During a summer of high-profile shark attacks, experts have weighed in on the best ways to avoid and survive the rare but harrowing incidents. Dramatic TV footage that has been broadcast around the world shows a pro surfer doing things just right.
The surfer successfully evaded a shark attack during a competition run off South Africa’s East Cape on Sunday.
As Australian surfer Mick Fanning prepared to ride a wave at the World Surf League’s J-Bay Open Sunday in Jeffreys Bay, a big shark “appears out of nowhere,” says Greg Skomal, a shark scientist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.
“The shark seemed pretty intent on hitting the board, which probably worked in the surfer's favor,” says Skomal. “He got away, unharmed, which is pretty incredible.”
Fanning also appeared to stay calm and “did everything right” during the brief attack, says Skomal. “It looked like he put the board between him and the shark, he avoided the mouth, he struck the shark, and then moved away.”
Within moments Fanning was picked up by rescuers on jetskis.
Sharks are known to respect size and power in the water, and experts say the best thing to do if you are approached by one is punch it hard. Aim for the nose, the eyes, or the gills, which are particularly sensitive, if possible. Fanning hit the animal in the back, which also seemed to do the trick.
The shark that went for Fanning’s board was most likely a great white, says Skomal, who studies the big fish. It’s hard to tell in the split seconds of the video how large the animal is, and whether it is full grown, but it’s clearly “not a dinky fish,” he says.
Great whites are involved in a large number of the unprovoked shark attacks around the world, and are responsible for a majority of the bites in California. They are particularly common around South Africa, where they hunt seals off the coast.
In the past, great whites suffered steep declines due to overfishing and entrapment in fishing gear as unwanted bycatch. It’s unclear how the fish are faring globally, but some recent research suggests they are making a slow comeback in waters where they are protected, including in North America and South Africa.
Mick Fanning (in blue) is consoled by fellow surfer Kelly Slater after surviving the attack. [Photograph By Kirstin Scholtz, Wsl/Getty]
Great whites are the fish that inspired Jaws and are among the most feared animals of the sea. Still, the chance that any individual person will have a run-in with one is vanishingly small. According to data published for California earlier this month, a surfer has a one in 17 million chance of getting bitten by a shark. An ocean swimmer has a one in 738 million chance. (Surfers tend to spend more time in the water, farther out.)
Skomal says “it's almost impossible to get in the head of a shark,” so it’s not clear if the animal was just testing Fanning or if it was really intent on feeding on him and his board. Humans are not part of sharks’ normal prey, so bites are rarely thought to be intentional. Instead, sharks are more likely confusing shapes in the water with seals or other prey.
Great whites also play a critical role in the ocean ecosystem by keeping prey species in check, Skomal notes. So people should respect them in their natural habitat.