Penny Palfrey Sets a New Ocean Swim Record...But Kills 3 Sharks In The Process

oceanic whitetip shark photo
Photo by OldakQuill via Wikimedia CC

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 Caymanian Compass. In all, four sharks were spotted during the swim, and three were killed, the news source reports.

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.

What do you think? Weigh in in the comments.

UPDATE: I received an email letting me know that there was an investigation into the swim and whether or not sharks were killed during the swim. According to this investigation, no sharks were killed after all. The email stated, "So far we have traced this to one article from the CaymanCompass and are trying to find out where she got the information. There has been an investigation and the findings are that no sharks were killed."

According to a statement from Palfrey's team on her Facebook page:

As organizers of Penny Palfrey's Bridging the Cayman Islands swim, the Flowers Group launched an investigation into the reports and rumors that sharks were killed during this endeavor. We have reached out to various Government agencies and members of both the local and international crew.

The findings were that The Cayman Islands Department of Tourism contacted the individual named in the original report, Mr. Charles Ebanks, who confirmed that he did not kill any sharks during the historic Bridging swim and states that reports to the contrary are inaccurate. He stated that he "hooked the sharks and lead them away", he further added, "I was there, I did not kill any sharks. They are assuming I did something which is not true and you can quote me on this."

Charles stated that the boat captain from the boat asked him what he did with the sharks and he replied, "I got rid of them." He said he thinks this could have been taken to mean that they were killed.

Based on Charles' account, various members of the Bridge crew were conferred with, and corroborated this description. Images have also been reviewed from various individuals who were on the boats. From these findings, there is no evidence to suggest that any sharks were killed.

There are some aspects to this statement that seem unreliable -- for instance that the investigation was done by organizers of the swim rather than an independent party, and that the sharks were "hooked and lead away" which seems like an odd tactic for getting rid of them.

Also, the report came from a news source, the Caymanian Compass, that Palfrey's Facebook page links to for at least five other articles on the swim -- including another article dated June 12 (the day before the June 13 article cited above) that details how whitetips were spotted and at least one killed by being hooked, attached to a piece of yellow rubber matting, dragged away, and dispatched with a machette (and possibly a second one handled in a similar way) -- making it seem as if even Palfrey's team feels the Caymanian Compass a reliable source for news on the swim in general.

But nevertheless, it does open the question to whether the original news report from Caymanian Compass was accurate -- that three sharks were killed during the swim -- or if that report was indeed false as Charles Ebanks and Palfrey's team insists.

It seems, though, that the team would like to cast doubt over some actions that have caused an extreme amount of negative press about the record-setting swim.

Follow Jaymi on Twitter for more stories like this
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Tags: Activism | Animals | Conservation | Oceans

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