Things took a dangerous turn at the J-Bay Open in the Eastern Cape of South Africa when a great white shark attacked three-time world champ Mick Fanning during the competition. Fanning and fellow athlete Julian Wilson were in the championship heat of the event, with Wilson having completed the opening wave of the final and Fanning in the lineup waiting for his set wave when a dorsal fin appeared out of the water inches away from his board. Chaos soon erupted, as cameras filming the competition captured the attack. In the footage, you see Fanning become aware of the situation and attempt to paddle away before he is dragged off the board and under the water by the shark. An incoming wave obscured the view of the rest of the incident; but a commentator is overheard exclaiming, "Holy shit," while World Surf League rescue boats rushed out to Fanning and Wilson's aid.
Fanning was able to fight off the shark before rescue boats reached him, and was brought back to shore miraculously unscathed, but very unnerved. "I just had this instinct that something was behind me," Fanning recounted to the World Surf League website. "And then all of a sudden, I felt like I started getting pulled under water. Then the [shark] came up, and I was on my board and it was like right there, and I saw the whole thing thrashing around.
"I was getting dragged under by my leg [rope], and then I felt like it kicked me off, but it was still there, and I was still attached to my board. I felt like it was dragging me under water, and then my leg rope broke, and I started swimming and screaming. I just saw the fin, I didn't see the teeth. I was waiting for the teeth to come at me as I was swimming … I punched it in the back." Fanning summed it up with a statement of a true surfer when he finished by stating, "I just can't believe it. I'm just tripping … To walk away from that, I'm just so stoked."
Wilson, who was only a few feet away from the attack, was also shaken by the encounter. "I couldn't believe what I was watching. I saw the thing pop up behind him," he said to WSL reporters while fighting tears. "I thought, 'I've got a board. If I can get there in time I've got a weapon and I could stab the shark.'"
Wilson and Fanning are currently locked in a World Tour battle for the top spot, but all competition went aside in the wake of this event. During the attack, as Fanning motioned for Wilson to paddle towards the beach to safety, Wilson attempted to paddle towards Fanning to aid him. Other surfing greats also showed their support for their fellow athletes after the scare. Eleven-time world champion surfer Kelly Slater expressed his relief on Instagram, posting: "Glad to know this guy and even happier that he swam/walked away unscathed," he wrote. "The only mark on him is a tiny scratch (probably from hitting the shark) on his left hand knuckle. The scariest moment was when he turned around to face where the shark would be coming from after swimming 20 meters towards shore. I can't even imagine the vulnerability he must've felt."
The WSL cancelled the rest of the event, and Wilson and Fanning both agreed to tie for second place and split the first place prize money. WSL also released this statement, saying, "We are incredibly grateful that no one was seriously injured today. Mick's composure and quick acting in the face of a terrifying situation was nothing short of heroic and the rapid response of our Water Safety personnel was commendable – they are truly world class at what they do. "
Watch the uncut footage of Fanning's shark attack: