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Saturday, March 31, 2012

Become An Octopus When Meeting A Black Swan

Photo courtesy of Elias Lefas on Santorini Island, Greece.

A Black Swan event, an unexpected occurrence, was first postulated by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his 2004 book Fooled By Randomness event.

When unexpected events occur in the open water – such as getting stung by a jellyfish, feeling a shoulder ache, having an upset stomach in the ocean swells – one can react like as an octopus or the other creatures on the planet that can immediately adapt to the emergency situation at hand.

When experienced open water swimmers are faced with unexpected situations, they rarely panic, but immediately assess the elements and their condition while supercharging their adaptability into overdrive. For the open water, as the non-human life-forms instinctively know, is fraught with unpredictability and unexpectedness, usually at the most inopportune times.

But humans in the water simply do not have marine life's innate instinctiveness that comes with millions of years of evolution. While an octopus can swim over a coral reef and change colors to blend into its environment or squirt out ink as a diversionary tactic, humans do not have these physical characteristics. In the unexpected occurrences that happen in rivers, lakes and oceans, there is literally nowhere for the human swimmer to hide - except up on an escort boat. Swimmers are fully exposed and simply humbled by Mother Nature and its other inhabitants.

Homo sapiens should use their minds and ability to observe, learn, assess, plan and implement their countermeasures and strategies when it comes to unexpected competition and risky elements in the open water. Swimmers and their coaches, pilots, parents, partners, race organizers, officials, volunteers, safety personnel and support crew must consider 'what-if' responses and 'how-to' alternatives to the perfect swim they hope for. When things go awry in the open water, safety and prudence demands careful thought and prior planning.

Before you get in the water, before you begin your race, before you set off on your solo swim or relay, consider 'what-if' scenarios and 'how-to' reactions vis-à-vis hypothermia and hyperthermia, tides and currents, waves and turbulence, jellyfish and sharks, seaweed and sea nettles, pollution and boat exhaust. In other words, think before you swim; observe before you start; plan before you get in.

Each swimmer and their coach must first learn and understand the risks and uncertainties of their body of water before coming up with a Plan A, a Plan B and a Plan C. Ask yourself: what are the various forms of inherent marine life in this body of water? What if you get seasick? What if you get stung or kicked? What it the winds come up or you hit a piece of flotsam? What if there is plenty of boat exhaust or you run into a pollution spill?

As assessments and contingencies are made through experience, observation and discussions with experienced swimmers, lifeguards, coaches, pilots, doctors and paddlers, both the swimmer and coach can prepare for a Black Swan like an Octopus.

Footnote: Learning From the Octopus: How Secrets from Nature Can Help Us Fight Terrorism, Natural Disasters, and Disease, a new book by Rafe Sagarin, a researcher at the University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment, will be released in April 2012.

Learning From the Octopus from Rafe Sagarin on Vimeo.

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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