Editorial Update: Upon further inspection of the video, and hearing from shark experts the world over, the episode at J-Bay seems to have been an encounter rather than an attack. Great white sharks are known to be very curious and this shark may have been swimming up to Fanning to investigate what was floating on the surface of the ocean when it got its mouth tangled in Fanning’s leg rope. White sharks have super sensitive teeth and gums and this one probably realized that what it may have been investigating was not a food source but rather something else, and seems to have quickly left the area after the encounter. White sharks are known to attack from below, moving upward from below for the kill, but this video shows the shark apparently sideways with its pectoral fin protruding from the water, seemingly ready to bump Fanning, which is also an investigative maneuver that whites are known for. It seems that the shark was just as startled as Fanning when it got tangled with the leg rope and as fast as the encounter started, it ended with the shark no where to be found. Therefore, I have changed the word “attacked” to “encounter,” where possible in this story.
Professional surfer Mick Fanning, a three-time world champion from Australia, was surfing in the final of the J-Bay Open at Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa on July 19 when a shark approached him and got tangled in his leg rope. Fanning survived, unscathed, by what may have been an encounter with a very large great white shark. Fanning, who is in a heated world title battle with Julian Wilson, was in the final of the event with Wilson when the incident occurred.
“I felt it and I lifted my leg and it came up, I think it bit through my leg rope. I saw it taking my board away and I started cracking at it,” he told the World Surf League. “I was stuck and it was just pulling me away. It started taking my board and I started to swim to away, and I thought, ‘This thing is going to come at me, I’m ready to go again.’ ”
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When you look at the video footage of the encounter, it shows Fanning sitting in the water waiting for a wave when he says he sensed something behind him and immediately went into defensive mode. Fanning struggles to hold his board between him and the shark with all the water swirling around him, and then the shark knocks him off his board. The announcers call for the jet skis as Fanning attempts to swim to the beach. The massive pectoral fin, shown in the screen grab below, shows that the shark was probably sideways when it went to investigate.
The video is remarkable in that it shows the shark right before it approaches Fanning AND it is the first time in professional surfing history that a surfer was attacked by a shark during a contest.
South Africa is known to have a large population of great white sharks in its waters, and J-Bay, notoriously known as a white shark haven, is one of the best right hand waves in the world. It is truly amazing that Fanning didn’t suffer any physical damage from the encounter, but he did say in an interview that he will gladly give up professional contest surfing.