Ram Tough, Swimming In The Death Zone From The Ring Of Death To Strandfontein

Ram Tough, Swimming In The Death Zone From The Ring Of Death To Strandfontein

Courtesy of Ram BarkaiFalse Bay, South Africa.

Ram Barkai and Kieron Palframan completed an unprecedented ocean swim in 2 hours 13 minutes. On the face of it, the distance is not that far, the time was not that long, and the water temperature was not that cold.

But for swimmers who grew up before the movie Jaws came out, the 6.4 km swim from Seal Island to the South African mainland was a massive achievement.

Barkai writes, “Seal Island False Bay is the home of the flying great white sharks [see below]. This swim from Seal Island to the mainland has been on my bucket list for years. This little Island, 400m long and 50m wide in False Bay, became famous due to the discovery of breaching great white sharks phenomena.

The island is the home to around 64,000 Cape fur seals and plenty of birds, and used to be the home to the largest population of great white sharks in the world. Apparently, they have all gone or haven’t been seen for the last three years. Theories abound around the new population of Orcas that came in with a great white shark liver fetish that chased them away. Others say they always here. Until then, Seal Island was a feeding ground for the great whites.

The island was circled with a line called The Ring of Death. Recently, a growing population of Bronze Whaler sharks has started to make False Bay their home. So today, after years of watching it, planning it, and choosing the time that felt safe enough to do it, I managed to swim from the island to mainland. I like to do firsts and high-risk swims by myself, so I don’t have to worry about anyone else. But Kieron Palframan needed to stretch his knee after recent operation, so he joined me and we swam together.

Sam Whelpton was on the boat ready to jump in and rescue me from anything bad. She was managing of our feeds, photography, videography, and sprint to the beach at the end to see us coming out. I much rather swim. We chose the longest route starting from the south side, where a big industry of great white shark cage diving use to flourish. Now replaced with Bronzies, smaller (2m-3m) and although curious at a time, they hardly ever attack swimmers.

The Muizenberg surfing beach nearby is being evacuated regularly when these guys go for a stroll in the shore breaks. When we arrived, another boat with a film crew was chumming (give bloody seafood to the seals) to film the seal colony and its behavior. We notified them of our intention, and they said that the seal colony behavior today signals no sharks. Great!

We circled Seal Island, taking it in. The smell is foul. This tiny island is an open air toilet to 64,000 seals and few more seas birds. We decided to swim on the southwest side, just by the alley cage diving that was held not long ago. The sea was boiling with seals. We weren’t sure how will we be able to swim through a bob of few hundreds seal basically jumping on top of each other. Water was very comfortable 16°C – it ranged from 14°C to 20°C – and visibility in large parts was around 1 meter. The water was brown green.

Kieron jumped in first and I was trying to get a good balance for my traditional dive. I heard Kieron shouting, ‘Hurry up, I need to reduce probability from 100% to 50%.’

I dived in and we headed closer to the island. Why?

I will answer [later] so if you are still interested…I remembered the movie Air Jaws, filmed right here.

I remembered the various documentaries that I watched. I watched a lot – it is not my first sharky swim that explain the feeding habits of the sharks and circling the island with what was called The Ring of Death or The Death Zone. I also recalled how documentaries and other films of Seal Island loved to paint the great whites as a bloody natural born killer, rather than a hungry predator that hunts when it is hungry, but seldom attack for no reason.

Yes, they are the apex predators, well, until the Orcas (a much bigger predator) chased them away. Don’t get me wrong, they are very scary. We had no desire to meet one of them face to face. But the possibility was always there.

We started swimming along the island, both breathing to the right. No words can describe the next 20 minutes. We swam surrounded by hundreds of seals. Jumping around us, in front of us, on top of us, smiling at us. Have you ever seen a seal smiles – can scare the @#$$#@ out of you especially when it’s 5 cm from your face coming at you like a mini torpedo and by some sheer luck always misses you by a 1 cm. We stopped so many times, just floating and admiring this controlled chaos of seals all around us. [They were] all so playful. Plenty of baby ones trying to impress us, plenty of big mommy ones remind us that they are watching us. The daddy’s kept on growling loudly from the rocks reminding everyone who they are.

I realized they are not so different to us…humans. All we wanted to do is stop and stay still. That chaos was quite discomforting. We basically put our heads down and kept on stroking throughout this water boiling with seals trusting them to see you and not harm you. It worked. They paved way for us until we were out that massive colony. What an experience.

The water was quite murky, but as we got to the shallower part, visibility got better. I am certain we drank few seal islands cocktails as we tried to breath in the chaos. Organic food for free; we can’t complain. As we started to depart from the north part of the island into the open ocean, the seals just kept on following us, so playful and curious. We didn’t want to let them go, but the real swim time arrived.

The water warmed up to 19°C once we left the island’s colder waters; [the warmth] nearly put me to sleep. So comfortable, lazy.

The rest was another 6 km swim into the shore. Nothing exciting, aside from the occasional reminder that we are in shark’s territory, and not seeing them simply means nothing. We know they are always there, somewhere.

Soon we reached land at Strandfontein. Done.

Ram Barkai and Kieron Palframan swam 6.4 km from Seal Island to Strandfontein in South Africa through The Ring of Death and The Death Zone
Ram Barkai and Kieron Palframan finishing their 6.4 km swim from Seal Island to Strandfontein

I needed some icy Coke and some food in my tummy to replace the Seal Island special.

So why? There are many answers to that.

I am an adventurer deep inside: partly explorer, very curious about things that haven’t been done. The same reason I swam Robben Island at night or from Simonstown to Muizenberg after it was closed for 14 years due to great whites. Or jumped into icy waters in Antarctica and more. I like to study it, calculate it, quantify it and than do it.

Open water swimming is my passion, we all express it differently, I do it by exploring it.

The Ring of Death swim crew including Ram Barkai, Samantha Whelpton, Roger Finch, and Lindsy of the False Bay Swimming Association

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