Mick Fanning on Surfing Alaska, Recovering From His Shark Attack, and Whether He'll Go for a Fourth World Title

Mick Fanning said he's taking time off, but has already started competing again. Credit: Courtest REEF

Surfer Mick Fanning had a rough 2015. The three-time world champion from Tweeds Head, Australia, was competing in a surf contest at Jeffrey’s Bay South Africa, last July, when a great white shark knocked him off his surfboard. Next, his marriage to swimsuit-model Karissa Dalton unraveled. Then, while Fanning was chasing a fourth world title at the Pipeline Masters, in Hawaii, his older brother died from an enlarged heart back home in Australia.

Soon after, Fanning announced that he would take time off from the World Tour.

“I thought [that] was smart of Mick,” says Matt Warshaw, author of The Encyclopedia of Surfing. “Not just for his career but for his mental health. He’ll be well positioned to make a comeback if he wants, and if he doesn’t — if he just calls it three world titles and good night — well, nothing wrong with that.”

Fanning still hasn’t announced if he'll chase the world title again, but he surfed a recent competition in Fiji and committed to this year's Jeffrey’s Bay contest. We spoke with Fanning about his time off, how it feels to get back in the water, and the enviable life of the professional surfer.

Let’s start with your time off the pro tour. What have you been up to?

I went to Alaska with Rip Curl, which was really awesome. We flew into Anchorage then jumped on a boat out of Seward — jaw-dropping scenery — and we were surfing in front of snowcapped mountains. We didn’t see any grizzlies, though. They were just waking up from winter, and the salmon hadn’t started running yet. After that I went to Berlin, then to Lord Howe Island with Reef — just seeing different parts of the world, places I haven’t been before.

You made an exception for the pro tour contest in Fiji, didn’t you?

Well, one of the perks of contests is that you get to surf perfect waves with no one else out. It’s hard to pass that opportunity up.

With the J-Bay contest coming up, what do you remember of the shark attack?

I just felt something behind me and then I heard the splash and I didn’t know exactly what it was, and then I felt the tug on the surfboard’s leg rope. Then I saw what it was as it came up the side of my board and the tail hit me straight in the head as it went past. The thing was so strong.

It was definitely frightening. The power of it made me feel so insignificant. I was trying to get away, and it felt like the shark was making all the decisions, not me. I was at the mercy of that animal. I was lucky that it changed its mind half way through.

Did it affect the way you feel about being in the water?

Look, it was scary. I won’t deny that. When I first got back in the water, I was a bit on edge. Every splash, I’d be jumping at. Now it sort of feels normal, although I’m sort of more aware of everything that’s going on in the water. If I feel like I’m in danger, in the past I would’ve just stayed in the water. Now, it's, "All right, it’s time to come in." I just follow my instincts more.

Have you met any other surfers who’ve gotten bumped or bitten?

Just before I went to South Africa last year, a guy named Sam Morgan got hit in Ballina, where I used to surf. So after I got home from J-Bay, I met him to see how everything was going. It was such a trip to see someone who’d been attacked and barely survived. He had cuts all up and down his legs. It was really humbling.

If you decide to be done with the pro tour for good, what do you think your life will be all about?

Seeing different parts of the world. It’s not that I’m not in love with surfing, it’s more just, you do the same job for fifteen years and then you want to do something different. So I’ll still be traveling and chasing waves, but trying not to have a schedule, just enjoying places instead of going in, and we’ve got three days for a contest. Having open-ended tickets would be really fun.

Meaning, what? Just fly into some gorgeous beach and …?

Yeah, if you feel like you want to stay, then you don’t have to rush home. It’s more about running off a feeling than running off a schedule.

How much of the year might you spend like that?

I love to come home sometimes because I’ve got dogs. But other than that, I could easily stay on the road for the whole year.

Any dream destinations?

I’m pretty interested in checking out Morocco, and the south of Chile is one that’s starting to pop up a little.