Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The Weever's Tale And The Drowning Man

A common theme of most Mallorcan summers has been conspicuous by its absence this year. Jellyfish. "Plagues" or threats of plagues have not materialised, for which we should all be grateful. The absence of any biblical style invasions of the "medusa" and the resultant absence of their reporting by the media may explain why an attack by a different nasty of the waters merited some column inches. A German woman was stung by a weever fish in Peguera the other day. At first, I thought I was going to be reading that she had been killed. Thankfully, this wasn't the case, but quite why it was necessary to report a weever-fish attack I honestly can't say. Maybe it's still the silly and a very slow news season.

It's not as though there aren't other weever-fish incidents. A former neighbour of mine was stung close to the shore in Playa de Muro three summers ago. It was, in his words, indescribably painful. Actually, given that he is French, these weren't his words, but they amounted to the same. The sting required a trip to the hospital, but this was as much precautionary as really necessary.

Fatality by fish is extremely rare. In 1998 there was a death, that of a British teenager swimming off Cala Blava. The cause was something of a mystery, but it was almost certainly as the result of an acute allergic reaction to being stung by a "spider fish", which is how the weever is known locally ("pez araña").

The waters around Mallorca don't hold great terrors, but they claim lives every year. In the Balearics as a whole, eighteen people have drowned so far this summer, one more than in 2010. Playa de Muro, for some reason, seems to attract more than its fair share of drownings. Over the space of ten days at the end of August there were three fatalities.

It is not as though there is anything dangerous about the sea off Playa de Muro. The water is shallow, and the sea only becomes potentially risky with an undertow or the wrong sort of wind. Even then, it can't really be described as dangerous, no more so than any other shallow water subject to the same conditions. A common link in the three drownings was that of age; each swimmer was over 60 years old. The emergency services (by which one primarily means the Cruz Roja, the Red Cross) attributed the drownings to cardiac failure. Around 70% of all drownings in the Balearics are of people over the age of 60.

Advice on keeping safe when swimming includes not swimming alone, not swimming when there are no lifeguards on duty, i.e. too early in the morning, too late in the evening or at night, and even taking care if there are too many people in the water; it can be more difficult for a lifeguard to detect a swimmer in trouble when the sea is packed.

The advice is sound enough but is easily and temptingly ignored. Of the drownings that have occurred, the circumstances have not generally been exceptional. One of the drownings in Muro, for example, occurred at 3.30 on a Sunday afternoon. Maybe there were a lot of people in the water, but who considers this when going for a swim? Unfortunately, unfortunate things happen.

Indeed, the emergency services reckon that incidences of "reckless" swimming are on the decline. By reckless, one presumes they mean ignoring red flags, though it is not entirely clear, as it is also not entirely clear what Muro town hall means when it says that reckless swimmers will be fined.

Presumably not reckless, albeit she was swimming solo, was Teresa Planas who has just completed the 40-kilometre crossing between Menorca and Mallorca in under 14 hours. It's as well that's she has completed it, as the sea between the two islands is where the risk of the phenomenon of the meteotsunami ("rissaga") is at its greatest, and as the autumn equinox approaches, so the risk increases.

The sea and the beach come with very few risks. Drownings are generally unavoidable if they are the result of a health malfunction. Treading on weever fish is hard to avoid. But there is one risk and one example of, if you like, recklessness that can be avoided. That is the beach at night. The sea may not be risky, unless you've gone skinny dipping on a tankful, but if you have gone skinny dipping, you may not find everything as you left it. Even if you keep your clothes on and just go for a walk, there is a risk. It's best avoided.

Any comments to please.

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