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Friday, March 1, 2013

The Shark Diver Controversy In Ocean Swimming

In the Marathon Swimmers Forum, Evan Morrison of the Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association analyzed the opinions and survey results of 175 former, current or aspiring marathon swimmers from around the world.

His intriguing analyses are posted here.

It was very interesting snapshot of the community opinions on the sport. The findings included a split opinion collectively expressed by the community on the use of shark divers.

Morrison reports that 59% of the marathon swimmers were for shark divers while 41% were against the use of shark divers. The Santa Barbara Channel Swimming Association board member explains his personal perspective, "If an item is controversial, it cannot be considered “approved by the sport of ocean swimming.” At best, it might be considered a “local exception” to a more universal set of rules – for example, the use of streamers in Japan. If an item is controversial, it is in some way approaching a line in the sand. In marathon swimming, if you’re flirting with this line – trying to find loopholes for some extra edge – quite simply, you’re doing it wrong."

While the contemporary marathon swimming community may consider the use of shark divers as controversial and shark divers may not be approved by some swimmers, we have always personally welcomed the use of shark divers and others - like Australian lifeguards and local individuals who spend much of their lives understanding the local marine life. Shark experts like Patric Douglas, Luke Tipple and Richard Theiss have taught us much about shark behavior and protection procedures who spends hundreds of hours planning and providing safety for swimmers, divers, camera crews and others in waters where sharks are known to exist.

However, we are also admittedly biased as we used shark divers for our own marathon and channel swims in Okinawa where dozens of sharks were seen and encountered in the warm tropical waters. The local shark divers not only shared an abundance of information about the shark behavior and risks involved during these unprecedented swim, but during the swim, the shark divers remain constantly on alert and made us feel well-protected and safe. The ease of mind was a tremendous help that partly enabled success. Without planning and protection from these knowledgeable local shark divers, the swim would have been much less safe and we are doubtful the local authorities would have allowed us to even try to swim around Yonaguni Island or between the Ryukyu Islands of Iriomote, Ishigaki, and Taketomi.

We are also admittedly biased because we saw shark divers in the Cayman Islands and in the Florida Strait spring into action to help marathon swimmers. Their selfish acts of protection remain deeply embedded in our memories. This is one recollection:

In late summer 2011 as Diana Nyad was nearing her 19th hour in the deep royal blue Caribbean Sea on her attempt from Cuba to Florida, a curious oceanic whitetip shark approached her flotilla. We observed the moderately-paced whitetip swimming 2-3 meters under the surface with its distinctive white tips reflecting off the canvas of royal blue.

Nyad's safety team of shark divers on one of her escort boats spotted the 4-5 foot endangered shark lurking in the crystal clear water. Although during the planning sessions prior to the swim we had talked about shark encounters far from shore, this was a time for action. No time to talk, just act. Not armed with guns or spears, shark diver Rob MacDonald of West Palm Beach, Florida sprang immediately to action with nothing more than a stick covered with at the ends with a tennis ball.

He dove into the water to attempt to steer the whitetip away from Nyad. No bravado, just quiet, quick-thinking professionalism like a Secret Service bodyguard jumping in to save a high-level politician. MacDonald, supported by his colleagues Drew Johnston and Jonathan Rose, showed no hesitation and no worries or regrets. From a standing position, he quickly put on his free diving fins and dove in the royal blue water in a heightened state of alert.

MacDonald entered the glassy flat doldrums under cloudless skies with a 1-meter-long pole with a soft tennis ball stuck to the end. He moved as calmly as humanly possible in the water, he kicked easily and smoothly with his long fins, snorkel positioned above the water's surface like a periscope, and his long pole clutched at the ready.

But this was not an inhospitable encounter that was going to erupt to a feeding frenzy; the shark vs. man encounter was merely an expression of temporary territorial rights. "I don't want to hurt the sharks. The sharks are our friends," explained MacDonald. "We just want to keep the sharks away from Diana. I never saw any aggression from the shark. While I approached the shark, it was so beautiful. I wish I had my camera. The shark never lowered its pectoral fins or arched its back. When a shark does that, it is ready to attack."

As the shark continued to circle underneath, MacDonald continued to play offense on the surface of the water. Johnston and I were on a inflatable raft trying to give MacDonald an extra two sets of eyes attempting to keep track of the constantly moving shark as it came in and out of our peripheral vision. As the shark moved quickly, so did MacDonald. He shadowed its movements, back and forth. As the shark circled, MacDonald circled. Like a silhouette, they mirrored each other's movements. This was not some dramatic television reenactment, it was real life unfolding before our eyes.

After the preliminary rounds of feeling each other out, the shark suddenly rose to the surface while MacDonald dove down to meet it like two heavyweights squaring off in mid-rink.

