Australian surfers Mick Fanning and Julian Wilson returned from South Africa yesterday after their encounter with a shark at the J-Bay Open.
The duo described their terrifying shark encounter during the J-Bay Open final, where three-time World Champion Fanning was attacked from behind whilst waiting for a wave.
“I was ready, I was calm, we were there for the final,” Fanning said. “The last thing on my mind was a shark. I felt like I was just about to start moving and I felt something, a presence of something behind me. I just jumped on my board. It came up and went for the tail of my board. I don’t know why it didn’t bite. It kept coming back. I was on top of it, trying to put my board between us.”
The 34-year-old was knocked off his board after the shark bit through his leg rope, leaving him stranded swimming in the line-up. Fanning retaliated by punching the shark to scare it away before both Fanning and Wilson were rescued from the water. The finalists were still visibly shaken by the incident. “It was so close,” Fanning said.
“It all went down and happened so fast, when you are in that moment, it seems like it goes on forever. Seeing the sight of it, it was the scariest thing. I’m doing okay, though. I haven’t got a scratch on me. Just more of an emotional, mental sort of trauma right now.”
“As the wave went, my board was off and I was trying to get back to it. Then it came back again, I tried to position myself away from it, to the side of it. That’s when I punched it, I just went into fight or flight. I started getting dragged under water by my leg rope. That’s when my leg rope broke, just as it was going away. I thought ‘do I go for my board or do I swim in for shore?’ You never know what you’re going to do in that situation.”
“I thought ‘hang on if this thing’s coming in at me I want to have a look at it’. I turned around and was waiting for it. I didn’t want to be totally defenceless, it’s like anything you want to go down fighting. I had my fists cocked and ready to see what was gonna go, luckily it didn’t come and by that stage the boats and jet skis were on top of us.”
Fanning praised Wilson’s effort, calling him a “warrior.” He also backed claims the 26-year-old should receive a bravery award for his actions in attending to his side in the face of danger. “He showed his true integrity and put himself in harms way to look after me,” Fanning said.
“At first, I was frozen,” Wilson said. “Mick was looking at me. A big old fish popped up behind him that was a lot bigger than him, and I froze, I honestly froze. I saw him start to get kind of manhandled by the shark, and I was kind of freaking out. I wasn’t moving, I was trying to weigh up the situation, what was going on, and he was kind of getting wrestled of his board, and then a wave came between us and I started paddling towards him, fearing for his life. As soon as I realized the danger and what was going on, I couldn’t get there quick enough. I came over the wave, and I was kind of praying he was going to be there, not underwater, and there wasn’t blood everywhere. Just worst-case scenario.”
“The shark had bitten through his leg rope and the board was 15, 20m away from him, and I went straight into panic mode. I had my board still and if I could get there with my board I had a weapon. I felt like I wasn’t moving at all. I felt like I couldn’t get there in time, and I was just waiting for him to kind of get manhandled again from beneath. I was praying that I wouldn’t see that same thing, and even seeing him disappear underwater. It was such a horrific feeling.”
Fanning vowed to return to South Africa, where he has won the J Bay event three times in 2002, 2006 and 2014. “I will return,” Fanning said. “J Bay is such a beautiful spot. I’m sad it happened there, because it is in the top three favourite places for me on earth. I have to go back. It will be hard. But you have to face these things front on.”
The shockwave from the attack will last some time, with both surfers opting for a relaxing period at home before the next event in Tahiti next month. “It will probably take a couple of weeks, months, I don’t know how long it’s going to take.” Fanning said. “But I’m just lucky I’ve got really good people around me and great friends to just pick me up.” — Jackson Barron
Top screenshot from the World Surf League’s live stream.