Using Shark Shields In Open Water Swimming

Using Shark Shields In Open Water Swimming

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

Penny Palfrey is also the only known open water swimmer to have swum near (over) two Great White Sharks and several oceanic white tips and other unnamed sharks both in broad daylight and at night during her marathon swims.

So it is no wonder that she uses the Shark Shield as her sense of self-preservation is certainly well warranted.

But it appears that Mike Spalding of Maui has been the only swimmer who has had human flesh taken out of his body by an attacking shark, creating a huge pool of blood and requiring immediate intervention by his support crew in Hawaii during a marathon swim (by a cookie cutter shark).

But there is still an interest in protecting oneself against the most menacing creatures in the seas with electronic shark shields.

A review of the governing bodies in the sport of open water swimming tells a varied view of these bits of equipment:

Nick Adams of the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation explains about the English Channel community’s relationship with sharks, “We have never had an occasion when we felt a shark cage was needed; that is, [there have been] no nasty sharks in the English Channel until now. If a swimmer had a particularly nervous disposition, and felt they really needed a shark cage or shark shield in the English Channel, and were swimming with the Channel Swimming & Piloting Federation, we’d put their request to the Committee for a ruling. Shark Shields and cages are not mentioned in our rules. We can’t start to pre-empt what might be used, as the rules would instantly double in size. Most people understand what a normal English Channel swim looks like, and if they want to change this, we’ll tackle it then.”

Scott Zornig of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association has a slightly different perspective, “We allow the use of a Shark Shield [but] Penny Palfrey is the only person to have used one during a Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association crossing.”

Theodore Yach who has swum under the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association has, understandably a different view, “Great White Shark activity has increased 10 fold in Cape Town [South Africa] waters in the last 10 years, albeit mainly on the False Bay side. A swimmer would be crazy to attempt a race or crossing without a shark shield.” Andrew Chin, another prolific Cape Town swimmer, explains, “The Cape Long Distance Swimming Association encourages swimmers to use a Shark Shield when attempting any of our swims, although its not compulsory. The shield in no way assists the swimmer. In fact, a shock from it can have the opposite effect. What it does do is add an extra level of protection when swimming in waters where sharks frequent.”

Mike Read, president of the oldest channel organization, the Channel Swimming Association, balances both sides, “I can well understand that this product could have an important place in swimming in South African waters, but it is something that we have never had to consider. I would imagine that we would take the view that, like lanolin and Vaseline, if you want to use it you can. As for a shark cage, I think we would take the view that it is actually a swimming aid and very difficult not to touch it, but I have never been in one.”

Kevin Murphy also talks about shark cages, “If you talk about a shark cage, it doubles your speed, but it is like swimming in your own personal washing machine. You also risk losing toes if you ease up and hit the back while still kicking – that from personal experience. Also, if there are jellyfish they build up on the front and filter through as jellyfish soup.”

Rafael Gutiérrez Mesa describes the use of such products in the Strait of Gibraltar under the rules of the Asociacion de cruce a nao del Estrecho de Gibraltar, “In the Strait of Gibraltar, there are not any type of dangerous sharks [So] we do not advice use of any type of device that may be a problem for the swimmer. Our team permits any shark can approach to the boats. In conclusion, a shark shield is not allowed in the Strait of Gibraltar, but we can permit use of other types of electronic devices from the boats.”

Similarly, the Farallon Islands Swimming Association that governs swims between the Golden Gate Bridge and the Farallon Islands do not use electronic shark shields. Co-founder Vito Bialla explains, “We’d like to encourage safe swimming with the federation. We’re not seals, though, and the sharks don’t want to get near the boat with its propeller. If you’re in their element and don’t give off the fear radar, they’ll leave you alone.”

Co-founder Phil Cutti further explains, “There are a few reasons we do not allow the use of the shark shield or any devices or weapons that would endanger or effect marine life. The Farallon Islands Swimming Association has a “leave no trace” policy that is in alignment with the islands and the waters around them being a sanctuary. We are well aware of the marine life that surrounds the islands and have put in many hours of research and reaching out to experts who know these waters. We believe we have put forth every effort to protect the swimmer, the crew, the islands and marine life. Yes, there are sharks, and have full disclosure with everyone interested in swimming this channel. We know, through research and communication with experts in this very small area of the Pacific, the patterns of and seasons of higher risk and accept that. We offer a true experience of swimming from point a to point b with no swim aid.” However, shark shields are available for use in the channels of Hawaii and Japan for swims governed by the Hawaiian Channel Swim Association and the Tsugaru Channel Swimming Association respectively.

Forrest Nelson, president of the Catalina Channel Swimming Federation, admits that few use electronic Shark Shields in the Catalina Channel, but that they are legal. “Only on very rare occasions has a swimmer opted for the Shark Shield in a Catalina Channel Swimming Federation sanctioned swim.”

The Rottnest Channel Swim currently allows for their use and is reviewing the use of these shark deterrents for its events in the future. “We did advise swimmers these were available [in 2012] and essentially we would allow them to be worn as we viewed them as constituting a similar device as the timing strap our swimmers wear around their ankle anyway. We will be looking at the matter closely in the lead up to the next event on February 23rd in 2013 to formally decide what our position is on these devices.”

In the Cook Strait, “We have sightings every year,” described the famed Philip Rush. “We have a rule that the swimmer may leave the water for 10 minutes but they must stay in same position in small boat. The large support boat will chase shark away. This is a very old rule that has been used 3 times to my knowledge. It seems to have worked.”

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association
Steven Munatones