To the disbelief of the crew watching closely from the four escort boats, MacDonald dove below the surface like a protective mother bear. He kicked his fins in order to face the shark head-on, never letting the shark out of his sights. The two faced off in the silent arena underwater, each respectful but unnerved by the other. As MacDonald continued to delve below the surface, it became difficult to exactly see what was happening and even more unbelievable to imagine what could happen next.

Like two locomotives on the same track, something was about to give. Fortunately, the shark clearly sensed a formidable denizen in the Caribbean depths. Like two enemy jet pilots swooping at one another in a wartime combat in the skies above, MacDonald and the shark locked onto one another in the depths below. We held their breath and just stared at the abyss for both combatants were increasingly obscured underwater. Johnston and Rose were at the ready as even they wondered what the next move was going to be.

Mano-a-mano was replaced by mano-a-apex predator.

While the shark's pectoral fins remained static, MacDonald made a forward thrust with his soft pole in front like a knight with his lance out. "That (move) was enough to convince it to swim off. I never hit it. He just dove down to 60-70 feet and he headed off in the opposite direction of Diana." Safely separated from the curious predator, Nyad kept stroking on, protected once again by the clearly heroic but stoic shark diver.

MacDonald climbed nonchalantly on board to the whoops and hollers of the crew...and readied his camera for the next encounter. There were few encounters in the sea that have impressed us as much and we thank shark divers all the time when they agree to help swimmers in the open water.

That being said, there are plenty of channel swims where shark divers are not used: Cook Strait, Farallon Islands, Catalina Channel and all kinds of swims in the South Pacific and Oceania. But in all of those swims, the crew is essentially fulfilling the role of a shark diver. That is, when a shark is seen in the Cook Strait, Farallon Islands, Cape Town or Catalina Channel, the crew goes into a heightened state of alert and executes the pre-planned safety procedures. "I remember when we used to carry a gun on board the swims," recalled more than one Catalina Channel coach from the 1970's. "Then we realized that we were just as likely to hit the swimmer instead of the shark. We certainly don't do that [carry weapons] on board anymore."

However it is achieved, safety of the swimmer is paramount. It is our opinion that shark divers can play an important role when sharks are known to exist in the expected course of marathon swimmers. But if marathon swimmers do not want to use a shark diver, the chances of being attacked by a curious or hungry shark remain extremely low. To the best of our knowledge, only Mike Spalding has been bitten by a shark during a formal channel swim over the last 25 years.

Copyright © 2013 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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2014 Global Open Water Swimming Conference

Learn more...
Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.


The Global Open Water Swimming Conference is a conference on the sport of open water swimming, marathon swimming and swimming during triathlons and multi-sport endurance events.

The conference which has been attended by enthusiasts and luminaries from 6 continents, is devoted to providing information about the latest trends, race tactics, training techniques, equipment, psychological preparation, race organization and safety practices used in the sports of open water swimming, marathon swimming and triathlons.

The conference's mission is to provide opportunities to listen and meet many of the world's most foremost experts in open water swimming, and to meet and discuss the sport among swimmers, coaches, administrators, event organizers, sponsors, vendors, officials, escort pilots, and volunteers from kayakers to safety personnel.

Dozens of presentations at the 2014 Conference at the Mount Stuart House cover numerous aspects of the vast and growing world of open water swimming where attendees can learn and share the latest trends, race tactics, training modalities, swimming techniques, equipment, race organization, logistics, operations, and safety practices for open water swimming as a solo swimmer, competitive athlete, fitness swimmer, masters swimmer, triathlete, multi-sport athlete, administrator, race promoter, sponsor or referee.

The conference was first held in Long Beach, California as part of the 2010 USA Swimming National Open Water Swimming Championships. It has since been held on the Queen Mary in California, at Columbia University and the United Nations in New York City, and in Cork, Ireland. This year in September, it comes to another iconic location, the Mount Stuart House on the Isle of Bute in Scotland.

"The Global Open Water Swimming Conference was started due to the desire and need for athletes, coaches, referees, administrators, race directors, promoters and sponsors from around the world to share, collect and learn information about the growing sports of open water swimming, marathon swimming and triathlons," said founder Steven Munatones. "Other swimming conferences usually offering nothing on open water swimming or perhaps a speech or two, but we thought open water swimming deserves its own global conference. It is great that the community shares its information via the online social network, but there is nothing like meeting other open water swimming enthusiasts face-to-face and talking about the sport from morning to night."

Speakers at the conference include English Channel swimmers, ice swimmers, record holders, renowned coaches, world champions, professional marathon swimmers, renowned race directors, officials and administrators from the Africa, Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania.

"Because the audience is passionate and educated about the sport and its finest practitioners, the Global Open Water Swimming Conference is also the location of the induction ceremonies for the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame and the annual WOWSA Awards that recognize the World Open Water Swimming Man of the Year, the World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year, the World Open Water Swimming Performance of the Year, and the World Open Water Swimming Offering of the Year. Special Lifetime Achievement Awards are also occasionally presented to individuals who have made significant contributions to the sport over their career."

