Mick Fanning sat up on a high stool, straight backed and good humored, recounting the story he will be telling for the rest of his days, about how he fought off a shark with his bare hands during a surfing competition in South Africa.
It sounds like the plot of a movie, but this three-time world champion is no fictional Crocodile Dundee-style Aussie. He’s the real thing: his shark-wrestling exploits were broadcast live.
The 34-year-old Fanning arrived back in Australia on Tuesday and appeared at a news conference in Sydney before heading home to the Gold Coast, the burgeoning city surrounding Surfers Paradise beach.
“It was so close. I’m doing OK, though,” he said. “I haven’t got a scratch on me. Just more of an emotional, mental sort of trauma right now.
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“To walk away from a shark attack with not a scratch on you — it is a miracle really.”
Fanning was competing against fellow Aussie Julian Wilson in the final of the JBay Open, the World Surf League event at Jeffreys Bay on South Africa’s east coast, when he was bumped off his board by a shark.
In video of the event posted on the World Surf League website, Fanning could be seen scanning the water before a big fin emerged behind him. He turned to deal with the shark, and then lost his board as a wave rolled in and he disappeared from view.
Wilson was paddling toward Fanning and later said that he believed if he could get there with his board, he’d at least have a weapon to distract the shark, which he estimated was at least twice the size of his mate and childhood hero.
Fanning said at first he tried to swim away but then decided to defend himself, and turned to punch the shark in the back. He was next seen furiously swimming toward a personal watercraft, where he was helped out of the water and back to shore.
He recounted the events to fans gathered around him on the beach, and only later, when the adrenalin subsided, did the tears kick in as he realized how close he had come to serious injury or death.
On a flight from Port Elizabeth to Johannesburg, a woman sitting beside him pointed to the report in a newspaper and asked if the story was about him. Then he got emotional again.
He said he felt so “insignificant” compared with the size and speed of the shark, but didn’t hold any grudges against the apex predator because he knew “we are in their domain.”
“Thanks for not eating me,” he said, joking about his interaction with the shark.
Fanning said he could sense the shark looming behind him, and turned to see it just as contact was made.
“I thought, ‘Let’s see what happens.’ Like anything, you want to go down fighting,” he said. “I don’t know why it didn’t bite. I was on top of it, trying to put my board between us. It was just flight or fight, I just ran on instinct. Once my board was gone, I thought that was it. I was just waiting for it to come and take a leg or two. I guess I’m lucky it wasn’t my time.”
Fanning said he didn’t know when, but he definitely planned to return to surfing, and to JBay, an area he considers among the three most beautiful places in the world.
Wilson, who lives on the Sunshine Coast, further up the Queensland state coastline from where Fanning lives, has been nominated for a bravery award by the state premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.
Fanning agreed Wilson’s support, and the quick reaction of the rescue boats and other watercraft, helped him out of danger.
“He just gave all regard up for himself, and came for me,” Fanning said. “He was so brave … like a warrior. Thanks bud.”
This story has been corrected to show the competition venue was in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.