Penny Palfrey has set a new world record for a solo unassisted swim, killing two endangered sharks in the process. The 48-year-old spent 40 hours and 41 minutes in the open water swimming the 67.25 miles between Little Cayman and Grand Cayman. During her swim, Palfrey crossed paths with four sharks, the crew following her by boat dispatched three of them by killing them with a machete. Two of the sharks that were killed were Oceanic whitetips, a species listed on the ICUN list as critically endangered in the Northwest and Western Central Atlantic areas.
The Oceanic whitetip shark’s populations have dropped by as much as 99% in some areas of the ocean because it is popular with fishermen and is also sought after for its fins. It is also often caught during commercial fishing operations for other species. The Oceanic whitetip is known for being aggressive and unpredictable, and may have posed a threat to Palfrey while she was in the water. However, these sharks can be driven off by other means and the advice typically given to swimmers if they encounter one is to get out of the water, not kill it. Although, that’s not really advice a marathon swimmer going for a record is going to heed now is it?
Palfrey’s crew did what they thought best, luring the sharks away from her vicinity with fish, snagging the sharks on a hook and line and killing them with machetes. During the swim, Palfrey was escorted by a Rib (small inflatable) with a shark shield attached to it that stayed close to her to supposedly repel sharks with electrical pulses. The sharks that were killed were 6-to-8 feet long, and one came within four feet of a kayak that was escorting Palfrey through the water from a few feet away.
There has been some backlash from the incident with members of conservation groups questioning why the sharks needed to be killed in that manner, particularly for the personal achievement of one individual. There is some historical evidence that says that humans and this type of shark can swim alongside each other without prompting an attack, however the standard advice remains to stay alert and keep as far away as possible.
The controversy over how the sharks were handled puts a cloud over Palfrey’s victory despite the fact that she beat the world record by four miles. The questions posed by the incident are of the ethical sort, with some wondering if setting a world record is worth killing animals, particularly ones that are members of unstable populations.