When good friend and Championship Tour (CT) competitor Mick Fanning (AUS) was attacked by a shark during the Final of the J-Bay Open, World Surf League (WSL) commentator Joe Turpel found himself in a position of both incredible intensity and responsibility: reporting the facts to fans as the incident unfolded live. After returning home, Turpel reflected on the most challenging moment of his career and -- more importantly -- one of the scariest moments of his life.
WSL: There's a long pause between when we see the shark and when you call out the jet ski assist. What was going through your mind?
Joe Turpel: The moment came so abruptly. And was so surreal. It was the actual nightmare that you talk yourself out of every time you surf somewhere where sharks are known to be roaming around. And it was happening to the best surfer at J-Bay and a good friend to everyone on Tour. During the long pause I was so scared and coming to grips with what was unfolding. My stomach was going inside-out. I thought about Mick's mom watching.
WSL: What did you think the "little splash" was at first?
JT: I saw the fin when I said 'little splash,' but was not about to say a huge shark and call play by play of the sharks attack. I didn't want to say shark and cause even more panic.
It was the actual nightmare that you talk yourself out of every time you surf
WSL: From your vantage could you see over the wave when Mick disappeared?
JT: When he disappeared from vision we could look out our window of the booth. I lost him for a second too. And that was the scariest part. When I saw him I just wanted his Mom and family and friends to know he was still alive and swimming in. I didn't know if he had been bitten. Just wanted to focus on him being alive.
WSL: What was the crowd's response?
JT: I didn't even hear the crowd. I couldn't really take anything else in. I did hear [the beach commentary team] Gigs Celliers and Greg Emslie on the beach mics calling for the water patrol for assistance.
WSL: Where does it rank in major moments you've witnessed in surf history?
JT: This is by far the biggest moment for sure. Not just in surfing, but one of the biggest in my life. Watching a friend go through something so traumatic is beyond horrifying. Fighting for his life to survive, in front of his friends, family and the whole world. We all watched it live and we were holding our breath for the outcome. Seeing him give the thumbs up when he got on the back of the jet ski was the most amazing moment. He survived without a scratch. And we are so blessed and fortunate that we have Mick. ]He's famous for being a World Champion](/posts/131638/mick-fanning-profile), but he's a legend of a human being. As far as surfing history, this moment stands alone.
WSL: We can see Ace Buchan (AUS) start to break down on camera and then obviously Mick and Julian. Can you tell us about the emotional impact it had on the rest of the surfers and on you?
JT: It hit everyone really hard. When I hugged Mick after it brought tears rushing down my face. It was probably the best hug I've ever had. One we were so scared we wouldn't get.
It stopped everyone in their tracks and the severity, trauma and miracle of the moment was realized. We sat at Mick's place that evening and it felt as if we were brought together as if we had lost someone, but he was there. We kept hugging and celebrating the miraculous survival but still felt the pain of the scare of what we'd just seen. Adriano [de Souza] was just about to check into the Port Elizabeth airport when he heard the news. He got back in his car and drove all the way back to see Mick. Ace recalled when Andy Irons passed away it was during the Puerto Rico event and he'd already flown home. He felt so distant from his Tour family and friends and he wanted to be there for everyone. [Glenn] Micro [Hall] was dealing with that, seeing a friend go through that and not able to give him a big hug after was hard for the guys that left J-Bay already. Even knowing that he survived, I think what everyone saw on TV didn't look like there would be a happy ending.
We sat at Mick's place that evening and it felt as if we were brought together as if we had lost someone, but he was there
WSL: The guys seemed to band together more so than they ever have before. What impact do you think it has on professional surfing?
JT: We saw the Tour outside of a 35-minute heat. Outside of a post-heat win interview. You saw a human being fight for his life and a friend there to back him up. No matter if you are a surf fan or not, that example of survival, bravery and brotherhood are what huge Hollywood plots consist of. Well this one was real. And this one touched and affected people who don't know Mick and Julian personally.
His competitors and rivals were by his side when he came in. The points, heat scores and world titles were irrelevant in that moment. It was a time to realize how amazing life is. And how lucky we are to celebrate the survival of an amazing human. The bond for Julian and Mick is sealed forever and I think we will see amazing things from both of them in the future.
WSL: Could you see Julian marching towards Mick as it was happening? What was your reaction to that?
JT: I was so focused on Mick I didn't realize Julian had done that until he was on the scene at the same time the water patrol got there. A few days before, I was speaking to Julian about family and we had a conversation on what matters the most in life: Family and relationships with people who you love. Then seeing how he reacted just confirmed everything he had told me. He didn't care about the contest win, he didn't consider his own safety but wanted to be there for his friend. That courage and bravery and selflessness is what defines you as a hero.
WSL: What was your first thought after you put the microphone down?
JT: I was in shock. Disbelief of what had just happened. I really had my adrenaline pumping and slowly started feeling my eyes well up. Smiling deep down knowing Mick survived.
WSL: Can you train for that, as a broadcast journalist? Did you draw on anything? Is it all instinctive?
JT: Maybe you can train for that. Just so you have some guidelines to follow. Once I processed what was happening I just wanted to report that he was alive and swimming and that he made it safely. I thought about his mom and almost felt like I was talking to her. The go-to way to handle something so rare like this I'd say is trust your instincts, stay as calm as you can and report the facts the best you can. If you freak out the audience will freak out.
In this case we are all so lucky to celebrate a happy ending. The whole production team on hand were reacting on instincts. The boys in the truck like Chris Smith and Lyle Felmich kept the ship steady in the middle of a storm. And the commentators I work with handled themselves so well. I feel really lucky to be apart of such an amazing team. That Final ended with the best result imaginable: Mick survived and is home safe right now.