Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Penny Palfrey & Bad Buzz: misreporting about killed sharks detracts from her accomplishment

News reports that the support crew, for ocean endurance swimmer Penny Palfrey, killed several curious oceanic whitetip sharks during the course of her swim from Little Cayman to Grand Cayman are now having to do an about-face. The Cayman Islands Department of Tourism looked into the reported killings and found there was no evidence of any sharks being harmed. Several were hooked and towed away to be released at a safe distance - and that's a far cry from saying they were killed.

A variety of information outlets ricocheted the story like a steel ball in a pinball game, from respectable news sources to the blogosphere where, unfortunately, attitudes can get nasty. I read many of the reports and chose not to report it in my blog until Monday, when I mentioned it in regards to Diana Nyad's upcoming swim. Based on what she was hearing in the press, Diana decided to do an 11th-hour revamping of her security protocols and, in the end, it was a wise move regardless of what did or did not take place during Penny's swim.

But there were many who took poor Penny to task in a big way and it illustrates the zealous passion that some people have regarding the preservation of sharks, how it is becoming a hot button news topic, and how dangerous the entire "social media" craze is to the tenants of accurate and balanced reporting.

According to The Daily News of Open Water Swimming, Penny Palfrey's man in charge of security may have used a poor choice in words which was misinterpreted by some news outlets, and so the bad buzz began. "
The findings were that The Cayman Islands Department of Tourism contacted the individual named in the original report, Charles Ebanks, who confirmed that he did not kill any sharks during the historic Bridging swim and states that reports to the contrary are inaccurate. He stated that he 'hooked the sharks and lead them away', he further added, 'I was there, I did not kill any sharks. They are assuming I did something which is not true and you can quote me on this.' Charles stated that the boat captain from the boat asked him what he did with the sharks and he replied, 'I got rid of them.' He said he thinks this could have been taken to mean that they were killed."

Hooking a shark (basically fishing for them with a baited line) is the last ditch approach to be taken with a shark that is proving to be intensely curious to the point of being a threat to the swimmer. There are several other steps that are taken to ward off the shark before one decides to catch it and then quickly motor a mile or so away and release it. It's a bit more involved than a straight forward catch-and-release because the shark needs to be transported out of the area.

Apparently, Penny Palfrey's crew felt compelled to take that step because a shark was reported to have bumped her during the night - and you can imagine how that could rattle a swimmer's concentration.With all the questionable reporting that has been swirling about for the past week, I have no reason to question the actions of Penny's staff. Is the loss of three sharks worth an ocean swim record? I think not. And it now appears that, for Penny, that dilemma does not have to be debated.

Hopefully, Penny will be able to regain some of the attention regarding her accomplishment that was lost due to the media storm. In my brief time so far with Diana Nyad, I have come to appreciate the dedication and commitment these ocean endurance swimmers invest into their sport. So, let me join the chorus of others who are saying, "Bravo, Penny! Bravo!"

In the meantime, I wait for the call to join up with the film crew as she prepares for her Cuba to Florida swim, a staggering 103 miles in 60 hours. One for the record books.

Read about the investigation in The Daily News of Open Water Swimming.

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