On the River – October 2013

I first met Jim Alabiso at the Fox Diner in January of 2012. He ordered a skinny omelet- egg whites only with spinach, mushrooms, and peppers- no side, and a glass of milk. The 57-year-old Riverside resident carried with him a six-page printed handout, detailing his second annual St. Johns River swim. For this event, three swimmers would swim from County Dock in Mandarin to the Riverside Arts Market (RAM), a distance of 12 miles! Jim talked about his strict diet and training regimen required to accomplish such a feat.
September of 2013 marks Jim’s 3rd annual St. Johns River swim, a 10k or 6.2 miles, featuring 10 swimmers and a community flotilla, one of which is about to compete nationally in the Special Olympics. The swim would begin at the St. Johns Riverkeeper offices at Jacksonville University traveling under four bridges, before ending at the Riverside Arts Market. This event, as challenging and meticulously planned as it has been, is being threatened by the very cause Jim sought to bring attention to: the health of the St. Johns River.

“You swim IN the St. Johns River?!”
Yes, Jim swims IN the river, sometimes up to once a week. The swim team, called JumpingFish, just performed their 50th Downtown swim. Accompanied by safety kayakers, the swimmers often encounter dolphins and manatees. Recently, a gator was spotted a few feet away from the Riverside Arts Market dock where the swimmers had just exited the water. Tidal influx, currents, and weather are all obstacles that the swimmers must research, schedule, and then overcome on each journey. This is open water swimming.

Special Olympics
This year, the swim is also about raising funds for the Special Olympics, a cause near and dear to the heart of many athletes. The Special Olympics allows people of all ages with disabilities to participate in athletic competitions all over our country. Funds raised by “sponsoring” the 10 swimmers would help send athletes to the national event to compete on behalf of Duval County.

The Spotlight Turns to the River
In the week leading up to the big swim, the St. Johns River itself reached for the spotlight, potentially upstaging and putting an end to the swim. St. Johns Riverkeeper began receiving reports from area residents of green algae blooms forming up and down the river. The blooms became so extensive that the Riverkeeper, