guess your encounters with creepy guys in elevators how about not second guessing a professional surfer’s close call with death. You are not a shark expert.

  6. July 22, 2015 at 1:54 am —

    The first report I saw interviewed a shark expert who said that the shark was cruising past and probably caught Fanning’s leg rope. He emphasised that there was no attack and the shark was probably as suprised as Fanning. Though he did say this didn’t mean the shock to Fanning would be any less.

    He was not used again in news reports. Not sensational enough.

  7. July 22, 2015 at 4:58 am —

    I agree – people should be careful not to overreact to incidents like this. However your quoted Shark attack facts (and those from your wikipedia source) are incorrect. There have been 161 unprovoked fatalities in the USA and 277 fatalities in Australia. There is a useful (accurate) graph provided on the BBC website derived from the official Shark Attack File:
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-33585853

  8. July 22, 2015 at 8:45 am —

    I think the problem with this is that people cant accept that sharks eat things in the water. Doesn’t matter if its human or not. They aren’t killing machines that enjoy killing. They like eating and will explore every possibility to get a meal. Maybe it wasn’t hunting Fanning at the moment, but as you said, it was checking Fanning out. Checking him out to see if he was potential prey. Thing is with sharks that they don’t attack a “object” which they aren’t sure about what it is. They can come up to it at least 2-3 times without biting and then take a test bite the next. Sharks are simple minded creatures. Their life revolves around eating. So basically the shark WAS just minding its own business. The business of checking out if Fanning was food or not. That curiosity you’re talking about is their way of finding food. No it wasn’t hunting Fanning. Yet. If he had stayed in the water the shark might have came up to him a couple more times leading up to the “test bite” i was talking about. The illusion that sharks don’t like the taste of human flesh is also wrong. Why they seem to only take one bite and then leave the human alone, is because the human often gets back on land before he/she bleeds out. That’s what the shark is waiting for. So the prey can’t fight back and hurt its sensitive nose and eyes.

  9. July 22, 2015 at 1:18 pm —

    So, if you don’t want people to jump to conclusions maybe you should change the headline to “I have no idea if Mick Fanning was attacked by a shark or not” but, I guess that just isn’t click-baity enough?

  10. July 22, 2015 at 6:02 pm —

    What do you know, experts on shark attacks agree with Rebecca.

    http://www.vox.com/2015/7/22/9016843/mick-fanning-shark-attack-video

  11. July 22, 2015 at 8:04 pm —

    Legally speaking, if both parties had been humans on land, this would have been assault on the part of the shark. I think the article’s claims only make sense only because it downvalues the intelligence of the shark, probably because it’s not human. An assault does not result in any bodily injury, just the fear that such injury would occur. We should call this an attack.

    • July 22, 2015 at 9:57 pm —

      What even is the point of your comment?

    • July 23, 2015 at 6:35 pm —

      If both parties had been humans on land, then I think Mick Fanning would be guilty of slander against the shark. To get the highest compensation for the damage to his reputation, I would advise him to hire a shark.

  12. July 22, 2015 at 11:06 pm —

    Sharks aren’t curious in the way that humans are. They poke around to see whether something is edible and worth eating. Many of those encounters involve teeth that just happen to kill people, even when the shark was just probing. I’d say a big reason why this guy came away without any teeth-marks was that the shark got caught up in the legstrap, hindering its movements. This looks like a pre-attack attack, usually called a bump and bite, from an adolescent shark.
    http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/attack-or-freakish-encounter-mick-fanning-was-targeted-says-shark-expert-20150721-gigv25.html

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