Swimming with the sharks

Photo: Christine Choate,

On Friday, Oct. 19, a small group of elite swimmers from the Dolphin Club braved rough, chilly, and shark-inhabited waters for a swim around Alcatraz Island in support of Swim for the Sharks, an event founded by local shark biologist David McGuire to raise awareness about sharks and funds for shark conservation.

“We call this month Sharktober,” said McGuire before departing the shore of Aquatic Park. “It’s the season when white sharks return from their great migration and return to the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. We can protect them in the sanctuary and in the bay, but worldwide, many species of large sharks are being fished toward extinction. We are swimming to dispel the public fear of sharks and raise awareness that sharks are important to the health and balance of the estuary and offshore ecosystems.”

McGuire is the director of Sea Stewards, a nonprofit organization working in policy, education, research, and advocacy for shark conservation.

“The real story is man attacks shark,” said McGuire. “On average, 40 million sharks are killed for their fins alone to supply the shark fin soup trade. The practice is unsustainable, and as a result over 100 shark species are threatened or near threatened with extinction.”

Despite the myths of shark-infested waters between 1934 and 1963 when Alcatraz Federal Prison was in operation, 36 men were involved in 14 separate escape attempts. Twenty-three were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, and two were presumed drowned. Not one prisoner was killed by a shark.

In part, Swim for the Sharks is held to dispel those myths of shark-infested waters and bring attention to threats many species of shark face worldwide. Adds Dr. Gretchen Coffman, a biologist at the University of San Francisco and event organizer, “It is true that sharks live in the bay, and even great white sharks visit inside the Golden Gate. But we choose the term ‘inhabit’ instead of ‘infest.’ Our swimmers have been in the water every day for over 100 years, and there has not been a single incident with a shark. The sea lions are more dangerous.”

Of eight starters, six swimmers circumnavigated the island without wet suits in less than two hours.

“I was a little nervous at first, but it was a fun swim,” said Dolphin Club member and Marina resident Virginie Jabbour. “The currents are the real challenge. I want to do it again next year!”

The event raised over $1,000, which will be used to support Sea Steward’s white shark and hammerhead protection campaigns.

Swimmers can still be sponsored at to support shark conservation and ocean education.

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