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!
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