Jellyfish, currents, cold water, sea snakes, lightning, large waves…nothing strikes more fear in the hearts of open water swimmers than sharks.
A fin in the water is a scene that open water swimmers dread. A dark body cruising stealthily under the water is even a worse nightmare come true. But a streamlined silhouette screaming up from the depths is the ultimate scare.
All three scenarios have been experienced by swimmers around the world, but the last of these shark encounters are so rare that they have become legendary in the annals of open water swimming. Linda Kaiser and Mike Spalding are two of the few contemporary swimmers who have been the target of sharks aiming at them from below. In the clear ocean waters off Hawaii, Kaiser and Spalding have faced – more than once – the utter terror of being human prey. And Spalding is the only swimmer in recent history to have been bitten by a shark during an open water swim. Yet both Kaiser and Spalding still swim with joy despite the inherent risks of their sport with a profound acceptance that they are the visitors in a world where sharks are the apex predators.
Others have also swum with sharks and understood that sharks aren’t necessarily swimming by them because they are looking for a nibble. From tiger sharks surrounding Greta Andersen on her Molokai Channel attempt in the 1950’s to Penny Palfrey calmly swimming over Great White Sharks off Santa Barbara, a relatively few number of solo swimmers have encountered sharks during their swims. In 2012, there were over 8,000 marathon swim attempts, including nearly 1,000 channel swims, but only one swimmer – Ned Denison in False Bay, South Africa – “experienced six moments of shark fear during his 11 hour crossing while there were dozens of known shark sightings in the area, but he was never really in danger“, said one of his safety crew.
“One swimmer who advised me not to swim in False Bay rode to the beach to join me for a swim on a scooter,” calmly explained Denison. “I asked him what were the chances of an accident happening while driving 11 hours on a scooter versus swimming 11 hours in False Bay. He agreed the relative risks were higher on the roads than in the sea.”
Relativity of risks is what open water swimmers have rationalized with themselves: sharks are in the ocean and swimmers are the visitors to the marine environment, but the chances of a shark encounter remain extremely low. But that does not mean that precautions are not in high alert when circumstances demand it. Races in Australia that have been cut short and helicopters have come to the rescue of swimmers when a shark has been sighted in the vicinity of an open water race. Traditional races in False Bay have been taken off the schedule due to the visible presence of sharks. It is better to be safe than sorry is the general consensus of the community.
A palpable fear of sharks is quite real for many swimmers despite the low odds of ever encountering a shark. Rational or not, the fear of sharks is easy for many to comprehend and visualize every waking moment. And the odds go up exponentially whenever they venture past the surf line in the ocean.
Skip Storch who did a number of marathon and stage swims along the East Coast of America as well as a 25-hour attempt from Cuba to Florida in 1993 explains, “Before a swim I had more of a problem with the fear of shark attacks than [actual shark encounters] during a swim. I had visions of sharks attacking, killing and eating victims of destroyed vessels during World War II and other poor souls lost at sea. These thoughts plagued my conscience mind and entered my dreams months before any swim. Fueling my fears were the most commonly asked questions by reporters and the public alike. “Aren’t you afraid of Sharks?“
But statistically speaking, the risk of death from sharks is way, way, way down the list of possibilities. According to the National Safety Council, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the International Shark Attack File, the comparative annual risk of death due to diseases and accidental causes of death are as follows:
Heart disease: 1 in 5
Cancer: 1 in 7
Stroke: 1 in 24
Hospital Infections: 1 in 38
Flu: 1 in 63
Car accidents: 1 in 84
Suicide: 1 in 119
Accidental poisoning: 1 in 193
MRSA (resistant bacteria): 1 in 197
Falls: 1 in 218
Drowning: 1 in 1,134
Bike accident: 1 in 4,919
Air/space accident: 1 in 5,051
Excessive cold: 1 in 6,045
Sun/heat exposure: 1 in 13,729
Lightning: 1 in 79,746
Train crash: 1 in 156,169
Fireworks: 1 in 340,733
Shark attack: 1 in 3,748,067
Mike Miller, a member of the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming, who has spent arguably the most amount of time training in the Hawaiian Islands, looks at the odds with a marathon swimming mindset. “It would be noteworthy if we could estimate the number of people and the amount of time swimmers actually train in the oceans – and then relate the odds to the number of attacks over that time. The odds are likely way, way more remote if one could calculate the amount of time swimmers train in the ocean and compare it to the number of shark encounters swimmers have.”
He then asks without irony, “Wouldn’t it be striking to find out the more time one spends training in the ocean, the less chance of an encounter? Many weekend warrior surfers spend less time in the ocean than a [marathon] swimmer who trains in the ocean. And the surfers are generally in shallower water, surfing closer to shore in many circumstances, but the number of shark encounters with surfers is higher than with swimmers. What are the odds their odds are considerably higher than swimmers?”
While getting hit by lightning or being in an airplane accident may seem far-fetched in a storm or an infinitesimal possibility when you make airline reservations, every open water swimmer can easily and immediately visualize the wide jaws of a shark opened wide, barreling towards them with a row of razor-sharp teeth. As low as the real odds of this happening are, even the most minute chance remains at the forefront of many swimmers.
Out of sight in the open water, however, does not necessarily mean out of mind.
Storch had his own perspective and strategies to battle demonic thoughts, “To put myself at peace during swims, I would stay away from fisherman using bait and blood and I would mask any noise I made with a strategically placed small escort boat powered by a 5 horse powered outboard engine. During the [Cuba] swim attempt the high-pitched winding frequency of the propeller was my emotional safety net. Most of the noise I made was undetected by sharks. I also used a white suit to camouflage myself with the sky, eliminating the effects of a dark suit. I never saw a shark, only jellyfish though.”
While the thought of getting bitten by a shark remains a very real and threatening possibility to many open water swimmers, the thought appears to be an even greater dread to non-open water swimmers. “Aren’t you afraid of sharks?” is often the first question received by an open water swimmer when talking with their non-swimming friends. Non-swimmers somehow easily imagine the worse-case scenarios when discussions center around swimming in the ocean. Sharks are seemingly always a part of their equation.
However, the equation internalized by most open water swimming has minimized the shark threat. So much so that most open water swimmers could not imagine what would happen during or after a shark attack. While they can imagine having the flu or falling in an airplane, the imagery of what happens in an actual shark attack is usually something that does not register with swimmers or non-swimmers. That is, the thought of a shark approaching with its jaws open is easy to imagine, but the next moment when the shark’s jaws clamp onto a limb and tear into their flesh is something that most humans have effectively – and fortunately – eliminated from their thoughts.
And for good reason: it is highly unlikely ever to happen.
Sources: All accidental death information from National Safety Council. Disease death information from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Shark fatality data provided by the International Shark Attack File Lifetime risk is calculated by dividing 2003 population (290,850,005) by the number of deaths, divided by 77.6, the life expectancy of a person born in 2003.
Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association