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.