The Man With Dolphin Karma

If you haven’t seen the 2005 movie “On A Clear Day,” you’re definitely not alone. Only 559 people on the movie-centric social media site Letterboxd have noted that they’ve seen it, which isn’t a lot of people. (To give some perspective, more than 6,400 Letterboxd users claim to have already seen “The Batman,” which doesn’t come out for another three days.) But then again, most of us haven’t been on very long plane flights and need some way to pass the time. In 2006 or 2007, a British man named Adam Walker was en route to Australia when he came across the movie and gave it a watch — and came out inspired. On A Clear Day features a character named Frank who swims across the English Channel and Walker decided he wanted to do the same. 

When Walker returned back to the UK, he began training. and in the summer of 2008, he successfully completed the 21-mile (34 km) swim in just over 11 and a half hours. Thrilled by his own success, he decided to swim the Straits of Gibraltar next, and in 2011, conquered that  10-mile (16 km) stretch twice — he decided to go there and back, a feat which took him nearly 10 hours of continuous swimming. And while he didn’t know it yet, Walker’s quest was just getting started. A group of extreme outdoors adventurers had just devised something called the “Oceans Seven” — seven marathon swims around the globe. And in 2012, an Irish swimmer named Steve Redmond became the first to accomplish the challenge. Walker was determined to do so as well, and for good measure, turned the quest into a fundraising effort — he asked supporters to donate to charities focused on saving the oceans’ whale and dolphin populations.

Thankfully for him, the dolphins had also started a “Save Adam Walker” fundraiser and swimathon. 

Okay, not really, but close enough for his sake.

In April of 2014, Walker tackled the Cook Strait, the 14-mile (22 km) gap separating the northern and southern islands that make up New Zealand. He wasn’t alone — on this attempt and on all of his attempts, a support team (in a boat) traveled alongside him to ensure his safety, and also to give him some food — swimming for half a day straight burns a ton of calories. As he recounted on his website, about three hours into his swim, his team fed him — and suddenly, “a whole pod” of dolphins appeared, and “within seconds I had a dolphin posse surrounding me.” (Here’s a video of Walker in the water, and you can see a bunch of dolphin fins poking out of the water.) The swimming mammals weren’t interested in Walker’s protein shakes or whatever he was eating, though — quite the opposite. The dolphins were most likely there to protect Walker from being eaten.

After about fifteen minutes of his dolphin-accompanied swim, Walker noticed a shark had also joined his caravan, swimming not too far beneath him and, roughly, matching his pace and course. He didn’t tell his crew, fearing they’d end his swim and get him out of the water — and Walker felt he didn’t have to: “I didn’t concern myself too much as being surrounded by the dolphins somehow made me feel protected by them,” he wrote. And it turns out that he was very likely correct. Dolphins have been known to protect people from sharks in other, similar situations that don’t involve marathon swims. And as Sciencing explains, the behavior they exhibited toward Walker is the same that other dolphins have displayed when protecting one of their own: “when a member of a pod is in danger from a shark, however, the rest of the pod springs to the defense. They will surround the shark, swimming around it in all directions and slapping it with their fins to confuse it. Most sharks end up fleeing, and the technique is so effective that the shark probably won’t threaten a dolphin pod again.”

The dolphins remained at Walker’s sides for about an hour, only saying so long and thanks for all the fish after the shark also fled. Walker finished his Cook Straight swim about four hours later, and later in 2014 conquered the seventh and final leg in the Oceans Seven challenge. Along the way, he raised about £3,500 — just under $5,000 — for whale and dolphin charities.


Bonus fact: As mammals, dolphins don’t have gills and can’t extract oxygen from the water; they need to come to the surface to breathe. And unlike us people, they don’t breathe through their mouths; they have blowholes instead. But until 2016, the consensus in the scientific community was that dolphins couldn’t breathe through their mouths — and that turned out to be wrong. That year, researchers in New Zealand discovered a dolphin with a damaged blowhole; the blowhole wasn’t able to provide the dolphin with an adequate amount of oxygen to survive. The dolphin adapted — it somehow learned to breathe through its mouth.

From the Archives: Sleeping and Breathing: How do dolphins sleep in the water if they have to breathe air? Good question.