Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Olympic Countdown!

Get ready! Here it comes! Only 3 days until the first swimming event of the 2012 Summer Olympics!

The swimming events will take place over 8 days (July 28-Aug 4). The first day will make for an exciting opening with the Men's 400m Individual Medley (IM) and 400m free, and the Women's 400m IM and 4X100 free relay.

Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps will go head to head, right off that bat in the 400m IM. Should set the tone for a VERY exciting week of racing between these two swimming dynamos. I can't wait!!!

M. Phelps (photo from the
London Olympics website

Based on his photo at the Olympic website, I'm pretty certain that Phelps is trying to use some reverse psychology to lull his competition into a false sense of security. His pic looks more like a mug shot than the photo of the world's greatest swimmer of all time. Lochte looks every inch the swimmer in his photo. That alone should intimidate the competition!

R. Lochte
(photo from

Whichever of these two swimming superstars you're rooting for, the 400 IM promises to be an exciting start to a great week with an almost guaranteed gold for Team USA either way!

I couldn't leave off without at least a touch of Olympic spirit here...Given the very awe-inspiring photos of our 400 IM swimmers and my penchant for rooting for underdogs, I'll be cheering for Qatar's Ahmed Ghithe G Atari, not to win, but to have his best time in the 400 IM. The 5'10" 18-year-old isn't the youngest in the field--that honor goes to 15-year old Zheng Wen Quah of Singapore (who at 5'9" and 127 lbs is also the smallest competitor.) But Atari is by far the most vulnerable looking in the athlete profiles for the event     

Scrolling between the photos of Phelps, Lochte, and Atari, I can't help but feel protective of Atari. He looks so young and innocent. It looks like someone snuck a picture of the kid next door into that line up. He's being thrown into the pool with the big sharks! Who knows, maybe he'll turn out to be the shark and surprise all of us. Either way, I wish him well in the event (the only one he's swimming), and hope he has a wonderful, memorable Olympic experience.
A. Atari
(photo from

Go TEAM USA! And good luck to ALL the Olympians in the upcoming weeks!

Friday, July 20, 2012

Swimmers' Bliss

Lowcountry Splash 2.4 mile open water swim, May 2011
(yes, I stop swimming to smile and pose for pics!)

"I always wanted to be Peter Pan, the boy who never grows up. I can't fly, but swimming is the next best thing. It's harmony and balance. The water is my sky." ~Clayton Jones

Most everyone has heard of runners' high: a euphoric state achieved after running some distance. The effects experienced and distance needed to achieve this state varies from person to person, but most distance runners will tell you they've experienced this state of heightened awareness when their entire run, their entire world comes into focus and is, for a moment, perfect. Other athletes will also tell you they've experienced the equivalent of a runners' high, when "they feel they are working to their maximum potential and feeling on top of the world." The intense emotions and ecstasy of the runners' high is most likely a result of endorphins, opiate pain-relievers found in the brain that are released at times of high physical stress, like during intense exercise.

I've experienced runners' high once or twice--back when I ran marathons and half marathons. But running was never my real passion the way swimming is. Swimmers get their own, special brand of euphoria that I think merits its own category: swimmers' bliss.

Unlike a runners' high that requires significant stress on the body, swimmers' bliss comes about when a person loses themselves entirely to the physical stimuli of the pool. It can occur with the slowest, easiest, and shortest of swims right up to those high-intensity workouts that leave you sweating in the pool, arms too tired to pull you up onto the deck (at which point one might experience a runners' high AND swimmers' bliss.)

The real beauty of swimmers' bliss is that it can be intentionally induced. For me, this is a form of meditation resulting in a unique state of complete sensory stimulation--all 5 senses are involved. At the same time, one experiences the kind of sensory depravation that pools provide: sound is muffled, vision is blurred, the water closes in around you, and there is nothing but you and the water.

