Approximately 350 million years ago, our fishy ancestors grew limbs and began to leave the oceans for the safety of dry land. As far as I am concerned, that represented progress and not a cause for regret or reconsideration. Yet for some reason homo supposedly sapiens retains a visceral longing to return to the briny deep. Millions upon millions of our species spend much of their money and almost all of their holidays on this primordial pursuit.
I just don't understand it; but then I am of the small, scorned, minority who loathe swimming in the sea. Let me count the ways I don't love it. It is wet, without exception. It is undrinkable. It is monotonous, appallingly so. On beaches, you can see men standing up to their chests in it, with a certain half-focused look in their eyes. You know what they are doing. Yes, of course, the ratio of urine to water might only be detectable by a mass spectrometer, but it's the principle that offends.
Above all that, there is the point which we were all taught by our mothers, or grandmothers: it is dangerous. You can drown in it, with effortless ease, in seconds. Anyway, that's what they told me, and I did not want to disappoint them by proving them right. Then, I was sent to a school at which many boys rowed, and accordingly every pupil was required to learn how to swim the length of a pool – while dressed in shirt, shorts and plimsolls.
I told the teachers that I had no intention of ever rowing, that the idea of moving backwards through water accumulating nothing but blisters would never attract me, that I would sign a document to that effect, if necessary. No, they said, the school rules are the school rules, with no exception for clever dicks. So I learnt to swim in the most unpleasant way imaginable – I was eventually pulled out of the pool because I was too exhausted to get out on my own, weighed down by waterlogged shirt, shorts and shoes.
Nevertheless, I married a woman who loves swimming as passionately as I detest it, and is as powerful through the waves as I am incapable. Some years ago, when we went on a beach holiday with some friends, it suddenly became clear that the other husband, swimming far out on his own, was in difficulties. His wife let out a cry of alarm. I stood there, hoping that everything would be fine. My wife ran into the heaving seas, swam swiftly with her pulsing, purposeful crawl towards our friend – who had managed to clutch on to a buoy – and then returned him safely to shore. I will never forget the look on his wife's face: one of relief, but also (or so I imagined) reproach that I had not been the one to move smartly to the rescue.
Yet the one thing you can't say in such circumstances is: "Well, if he's not a very good swimmer, why doesn't he do the sensible thing and sit here with us in conversation, or read a book, or enjoy any one of the many fascinating pursuits which are not available when immersed in salt water".
Similarly, one must not say of the 70-year-old German woman who last weekend was mauled to death by a shark in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh: didn't it occur to her that if a few days earlier two tourists off the same beaches had lost significant parts of their anatomy (respectively, a hand and a leg) to two different sharks that it would not be very sensible to swim out in those waters?
In fact this entire episode had been peculiarly like the plot of Jaws, the Steven Spielberg film, starring – in the climactic scene – a somewhat comical prosthetic shark (special effects have come on a bit since 1975). You might recall the moment in which the Mayor of Amity Island, desperate that tourism in his fiefdom is not harmed by fears of a human-eating killer shark, tells a television reporter: "I'm pleased and happy to repeat the news that we have in fact caught and killed a large predator that supposedly injured some bathers. But, as you see, it's a beautiful day, the beaches are open and people are having a wonderful time."
Similarly, after the incidents earlier last week in which various Russian tourists were mauled in the bays of Sharm el-Sheikh, the local authorities reassured holidaymakers that they had captured and killed the two sharks responsible – an oceanic white tip and a mako – and that their seas were now completely safe for swimming.
Everyone seems duly to have been reassured – including the unfortunate 70-year-old German, who, one holiday maker told Sky News, "was just swimming to stay in shape. Suddenly there was a scream of help and a lot of violence in the water. The lifeguard got her on the reef and he noticed that she was severely wounded". She was dead within minutes.
Yet when the BBC later interviewed a local British diving instructor and asked him how everyone felt about the tragic incident, he replied: "Everybody is very worried. Our lives and industry around Sharm el-Sheikh revolve around tourism." As I say, just like the screenplay of Jaws, only not fiction. In the same spirit, the manager of the Sinai Diver's Centre, Rolf Schmid, was reported as saying: "It is unusual to have four attacks in a week." Unusual, eh? Most reassuring.
The Independent's Senior Travel Editor, Simon Calder, argued yesterday that "perceptions of the risk among travellers are distorted. While shark attacks have happened in the waters of the Sinai Peninsula, statistically, terrorism [in the area] is a much bigger threat". Simon may well be right; but having dodged the terrorist threat by not being blown up, why tempt fate further by swimming in Shark Bay?
As matter of fact, a couple of months ago we spent a week at the nearby Red Sea resort of El-Gouna. The usual arrangements prevailed. Wife and daughters spent all day in the water, while I remained on dry land, ensuring we had a salubrious spot to call our own on the beach, and a good table in the shade at the restaurants. You see, it really is vital that every family has at least one non-swimmer.Reuse content