Sharks, Orcas and arctic surf with Shannon Ainslie

Shannon Ainslie is a South African surfer currently living in Lofoten in northern Norway. He has been through most surfer’s worst nightmare, when he was attacked by two great white sharks. Later in life, he also encountered an orca during a surf event. Shannon hasn’t let these close encounters with the ocean’s top predators scare him from carrying on surfing. Recently Norway has been firing and Shannon has been out there charging every time.

Please tell a little about your background and how you first were introduced to surfing?
I grew up in East London, South Africa and started surfing at age 13. My dad ensured that myself and my siblings kept very fit so I picked up surfing quickly and managed to make some good surfing buddies and ended up surfing almost everyday. Fortunately my brother picked it up quickly too so we surfed together all the time! There are so many good waves in East London so we scored every week. 

How did you end up in Norway?
I moved to Jeffrey’s Bay when I was 19 to do a surf gap year program. I started a surf school and surf coaching where I trained competitive surfers. A Norwegian guy, Kristian Breivik (who I work with now) ran a surf hostel there and sent his clients and his kids to me for surf lessons. He always spoke about Norway and that I should try to work there. I always refused but it took 2 years of convincing me and then I tried it out. I fell in love with Norway immediately!

What’s the surf scene like in Lofoten and Norway compared to South Africa? 
There’s a big difference between the surf scene in South Africa and Norway. Surfing is relatively new in Norway so you don’t see any kids surfing and you don’t really have localism, whereas in South Africa you see kids surfing all over and some places are quite localized, but not too bad!

You also have to be quite hardcore to surf in Norway, especially up north in the winter! The waves are good but the weather can get very cold and intense so you need to gear up with a lot of thick rubber to stay warm and comfortable. True Viking style! 

Unstad_right_10 Shanon enjoys Norwegian winter. Photo here and above Hallvard Kolltveit

We can’t interview you without bringing up the shark incident, can you walk us through what happened that day? 
I was 15 years old when I got attacked! It was the first day back at school after a long winter vacation and we headed straight to the beach after school. Myself, my brother and some of our friends surfed a spot called Nahoon Reef with a couple other surfers. The waves were super fun and about an hour and a half into the surf I got attacked by two 4 meter great white sharks. It was crazy! Some guys had just got out of the water before the attack because they felt uneasy there. This spot is well known for shark sightings and shark attacks. 

I was paddling for a wave and got hit by the one shark on the left side of me from underneath. It hit me hard into the air, grabbed my surfboard and hand and dragged me under the water with it. The shark on my right side missed me because the other one got me first! Then, the shark let go of me and stopped and stared straight into my face. It was about half a meter away and I could see all its teeth and the one big dark eye staring at me. We just stared at each other for a few moments. It was intense! Then it swam away. I managed to swim to the surface of the water and climbed back on my board and started paddling for shore! It all happened so quickly so I thought I was dreaming, until I saw my fingers hanging off and blood all over the place. Then I realized this was not a dream and I was in serious trouble! I was left about 100 meters out at sea, no one stayed in the water to help me out and the ocean went dead flat. It was like a nightmare and all I could picture was the sharks coming back for me over and over again. I was scared, shaking and crying. I thought I was going to die so I kept praying to God for safety and paddled and as fast as possible away from the sharks. Fortunately a wave came out of nowhere and I was able to catch it and ride it on my belly all the way to the rocks. I was so happy to hit dry ground. 

My brother rushed me to the hospital where I had surgery and the doctor saved my fingers and hand. So I was very grateful to be alive!

How long did it take for you to get back surfing again and how terrifying was it? 
It took 6 weeks to get back in the water and actually wasn’t as terrifying as I imagined it would be. I had my family and friends with me so it was a nice relaxed fun day!

And then you encountered an Orca during the Lofoten masters a few years ago, can you tell us about that as well?
Yes! That was epic! I’ve always wanted an encounter with Orcas! This one definitely caught me off guard as I was paddling back after catching a wave in the semi finals. While I was paddling I saw this big dark thing coming straight for me! I thought it was a shark..but at the same time I knew it couldn’t be because there are no sharks in Norway. As I thought that it swam straight under me and turned and looked at me. I immediately sat up in my board and lifted my legs up onto it too. It was big and I thought maybe it was going to attack me. I could see it’s eye, the big black body and the white on its belly as it swam beneath my board. It was super scary but awesome at the same time. As it swam under me I noticed another one swimming towards me. I wasn’t sure what was happening but just sat and watched. They then both veered off away from me and then I was able to relax and take in the moment to realize how incredible it was. 

renata Photo: Renata Aulejtner

And both incidents were caught on video!? Does anyone dare to share the lineup with you now knowing you attract these big ocean predators? 
Haha yes it’s quite amazing that both the shark attack and orca encounter were caught on camera. At least I can show my grandchildren one day. And actually, most people want to share the line up with me because it seems like all the big fish with big teeth like me and no one else.  

Tell us about your role as surf coach for the Norwegian surf team? 
My role is to train the national team working on technique and competitive surfing as well as doing surf development with juniors. The national surf federation is starting to put more time and effort into getting kids involved in surfing and I think that’s my main goal as the national surf coach and I see a great future in Norwegian surfing, but it has to start with the juniors. 

I’m working very closely with Kristian Breivik, the guy who convinced me to work in Norway. He started the Lofoten Surfsenter which is where I am currently working. We run surf camps, surf lessons, do surf rentals and have a surf shop etc. But one of our main goals has been surf development amongst the juniors and we’ve been getting schools to surf with us on a regular basis.  It has been difficult because it’s a new concept to surf in the arctic but we currently have a bunch of kids who are finally getting into it, so the future is looking good for Junior surfing up north and can’t wait for the next generation to be shredding in the lineup! 

Unstad_right_11 Photo here and above Hallvard Kolltveit

What are your best tips for staying warm when surfing in cold winter conditions? 
Keep moving, catch a lot of waves and get barreled! And it’s important to use a good wetsuit. I use C-Skins wetsuits and they keep me very warm. Don’t piss in your wetsuit! 

Both South Africa and especially Norway have cold water, how are your ears doing?
My ears aren’t as bad as I thought they would be. We have a lot of cold westerly winds in Jeffrey’s Bay and it always blows into my right ear which is the one that gets blocked and filled with water the easiest. We use to use some prestick in the ears but it blocks all the sound which sucks. But since I’ve used SurfEars it’s been so much better. It does exactly what the slogan says- it keeps water out and let’s sound in. I love it!