There might be other paths to the enlightenment of swimmers' bliss, but my own is this:

1. Count strokes. Perhaps it takes a slight case of OCD, but I have a counting pattern based on alternate side breathing: every 3rd stroke. I count arm strokes for 1 and 2, and pool length for the 3rd stroke with a breath. One, two, one, one, two, two, two, one, two,, two three, one, two, three...for as many lengths as I'm swimming. Turns get their own special rhythm in the count: breathe, two, tuck, push, kick, kick, kick, kick, one, two, breathe...then back to the pattern above.

This counting focuses my brain on the rhythm, lets me push other thoughts from my head. After years of doing this--it's the same method I used as a distance swimmer in high school and college--I don't even think about the count any more. It just happens. When I want to know where I am, I tune in to the numbers that are always running in the back of my mind and there it is, with the length number popping up every third arm pull.

2. Listen. This is something I'd always tell swimmers when I was coaching--it's a great diagnostic tool to make quick fixes to your stroke. Each stroke has its own sounds and rhythms. I listen to my stroke, listen to the water and adjust until it sounds just right. If I hear slapping and splashing, I relax, reach out further, change my stroke. Calm it. The soundtrack to a good freestyle swim, for me, is a steady pulsing that matches my stroke count: shhhhhh, shhhhh, shhhhh, shhhhh as each arm slices in to the water. Behind that, there's a constant, muffled hum of water flowing past my ears, and the blurble of exhaling and haaaa of inhaling. I can hear it and feel it. The sounds become a hypnotic symphony, reinforcing the smooth, rhythm of the stroke. One two three, one two three...a waltz through the water.

3. Watch. This works both indoors and out, but is particularly captivating in outdoor pools, lakes, or the ocean on sunny days. I watch the play of light and dim shadows of my progress through the water on the bottom (or in the water column if I'm in murky or deep water). I see the sparkle of sunlight on the water around me with each breath. Everything beyond a foot or two away is a distant blur, my goggles a barrier, separating my water world from anything else. It's me enveloped in the water's embrace, with nothing outside of that visible to distract me. One of my favorite views while swimming is coming off the wall from a backstroke turn, stretching into a long streamline, and looking up to see my own reflection on the water surface...surrounded by a water-blurred sky beyond.

4. I also feel the water, not just with my fingers and hands, but with my whole body. The water embraces and caresses, running smooth fingers down the length of a swimmer's body. It's surprising how much information the brain receives when I pay attention to that feel: hips are moving out of alignment, legs are sagging or loose, I'm not rolling enough. When I tune into that feel, I can adjust my stroke until I know, in every cell in my body, what the word "sleek" means. (Of course, feeling it and looking it are two different beasts. I can at least feel long and lean in the water, a luxury I'm not afforded on dry land--and perhaps another reason I love the feel of swimming!) I can stretch out long to get every bit of surface area in on the feeling and luxuriate in it. I push my toes back, reach my fingertips forward, and revel in the buoyancy and balance of the water supporting me, and me slicing through the water. There's no better feeling.

5. Smell and taste the water. Maybe it's a swimmer thing, but when I step into a locker room or pool area and smell chlorine, I get a little tingle of excitement in anticipation of the blissful feeling that I know is on the way. Once in the pool, I no longer smell the chlorine, it has become part of my world. Similarly, open waters have their own smells: the earthy, heaviness of lakes and ponds, or the tang of saltwater. All evoke that same anticipation. Once in the water, every breath gives a taste of chlorine, fresh, or salt water on my lips, teasing my taste buds with cool drips and drops.

I'm pretty sure that if you relax and do steps #1 and 2, the rest will follow. Start counting, listen and bliss will come your way. For me, the absolute best part of swimmers' bliss is that, by not working at swimming, but instead immersing myself in the search for bliss, I swim farther and faster than when I approach my swims as a task on my to-do list for the day, or a workout to get through. As a quest for bliss, my swim becomes both a path to something like Buddhist enlightenment and to swimming success.

