Ocean Adventurers Weigh Risks And Rewards, Part 1

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

The media is writing articles about world surfing champion Mick Fanning returning to Jeffreys Bay in South Africa where he was attacked by a shark last year [see New York Times article here and a vide of his shark encounter above].

While it takes a lot of courage for a surfer to enter the very waters where he encountered a shark, we cannot imagine the courage it takes people like Michael Spalding, Linda Kaiser, Harry Huffaker, and Charlotte Brynn to re-enter the waters where they were victims of shark encounters.

The differences between a surfer and a channel swimmer in terms of a shark attack are significant:

* Surfers are close to shore versus channel swimmers who can be miles away from shore.
* There are lots of boats, spectators, lifeguards and others in the near proximity of surfers versus channel swimmers who often only have one boat and one kayaker/paddler near them.
* If necessary, surfers can be rushed to medical help very quickly versus a lot of time – even more than an hour in some cases – to transport a channel swimmer to the closest medical help.
* Surfers are on a surfboard and, many times, have a wetsuit on versus channel swimmers whose bare flesh is totally exposed.
* Surfers can often see a fin and are in a slightly elevated position to see an approaching shark versus a channel swimmer who is often caught completely off-guard.
* Surfers never have a competition at night versus channel swimmers who often swim in the nocturnal hours.

There haven’t been any nerves [about going back to Jeffreys Bay]; I’ve just been excited to come back,” Fanning told the media. “The waves outshine the [shark encounter] that happened last year.”

Spalding attempted a crossing of the Alenuihaha Channel. The second attempt was successful; Spalding describes the first attempt. “I got hit in the calf [by a cookiecutter shark]. It was such a disappointment because I knew the swim was over. I was bleeding profusely.”

It was pitch dark as Spalding yelled in pain during the night crossing between the islands of Hawaii and Maui. He quickly swam over to his escort kayak. “I didn’t see [the shark]. All I felt was the bite, and I got the hell out of the water as quick as I could.” As his escort paddler Buddy McLean helped him get into the kayak, the kayak began to quickly fill with blood. McLean used his VHF radio to call the escort boat for help. The crew picked up the pair and tried to stop Spalding’s bleeding. Pressure with a towel and an antibiotic were applied to the wound which was covered with gauze and secured with duct tape.

It was pretty crazy. He got hit twice,” said McLean. “I couldn’t see anything in the water, but [I knew] Spalding was in serious trouble because of the way he yelled.”

McLean and the escort crew’s quick action help save Spalding. Their preparation and actions are exactly what Molokai Channel escort kayaker Jeff Kozlovich and Steve Haumschild recommend.

When I ask swimmers about what do they want me to do if I see a shark, some of them don’t want to know about it. Our job [as escort kayakers] involves managing risk. We cannot eliminate risk. Every swimmer has their own idea of how much shark risk they want to take. Some don’t want to even think about it. Many [channel] swims are in the dark. No one even sees a shark, including the swimmer, at night. If the swimmer sees one in daylight, then they have to make a quick decision. If we see one – and they are very difficult to see even in the light, a quick decision must be made. Do we stay in the water or get in the boat? We don’t want to ever end any one’s swim, but in the case of dangerous sharks, you are getting in the boat.

When there were a shark attack in the channel, we call for Coast Guard help and get back to shore as soon as possible. It could be a while out in a crazy, wild ocean with a badly injured swimmer; it could be 4, 5 or more hours to the hospital

Haumschild, who escorts swimmers from the 3 position or the 9 position, admits that it is rare to see sharks on channel crossing “even though there have been a few lately.” When a shark encounter occurs, Haumschild recommends that “the kayaker should snug up to the swimmer in order to make them appear bigger. If looked like a solid size fish, so if it was a tiger, a 12-foot kayak will not stop its mission. Sharks [can] be more curious than aggressive as most large sharks are predatory ambushers.”

His ultimate advice, “Get the hell out of the water if a shark approaches a few times and save it to swim another day.

Guiding these swims are like guiding big mountains. Sometimes you have to push it, and sometimes you turn away 100 feet from the summit, that can only be called at that moment by those people. The dangers are real and do exist. If not, why not swim the 28 miles in a pool? For every adventurer, there is a risk and reward benefit that they need to balance

Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones