Last week, 48-year-old Penny Palfrey emerged from the sea after spending 40 hours and 41 minutes swimming 67.25 miles of open water between Little Cayman and Grand Cayman. The swim set a new world record for a solo unassisted ocean swim. But in the process, the crew following her during the swim killed three sharks, two of which were Oceanic whitetips, a species listed on the ICUN list as vulnerable worldwide, and critically endangered in the Northwest and Western Central Atlantic areas.
The photo above is of an Oceanic whitetip shark. It’s populations have dropped by as much as 99% in some areas due to fishing for its fins as well as being caught as bycatch during commercial fishing operations for other species. It is known for being aggressive but can be driven off. The advice usually given to swimmers is if you see one, it’s smart to get out of the water. But that isn’t something a marathon swimmer is wont to do while trying to set a record.
And that’s why crew members decided the best way to deal with them when they came too close was to lure them away with some fish, snag the shark on a hook and line, and dispatch them with a machete, according to the Compass Cayman. In all, four sharks were spotted during the swim, and three were killed.
The article states, ” The sharks were six to eight feet long. One came within about four feet of a kayak manned by Richard Clifford, who was a few feet away from Palfrey, escorting her through the water. One Rib, or small inflatable, that stayed close to the swimmer throughout had a shark shield attached to it which is supposed to repel sharks with electrical pulses. The killing of the sharks has caused controversy with members of conservation groups asking why it was necessary.”
Within the comments of the article is a range of reactions to the issue of the shark killings, though the majority seem to feel that the sharks were simply existing in their home habitat and should not have been killed. One commenter on the article, CTX, writes:
As someone of Cayman descent and an avid SCUBA diver, I applaud her record but am sickened that sharks were killed in this manner. It is a crime for a human to enter another person’s home and harm them, yet we don’t think twice about encroaching on the territory of animals and killing them for our safety.
If this was a single nuisance animal on a public beach, it may have been justified. But to kill several animals in the open sea for a single person is just sickening.
I have no doubt that their method for bringing the sharks close with bait and then chopping them with machetes contributed to the number of sharks lured to the area.
It seems rather unnecessary for a bit of personal glory.
Oceanic Whitetip Sharks Are Dangerous, But So Are Humans
According to MarineBio, “[T]his shark is the most potentially dangerous after great whites, tiger, and bull sharks, especially for open-ocean divers. This species is likely responsible for open-ocean attacks following air or sea disasters. Oceanic whitetips can be very aggressive and unpredictable in the presence of potential prey.”
But that’s why you get out of the water if you encounter one. Or, simply stay very aware and get your crew to drive the shark off.
The Telegraph reports, “There is evidence of man and whitetip coming together with less tragic consequences - a number of divers have swum alongside and suffered no attack whatsoever. But they are advised to be cautious and not spear fish near the shark.”
Not only does the way the sharks were dealt with put a serious damper on the personal victory of Palfrey, who beat the world record by four miles, it also calls in to question if it’s worth a world record when you have to kill wild animals — especially a vulnerable species — in the process.
Sharks are in serious danger globally, and the Oceanic whitetip is a species that highlights the dramatic impact humans have on the animals — a once plentiful species now put on the Red List. When we enter their environment for our own personal entertainment, it seems that they should be the ones treated with respect and distance.