“I should punch you in the fucking face right now.”
That's what Mick Fanning, professional surfer and three-time world champion from Australia’s Gold Coast, told me at a party following his second championship in 2009. I had written that he dressed poorly and was boring and he was mad. He didn’t punch me in the face, though.
A security guard dragged me outside, but now I'm mad because, on Sunday, while surfing in the final of South Africa’s J-Bay Open, he punched a Great White shark in the back instead.
Mick was in the water with fellow Australian Julian Wilson. Almost four minutes had already ran off his 20-minute heat. The winner of this heat would be the winner of the whole event and Julian had already caught a wave, receiving a score of 6.67 out of 10.00 from the judges.
Mick was sitting further out to sea and waiting for his first opportunity when the people sitting at home saw it: A giant grey dorsal fin popping up behind him. Maybe two.
And then he was off his board. And then the water was boiling with fins and arms and legs and teeth.
The beach marshal began screaming into his microphone, “Get them out of the water immediately! Get them out!”
It was immediately clear: a Great White shark attacked Mick, but it took an agonizing few seconds for the jetskis to rush in. Mick pulled himself up on the sled and kept his head down for a minute, started pointing at the water, then a thumbs up.
Julian, meanwhile, displaying heroic instincts of his own, paddled directly for Mick in order to assist, but was grabbed first by a jetski.
“I was just about to get moving and start paddling again and all of a sudden I had this instinct that something was behind me," Mick said. "I started getting pulled underwater and then the thing came up and I was on my board and it was right there. I saw the whole thing thrashing around but I was getting dragged under by my leg rope."
Fanning says he thought he'd been kicked off his board, there it was—and there the shark was, still.
"I felt like I punched it a couple of times and then it was dragging me and then my leg rope broke," he said.
That's when he told Julian to flee and save himself, but Wilson was making a bee-line right for him and the sharks.
"It came up and he was wrestling it. I saw him get knocked off his board and then a wave popped up and I thought, ‘He’s gone,’" said Wilson. "I felt like I couldn’t get there quick enough."
"What a legend, coming after me," Fanning said.
But neither of them were in the clear yet.
"I was swimming in and I turned around and I had this thought: What happens if it comes to have another go at me? So I turned around so I could at least see it coming," he said.
That's when the boat showed up. His life was saved.
"I just can’t believe it," said Fanning. "To walk away from that, I’m just so stoked."
Wilson is, too. He thought he was swimming towards a dead man.
"I thought it was going to grab him and take him under," he said. "I’m so happy we’re both on the beach right now. I was so worried about Mick’s life.”
Jeffreys Bay is a smaller community located between Durban and Cape Town. It was first made popular in the 1966 cult classic The Endless Summer when Bruce Brown followed Mike Hyson and Robert August to nearby Cape St. Francis.
J-Bay, around the corner, is faster, hollower, better. It is an almost perfect wave, considered legendary in the surf world, but not without shark incidents. Great whites are very common in the area and clear the lineup from time to time.
Sunday’s incident, though, is the first of its kind in the sport’s history. Never had a surfer been attacked during a heat.
Surf legend Kelly Slater, who was eliminated from the event earlier on, said that now he's "seen it all."
"I’m halfway between crying and laughing because he got so lucky," said Slater. "I’m lost for words, to be honest. We almost just watched our friend get eaten by a shark and I’m just blown away that there’s no damage at all.”