Penny Palfrey – Swimming with Great White Sharks...On two of my channel crossings I’ve swum very close to a great white shark. The moments were fleeting the memories will last a life time.
A guard of honour in The Strait of Gibraltar.
Four years had passed since my husband Chris and I swam the Gibraltar Strait together in 2006, we were looking forward to our return to Tarifa in southern Spain to swim the strait again and enjoy a holiday with our New York friends Dan Boyle and Brooke Bessert. Chris, Dan and I had planned a fun swim across the strait together with Brooke volunteering to do the crewing duties. Unfortunately Dan who had been very busy with his business had been unable to do the required amount of training and opted out of the swim, though Dan and Brooke were still committed to and looking forward to their Spanish holiday with us.
When we contacted Rafael to let him know there would be only Chris and I swimming he asked if we were still swimming together or would we like separate boats. This spelled good news for me, because since our last trip a double crossing had been playing on my mind, I asked Rafael to book me in for a double crossing instead. His reply was not what I’d hoped for. Even though we were booked to swim on neap tides these tides were not suitable for a double crossing. He told us that only one or two tides per season were suitable for a double crossing and this was not one of them, a double was impossible.
As much as I enjoyed swimming with Chris on our 2006 crossing, now Rafael had two boats and pilots, with both Dan and Brooke availible to crew for us I felt that I’d like to do my own Gibraltar Strait crossing and go for time.
When we arrived in Tarifa we met with Rafael to organise our swim, again I asked about the double, again I was told it was impossible, only a very fast swimmer could do a double he said and on this tide it would be impossible. The following day we met early at the harbor, the swim was started in cool water of around 16C in the darkness around 6am. The conditions were good and I was making great progress, I knew the ladies single crossing record was 3hrs 27 minutes, I’d crossed the second shipping lane in well under 2 hours, we were headed for the coast, I had less than one hour to swim, my time was looking like a sub 3 hour crossing. Then suddenly I was told to stop swimming. I was confused, why did I have to stop? The conditions were fantastic; I’d been swimming hard for almost two hours, why? I was told there was a fog coming over the Strait from Morocco and we had to go back to Tarifa now. I reluctantly climbed aboard the support boat and we returned to Spain. A thick fog blanketed the strait and by the afternoon had engulfed Tarifa. Rafael told us we could try again the next morning if the fog had cleared. That afternoon Dan went to the beach and came back with a report that he couldn’t even see the water from the top of the beach the fog was so thick. Things were not looking good for the following day.
In the mean time we’d been back to Rafael’s office to discuss the following days swim, I felt that now Rafael had had chance to see that I could swim ok he might let me try for a double the following day. It’s impossible he replied, “let me try” I asked, Chris and Brooke stood quietly in the office, Dan stood by me supporting my request. Finally Rafael said, “ok you can try”, he would make arrangements with the pilot but I must get my first crossing done quickly or he would not let me continue into the second crossing. Ok that’s fair enough I agreed and left his office happy and hoping for the fog to lift.
The following morning we met at the harbour again, an hour later this time to allow for the tides. There was still a heavy fog hanging over the harbour, but Rafael reported we could start but we would have to get out again if the fog didn’t lift.
Again the water was cool and the conditions were good, perhaps not quite as good as the previous day but pretty good. I could feel the effects of the two hours of hard swimming I’d put in the previous day, but brushed that aside and concentrated on what I had to do today. Since I’d only expected to be doing a single crossing I’d only brought one Shark Shield with me to Spain, knowing the batteries would last 4-6 hours depending on the water temperature we decided to have the Shark Shield turned on for the first hour of the swim then save it until dusk if I was still in the water and turn it on only if necessary during the swim.
The fog lifted and I made my way back through the shipping channels and touched Morocco 3 hours and 3 minutes later, I knew I needed to do a good time to convince Rafael to allow me to continue on for my second leg. This was a woman’s record and I was happy with my progress. I also knew return swim to Spain was not going to be easy. As we headed back out into the Strait and away for the protection of the land I found myself swimming directly into the wind and chop, this is what I expected for the remainder of the day.
I put my head down and settled into working hard into the swells, I was joined by a pod of pilot whales which are like a large dolphins. I always love to have dolphins join me on my swims, I could see them swimming underneath me and coming up to the surface around me. Though there was something I noticed that was different about them today, instead of hearing them sing and chatter happily underwater their noises didn’t sound happy at all, they sounded stressed.
I remember wondering why these noises were different to what I was used to hearing, perhaps because they were pilot whales, not dolphins, just different, but I wasn’t sure and continued to work my way towards the Spanish coast.
It was then that I saw my pilot look at the water with special attention, I could see the fear on his face as he drew a cross on his chest with his hand and said ‘El Blanco’ to Dan. I could see the concern on Dan’s face as his gaze followed that of the pilot, and then reach down to activate the Shark Shield. I moved closer to the Shark Shield and was searching the murky water around me for signs of danger.
As I looked beneath me and I followed the pull of my left arm down to my leg I could see the shape of a large shark behind me, I took a breath to the left, then with eyes back in the water saw El Blanco the Great White Shark come from behind me and swim down into the murky depths below. I continued to swim keeping a look out under the water, Dan and the pilot were keeping a look out from their boat and the pilot whales were surrounding me making their noises. We didn’t see El Blanco again, and soon after the pilot whales left me to go and play in the bow wave of a passing ship. I was grateful to the pilot whales for their guard of honour, my Shark Shield and my vigilant support crew.
I completed my Strait of Gibraltar double crossing in 8 hours and 27 minutes, taking 2 hours and 31 minutes off the existing woman’s record and the second fasted time to date.
Rafael came to the harbour to congratulate us when we returned to Tarifa, we all had big smiles on our face when I said, “Rafael it is possible”!