Like runners' high, I suspect swimmers' bliss is experienced in as many different ways as there are swimmers. However you get it, there's nothing like the complete serenity and self-awareness of swimmers' bliss.

Swimmers, tell us about your blissful swims in the comments section!

The water is your friend. You don't have to fight with water, just share the same spirit as the water, and it will help you move.
~Aleksandr Popov

Wednesday, July 11, 2012


I love sea jellies (commonly referred to as jellyfish, although they aren't fish at all.) My infatuation with these graceful, mesmerizing invertebrates started when I saw what looked like a cross between a flower and an anemone on the sandy bottom of Brewer's Bay in St. Thomas. I'd recently transferred to the College of the Virgin Islands and was snorkeling around the school's dock. The flower was beautiful with its green-gold petals undulating with the slight surge. I had to get a closer look! (Casseopia photo courtesy of Shyzaboy's Flickr photostream.)

As I was about to touch a petal, a hand grabbed my wrist. My ecology professor was snorkeling nearby and saw what I was about to do. He pulled me to the surface and said, "That's not a plant, it's a jellyfish."

Now I was even more fascinated so found out everything I could about Cassiopea xamachana, the "upside-down jellyfish." Three years later, I did my senior research project and independent study on Cassiopea, and have never lost my fascination with jellies.

Maybe my affinity for these creatures comes from our many shared traits: elegance, grace, soft and pliable, yet able to defend ourselves with nasty barbs.

OK, we only share one out of those five traits. I'll let you guess which. Whatever the reason for my interest in these floating sacs of jelly, I'm drawn to them and endlessly curious about the incredible variety found within the phylum Cnidaria-from the Greek word for nettle, as in the stinging plant.

The Cnidarians are broken into three classes: scyphozoans (true jellies), anthozoans (corals and anemones), and hydrozoans (colonial hydras and the Portuguese Man-of-war, not a true jelly.) While corals, anemones, and hydras are all very cool, it's the scyphozoans that really captured my heart and mind. Here are the three that I find most interesting.

Cassiopea xamachana, the upside-down mangrove jelly. My first jelly. The species name xamachana means Jamaican, so you're right to guess this is a predominantly Caribbean species. Not to cast aspersions on Jamaicans or other islanders, but these jellies have some island attitude. "It's hot down in the Caribbean mehson, we ain' wastin' energy doin' all that movin' aroung!" Instead of swimming upright, bell-up, tentacles-down in traditional jelly fashion, these guys find a comfy spot on the sandy or muddy bottom of calm lagoons or bays and kick back, upside down.

They've not only found a lazy-man approach to swimming (that is, they rarely do), but to eating, too. Inside the mesoglea (jelly) of Cassiopea live thousands of zooxanthellae: tiny, single-celled algae (dinoflagellates). They're what give Cassiopea their green-gold color. These little guys do what all plants do--they photosynthesize, creating sugar (food) from sunlight and carbon dioxide, and release oxygen in the process. This jelly-mon gets part of its food and oxygen from them.

The algae don't provide all of the food the jellies need, so they do still have to eat some. Like other jellies, Cassiopea capture unsuspecting prey that swims into their waving tentacles and lappets by paralyzing them with stinging cells (nematocysts). They then move the food to their mouths. That's right. Mouths. Cassiopea don't have a single mouth in the middle of a ring of oral arms like the rest of the jellies, but instead have mouths at the ends of each branch of their manubrium (the fancy jellyfish word for stomach)!

Is it any wonder I became so intrigued with these guys?

The object of my next jelly-infatuation is a hefty, Mediterranean species.
Cotylorhiza tuberculata, the fried-egg jelly. I first saw fried-egg jellies while sailing in the Aegean. They're one of the most common species of jelly in the Mediterranean, Agean and Adriatic. Their bell has a flattened region along the margin and a yellow-orange dome in the center giving it the appearance of a large fried egg when viewed from above. Like Cassiopea, this jelly hosts symbiotic zooxanthellae, but instead of having them throughout their bodies, they house them in round appendages between and around their oral arms. The purple-blue zooxanthellae filled balls give Cotylorhiza a festive, dressed-to-party look.

