Swimming with sharks

Shark head

Shark head Al Rodriguez

By Al Rodriguez

For almost eight years now I’ve been enjoying ocean swimming with the Channel Islands Masters Swim Club which has a sub-group of up to 80 ocean swimmers of every ability.

The group includes current and former competitive swimmers and “wanna-be” triathletes (I am one of the latter), open water distance swimmers training for 6- to 19-mile swims, and swimmers who simply enjoy the ocean but feel reassured as part of a larger group.

We start our group swims usually around June 1st or when the water gets to at least 60 degrees (we think that’s cold down here).  We have a small flotilla of kayakers who accompany us, which adds a sense of comfort as we swim 1.5 to 3 miles about one hundred yards off shore. Like any exercise group, people come and go but we are particularly attentive to those new to ocean swimming as their need for reassurance is strong.

And why do these new swimmers need to be “bucked-up”? All ocean swimmers, including those in our group, new or seasoned, and whether they verbalize it or not, fear swimming in an uncontrolled environment.  Unlike being in a pool, we understand that we are entering a habitat that has risks associated with it such as sting-rays, jellyfish, strong currents, oil slicks and difficult to navigate waves. But, we don’t discuss apex predators and the unspoken rule of our group is that we don’t discuss the “S” word —  sharks.

This year, however, is different. For a variety of reasons, we’ve had multiple sightings of juvenile and young adult carcharodons, or more simply, great white sharks along our coast.  There’s been a number of incidents just along our swimming coastline of people coming in contact with or observing sharks swimming right under their boards.

And of course, we have the annual showing of “shark week.”

There are several explanations for the increase in the shark population along the Central California coast. There is the renewed protection of sharks by California and the federal government, overcrowded shark waters in Baja Mexico causing young adult great whites to seek out friendlier habitat, and the resurgence in the availability of shark prey.

While each of these factors is present, what’s likely in our area is the increase in the availability of food for our finned friends. Our swim group is blessed or cursed to have a seal colony less than a mile from our swimming course.  As you can see from the pictures, seals are rolling in fat and make great seal-kabobs for great whites.

View the Carpinteria Seal Sanctuary here.

So, what did we do when we found shark warning signs posted on our home beach? Why of course, we took pictures!

shark heads

Members of the Channel Islands Masters Swim Club strike a pose.

But, what does it take to enter into and swim through shark-occupied waters?

First, a strong ability to control one’s imagination helps a lot. I can’t tell you how many times I thought I saw movement below me out off the corners off my eyes, squinted nervously and then realized it was just a strand of kelp waving in the current. Second, it helps to ignore the fact that swimmers with wetsuits on create a very appealing surface profile from underneath.  Unlike Michael Phelps, we don’t have the luxury of “swimming” with a digitally placed shark.

While swimming in a group helps to minimize your sense of being a surface target, I happen to be a “tweener” — too slow to keep up with the fast folks and too fast to stay with the slower swimmers. Thus, I often feel like I’m the only swimmer out there and have to occasionally fight the urge to wait for someone to catch up or head for shore.

This fear can be managed as evidenced by one member of our group who copes by swimming with her eyes closed except to look up for familiar landmarks along the shore.

Personally, if I’m gonna get hit by a mouth full of teeth, I want to see it coming.  And lastly, as someone who learned to swim as an adult, you have to really enjoy the sense of having accomplished some level of skill to enjoy the ocean.

So until the day arrives when the idea of occupying the same space as “Jaws” becomes too overwhelming, count me in!


Al Rodriguez has had a long-career as an executive in the public/non-profit sector, specializing in community substance-use addiction services and philanthropic grant-making in California. As he slides slowly into retirement, he’s continuing his community work by recently agreeing to join the board of directors of the Santa Barbara-based American Indian Health & Services, a health clinic for urban Indians and low-income area residents. He and his wife of 33 years, Elizabeth, enjoy having their daughter, Nicole, live near-by.  Al feels his long-standing and close friendship with George allows him to playfully yank George’s chain. 

Editor’s note: Dude has been yankin’ that chain for (OMG!) more than 50 years, ever since our blue-collar dads took us to a baseball game at San Francisco’s old Candlestick Park. Al has been my best friend since high school, best man in my wedding, a college roommate, and enduring soul brother across the decades. On my first date with Lori, she was impressed that I was driving a Plymouth Barracuda. I had borrowed it from Al.

Tomorrow: Alana Cox, Not always right, but always sure


11 thoughts on “Swimming with sharks

  1. The people in this forum are on a different plane of courage it looks like! Thank you for writing about your ocean swimming. Many of us can get vicarious thrills from it. I can’t even imagine swimming, let alone hang out with sharks.Loved your sense of humor too.

  2. You refer to yourself benignly as an “exercise group”. Really? You’re swimming with sharks. Words like daredevil, stuntperson, and whackjob come to my mind…. 🙂 But seriously, you’re somewhere in your 50’s. I’m approaching 50 in a couple years. I hope that in due time, I might also be as active and healthy as you and your lovely friends. Thanks for your inspiring piece!

  3. I want to join Channel Islands Masters Swim Club! I so miss open-water swimming, tris and a good cap with a club name on it. Someday, the kids will be big enough to leave for morning workouts. Cheers to masters swimming — and warm water. (I only swam and SCUBA dove with sharks for a handful of years, but I was guaranteed they were harmless bottom sharks. I chose to believe that, so I could swim.)
    I love that you all took that picture!

  4. I’m with Aki here, Al – “Words like daredevil, stuntperson, and whackjob come to my mind”. 🙂 I did learn to swim as a child, but I’m not a confident swimmer. I prefer someplace with walls nearby to hold onto in case I panic. I have no doubt the thought of an incoming shark attack would send me into breathless terror!

  5. You’re doing a great job of bringing awareness of your succulence to all the great whites. You should have a nickname like “Main Course” or “Al-petizer”. I can’t even hold my breath in the shower. I’m not going in shark infested waters! Good for you for having the nuts…for now….

  6. I’m not a strong swimmer (in that, I “probably won’t drown, but would rather not swim” category) but always admire people who enjoy it. It’s great you have something that you enjoy even if it comes with a side of danger from time to time. We’ll just call you Al-petizer in the meantime.

  7. Al I am in about the same category as Nick….I can swim in a pool and not drown, but that is about it. You are both courageous and perhaps a bit crazy

  8. “A strong ability to control one’s imagination.” I’d say so! Is this just another way of saying denial? And why a BLACK wetsuit. Wouldn’t you be going for something less “tasty seal”? Something a little more “I’m the mama shark and I will eat you if you mess with us” chic? Yikes. So brave! Or insane. Both the swimming in shark habitat for, gulp, fun, and the Barracuda loaning. (Wait. Isn’t that another big fish with teeth?)

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