Better out than in? Gabriel Medina was one of several WSL athletes to openly voice his safety concerns on social media about training and competing in the Margaret River region following two shark attacks at nearby Gracetown, WA. (WSL / Dunbar)

Sean Doherty On: What Happens Now For The WSL and Margaret River?


In case you’ve missed it, over the past couple of days there’s been a predatory animal circling the line-ups around Margaret River, putting the fear of God into surfers competing in the Margaret River world tour event, more particularly some of the Brazilians.

But yesterday Mikey Wright was off on a winery lunch, and instead it was a great white shark – or maybe two of them – that stalked the line-ups north of Margaret River, taking a bite out of a couple of freesurfers and leading this morning to the cancellation of the whole contest.

Yep. Margies got cancelled.

The last time a tour event was cancelled was after Mick Fanning’s infamous encounter with a white shark back at J-Bay back in 2015. Interestingly, when a big white buzzed the line-up at J-Bay last year – with Mick in the water again – the WSL quickly called the event back on like nothing had happened.


Not this time.

In her press statement, WSL CEO Sophie Goldschmidt even alluded to the J-Bay event running after the shark had cruised the lineup. “There have been incidents in the past – and it’s possible that there will be incidents in the future – which did not (and will not) result in the cancellation of an event. However, current circumstances are very unusual and troubling, and we have decided that the elevated risk during this season’s Margaret River Pro has crossed the threshold for what is acceptable.”

The surfers were delivered the news in a meeting at 8am on site this morning, most of them assuming they were being assembled to canvas their opinion. The decision, however, had been made already and had apparently come from the very top – from the league’s owners, Dirk and Natasha Ziff.

The decision felt personal.

The WSL were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. Strong arguments could be mounted for both courses of action today. History, surfers’ inherent acceptance of shark risk, and the presence of a small armada of skis and spotter craft on hand said keep going. The clustered nature of the attacks, the dead whale, the salmon run and all the media attention said just walk away.

But in the end the slimmest chance of the unthinkable happening forced their hand. They’d been lucky with Mick Fanning at J-Bay. They weren’t going to push their luck here in Margaret River. “If we decided to continue the event under the current circumstances and something terrible were to take place,” said Goldschmidt, “we would never forgive ourselves.” And the public would never forgive them either. Cancelling Margarets today might spell the end for the event, but if they’d surfed on and the unthinkable had happened, it would have spelled the end for the sport.

Was it the right call?

We’ll never know. The only thing you’d have known with complete certainty was if it was the wrong call, and the only way you’d have known that was for someone to end up on the wrong end of the fish. The WSL had been wrestling with the situation all week, even before the attacks. They were locked in a meeting on Monday with representatives of Shark Mitigation Systems Ltd when the news of the first attack interrupted the meeting.

As for the surfers, from what we can gather after a few phone calls, it seemed most were happy to surf their heats. Most had turned up to the meeting this morning expecting to be told it was going ahead with some extra skis in the water. Most have been happy to keep freesurfing during the week. Joel Parkinson even went abalone diving yesterday. But most pointedly it seemed the public comments from Brazilian surfers Italo Ferreira and Gabe Medina seemed to have swayed the decision, both in the court of public opinion and with the WSL brass.

We pondered earlier in the event coverage about who would fill the power vacuum left by the retirement of Mick Fanning and the inevitable (2032) retirement of Kelly Slater. That “power” was most readily seen when Mick or Kelly had a heat coming up in marginal waves and didn’t want to surf. They simply wouldn’t paddle out. We wondered who’d step up in the absence of Mick and Kelly, and maybe we just saw the first signs of that when Italo and Gabby stated publicly they weren’t keen on paddling out. Brazil is the new power bloc.

The fact Italo and Gabby sit at one and seven in the ratings means the cancellation doesn’t hurt them at all. John John – the defending champ at Margaret River who is currently languishing at 26th in the ratings – might see it differently. John needed this contest. Bizarrely, while they’ve cancelled the contest, they’ve kept alive the prospect of surfing the remaining heats somewhere, sometime this year. That seems like a thought bubble and I can’t see it happening. They’d need to have a ready made venue at their control, where they could just turn up, turn the waves on, and off they go. Where are they going to find something like that?

So in the short term it means that everyone gets to go home early, or if they stay in Margies, it’s a week of long winery lunches and empty line-ups.

The news for the event, however, isn’t so rosy.

“Two shark attacks in one day? It’s just another day in WA.” Underwritten by the WA state government to showcase the region as a tourist Mecca, having the event cancelled due to shark attacks is unlikely to be great for business. To a shark-paranoid world watching on, Margarets might as well be Amity Island.

The event has been on borrowed time for a while now, superfluous to the WSL’s needs, as Australia was over-represented on tour with three events. An 11th hour deal last year, done directly with league owner Dirk Ziff, kept the event on the schedule, but even with another year left on its license it’s hard to see it surviving. And that’s sad. It’s sad for the local crew who’ve lobbied and worked their arses off for years to finally get the event upgraded to Championship Tour status. It’s sad for surf fans who will be losing a wild ocean wave from the tour.

For the tour I suppose there are now wider implications for J-Bay. They’ve drawn a line here with this event. What if it were to happen now in J-Bay? What if big whitey strolled through the contest break this time? And what role, if any effect, has the imminent roll out of the wavepool had on these decisions? In earlier correspondence comment was made about how Margaret River is a real surf event, in real surf, with real critters swimming around in it. In a couple of months time we see the wavepool make its debut as a Championship Tour event, and it’s fairly unlikely that event will get cancelled due to a 15-foot white swimming in the tank.

How will the events of this week affect the rest of the year for the World Surf League, it’s athletes and future WCT events? We will have to wait and see. (Dunbar)

And finally, after a relatively quiet spell here in Australia, the debate about how to keep surfers and sharks apart has been reignited. The downtime has allowed, even in that short time, for technology to make some ground. Smart drum lines on the east coast seem to be working, tracking data has been collected, scientific estimates of shark populations have been offered, while millions has been poured into research and commercial deterrent technologies. You get the feeling they’re not far from cracking the code, but for now you should be able to find some empty waves down Margies way this week if you’re feeling lucky.

Sean Doherty