Do you recall yesterday, that defiant act of nonchalance from competitors at a Norwegian surf contest when a pod of orcas steamed into the lineup?
Well, turns out, one of the competitors was Shannon Ainslie – the name should buzz at the back of your mind. Cast it back, way back, and you might remember that Shannon got hit by two great whites while surfing Nahoon Reef in East London, South Africa, his story making international headlines. Remarkably, that whole incident was caught on film, which you can view below.
Anyway, we touched base with Shannon this morning, an SA transplant now taking up residency in Norway, to talk sharks, the orca encounter and the fact that he has an affinity for attracting toothy, ocean predators. It's a hoot.
Talk us through what went down with the orcas just the other day? And in a semi-final no less...
Well, I had just paddled back after catching a wave in the heat, and then I saw this dark shadow speeding towards me with bubbles and water moving around it.
It shot right under the nose of my board and as it did, I sat up and tried to get my feet on the board. The orca turned to the side and I could see its white belly.
Then, as it swam past, I saw the other one coming just behind it with a lot of speed and then turned in front of me. It was so scary, but as they swam past I just raised up my arms and claimed it. Just because I was thankful I was alive and also because I’ve always wanted to be that close to Orcas. The other competitors and I just started screaming out of shock and stoke. Everyone on the beach ran down to the shore to get a closer look and to take some photos. Oh man it was amazing.
Here, you can see how close an orca came to Shannon, cruising right underneath his board.
Orcas entering the lineup, is that a thing in Norway?
I suppose so. This is actually the third time it’s happened in the same bay. It happened while a friend of mine was on his SUP in 2014 and it happened almost the exact same time last year. We have also seen them swim past a few times.
Must have made the heart rate jump a few bpms?
Oh man! My heart was beating so hard that’s for sure. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever experienced but also so scary. I had to catch the next little wave to shore to get to solid ground and think about what just happened.
But I jumped in immediately after 'cos I know they don’t attack humans and they can be quite social.
We enjoyed the (seemingly) total nonchalance at the orcas here at MSW HQ, just a couple of surfers taking in the sight before them. How did you feel seeing that and what did your fellow competitors make of it?
I honestly feel privileged to have experienced that. The other three competitors were quite scared as well. The one guy was actually the one on the SUP who had orcas close by to him in 2014. One of the competitors, from Bali, originally thought it was a person swimming around with a toy fin on his back trying to scare us.
Then when he realised it was real he was like, ‘what’s that’ 'cos he’d never seen one. And then he was like ‘are they dangerous?’ [laughs]. Was classic.
Not the best of luck, first sharks (plural), now orcas - large ocean predators seem to like whatever you're putting down. What're you giving off?
I tell you what, there must be something fishy about me [laughs]. I’ve had a double shark attack, been bumped off my board once, rescued a guy from a shark attack, had a seal go for me once and now this. All I can say is God is protecting me and I’m stoked to be alive. Got to make the most of every day 'cos you never know when it’s your time.
From what I remember your shark attack was one of the few caught on camera- how did you get motivated to get back in the water after that?
At first, I actually thought I would quit surfing after my attack, but then I started thinking and dreaming of all the good surfs I have and the ones I want to have, and knew I couldn’t give it up.
Once you’re hooked you can’t quit. My whole shark attack incident was such a miracle. The fact that there were two, 4m great whites, and that it was caught on camera, is amazing and I found that I was less afraid of sharks after my attack than before.
It was as if it was meant to happen to motivate me more and give me more purpose in life. It’s funny how near death experiences can sometimes do wonders for you.
How's the surf scene in Norway right now?
It’s quite epic. The sport is growing and there are some amazing waves if you don’t mind putting on a lot of rubber and surfing in the freezing cold. I work at the Lofoten Surfsenter and we just keep getting busier and busier. We even started Go Surf camps to get people abroad in the quiet season here 'cos the Norwegians are getting hooked on surfing and want to travel all over.
FYI, the Norwegian Orca Survey said this about the incident: These surfers had a totally unexpected (and close!) encounter with a pod of orcas. Based on group size and behaviour, we have no doubt saying that these orcas were searching for seal prey. At some point, we can clearly see an orca charging (full speed!) one of the surfers. Fortunately, orcas use echolocation to better investigate their habitat and prey. It is likely that the charging orca realised, at the very last second, that the surfer was not a seal and so took a sharp turn and moved away. The surfer reported that the charging orca was not more than 50cm away from him. Oops. That was almost.
Legend, thanks Shannon, hoping you avoid men in grey jackets, and the likes, in the future.
Cover shot by Pontus Pålsson.