I saw it taking my board away and I just started cracking it. —Australian surfer Mick Fanning
JOHANNESBURG — A shark attacking a top surfer during a televised competition in South Africa captured the world's attention but the incident is not highly unusual. South Africa has an average of six shark attacks including one death each year.
The shark bumped three-time world champion Mick Fanning off his board Sunday as he waited his turn during the finals of the JBay Open world surfing competition and stirred the public's worst fears about sharks.
In the video of the event posted on the World Surf League website, Australian Fanning scans the water before a fin and what could be a tail appear and with a splash he disappears under the surface. He is next seen furiously trying to swim to safety before a rescuer pulls him out of the water.
Fanning said at first he swam away but then decided to defend himself and turned to punch the shark in the back.
"I saw it taking my board away and I just started cracking it," he told a crowd that gathered around him once he was back on shore, referring to how he struck the shark.
"I'm totally fine. I've got nothing wrong with me," Fanning said in an interview. "There's a small depression in my board and my leg wrap (was) bitten. I'm just totally tripping out. To walk away from that, I'm just so stoked."
South Africa has put in place a number of measures to increase safety against shark attacks, especially in KwaZulu Natal province, which borders Eastern Cape where the attack took place.
Shark nets were first installed in 1952 along the beaches of KwaZulu Natal and the province has not seen a shark attack in 15 years, said Jeremy Cliff, head researcher at the KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board. But along with sharks, other non-threatening animals are trapped in the nets, making them an environmental hazard.
Nets, however, weaken the size of waves, making them unpopular with some surfers.
The board is trying to develop an undersea cable that emits a low electronic frequency pulse to ward off sharks.
On South Africa's west coast, the scenic mountains rolling into the Atlantic Ocean provide a vantage point for shark spotters who survey the ocean from a height of about 300 feet and sound an alarm when they spot the sharp dorsal fin of a Great White.
In the warmer Indian Ocean, it's harder to spot species like the Zambezi shark, which prefers murkier, deeper waters.
For most bathers visiting South Africa's beaches, the risk is low, said Cliff.
Cliff said of the surfing competition encounter. "It looked like an investigating incident rather than the shark wanting to eat the surfer."
For surfers who are in the water at dawn and dusk, shark attacks are an "occupational hazard" said Paul Botha, regional spokesman for the World Surf League.
Describing his shark encounter, Fanning said: "I felt something grab, get stuck in my leg rope and instantly jump away. And it just kept coming at my board."
Fanning's mother, Elizabeth Osborne, who watched the incident live on television in Australia, wept as she told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio the attack was "the worst thing I've ever seen happen to any of my family because it was just there in front of me."
"It was absolutely terrifying. I actually got up and walked across to the television because I just couldn't believe what I was seeing and I thought we lost him," she said in an ABC TV interview.
The World Surf League cancelled the remainder of the event and Fanning will split the prize money with fellow Australian surfer Julian Wilson, who was also in the water when the attack happened. The two will share second place.
"We are incredibly grateful that no one was seriously injured today," the league said in a statement. "Mick's composure and quick acting in the face of a terrifying situation was nothing short of heroic."
The website for the World Surf League is www.worldsurfleague.com