Mick Fanning and the Curious Shark

Mick Fanning and SharkMick Fanning is a professional surfer. He’s a triple world champion. And I have to admit, I think surfing is cool. I love watching people surf — whether on television or when I’m down at the beach. It’s beautiful to watch. And also, it’s impressive that people do it. Also: good God, don’t they realize there are sharks in the ocean! Well, Fanning knows, and so do all the people watching the J-Bay Open, the most recent leg of the World Surf League Championship Tour. It’s being reported like this, Shark Attacks Australian Surfer Mick Fanning During Live Competition. I’m not so sure.

If you look at the video, it’s not at all clear that the shark was attacking. It seems to be simply investigating the odd object it found in the water. That’s not to say that it was not trying to figure out if Fanning might be a tasty treat. But sharks, like most predators, are suspicious of things they don’t commonly eat. And if the shark was interested in anything, it seems to have been Fanning’s surfboard, not his body. Take a look at the video. It certainly seems that if the shark had been ready to eat, there would have been some damage.

Another interesting aspect of this is that Fanning is dressed in blue. A study published a few years ago found that of 17 shark species studied, 10 were totally color blind and the other 7 saw only grey and green — making them effectively color blind. This indicates that sharks may not see very well when it comes to light blue objects in the ocean. So it is quite likely that the shark was attracted to Fanning’s bright white surfboard. But again: the board didn’t seem to even have any bite marks on it. So I don’t see this as an attack.

What I’m really interested in is what the species of the shark is. At some points, it looks like it has a really long dorsal fin, but that is just the shark on its side — its pectoral fin coming out of the water as if waving to the television audience. We see the dorsal fin for just an instant at the beginning. I know there must be biologists out there who know what this magnificent creature is. It might explain more about its behavior as well. I’ll watch the news for a few days to see if anyone has any insights.

By saying all this, I don’t mean to say that Mick Fanning didn’t go through an amazing and deeply frightening experience. He tussled with a really big shark that was clearly interested in him. Apparently, Julian Wilson, the guy who was surfing with him, was as freaked out about the episode as Fanning was. Understandably. These people have got to normally suppress the idea that they make their living literally swimming with the sharks. And yesterday, they couldn’t. They are braver men than I!

Update (20 July 2015 9:10 pm)

Speculation is that it was a great white shark. I want to add to this discussion that by the time Fanning even noticed the shark, it’s mouth was way past him. I think I was wrong above when I said we see the pectoral fin; I think it is actually the caudal or tail fin.

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