When blood and the ocean, that is when most swimmers want to get out of the open water.
Fearful of a shark frenzy or at the least a shark encounter of the most unpleasant kind, swimmers know that blood can attract sharks.
George Burgess, Director of the International Shark Attack File at the Florida Museum of Natural History, wrote “Any bodily fluid probably is attractive to sharks. Blood, in any form, may be at the top of the list.”
He further explains, “Menstrual blood almost certainly can be detected by a shark, and I’m sure urine can be as well. Do we have positive evidence that it is a factor in shark attack? No, and until some menstruating and non-menstruating divers volunteer to take part in a controlled test we’ll never prove it.
In my opinion it likely is attractive to sharks in certain situations.
Certainly menstruating women are attractive to such smell-oriented animals as dogs. Sharks, with their extreme olfaction abilities, surely are capable of detecting at similar low levels. Does that mean a menstruating woman is setting herself up? No, but if one is attempting to maximize reduction of risks, it is one thing that can be avoided.”
If risks are to be reduced or eliminated, open water swimmers may change their preferred venues to swimming pools. But when a woman is considering to avoid ocean swimming while menstruating, there are plenty of women who have experienced both simultaneously.
Years ago, a woman swam across the Molokai Channel – spending over 15 hours in a real-world aquarium filled with innumerable roving sharks while she was menstruating. “When she finished, she was covered in blood. Most women during heavy time can go around four hours before changing tampons. So they use more than one [on long channel or marathon swims], but anyone swimming a really long one will have the same issues.”
It may not be a topic that is usually discussed at conferences, clinics or seminars. Or even much discussed much behind closed doors.
Karen Throsby commented on the potential for sharks to be attracted to blood in the water. “It is more of a punchline than a real concern on the UK where there are no sharks. But it is often used to distract from the much more serious and common issues women face relating to menstruation and swimming.
In particular, women are expected by both men and other women to keep menstruation hidden; for example, when entering and leaving the water. This leads many women to either take hormonal drugs to stop menstruation before long swims or training sessions, or to use tampons for more hours than is safe in order to avoid embarrassment.”
Penny Dean who concurrently held both the English Channel and Catalina Channel records, was menstruating when she set the record of 7 hours 40 minutes across the English Channel in 1978. “I had some pain and it bothered me. [But] I had some other goals that were more important that day.
I never felt having my period affected my swimming. Like everything else, it is how you mentally approach it. I was mentally prepared to have my period and trained with it for many years.”
Canadian Pam Lazzarotto recognizes that an increasingly larger portion of the global open water swimming community comprises of older females, a good percentage who are swimming further from shore and for longer periods. “But there are no worries of blood and attracting sharks [with us]. Statistically, I believe 51 is the average age for menopause.
When I was younger, it never occurred to me to worry about attracting sharks during menstruation. Many female swimmers do not menstruate due to stress and I haven’t read any statistics that menstruation blood is significant for attracting sharks. Also I have heard, but I’m not sure if this is true, that the pressure of the water is greater than the force of blood flow from a women, so there shouldn’t be any (or very little) blood in the water.”
Yesenia Cabrera Fuegos, the only Guatamalan member of the Triple Crown of Open Water Swimming with four Oceans Seven channels to her credit, recalls one of her experiences with menstruation in the open water. “When swam the English Channel in 2008 it was my first day of my menstruation. I had a lot of pain in my stomach; in the beginning of the swim, I took an aspirin that helped eliminate the pain during the first three hours.
Over each of the next three hours, my coach gave me a pill. But the problem occurred when I finished the swam and stood up in the vertical position. I never experienced more pain than I had at this time. I remember that the only position where I did not have pain was in the fetal position.
On the way back to England [on the boat], this was more difficult than even swimming for 13 hours across the Channel because my pain was so horrible. Then I remembered when I returned to my hotel room, I could not sleep because the pain was so excruciating.”
Sakina Zerrel, an Algerian swimmer currently from Laguna Beach, California, does not feel unsafe swimming in the open water, but for other reasons. “But I never totally feel safe either, even in a group because I’m always way behind everyone due to my slow speed, unless I wear fins. In fact, swimming with a group, I feel like I am the easiest to catch to any marine life predator, appearing like the weakest duckling of the group.”
She admits that her mindset is probably “all demons in my head. I used to be totally oblivious to fear swimming alone, even going ahead of the group in the dark at dawn swims because of my work schedule. [But] not any more; not since a female swimmer had a shark accident in Newport Beach a few months back at a spot I used to swim alone daily.”
Based on a small sampling of experienced ocean-faring women around the world, menstruation seems to be a lesser issue and significantly lower risk than swimming alone in the open water.
Shark expert Burgess’ advice? “Don’t worry about it. Lots of women safely dive while menstruating. Although we haven’t got solid scientific data on the subject, so far we haven’t seen any obvious pattern of increased attacks on menstruating women.”
Copyright © 2016 by World Open Water Swimming Association