JOHANNESBURG, July 20- An Australian surfing champion has fought off a huge shark during a competition in South Africa, escaping the terrifying scene without injury to the relief of his shocked mother who feared she had lost another son.
Mick Fanning, 34, was competing in the final heat of a world tour event at Jeffreys Bay in the country’s Eastern Cape province on Sunday when a looming black fin appeared behind him.
In a churn of water and spray, Fanning battled to fend off the shark.
“It came up and got stuck in my leg rope,” he said in a television interview afterwards.
“I was kicking and screaming. I just saw a fin. I didn’t see teeth. I was waiting for the teeth to come at me as I was swimming. I punched it in the back.”
Fanning, a triple world champion nicknamed “White Lightning”, lost his brother in a car crash almost 17 years ago and his terrified mother, watching the drama live on television in Australia, feared the worst.
“I was so scared. I just thought when that wave came through that he’d gone,” mum Elizabeth Osborne told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Monday.
“It’s the worst thing I’ve ever seen happen to any of my family because it was just there in front of me.
“When Sean was killed in the car accident, I didn’t see it. I saw this just in front of me. It was just terrible.”
Fanning was pulled from the water by a nearby rescue jet-ski that rushed to his aid, and he only lost his board leash.
The World Surf League (WSL), which organised the J-Bay Open, said two sharks were spotted in the water near Fanning and his rival — and close friend — Julian Wilson, also from Australia.
“We were all watching and then all of a sudden you could see the fin so we knew it was a shark,” spectator Kaylee Smit told the News24 website.
“We could see the splashing and he was knocked off his board. I thought this guy was going to die in front of us.
“The whole crowd rose to their feet in complete silence and then that was broken by the announcer screaming over the information system for people to get out of the water. I am still in shock and I am shaking,” Smit said.
– ‘Heroic’ –
The WSL cancelled the competition after discussions with both surfers, who agreed to share the winner’s prize money.
“Mick’s composure and quick acting in the face of a terrifying situation was nothing short of heroic and the rapid response of our Water Safety personnel was commendable,” it said.
Eleven-time world champion Kelly Slater was on the beach when the attack happened.
“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,” he told reporters.
While attacks occur periodically across the world, Australian seven-time world champion Layne Beachley said she had never even seen a shark during her decades in the water, highlighting the rarity of such events.
“I’ve been surfing for more than 40 years, I have never seen a shark or been intimidated by a shark — intimidated by dolphins and whales, but not sharks,” she said in Sydney.
“When we go into this environment we understand that this could potentially happen. But we have never seen this (in a pro event), this is unprecedented.”
Craig Lambinon, spokesman for the National Sea Rescue Institute in South Africa, told ENCA television news that he believed “it is probably the first time that an incident like this at a surfing competition has been caught on camera”.