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Surfing After a Shark Attack

Mike Fanning became the most famous surfer in the world when a video of his encounter with a shark went viral. Is he ready to get back in the water?

by Chris Cote
Jul 24 2015, 8:10pm

Courtesy World Surf League

Mick Fanning is a three-time world champion and one of the top-ranked surfers in the world. He's been a household name in his native Australia for years, but it was only last weekend that he gained international fame, when his encounter with a great white shark off the coast of South Africa was captured on video and quickly went viral. Oprah Winfrey, Ellen DeGeneres, and multiple late night talk shows have reportedly approached him for TV appearances. Endorsement offers and bonuses have been rolling in; Fanning is, for example, rewarded for high traffic to his Instagram account. But while Fanning has been propelled to poster-boy status for his sport, he is also still a survivor of a shark attack, with all the baggage that brings.

"I felt lucky and unlucky," he said in a press conference upon returning to Australia. "I've got to go back, even though it's going to be hard, but you have to face it front on."

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It's not uncommon for shark-attack victims to have some sort of post-traumatic stress. According to a close friend of Fanning's, he's suffering from nightmares involving sharks. Fanning is nonetheless set to return to the water soon: his next competition, the Billabong Tahiti Pro, starts on August 14.

Fanning can take some comfort in the site of the event, near the world-famous Teahupoo break—no one's dumping blood and guts in the water there. Jeffreys Bay, where Fanning had his encounter, is home to several cage-diving operations. The most common method of attracting sharks for GoPro-toting tourists is to chum the water, or bait sharks with blood and fish parts. (VICE Sports reached out to several cage-dive operators in South Africa, who all declined to comment.) Surfers and advocacy groups around the world are trying to end the practice, and many locations, like North Carolina and the Bahamas, currently ban chumming for sharks. Chumming is legal in Jeffreys Bay.

The rescue, seconds after Fanning's encounter with the shark. Courtesy World Surf League

There are other steps surfers themselves can take to decrease the chances of a shark encounter. Fanning, for example, might opt not to use the yellow surfboard he rode on last weekend. Sharks are notoriously difficult to study (biologists can't even reliably estimate the world's great white population), but evidence exists that sharks are attracted to the color yellow. According to a 1974 U.S. Navy report: "A standard yellow life vest occupied by a child dummy was repeatedly attacked at the surface by blue sharks, Prionace glauca. Strikes on a red infant flotation device were few, while a similar black flotation device suffered only two strikes.

In the 40 years since the Navy put child dummies in life jackets, biologists have learned more about sharks. Some researchers aren't so sure that color is a factor, saying instead that sharks respond to the contrast between the yellow object and the water's surface. A 2011 study by the University of Western Australia and the University of Queensland concludes, "evidence for colour vision in sharks remains equivocal."

Discovery Channel's Mythbusters tested the yellow theory in 2011 and found that sharks bit, prodded, and investigated yellow targets far more often than targets of any other color. Regardless of the research and theories, some local surfers in South Africa have a no-yellow-surfboard policy.

There's no guaranteed method of repelling sharks, monitoring the water for them, or using barricades or fences to isolate surf breaks. Anti-shark devices, like NoShark (formerly branded as Electronic Shark Defense Systems) and Shark Shield, send electronic pulses to repel sharks. Diana Nyad used a Shark Shield system during her 2011 Cuba-to-Florida swim, but the devices are too cumbersome for surfers to use.The World Surf League, the governing body of last weekend's competition, as well as the Tahiti competition, maintains its commitment to athlete safety.

"Obviously, since this incident, there has been a significant raise in intensity in regards to shark safety," says Dave Prodan, WSL's vice president of communications. "Our entire organization has and will take time to look at all mechanisms regarding safety for our athletes. At the moment there is no 100-percent effective shark attack deterrent, so our protocol of close observation, monitoring conditions, and being prepared with emergency responders in the water and on the beach will take precedent."

Hopefully that's comforting to Fanning, who is currently not taking press queries.

"I've spoken to Mick a couple of times in the past few days, and he seems to be more comfortable with it all every day," Prodan says. "I think he had a lot going on, whether from the actual incident or the chaos of becoming an internationally known person in 90 seconds."