The 2014 Global Open Water Swimming Conference Programme

Wednesday, September 17th
Leave Glasgow to commence 2-day tour of Scotland [closest international airport is Glasgow]

Thursday, September 18th
Stay Mainland, North of Scotland

Friday, September 19th
14:00 - Swim Loch Lomond
17:00 - Head to Isle of Bute
19:30 - Scottish Banquet
21:30 - Dinner Dance

Saturday, September 20th
09:00 - Registration & Coffee
10:00 - Speeches
12:20 - Lunch and WOWSA Awards
13:40 – Speeches
15:40 - Round Table
19:00 - International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Dinner & Induction Ceremony

Sunday, September 21st
09:00 - Registration & Coffee
10:00 - Speeches
14:30 - Swim in St Ninian's Bay on the Isle of Bute

The luminaries of the open water swimming world who will be honored in Scotland will include:

* Sandra Bucha (U.S.A.), International Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Open Water Swimmer and International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honour Swimmer
* Jon Erikson (U.S.A.), International Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Open Water Swimmer
* Claudio Plit (Argentina), International Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Open Water Swimmer
* Judith van Berkel-de Njis (Netherlands), International Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Open Water Swimmer
* David Yudovin (U.S.A.), International Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Open Water Swimmer
* Mercedes Gleitze (Great Britain), International Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Open Water Swimmer
* George Young (Canada), International Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Open Water Swimmer
* Dale Petranech (U.S.A.), International Swimming Hall of Fame Honor Open Water Contributor
* Melissa Cunningham (Australia), 2013 Irving Davids-Captain Roger Wheeler Memorial Award winner
* Vojislav Mijić (Serbia), International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honour Swimmer
* James Anderson (U.S.A.), International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honour Administrator
* Dr. Jane Katz (U.S.A.), International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honour Administrator
* Indonesian Swimming Federation, , International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honour Organisation
* Elizabeth Fry (U.S.A.), International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame Honour Swimmer
* Pádraig Mallon (Ireland), the 2013 World Open Water Swimming Man of the Year
* Olga Kozydub (Russia), the 2013 World Open Water Swimming Woman of the Year
* Bering Strait Swim (international team), the 2013 World Open Water Swimming Performance of the Year
* International Ice Swimming Association (Ram Barkai, founder, South Africa), the 2013 World Open Water Swimming Offering of the Year

For additional articles on the 2014 Global Open Water Swimming Conference, visit:

* Olga Kozydub To Be Honored In Scotland
* Pádraig Mallon To Be Honored In Mount Stuart Castle
* Mount Stuart House, Splendid Setting For Swimming
* Colleen Blair To Kick-off Global Open Water Swimming Conference
* The Man Who Swims Better Than He Walks
* Joining In The Sea Goddess At The Hall Of Fame
* Mercedes Gleitze To Be Honored In Scotland
* The Incredible Career Of Merceded Gleitze
* Jon Erikson To Be Honoured In Florida
* The Incredible Career Of Mercedes Gleitze
* St Ninian's Bay To Host International Swim Conference

Copyright © 2014 by World Open Water Swimming Association

Swim Across the English Channel...


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Open Water Swimming Magazine

Open Water Swimming Magazine

The Open Water Swimming Magazine is the monthly magazine entirely focused on open water swimming heroes and heroines of every age, ability, and background. Published by the World Open Water Swimming Association, the Open Water Swimming Magazine is a free benefit to WOWSA members.

WOWSA Member Benefits include 12 issues of the Open Water Swimming Magazine, the annual 276-page Open Water Swimming Almanac, a free listing in Sponsor My Swim, outstanding product discounts from FINIS, an entry in Openwaterpedia and more...

The Other Shore

The Other Shore follows world record holder and legendary swimmer Diana Nyad as she comes out of a thirty-year retirement to re-attempt an elusive dream: swimming 103 miles non-stop from Cuba to Florida without the use of a shark cage. Her past and present collide in her obsession with a feat that nobody has ever accomplished. At the edge of The Devil’s Triangle, tropical storms, sharks, venomous jellyfish, and one of the strongest ocean currents in the world, all prove to be life-threatening realities. Timothy Wheeler’s documentary brings Diana Nyad’s extraordinary adventure to life as Diana sets out to prove that will and determination are all you need to make the unimaginable possible.

2014 Open Water Swimming Almanac

An Almanac for Open Water Swimming

An almanac is essentially a body of knowledge which is so complete that it enables people in different fields to make predictions about the future of their respective industries.

This, for example, was the purpose of the traditional farmers almanacs. It enabled farmers to determine as accurately as possible which crops to plant for the greatest harvests in a given year.

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Open Water Swimming Event Sanctioning

World Professional Marathon Swimming Federation

Open Water Race Calendar

Coaches Education Program