It’s awfully hard to fault the Ziffs—owners of the WSL and, presumably, still the org’s pennybank—and the rest of the WSL brass for canceling the Margaret River Pro.
In the heat of the moment as surfers were being munched just down the road from Main Break, WSL attorneys and beancounters’ fingers and eyeballs would have been smoking as they tore through actuarial tables to figure out liability ramifications should one of the great whites bellying up to the West Oz buffet decide to sample a WCT competitor. There was no way that an organization clawing for legitimacy and financial stability like the WSL was going to roll the dice and say, “Fuck it—send ’em out.”
So, I understand the decision. I may have made the same one.
But: What now?
Last year, during the Margies contest, the water was cleared when a whitey was spotted swimming around for his, or her, morning constitutional. When the shark slipped back into the deep without biting anybody, the horn blew and, game on. Like kids yelling “CAR!” and pausing their mid-street football game for a Buick to pass. Frankly, it was such a non-event, I’d forgotten that even happened until sharks started popping up again at this year’s contest.
This time of course, there was actual shark-on-human violence, which probably rattled nerves far, far more than the endless what-ifs of merely seeing a fin cruise through a set wave. It sure spooked Gabby and Italo. And rightfully so.
But after this week’s cancellation—without an actual competitor being threatened—what happens next time somebody spots a fin darting around during competition somewhere near J-Bay, or Bells, or hell, at one of the hundreds of ‘QS contest sites around the world? Is the WSL busily compiling a list of what’s acceptable and what’s not when it comes to shark behavior?
They’d better be, actually, because being unprepared for the reality that 1) sharks exist, and 2) surfers may still want to surf events despite the presence of sharks, seems to have blindsided the WSL this week. It’s hard to imagine the WSL had a plan in place for aggressive shark activity near the event, outside of shark spotters on jet skis. If they had, there wouldn’t have been confusion about whether or not the event should continue.
A meeting was called, a kind of straw poll among the surfers was expected by the surfy audience, but instead, there was merely a decree: go home. Game off. All of which suggests a knee-jerk reaction in place of a well-thought-out plan. Until there is such a plan in place, the WSL will hold contests in a weird kind of grey area when it comes to sharks–odd, considering sharks are present in every ocean on earth.
Based on what’s happened at Margies this week, there’s no way to justify continuing with the contest at J-Bay, when it rolls around in a few months, if sharks are seen in the area, as they always are. There’s clearly not a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to shark sightings in a contest area, but it’s not clear how much shark activity is too much shark activity. Brushing Mick Fanning—too much. Biting surfers a few kilometers down the road—too much. Finning through the lineup the evening after heats end? We have no idea right now. I suspect the WSL doesn’t either.
Surfing The Box is very dangerous. Surfing Pipe is even more dangerous. The Big Wave World Tour holds events only in waves that can easily kill, which seems to me to be extremely dangerous. So why is the mere presence of sharks a bridge too far? Are they not part of the natural environment? Is a head-first collision with the shallow reef at Pipe—which has actually killed some of the world’s best surfers—considered a safer risk than the small-percentage chance of being bitten by a shark during a heat? It shouldn’t be. The only justification for thinking so is that it’s more emotionally disturbing to be eaten by a predator than drilled skull-first into a reef head. So is the WSL concerned about safety? Or optics?
Lots of ‘CT surfers, at least according to Instagram, seem to be fine with the decision, with appreciative notes for the WSL about taking safety into account. A vote among the surfers would probably tell the real story about whether or not there was a palpable sense of shark fear running through the locker room. Just a hunch, but I would’ve have been shocked if a vote among the contestants would have canceled the event.
The precedent Margies sets is one of confusion, and, an unwillingness to acknowledge surfing takes place in a wild ocean, full of many, many threats.
This would be the time, WSL, to set a clearly defined shark policy. They’re out there. They’ve always been out there. They’ll always be out there. So will us average surfers, who weigh those odds every time we paddle out.