Esperance swimmers brave 13-degree-Celsius shark habitat without a wetsuit to boost mental toughness

Kath Donovan is getting ready for her weekly mental toughness exercise.

The 69-year-old stands on Twilight Beach on Western Australia’s south coast facing Antarctica, in a swimsuit and with only an extra swimming cap for protection.

Unperturbed by the famous sharks of the region and the sea temperature of 13 degrees Celsius, she dives.

Ms. Donovan is part of an Esperance Surf Life Saving Club group called the Icebreakers who brave the cold waters of the Southern Ocean year round, none of them wearing wetsuits.

While it might seem intimidating, Ms. Donovan is a firm believer in its benefits.

“It makes you conscientiously strong.”

Swimming saves lives

Perhaps that’s what helped fellow icebreaker Lisa Julian perform the act that won her the Silver Medallion for Bravery by Surf Life Saving WA in May of this year.

Lisa Julian never wears a wetsuit during her Sunday morning swims, even when temperatures drop to as low as 13 ° C.(ABC Hope: Emily Smith)

In December 2018, she was enjoying a summer beach vacation with her family when a young man slipped into the water off the rocks.

“No one else was really there, so I had to go out and paddle around the rock and go get it, which was pretty scary because it was big waves,” Ms. Julian said.

After putting the man to safety, it certainly made her thankful for all the off-season training she had done.

“The number of lives saved by life-saving surfers is huge, even with preventative actions before they get into real trouble,” Ms. Julian said.

Now she perseveres with a slightly lower stakes challenge – swimming the entire winter season without a wetsuit.

“I didn’t find it too cold,” she said.

“There was a weird occasion where you get that ice cream headache when you first start out, but if you move around you just focus on your surroundings more than anything.”

The group comes out of the sea
Icebreakers emerge from the sea at Twilight Beach, Esperance.(ABC Hope: Emily Smith)

Sharks are no strangers to the beach

The idea of ​​a shark attack hangs in the minds of anyone who ventures out into the ocean in these areas.

Lately, Laeticia Maree Brouwer, a 17-year-old from Mandurah, was fatally attacked in the nearby Kelp Beds, while in 2014, now Paralympian Sean Pollard lost both arms in an attack near ‘Hope.

While the area has two linked satellite receivers that send an alert when tagged sharks swim nearby, they can be found in West Beach and Kelp, a few miles from Twilight.

And although Ms. Donovan saw a few sharks, she said it was a rare occurrence.

“We had a swim right next to the rock over there; [it] swam between our two boards as we paddled [but it was] only a small one, ”she said.

“You would be foolish” not to be afraid, says a swimmer

Her husband Graham Donovan is another regular ocean swimmer who has said he certainly gets scared in the ocean at times.

“You’d be a fool if you didn’t,” he said.

But Ms Julian said it could be stranger when there was nothing at all to see.

Kath Donovan walks along Twilight Beach
Swimmers are more likely to encounter dolphins, seals, and schools of fish than sharks.(ABC Hope: Emily Smith)

“Sometimes you feel like things are staring at you and it gets a little intimidating, especially when you’re swimming on your own,” she said.

“But I think it’s mind over matter so [and] you just have to remember it’s okay. “

In the 45 years Ms. Donovan swam in the ocean at Esperance, she was joined much more often by friendlier companions – dolphins, seals and large schools of salmon.

“When you look at the bottom of the ocean, you will see crabs running along the sand,” she said.

“You have to make sure you don’t put your feet down so you don’t get bitten.”

As the group return to shore after successfully dodging the tentacles of a large jellyfish, they participate in a much more inviting ritual.

“Coffee and cake time,” Ms. Donovan said with a smile.

“We have earned it now.”


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