Swimming With Sharks

Courtesy of Nicolene Steynberg, Protea Banks, South Africa.

The Great Shark Swim will begin in early December, a 20-person non-stop 100 km tandem swim in the ocean 10-30 km offshore.

Madswimmer founder Jean Craven explains what he and his fellow swimmers do, “Our swims are not easy. Some are intercontinental or cross borders. None of our swims have been done before. They are mad swims, extreme and dangerous.

Madswimmers face deadly threats each time they take to the water – tides, currents, sharks – but danger is the point. By sacrificing so much, we are investing everything.

If we don’t, how can we expect sponsors and donors to donate? We might be mad, but it would be madder not to care

Craven explains the purpose of the Madswimmer’s upcoming event, the Great Shark Swim, “Madswimmer aims to do the fastest 100 km swim in one day – sunrise to sunset – using the mighty Agulhas Current, one of the mightiest currents in the world, to give swimmers speed. This will be a world record.

Swimmers will be in shark waters for 12–15 hours with no shark protection to create awareness of the alarmingly decreasing numbers of sharks. Funds raised will benefit Madswimmer’s 10 registered children’s charities.

By swimming among sharks, unprotected, we want to demonstrate sharks are amazing creatures and not the killers they have been made out to be. Humans are more likely to be killed by their kitchen toaster than a shark, while humans kill more than 100 million sharks a year, mostly for a really expensive soup in Asia.

Shark numbers are declining rapidly. They need all the help they can get

The South African extreme swimmer describes additional reasons to attempt and promote The Great Shark Swim:

 Sharks are among Earth’s oldest forms of life. They have been around 200 million years before the first dinosaurs.
 Sharks are amazing creatures and important ecologically. Apart from their iconic status, they are apex predators, top of a food chain. They are essential parts of healthy oceans. Losing them will have detrimental effects on the ecological stability of the marine environment.
 Sharks worldwide are under threat and many species are becoming endangered. Last year for the first time, shark species were listed as endangered at Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species.
 Over 100 million sharks are taken every year by humans (about 11 000 are killed every hour).
 Main threats include over-fishing, illegal fishing (e.g. shark finning) and habitat destruction.
 Due to intense fishing pressures, sharks are being removed faster than they can replace themselves. If fishing continues at this rate, many populations will be faced with extinction.
 Much of the catch is unintentional. In other words, other fish such as tuna are being targeted and the sharks are taken as a bycatch. Nevertheless, shark fins are highly sought after. Many sharks are finned and their carcasses are discarded.
 Another threat is shark nets. They are not selective in that they don’t only catch the three most dangerous species, but they also catch other species (bycatch) such as rays, whales, dolphins and turtles.
 Bathers and the tourist industry demand some form of protection against shark attacks, which resulted in the widespread deployment of shark nets on the KwaZulu-Natal coast in the 1960s. Although they may reduce shark attacks, they do not form a complete barrier. The general public should remember sharks can swim over, under or around the ends of the nets (i.e., bathers are not completely safe, with or without nets, while nets do kill sharks).
 As per the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board, an analysis of South African shark attacks over the last four decades has shown some interesting patterns. Most importantly, the results confirm that attacks are rare events. Since 1990 there has been, on average, one serious shark-inflicted injury every year and one shark-inflicted fatality every 1.2 years along some 2000 km of coastline from the Mozambique border to Table Bay (Cape Town). In comparison about 530 sharks are annually caught in shark nets along only 320 km of South African east coast. The Great Shark Swim wants to highlight these figures and encourage debate to find new sea swimming protection devices that protect both sharks and bathers.
 Human intervention (fishing, nets, harbour construction, oil and gas extraction, pipe line discharge) damage the natural ecosystem. They deplete sharks around them and change inter-species dynamics in an area. Along with role players: Inform, open up debate and articulate solutions:
 Marine Protected Areas are important. Currently less than 0.5% of South Africa’s oceans are protected. Expanding and strategic placement of marine protected areas such as the Protea Banks Marine Protected Area, over which the swimmers will swim, can help save sharks. This area was identified partly because of the shark abundance and important habitats it provides. The Great Shark Swim supports these initiatives.
 People want somewhere safe to take their families on holiday, where there will be lifeguards to reduce the risk of drowning, and shark nets to reduce the risk of shark attack. The Great Shark Swim respects these views, but also want to illustrate (by swimming among sharks) that sharks are amazing creatures, they might not be the killers they have been made out to be. We want to open up debate how to live with sharks without killing them. The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board is currently exploring electrical shark repellents as an alternative to nets and drumlines. More of these initiatives are needed and should be supported.
 Fishing regulations: Fortunately in South Africa shark fishing represents a small portion of the total fishing effort. Eating shark is not a high priority and in many cases shark meat is marketed by other names to make it more acceptable to consumers.
 South Africa has prohibited the landing of shark fins without the meat to prevent the wasteful practice of finning (removing the fins and discarding the carcass). South Africa was the first country to grant full protection to the great white shark in 1991. Several other species of sharks and rays are now protected and South Africa has both a formal Shark Management Plan as well as a Shark Biodiversity Management Plan to ensure our shark and rays are well protected.
 The Great Shark Swim supports these practices and challenges stakeholders and the public to unite, debate, criticize and come up with new solutions to protect sharks. Shark nets are easy to criticize because they are on our doorstep and people can see them and what they catch. This is very different from all the fishing operations which take place far from the public eye and where far more sharks are caught. We encourage the public to also take a stand against this.

Madswimmer was nominated for the 2017 World Open Water Swimming Performance of the Year.

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Steven Munatones