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Eco-Friendly Open Water Swimming: Strategies for Minimizing Environmental Impact

As a swimming community, it's our duty to be environmental stewards and protect the bodies of water we swim in. The way we access the water can impact the ecosystem, so I wanted to take a few moments to discuss ways we can minimize our impact on the environments we swim in.


The items or products we use in and around the water can make an impact, especially sunblock. Some places have already banned certain types of sunscreen that can harm reefs. Basic zinc oxide-based physical sunscreen are the most commonly used sun protection for open water swimmers. Zinc oxide is the primary ingredient in diaper rash cream, like Desitin, and you'll often find swimmers slathering it on themselves so they resemble pasty marshmallows. Zinc oxide is a a physical barrier, so wherever it remains caked onto your skin, you'll be protected. For longer marathon swims, you'll see crew members smearing massive amounts of zinc oxide onto swimmers' shoulders, necks, backs, thighs, and calves. To remove it after your swim, use baby oil, mineral oil, shaving cream, or other oil-based substance on a rag, and just scrape away!


This photo shows English Channel swimmer Jeannie Zappe covered in zinc oxide:


Another infrequently discussed environmental impact from swimmers is to respect restoration no-swim zones. Swimmers I've watched enter and frolic in restoration areas claim they're not touching or disturbing the bottom, so they don't have an impact. I've since learned that restoration may not only be for plants, it can also be for nesting birds or fish that love that area as much as us swimmers do. If there are posted notices stating there's a restoration area, or buoys marking a no-swim area, just swim around or stay out of that area. Just because you aren't necessarily touching the ground doesn't mean you're not having an impact.


Finally, leave no trace is a fundamental requirement for open water swimmers. I've been a part of group swims where people have simply dropped their trash in the water after a feed, leaving plastic bottles and baby food pouches littering the shoreline or water. The benefit of having a tow float with storage is that you get to haul all the trash out of the water, whether its your own, or trash you encounter while swimming. If you swim in areas where fishing is prevalent, consider bringing a block of foam in case you find fishing line with hooks attached. I regularly encounter hooks and line around shorelines and try to clean up as much as I can so no one steps on a barbed hook and no creatures get tangled in invisible line.

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