Santa Rosa Triathlon Recap: Part 3


“Ocean: A body of water occupying two-thirds of a world made for man-who has no gills.” -Ambrose Bierse

Ok, so about that Shark Week moment I’ve been talking about. If you’ve read my blog, you know that my biggest fear about open-water swimming is what I may encounter in while in the water. I love to swim. I’m a good swimmer. Give me a pool and I’m in. Open water, not so much.

The day before the triathlon I was able to get in my practice swim. I knew that it was critical to get my feet wet, yes, even just my feet, or I would struggle the next day.  Every shadow that I saw in the water brought on a moment of panic, because of course, my mind clicks right over to the Discovery Channel and I begin to psyche myself out. It’s a hard way to live, but for me, the triathlon has been one big opportunity to overcome fear.

Thankfully, I didn’t see any sharks during my practice swim and I felt confident enough to dive into the water and collect shells. Also, thankfully, I was in the first wave with the elite group (comical) and didn’t have much time to be nervous. I did think to myself, however, that according to what I’ve learned on the Discovery Channel, both early morning and early evening are prime shark time. I may suggest to USA Triathlon that they consider this and suggest to the race directors of the world that all triathlons begin later in the morning. Just a thought.  I’m also positive that having a few helicopters scouting the water would make me feel better as well. Again, just a thought. I’m a thinker.

Let me make my way back into reality for a moment and get back to the story. The day of the triathlon everyone in our group went to the beach to hang out and swim. I have never seen the water in Pensacola so clear or so blue. It looked like the Caribbean. Butterflies were flying around the beach and out over the water just over out heads. Pelicans were diving for fish and beautiful silver and yellow fish were swimming over and around our feet and legs. Dolphins made an appearance and once we confirmed that they were in fact dolphins and not something more sinister, we carried on with our floating. Paradise exists in many places on earth and I felt like we were right smack in the middle of it.

My sister and two of her friends and I spent about an hour out in the water floating around, talking and trying to scrub off our tri tats with sand and only came in when one of the girls, Anna, yelled, “what’s that in the water?” It didn’t turn out to be anything crazy, but for me, the magic spell was broken, the bubble was burst and we headed back onto shore.

The next morning I got up and headed out to the balcony of our condo with my coffee, and because we are all early risers, my sister was already out there. It was a bit overcast but the sun was doing its best to make its way out from behind the clouds.

The first thing she said was, “I’m pretty sure I’ve seen two sharks already.” Up until that point, I had made a point not to get too close to the glass wall that separated the balcony and the 19 story drop beyond it, but without thinking I leaned over to see what I could see. About 15 minutes later the guys made their way out as well and we told them about the potential shark sightings. (I actually have a photo of the three of them out on the balcony in their p.j.’s that morning, but I’m positive they wouldn’t be happy if I posted it.) Shortly after, we saw what was most definitely the perfect outline of a shark cruising slowly out in the water just where we had been the day before for out post-race hang in the water.

The best estimate we could come up with for the size of the shark was maybe about 6 feet. It was difficult to calculate just how big or small it was because of the distance from our 19th floor balcony down to the water. Not too far away from where the shark was looking for breakfast, we saw a shadow of an animal that we couldn’t quite make out. We thought maybe it was a large stingray because of the circular shadow it was casting, but we could never could confirm.  Not ten seconds after I yelled, “I wonder if it’s going to notice that other critter,” it took a hard right and bolted over to the stingray. It circled around it and we thought that whatever the creature was, it was a goner. It was a tense moment and I’m sure we woke up the people in the condo next to us with our overly excited narration of the real-life predation that we were witnessing. It was over just as quickly as it began when the shark lost interest and the creature hauled ass as fast as I’ve ever seen anything haul ass. It was real life Shark Week.

It was a remarkable thing to observe. We watched the shark continue to move up the shoreline until we couldn’t see it anymore. I am so thankful that we didn’t witness that the day before the race, because I can guarantee you one thing: I would have bid a hearty sayonara to Pensacola Beach, packed up my goggles and headed straight back to Nashville.

About an hour after we watched the shark event unfold, a group of swimmers got in the water and headed out for a practice swim. I wanted to go down there and personally fish them out of the water, but from what we could tell, they looked like a group of local triathletes out for a group swim and were probably seasoned enough to know the dangers.

Later when we went out to the beach I told one of the resort staff members/lifeguards/beach chair keepers about what we had seen. A split second wave of what looked like fear washed over his face. He said to me, “I had to swim out to get a boy who was out on a paddle board because he wouldn’t come in and was waving for us to come get him. He said he didn’t want to stand up and risk falling in because he thought he saw a shark.” They’re out there people!

I admit I’m overly paranoid about these kinds of situations, but as I’ve said before, they’re out there and we humans should just be aware and take the proper precautions.

I looked up an article that I read before going to Hawaii last year about reducing the risk of shark attacks and injury. The following are tips for swimmers:

  1. Swim, surf, or dive with other people, and don’t move too far away from assistance.
  2. Stay out of the water at dawn, dusk, and night, when some species of sharks may move inshore to feed.
  3. Do not enter the water if you have open wounds or are bleeding in any way. Sharks can detect blood and body fluids in extremely small concentrations.
  4. Avoid murky waters, harbor entrances, and areas near stream mouths (especially after heavy rains), channels, or steep drop offs. These types of waters are known to be frequented by sharks.
  5. Do not wear high-contrast clothing or shiny jewelry. Sharks see contrast very well.
  6. Refrain from excessive splashing; keep pets, which swim erratically, out of the water. Sharks are known to be attracted to such activity.
  7. Do not enter the water if sharks are known to be present, and leave the water quickly and calmly if one is sighted. Do not provoke or harass a shark, even a small one.
  8. If fish or turtles start to behave erratically, leave the water. Be alert to the presence of dolphins, as they are prey for some large sharks.
  9. Remove speared fish from the water or tow them a safe distance behind you. Do not swim near people fishing or spear fishing. Stay away from dead animals in the water.
  10. Swim or surf on beaches patrolled by lifeguards, and follow their advice.

You can read the full article and find more tips about ocean safety (provided by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources) at GoHawaii.com I figure that even though these are tips for swimming in Hawaiian waters, they apply to all bodies of water.

Now that I’ve freaked myself and everyone else out, let’s talk about the REAL odds of getting attacked by a shark: It’s not likely to happen. The odds are only one in 11.5 million. According to an article by Michael Reilly on DiscoveryNews.com, even digging a hole in the sand is more dangerous. Read the full article here.

This concludes my Santa Rosa Island Triathlon Recap. I’m going to start putting together my race calendar for next year, hopefully as soon as the race directors start posting dates. Thanks to my bum leg, I still haven’t met my ultimate goal of finishing a full triathlon. The story continues….

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