There was a chilling moment after Mick Fanning had been knocked off his board last night at Jeffreys Bay by what was clearly—as the Mayor of Amity Island might call it—"a large marine predator," Mick's board having floated away, his legs kicking in the dark water, the shark still thrashing, the cameras still rolling, the world watching on in horror.
As Mick and the shark disappeared behind a wave, I wondered what sight would greet me once it passed. I wondered whether the live broadcast had a seven-second dump button and whether someone's hand was hovering over it right then. I waited for a black screen and "We'll return to normal programming shortly" message. Mick Fanning was about to be taken by a shark on live television during the final of a World Tour event. It was as macabre as it was unthinkable. I was watching surfing's Zapruder film, live. The black gravitas of the moment was broken by a "Holy shit!" from Pottz on the commentary, the sight of the flailing Fanning and the lurching shark even shocking Joe Turpel into silence, a sign something really bad is going down. Julian Wilson, the other surfer in the lineup, instead of walking on water toward shore had instead paddled hastily and heroically in the direction of Mick, unsure of what he was going to do to help, but paddling toward the danger nonetheless.
You know how it ended: Mick avoided the pointy end of the shark, jabbed it in the ribs for good measure, and made it safely to the water patrol ski, physically if not psychologically intact. The world was spared something they could never have unwatched. Mick, pale at the best of times, had clearly dropped a few shades in complexion, but the initial shock of the incident was for the minute allowing him to laugh it off in an impromptu interview from the boat, make a couple of jokes, and marvel at his good fortune. Boy got lucky.
Despite the resulting hysteria and hyperbole, the incident crystallized the fact that pro surfing remains one of only a handful of sports where you can be attacked and killed by a wild animal while competing.
But once back to shore and with the shock wearing off, the scope of what had just happened settled and he—along with Julian—quickly went over an emotional precipice. Mick famously runs with a low pulse in big moments, probably the coolest cucumber on Tour, but the round of hugs from his compadrés in the surfer's area made it clear to him he'd just dodged a big gray bullet. How lucky he'd been, he'll never know. In a cold, scientific light, the shark looked more curious than malevolent, seemingly as spooked as Mick when it became tangled in his leash, but that don't change the fact a big effing shark just went for Mick Fanning. Watching that big pectoral fin breach then roll on top of Mick, there seemed only to be one inevitable conclusion, and it wasn't going to be a good one.
The reaction from his peers was one of understandable shock. J-Bay is the sharkiest stop on the World Tour with a history of big shadows and surfers being chased out of the water, and the marine life at J-Bay is front of mind at all times for these guys. But for it to happen in the middle of the final, in the middle of the day, just seemed too abstract and caught everyone off guard.
It was close to home for Taj Burrow, who'd been chased out of the water here during a semifinal in 2003, only to be told his heat was still running and it was up to him whether he paddled back out or not. "I feel sick," Taj commented after watching Mick and the shark. "I thought he was getting eaten." Past J-Bay winner Jake Paterson described it as, "the most f–ked up thing I have ever seen." Owen Wright watched the whole thing go down after having just done a shark dive earlier that morning. Kelly Slater was a couple of points off being in the final in Mick's place, and he summed up the vibe amongst the surfers best when he said later, "I don't know whether to laugh or cry right now."
Having played out in real time, the reaction online to the attack was instant and unlike anything ever seen in pro surfing. With both surfers safely back on shore, the initial WTF shock soon gave way to tributes to Mick and Jules and how they'd handled it, but there was no "too soon?" moment with this one, and within an hour Mick was starring in hundreds of Instagram memes, everything from a picture of NBC's Brian Williams with the caption, "So there I was, with Mick Fanning fighting off a shark", to several dozen more claiming that the shark had survived a Mick Fanning attack. My favorite Tweet stated, "So unless someone defeats ISIS with a boomerang, then Mick Fanning definitely wins Australian of the Year, right?"
For their part, the WSL handled the situation by the book. From some gallows humor in the lineup with Pete Mel's interview, to the slickness of the water patrol, to the general level of respect in the broadcast once the emotion percolated, to the logical and only conclusion that the final needed to be cancelled and the points split, the pro surfing brass handled the prospect of having one of their athletes—a world champion nonetheless—attacked on live TV as coolly, compassionately, and professionally as could be expected.
The clip of the incident was quickly thrown to the wind and is destined to become the most watched surfing moment of all-time. Twelve hours later it might already be so. Ironically, it might also be the thing that helps break pro surfing into the mainstream sporting consciousness. World titles and superfluous three-man heats might be an acquired taste, but a surfer being attacked by a shark, sadly, is a currency every fool understands. It's a world full of ghouls out there, and breakfast television shows here in Australia were tripping over themselves to get the story out ASAP this morning, predictably wheeling out some dial-a-quote shark quack who wouldn't know J-Bay from Jay-Z to hypothesize on matters that respected shark scientists know little about themselves. Lost in the reports this morning of the shark attack on our own White Lightning, is the fact that white lightning remains statistically far more dangerous than shark attack.
Had things in the water been just a little different—say, if the shark had grabbed Mick's leg and not his leash—the incident might not have saved pro surfing. Instead it may have ended pro surfing forever.
Despite the resulting hysteria and hyperbole, the incident crystallized the fact that pro surfing remains one of only a handful of sports where you can be attacked and killed by a wild animal while competing. The public can only rationalize it by imagining Tiger Woods being mauled by a grizzly bear on the 18th green at Augusta, a scenario potentially less dangerous than him being mauled by a jilted diner waitress or an ex-wife with a golf club.
There will be no self-congratulatory press releases issued on the subject, but the unfeeling media metrics that measure such things will perversely record today as the "biggest" day in pro surfing history. But had things in the water been just a little different—say, if the shark had grabbed Mick's leg and not his leash—the incident might not have saved pro surfing. Instead it may have ended pro surfing forever. It was that close.
What happened last night to Mick and Julian will stay with them for the rest of their lives. It'll revisit them in quiet hours and will undoubtedly replot the course of their lives in some way, consciously, subconsciously, whatever. Ask any shark attack survivor. But in the outpouring of emotion in the wake of the incident last night, there's also need for perspective. Mick Fanning grew up in Ballina, where a bodyboarder was mauled a fortnight ago and is still in hospital fighting to save his legs. Earlier in the year, just up the beach, a surfer was attacked and killed. Mick got away without a scratch last night, but will know that in places like Ballina and Margaret River and Reunion Island and Florida, there are surfers who weren't so lucky, and while they're not world champs they deserve to be remembered beyond a screaming banner headline.
A little perspective was indeed added late in the day at Jeffreys. As the story broke and everyone made sense of it in their own way, if you looked carefully over Todd Kline's shoulder while he was sitting at the famous WSL mahogany desk, replaying the tumultuous events of the day, you might have noticed a dark, solitary figure out there enjoying the suddenly uncrowded lineup, blissfully unperturbed by the day's drama. For while there may have been plenty of fins above the water, there were none below as Derek Hynd sideslipped his friction-free 11'6" down through Supertubes, seemingly without a care in the world.
WATCH: Fanning’s Close Encounter