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Saving sharks, stung by bluebottles




Last weekend four Israeli open water swimmers joined forces with Madswimmer, a South African non-profit that undertakes daring open water swims to benefit children’s charities. It has raised in excess of R5 million in the past seven years. 

The idea of this swim-for-a-cause mission was to raise awareness of the depletion in the world’s shark population of which 100 million are killed annually – mostly for the food industry. The aim was to change negative public opinion about this sea creature.

The swimmers also hoped to draw attention to the rapid decline in this country’s great white shark population of which only 350 – 500 remain.

Rising at 02:00, they were transported 20 kilometres out to sea off the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal, but the attempt was called off nine hours and 28 kilometres in. “We were all stung one by one by the bluebottle jellyfish,” open water swimmer Oded Rahav recalls.

“They were all over us, so we had to abort the swim.”

What about the fear of going into the predators’ territory with nothing but swimsuits and goggles? “I was a bit frightened because people try to frighten you,” he admits. “But then I’ve learned so much about sharks from people who swam with them and didn’t just sit on the shore and watch movies,” he says, referring to the 1975 Steven Spielberg thriller, Jaws.

“Therefore I decided to see for myself and take the risk. Sharks are great predators but they have nothing to do with us.”

Rahav said that while out there on the weekend, there were no sharks. “The funny thing is what chased us out was a small jellyfish the size of your hand.”

The 21-member team comprised four Israelis, 16 South Africans and a Spaniard. The Israelis belong to a six-strong Cyprus Israel Swim Team and this was its third swim with Madswimmer South Africa, led by Jean Craven.

“We became very good friends after the Dead Sea Swim in November 2016 when I invited them to take part,” Rahav relates. That swim was undertaken to raise awareness of falling levels of the Dead Sea.

“Ever since, we became this group – we share the same values and passion. We know that swimming is a vehicle through which we can express our deepest concerns at the atrocities done to the seas, the oceans, the flora and the fauna by human beings.

“Since we are brave enough and bold enough to go out there to see all the grace, the power, the beauty, we can come back to land and tell the story: ‘Listen, sharks are fish, we should be humble, we should take care of the ocean because without it and without the sharks we will not survive’.”

Another collaboration between the Israelis and Madswimmer in May this year, saw them participating in the Pan-American Colibri Swim from San Diego to Tijuana, Mexico, to raise awareness of immigration issues and alleviate the suffering of individuals whose family members die while crossing the US-Mexico border.

Rahav, 51, was born in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where his father served as an Israeli diplomat. The family returned to Israel when he was four.

The social and environmental activist was named one of the world’s 50 most adventurous open water men in 2017 by the World Open Water Swimming Association.

He has been involved in this pursuit for about 15 years and plans to carry on “forever”. Unbelievably, he says he was not born a swimmer.

“I hurt my leg when I was 35 – I injured my muscle – and the doctor said I must rest. I said: ‘I can’t rest, I must do something’,” he remembers.

“He didn’t know what to tell me so he said: ‘Well, maybe swim.’ That was the first time I swam and I fell in love with water, with the sensation it gives you.


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