The Environmentally Responsible Open Water Swimmer
I often swim in the Sea of Cortez, which is just steps away our San Carlos, Mexico condominium. I’m sometimes blessed to encounter a pod of bottlenose dolphins and they often interact with me. On two occasions, members of this pod have drifted by and released pieces of plastic from mouth or dorsal fin—as a clear request to remove them from the water. I shared those experiences and many more of my open water dolphin swims in my recent release, Swimming with Dolphins.
Whenever I’m out swimming in the Sea of Cortez or other bodies of water I’ve savored over the years—the Pacific in California and Hawaii, the Caribbean in Nicaragua, Jamaica and Grand Cayman, the Atlantic in South Carolina and Florida, and many lakes in different U.S. states—most recently Fool Hollow in Show Low, Arizona, I make a conscious effort to bring no harm to the creatures and water around me. Here are a few suggestions on how you can make that happen during your swims. All of these can also be implemented if you are out kayaking or paddleboarding.
- Avoid swimming in estuaries. If you must swim there, steer clear of large flocks of birds or mangroves where birds are nesting and avoid touching the bottom. Swimming in the mouth of an estuary can be quite dangerous due to shifting currents. Often water rushes in or out—depending on the shift of the tides—making conditions quite hazardous. The brackish water and varying salinity of the water enables hundreds of different species to thrive in estuaries. Because the water is calmer than out in open ocean or sea, estuaries are sanctuaries and for birds, fish, stingrays, sea turtles and many other marine species. They are often referred to as the “nurseries of the sea” since they are breeding grounds and nesting spots for so many species. If you look in the shallows, you’ll spot tiny minnows and dozens of roaming hermit crabs. Stepping on the bottom may smash fish eggs or other larvae or land you with a nasty sting from a stingray.
- Avoid swimming near big flocks of birds. If you are determining the day’s swimming route and spot a huge flock of feeding birds, try to avoid them. I once made the mistake of trying to do a wide circle around them and caused mass panic for more than 200 birds. It works better to swim in the opposite direction, even if it’s possible they will overtake you. Then it’s their choice to pass by, rather than a surprise. When a drone or a person disrupts a massive number of birds and they fly around too long, some will drown.
- Swim with a buoy for your safety and…Buy one with a pouch so you can store your own food and drink waste and any plastic or small trash items you encounter (or a dolphin might bring you) during your swim.
- If you encounter wildlife entangled in fishing line, try to remove it yourself (if you can do it safely) or report it to a wildlife rescue organization as soon as possible. If you carry your smart phone inside your buoy, save your current location to give the rescuers an idea where you encountered the animal in trouble. In Google Maps, you can click on your current location, choose “drop pin” and then save or send this location to someone.
- Wear reef safe sunscreens and wear a protective skin to reduce how much product you need to use. Many sunscreens harm coral reefs. The chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate detract from a coral reef’s ability to defend itself against bleaching. Research published by the Ocean Conservancy revealed that Hawaiian coral reefs are exposed to more than 6,000 tons of sunscreen annually. Avoid using unhealthy aerosol sunscreens (which can be inadvertently inhaled into the lungs) and instead spread on reef-safe sunscreens, which do not cause harmful changes to water chemistry. My favorite is Badger (www.badgerbalm.com) Thinksport, Stream2Sea, Kokua, and Sun Bum are other reef-safe products.
- If you swim with a group, consider traveling together save money and to avoid extra fossil fuel use.