Swimming with Dolphins

By comparison to yesterday’s sunrise swim you could be forgiven for thinking this is a different season or country and as I walk down through the woods to Watcombe Beach the horizon is aglow with sunlight.  I’m gazing out to sea when my eye catches a distant movement, surely it can’t be but it is and a moment later the dorsal fins of 2 dolphins once more arc above the surface of the flat calm sea.

wild swimming
wild swimming

The last time I had a close encounter with dolphins in Torbay was way back in summer 1995 when a whole group swam by me as I watched from the shore at Long Quarry Point.  Had I been quicker I could have been in the water with them but as it was I had the perfect vantage point and several of them swam by almost in arm’s reach.  These are a long way out of arm’s reach.

The 2 arcing fins cross the bay and are hidden by the point.  Ever the optimist I keep an eye out to sea as I change but it is only as I’m adjusting my swim hat and stood knee deep in the water is it that I see more fins.  There are 2 here and 3 there and possibly some in between but still a long way off.  There have been reports of a group of about 30 up and down the coast maybe this is them, but, they are a long way off.

I’m out of the bay and in open water, the horizon is ablaze with sunrise and way off to my right is a group of 3 paddleboarders, but I’m looking up the coast and there are dorsal fins arcing above the water, a lot of dorsal fins, it has to be worth a try and I swim like a lunatic straight out on what I hope will be a closing course.

I’m too slow.  The dolphins pass between me and the paddleboarders, closer to them than me but there is no more than 100m separating us.  Standing on their boards they must have a perfect vantage point.  I’m treading water and on the one hand watching the dolphins sweep into Babbacombe Bay, whilst on the other casting my eyes up the coast in the hope there may be more.  And then no more than 10m away 2 fins arc up, the backs of the dolphins glistening in the sunshine which is almost blinding as I stare into it.  They surface again but are moving away fast.  The paddleboarders are turning after them leaving me out here by myself.  And I am a long way out here.

wild swimming
wild swimming

I check my watch and swim briskly in but it takes me almost 15 minutes which at that pace puts the distance at least 500m and I am frozen when I get back to the beach.  To tell the truth though I don’t care, but I do hope it won’t be another 20 years for a repeat performance.  And in summer would be nice.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall


What Risk?

There is risk associated with any activity and most individuals, whether they realise it or not, judge risk based on their experience.  However bystanders are often quick to adversely judge those involved in activity often negatively on the basis of what they have been told, or more precisely, what they think they have been told.

Objectively the risk of an activity is fixed and would traditionally be assessed by means of a matrix that sets ‘likelihood’ against ‘severity’.  A personal perception of risk and how much risk you deem acceptable given the possible impact on your life in general are somewhat different things.

For example, irrespective of how experienced you are you could still slip on a rock whilst walking and break a leg. The likelihood is nevertheless ‘very low’ (it happens but rarely), the severity though if you were alone could be high as the outcome could possibly death (blood loss, shock, cold, darkness, can’t be found, landing in water). Any instance where severity is potentially death (or life altering outcomes) needs ‘mitigation’.

In this case likelihood may further diminish because from experience you recognise that wet rocks covered in moss are inherently slippery, but that is personal and to properly assess risk you need to assume no prior experience. The severity will diminish if you have means to send for help be that a mobile or someone else, but those are ‘mitigating actions’ and other mitigating factors may be applied. Generally then walking alone on, for example, Dartmoor with adequate mitigating measures lowers to risk to ‘acceptable’.

The problem with a swimming incident is that the progress from incident to outcome is likely to be minutes and mitigation is therefore difficult. Take as a related example the kayak incident on the Dart recently. Many people kayak the Dart, fatal incidents do occur (2 in 5 years for sure), but should an incident occur often the time to death is so short that even in a group the chance that someone will be able to stop and come to aid or do anything in a river in spate is negligible. This has also been my experience of swimming deaths, in that the only 3 that I have a personal connection with have all been people who were swimming with others, but before anyone noticed it was too late

I am however constantly surprised that people who go swimming do such a poor job of risk management. Will the tide be in or out, will it be sunshine or rain seems to be about the limit in most cases. But with all the resources available on-line it is no problem to apply even a little common sense to work out that after 2 days of rain it may be sunny now but the river is still probably ‘high’ or that with the wind blowing from that direction one side of the headland will be sheltered the other may have a big surf.

Personally I think about the risk every time I go swimming and I may consider the weather forecast (including wind direction), tide times and heights and flow direction and current strength, web cams (lots of those), the environment agency river levels page, etc, and I think about how I feel, good for a long swim or short? And even on arrival I have been known to go ‘you know what? Not today’ and go home again. And then there is the question of being visible in the water. Because essentially alone or with others once you are in the water there is potential for a fatal outcome.

Once you are in the water therefore risk and outcome become pretty meaningless. Mitigating the risk BEFORE you get in the water is therefore the thing in my opinion.

There is a further consideration and that is well-being. I will die eventually, that is a given. If I go swimming I keep myself fit which contributes to my well-being and ability to do other things and the alternative might be ‘couch potato’ which is possibly going to move me along to being dead sooner than the chance from a swimming related incident. And along the way I have seen some wonderful things and met lovely people. When you die the sum of your life is still zero (you cannot take anything with you) no matter how you lived it, but in the meantime?

The whole notion of ‘herd mentality’ is one that I have had many arguments over. The problem is that one person determines the risk for themselves at a specific time and in light of their ability and often in hindsight thinking more about the experience they had than how it might have gone differently. And their risk assessment may be rubbish anyway.  Nevertheless they broadcast that swimming at such and such a spot is ‘lovely and completely safe’.  The next person coming along goes ‘well it was OK for them it will be OK for me’.

Outdoor swimmers often counter negative comments with the ‘you are more likely to die whilst driving to work’ argument, but it is patently not a fair comparison. Looked at simply, how many people die in vehicle accidents per year and what is the cumulative time spent by the whole population in vehicles. Compare that to number of swimming fatalities and the cumulative time swimming. Swimming fatalities per hour of activity time I would guess far exceed vehicle deaths.

Do not therefore be put off by the comments of the uninformed or horror stories that may have no truth in them, nor become blasé to the risks.  Instead make a judgement each time you swim and if you have to walk away, then walk away.  After all whilst you want to live life you do only get one go at it and you are along time dead.

Wild Swimming Map: Devon & Cornwall