UPDATE: Since this report first came out two weeks ago, organizers of Palfrey’s swim have denied sharks were killed. There has been no statement from Palfrey. For more, see the comments after the post.
Penny Palfrey, a 48-year-old Australian ultra swimmer and grandmother, set the world record last weekend for unassisted solo ocean swim, logging 67.25 miles between Little Cayman and Grand Cayman islands. She was in the water for 40 hours and 41 minutes, and when she walked onto a Grand Cayman beach her face was so swollen she was nearly unrecognizable. She was released from a local hospital on Tuesday after two days of recovery, but still could not speak.
Palfrey was hailed for her accomplishment, which was four miles longer than the previous record, but was criticized by conservationists for the killing of three sharks that approached her during the swim. Four oceanic white tips came near her, and several times at night during her swim she was bumped by something large. One of the members of her support team traveling in a small inflatable, a local fisherman named Charles Ebanks, distracted the sharks with dead fish, then killed three of six- to eight-footers with a machete.“It was not in any of our plans for that to happen,” Chris Palfrey, Penny’s husband, told the CayCompass. “I was not aware it was going to happen until after the event. Our goal was to do a swim. It was not to do anything to the environment.”
Media reports generally have praised Palfrey for her brave swim through “shark-infested” waters, with little but passing acknowledgment to the killing of the sharks. And even the criticism by environmentalists has been muted.
The director of the Cayman Islands Department of Environment, Gina Ebanks-Petrie, said, “Given the importance of sharks as a top-level predator in the marine environment, the DoE would have preferred to have seen this incident handled differently.”
Um, hello? Three full-sized sharks were chopped to death so some woman could achieve personal glory by swimming for almost two days? Let’s have a little perspective here. Imagine an ultra runner wants to set a new record racing across the bear-infested northern Rockies. Four bears approach her while she’s running along the trail and her support crew uses some manky bilious road kill to lure them away, where they’re shot dead. Sharks might not be the friend of swimmers or surfers, but the fact that they’re predators and this took place in the ocean, where bloody deeds quickly fade from sight, makes it no less of an abomination.
Oceanic whitetips are classified as “vulnerable” under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s assessment of species, and one-third of the world’s sharks are “threatened”, according to IUCN. In the Gulf of Mexico, it’s estimated that their population fell 99.3 percent from 1950s to the 1990s. The main culprits are drift nets, longline fishing, and overfishing, and their fins are prized for shark fin soup.
Palfrey’s crew certainly had reason for concern. Whitetips are responsible for more human deaths than all other shark species combined – although not fast swimmers, they stay close to the surface cruising for food and are quickly on the scene in shipwrecks and downed aircraft. But the recommended response if one comes within the vicinity of a diver, swimmer, or surfer is not to hack them to death. It’s simply to get out of the water. Apparently, Palfrey’s desire to break the record (it was her third attempt) was more important than that.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has generated more outrage, debate, and comments than almost any other piece we’ve run. However, much of the commentary has turned to personal attacks on either Palfrey or other commenters. Insults and name calling will not be tolerated, and such comments will be deleted or blocked.
This environmental coverage made possible in part by support from Patagonia. For information on Patagonia and its environmental efforts, visit www.patagonia.com.