The Shark Diver Controversy In Ocean Swimming

The Shark Diver Controversy In Ocean Swimming

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

In the Marathon Swimmers Forum, Evan Morrison of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association analyzed the opinions and survey results of 175 former, current or aspiring marathon swimmers from around the world.

His intriguing analyses are posted here.

It was very interesting snapshot of the community opinions on the sport. The findings included a split opinion collectively expressed by the community on the use of shark divers.

Morrison reports that 59% of the marathon swimmers were for shark divers while 41% were against the use of shark divers. The Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association board member explains his personal perspective, “If an item is controversial, it cannot be considered “approved by the sport of ocean swimming.” At best, it might be considered a “local exception” to a more universal set of rules – for example, the use of streamers in Japan. If an item is controversial, it is in some way approaching a line in the sand. In marathon swimming, if you’re flirting with this line – trying to find loopholes for some extra edge – quite simply, you’re doing it wrong.”

While the contemporary marathon swimming community may consider the use of shark divers as controversial and shark divers may not be approved by some swimmers, we have always personally welcomed the use of shark divers and others – like Australian lifeguards and local individuals who spend much of their lives understanding the local marine life. Shark experts like Patric Douglas, Luke Tipple and Richard Theiss have taught us much about shark behavior and protection procedures who spends hundreds of hours planning and providing safety for swimmers, divers, camera crews and others in waters where sharks are known to exist.

However, we are also admittedly biased as we used shark divers for our own marathon and channel swims in Okinawa where dozens of sharks were seen and encountered in the warm tropical waters. The local shark divers not only shared an abundance of information about the shark behavior and risks involved during these unprecedented swim, but during the swim, the shark divers remain constantly on alert and made us feel well-protected and safe. The ease of mind was a tremendous help that partly enabled success. Without planning and protection from these knowledgeable local shark divers, the swim would have been much less safe and we are doubtful the local authorities would have allowed us to even try to swim around Yonaguni Island or between the Ryukyu Islands of Iriomote, Ishigaki, and Taketomi.

We are also admittedly biased because we saw shark divers in the Cayman Islands and in the Florida Strait spring into action to help marathon swimmers. Their selfish acts of protection remain deeply embedded in our memories. This is one recollection:

In late summer 2011 as Diana Nyad was nearing her 19th hour in the deep royal blue Caribbean Sea on her attempt from Cuba to Florida, a curious oceanic whitetip shark approached her flotilla. We observed the moderately-paced whitetip swimming 2-3 meters under the surface with its distinctive white tips reflecting off the canvas of royal blue.

Nyad’s safety team of shark divers on one of her escort boats spotted the 4-5 foot endangered shark lurking in the crystal clear water. Although during the planning sessions prior to the swim we had talked about shark encounters far from shore, this was a time for action. No time to talk, just act. Not armed with guns or spears, shark diver Rob MacDonald of West Palm Beach, Florida sprang immediately to action with nothing more than a stick covered with at the ends with a tennis ball.

He dove into the water to attempt to steer the whitetip away from Nyad. No bravado, just quiet, quick-thinking professionalism like a Secret Service bodyguard jumping in to save a high-level politician. MacDonald, supported by his colleagues Drew Johnston and Jonathan Rose, showed no hesitation and no worries or regrets. From a standing position, he quickly put on his free diving fins and dove in the royal blue water in a heightened state of alert.

MacDonald entered the glassy flat doldrums under cloudless skies with a 1-meter-long pole with a soft tennis ball stuck to the end. He moved as calmly as humanly possible in the water, he kicked easily and smoothly with his long fins, snorkel positioned above the water’s surface like a periscope, and his long pole clutched at the ready.

But this was not an inhospitable encounter that was going to erupt to a feeding frenzy; the shark vs. man encounter was merely an expression of temporary territorial rights. “I don’t want to hurt the sharks. The sharks are our friends,” explained MacDonald. “We just want to keep the sharks away from Diana. I never saw any aggression from the shark. While I approached the shark, it was so beautiful. I wish I had my camera. The shark never lowered its pectoral fins or arched its back. When a shark does that, it is ready to attack.

As the shark continued to circle underneath, MacDonald continued to play offense on the surface of the water. Johnston and I were on a inflatable raft trying to give MacDonald an extra two sets of eyes attempting to keep track of the constantly moving shark as it came in and out of our peripheral vision. As the shark moved quickly, so did MacDonald. He shadowed its movements, back and forth. As the shark circled, MacDonald circled. Like a silhouette, they mirrored each other’s movements. This was not some dramatic television reenactment, it was real life unfolding before our eyes.

After the preliminary rounds of feeling each other out, the shark suddenly rose to the surface while MacDonald dove down to meet it like two heavyweights squaring off in mid-rink.

To the disbelief of the crew watching closely from the four escort boats, MacDonald dove below the surface like a protective mother bear. He kicked his fins in order to face the shark head-on, never letting the shark out of his sights. The two faced off in the silent arena underwater, each respectful but unnerved by the other. As MacDonald continued to delve below the surface, it became difficult to exactly see what was happening and even more unbelievable to imagine what could happen next.

Like two locomotives on the same track, something was about to give. Fortunately, the shark clearly sensed a formidable denizen in the Caribbean depths. Like two enemy jet pilots swooping at one another in a wartime combat in the skies above, MacDonald and the shark locked onto one another in the depths below. We held their breath and just stared at the abyss for both combatants were increasingly obscured underwater. Johnston and Rose were at the ready as even they wondered what the next move was going to be.

Mano-a-mano was replaced by mano-a-apex predator.

While the shark’s pectoral fins remained static, MacDonald made a forward thrust with his soft pole in front like a knight with his lance out. “That (move) was enough to convince it to swim off. I never hit it. He just dove down to 60-70 feet and he headed off in the opposite direction of Diana.” Safely separated from the curious predator, Nyad kept stroking on, protected once again by the clearly heroic but stoic shark diver.

MacDonald climbed nonchalantly on board to the whoops and hollers of the crew…and readied his camera for the next encounter. There were few encounters in the sea that have impressed us as much and we thank shark divers all the time when they agree to help swimmers in the open water.

That being said, there are plenty of channel swims where shark divers are not used: Cook Strait, Farallon Islands, Catalina Channel and all kinds of swims in the South Pacific and Oceania. But in all of those swims, the crew is essentially fulfilling the role of a shark diver. That is, when a shark is seen in the Cook Strait, Farallon Islands, Cape Town or Catalina Channel, the crew goes into a heightened state of alert and executes the pre-planned safety procedures. “I remember when we used to carry a gun on board the swims,” recalled more than one Catalina Channel coach from the 1970’s. “Then we realized that we were just as likely to hit the swimmer instead of the shark. We certainly don’t do that [carry weapons] on board anymore.”

However it is achieved, safety of the swimmer is paramount. It is our opinion that shark divers can play an important role when sharks are known to exist in the expected course of marathon swimmers. But if marathon swimmers do not want to use a shark diver, the chances of being attacked by a curious or hungry shark remain extremely low. To the best of our knowledge, only Mike Spalding has been bitten by a shark during a formal channel swim over the last 25 years.

Copyright © 2008 – 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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