30 Seconds That Changed Pro Surfing
Story by Jake Howard
Repercussions? Yes, Mick and Jules walked away with all their skin, but to be sure, the impact of the shark incident at J-Bay will be felt. The contest was cancelled, and that has world title implications as Mick or Jules would've moved into first with a win (Adriano now remains in the yellow). But long term, there’s a lot of chatter coming out of South Africa right now that the J-Bay Open will not be on the schedule next year.
Describing his encounter with a great white shark in the opening minutes of the final, as the omnipresent webcast camera rolled, a gamut of emotions twisted through Mick Fanning. He started with a sigh of relief. Then came tears. A chuckle of faux humour served as a prelude to a blank stare of acceptance. Finally a wave of “holy fuck, I almost just died” smashed him like a freight train. By interview’s end he just kept repeating, “I’m trippin’.” Julian Wilson, the other hero of the tale, also broke down. Symptoms of shock were evident in both.
“When I heard Pottz say ‘shit’ on the broadcast I was able to finally add it all up,” recounts Peter “PK” King, who was shooting photos from an oceanfront deck in front of the event site.
But before Mick and Jules could dry their eyes, the world was feasting on the incident. And not just our little surf world. Media big dogs entered the fray. The Associated Press, CNN, ESPN, People, Time, Fox News, the BBC, the Washington Post, NBC News and tons of others all immediately seized upon the headline: “World champion surfer attacked by shark.” The real-time viral component, the “assets,” the drama, it was simply too good to pass up for any editor on an otherwise sleepy news day.
No doubt this will be a devastating hit to the South African surf/tourism industry, but for now there’s a global audience, surfers and non-surfers, consuming the ordeal. Consider this; within seven hours of posting, the WSL’s footage of the attack garnered over 2.3 million views. By comparison, Owen Wright’s perfect final in Fiji only earned 61k views. The WSL has clocked another 9.4 million views on Facebook, and that’s just the actual footage from the strike. Subsequent edits of interviews have trickled into social feeds and are bolstering analytics by the minute. Those are big-boy numbers and point to undoubtedly the most viewed story in surf history.
The social media deluge rained down, too. Mick’s own Instagram has grown by 50,000 followers since the attack. It’s trending on Twitter. Mick’s legacy isn’t just three world titles now. He’ll forever be the man that threw dukes with a shark and won. Combine the media attention of all three titles, and this still blows doors.
Of course every surfer and his mother sent the “scariest thing I’ve ever seen” sentiment, that’s to be expected, but it’s the people outside our bubble who commented that was revealing of the reach.
“If you punch a shark at a surfing competition for the rest of your life you get to be the guy who punched a shark at a surfing competition,” tweeted American comedian Andy Richter.
“It’s just terrifying to think that such a large shark could be so close to a surfing contest and I bet Mick Fanning is one hell of a relieved surfer,” said Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. “I think all of us, we go out into the waves and we love to see dolphin fins but if there’s any doubt about what kind of a fin it is, it’s pretty scary.”
“Such a heavy moment in surfing and sport, to see a shark attack live during a surf contest was surreal… mad respect for fending of the shark,” posted Shane Victorino, an outfielder for the Boston Red Sox who hails from Maui.
“This was savage. So glad @Mick_Fanning is all good!” tweeted Olympic gold medal snowboarder Sage Kotsenburg.
Meanwhile, gossip icon Perez Hilton will be “avoiding the ocean” for a while. Bummer.
Something else that happened later on was rather surprising, too: “A couple of locals charged out into the empty lineup,” continues PK. “Derek Hynd reckoned it had been an hour and the shark had moved on. It was eerie watching him glide across six-foot walls through an empty lineup on his 11' 6” (finless board). It's been a few hours now and the whole ordeal seems so surreal. The power is out as South Africa has these mandated load shedding blackouts, so the ominous feeling is sticking strong.”
Regardless of impressions, insights and reach, two surfers stared down the most lethal animal in the ocean and came through the ordeal alive and unharmed.
“It makes it really clear to me how tightly connected the surf world is, especially when something like this happens,” notes PK.