Like all jellies, Cotylorhiza have nematocysts and do sting. Reports vary on its intensity and impact on humans, ranging from "very mild" to "not dangerous." There are many reports (and pictures) of people handling them, including one of a researcher putting one on his head like a hat to demonstrate how little danger they pose. Since venom strength can vary from one animal to the next, and sensitivity can vary from person to person, I wouldn't recommend this, but I'd also be the first one to jump in and touch one.

What's really fascinating about the fried-egg jellies is that they are active swimmers. While most jellies can control over their movement through the contraction of the bell, they aren't strong swimmers and the currents and wind do most of the work. When aggregations of jellyfish "swarm" in a harbor, it's usually less because they wanted to stop there and more because the current or wind put them there. Fried egg jellies, though, actively move back and forth across harbors to be in the sunlight, probably to keep their zooxanthellae happy and productive.

Click HERE to see a great you-tube video of the fried-egg jelly swimming.

My final favorite jelly is Cyanea capillata, the lion's mane jelly. This jelly isn't one of my favorites because of its physiology, behavior, or appearance, but out of empathy. People judge it harshly based on a widely circulated picture that uses perspective to make it appear to be something it isn't. Haven't we all been judged quickly or falsely based on appearance?

I like to say that perception is NOT reality unless it's correct, and MISperception is just plain wrong. In the case of Cyanea, the misperception is about its size. Yes, the lion's mane jelly is the largest sea jelly in the world, but based on the image shown here--one that periodically makes its way around the Internet--this thing is a MONSTER! Even if that man next to it is 6' tall, the jelly is still more than twice his length. That would make this behemoth a whopping 15' across.

The truth is, even though the lion's mane jelly is the largest scyphozoan in the world's oceans, it only grows to about 6.5 feet (or 8' by some reports). Its tentacles can extend as far as 50 feet (or 100', depending on the source). Yes, its tentacles sting. But the toxin is far from "the most potent species of jellyfish" as reported on the National Geographic website. That honor remains with the box jelly (aka cubomedusa or sea wasp), the most venomous animal in the world. More than 5500 deaths have been attributed to box jellies since people started keeping records of that sort of thing in 1884. Cyanea's sting is said to be painful, but it's rarely fatal.

The lion's mane jelly only reaches the maximum of its size range in cold, northern waters of the Arctic, northern boreal seas, and North Atlantic. In the Atlantic, it can be found as far south as Florida. It's abundant enough in South Carolina waters that the SCDNR has a listing for them on their "Marine Organisms of SC" website, where they're noted as considerably smaller than 6-8' in diameter, and having a far from potent sting:

"The bell, measuring 6-8 inches (emphasis added), is saucer-shaped with reddish-brown oral arms and eight clusters of tentacles hanging underneath. Cyanea are generally considered moderate stingers. Symptoms are similar to those of the moon jelly but, usually more intense. Pain is relatively mild and often described as burning rather than stinging."

At least this jellies' notoriety resulted in some small bit of fame for the maligned creatures. A Cyanea sea jelly was the murder weapon in the Sherlock Holmes mystery "The Adventure of the Lion's Mane." The victim must have been highly sensitive, though, since most swimmers who encounter this giant jelly survive to tell the story themselves.

To read more about these fascinating creatures, take a look at these resources:

The Cephalopod Page

Gowell, E. (2004). Amazing Jellies: Jewels of the Sea. A New England Aquarium Book. Bunker Hill Publishing, Piermont, NH. 48 pp.

Humann, Paul (1992). Reef Creature Identification: Florida Caribbean Bahamas. New World Publications, Inc., Jacksonville, FL. 320 pp.

