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Swimming Dangerously


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Photographer Pete McBride set up his camera then took the plunge in Antarctica.

From the May/June 2009 issue of National Geographic Traveler

Wild crocs? Icy sea water? Don't let a little adversity spoil a good dip.

I know more than I care to about hairballs. If I leave a suitcase open on the floor, when packing for a trip or returning from one, invariably I find a hairball coughed up on my clothes, signaling some irritation with my travels. I have yet to determine if it's the cats, my wife, or some combination of the two who's sending these not-so-subtle messages. But it's my familiarity with the object in question that gives me the confidence to declare, "That's a hairball coughed up by a crocodile."

My proclamation is in response to our Aboriginal guide asking, "Does anybody know what this is?" He's holding up a fuzzy brown object about the size of a soccer ball. "Right," he answers, silencing the snickering. Then he admonishes us: "Keep those hands inside the boat at all times. That hairball used to be a wild pig."

We're in Kakadu National Park in Australia's Northern Territory. Every river, creek, and billabong around here has a sign that says: "Crocodiles inhabit these waters. Danger!" A graphic element shows crocodile jaws crunching a stick figure.

Clearly the plot line at Kakadu is more predictable than a Freddy Kruger movie: If there's trouble, the croc did it. So my connecting a crocodile to the hairball wasn't a wild guess. Harder to explain are my next words: "I want to go swimming."

My guide tells me stories of swimmers being killed, but then says, "I know a beautiful spot with a waterfall that's safe right now because rangers moved the crocodiles out at the end of the wet season."

"Won't new ones move in?" I ask.

"Only smaller, less aggressive freshwater crocs," he replies, "and they never bother anybody. Well, other than that one time."

Despite my guide's poor motivational speaking skills, I dive in and head for the waterfall. I see no crocs, though I imagine I do every time I look down or back to check. Each sighting winds up being only a glimpse of my own foot or a trail of bubbles left by my frenzied kicking.

Note: It's hard to swim when you're constantly spinning in circles to see what's behind you. Why swim there at all? Well, it's not just there. For the past year, I've felt compelled to jump into exotic waters all over the world. It's due to my theory that taking chances—for the most part measured ones—sparks up any adventure.

My year of swimming dangerously began in the Amazon. It's in the golden light before sunset that pink river dolphins start playing near our boat. Six of us dive in to swim with these usually elusive creatures. The dolphins aren't dangerous, as far as I know. The problem lies with other creatures and with the water itself. Today not a single ray of light penetrates the sediment-filled murk. That's zero visibility.

I haven't been in the river 30 seconds when I feel something brush my leg. I tell myself, "Maybe it was a dolphin." But I keep thinking, "Maybe it wasn't." What has sent my fear-addled imagination into hyper-drive is a little parasitic item called the candiru, or toothpick fish.

The candiru is a bloodsucker known for swimming into the gill openings of other fish, locking itself in place by spreading its backward-facing spines, then gnawing its way to major blood vessels. "Not to worry," you say, "people don't have gills." No, but locals say the candiru can work its way into a body cavity faster than a border guard looking for hidden narcotics.

An autopsy of a woman who died after swimming in the Amazon revealed six candiru in her bladder, I'm told. They were attracted to the smell of urine, which leads them to our non-gill openings. One thing's for sure: Swimming in the pucker position isn't easy. You worry more about keeping everything squeezed tightly shut than about keeping your head above water.

It's also not easy to swim when you're not sure if your heart is still beating. That insight comes courtesy of a plunge in the icy Arctic waters off Svalbard, Norway. I was on ship for a climate change conference with scientists, business leaders, and political bigwigs. While they talk warming oceans, I go around like a preacher promoting baptisms. "Folks," I say, "we are in the Arctic. We have to jump in for a quick dip. Don't let this opportunity pass."

The day of reckoning dawns cold. The polar plunge draws little enthusiasm until three of us walk out in our bathing suits. Suddenly, this boat full of type A's race to change into their suits to join us. Perhaps this spirit of competition explains my own irrational decision to not just hop in and back out but to dive in head first and swim away from the ship. I complete four strokes then feel like I'm having one.

There's a moment of suspended animation when my brain tells me I'm still alive but maybe not for long, because there's no feeling below my neck. Sure that I'm going to die, I switch from the Olympic freestyle form executed on my outbound lap to an erratic thrashing stroke on the way back, in the style of a drowning victim.

My year of swimming dangerously ends in the Antarctic. Again, I'm on a ship where the consensus is: "As long as we're here, why not go for a swim?" Well, one reason might be the ship doctor standing by with a defibrillator. But the chance to have splashed around in both the Arctic and the Antarctic in one year overwhelms common sense, so I plunge in.

I now know I don't need to swim in 30-degree water again, or with crocodiles, or candiru, but I did need to do it once (or twice). There's something to be said for stepping outside of your comfort zone into a one-of-a-kind adventure. I can always book the same old beach house for the summer, but once in a while I like to take a little chance that leaves my friends gasping: "What were you thinking?"

Contributing editor Boyd Matson hosts TV's Wild Chronicles as well as National Geographic Weekend on radio.

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