Malawi Cichlids


Walla Walla University, Rosario Beach Marine Laboratory web site

Photos from:
National Geographic at


Shyzaboy's photostream on Flickr at:


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sailing Lore and Legends: It's Unlucky to Kill a Porpoise. The story of Pelorus Jack

Sailing history is filled with superstition and lore. It's unlucky to start a cruise on: a Friday (the day Christ was crucified), the first Monday in April (the day Cain slew Abel), the second Monday in August (the day Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed), December 31 (the day Judas Iscariot hanged himself). Black travel bags are unlucky but black cats are good luck and bring sailors home from the sea. Women aboard a ship make the sea angry, but naked women can calm the seas.

My favorite sailing superstition is that porpoises swimming around a ship are a good sign, and it's unlucky to kill one.

Need proof of the veracity of this bit of superstition? Look no further than the story of Pelorus Jack in New Zealand. Jack was the first dolphin to ever be protected by law.

In 1888 a Risso dolphin--a species uncommon to New Zealand waters--came to the attention of sailors on the ship Brindle as they made their way from Wellington to Nelson and back. This trip required a traverse through a dangerous bit of water between NZ's North and South Islands, a narrow channel filled with rocks hiding just beneath the surface, currents of up to 8 knots, and the remains of hundreds of vessels that didn't make it through. Sailors aboard the Brindle spotted the dolphin ahead of them, but it wasn't playing in the ship's wake as they expected. It appeared to be leading them through the channel!

The dolphin met the ship at the mouth of the channel on their return trip, too, and guided them safely back to the harbor. The sailors aboard the Brindle named the dolphin Pelorus Jack.

For 24 years, Pelorus Jack met ships from the entrance of Pelorus Sound and led them to French Pass, then picked them up again as they came out of the pass on their return journey to lead them safely back to the harbor. He was so reliable that many captains refused to go forward until he appeared. Clearly, this dolphin brought luck to all the vessels he brought safely home from their voyage. His reputation and fame grew, and people came from around the world to see him, including Mark Twain!

But, sadly, people are people and it wasn't just those who were amazed and awed that flocked to see the dolphin that seemed intent on helping sailors. In 1904, a passenger aboard a ship named Penguin fired a shot at the dolphin. Jack swam away, leaving a trail of blood in the water. Thankfully, he survived and reappeared two weeks later and proved he was as smart as he seemed: he never again led the Penguin through the channel.

Public outcry over the shooting incident led to passage of a law protecting Pelorus Jack and making it illegal to shoot a dolphin in New Zealand waters.

Pelorus Jack guided his last ship to the channel on April 12, 1912. He disappeared after that, probably dying of old age. New Zealand declared a day of national mourning to honor him, a candy bar was named after him, and songs have been written about this dolphin that brought luck to the sailors and led them safely home.

As the perfect post script to Pelorus Jack's story, five years after the passenger shot at the dolphin, the Penguin sank on the rocks in French Pass. It was the only ship lost in the channel during all the years Jack led ships through.

Closer to home, this past year, the South Carolina legislature refused to pass a law lowering the speed vessels can travel in the Charleston harbor--a law proposed because of an alarming increase in the number of fatal collisions between commercial ships and marine mammals. When a fourth-grade school class submitted a proposal to make the Atlantic bottlenose dolphin the state marine mammal, the legislature refused. One of our illustrious elected officials defended his vote against it by saying, "If we did that, we'd have to lower the vessel speed in the harbor to protect them, and that would be bad for commerce."

Maybe the SC legislature needs to hear about Pelorus Jack, the sailing superstition that it's bad luck to kill a porpoise, and the fate of the Penguin?


The Bathroom Readers' Institute (2007). Uncle John's Under the Slimy Sea. Bathroom Readers' Press, Ashland, OR. 144 pp.

The Encyclopedia of New Zealand at

Hendrickson, Robert (1984). The Ocean Almanac. Doubleday Books, New York, NY. 446 pp.

* Photo of Pelorus Jack downloaded from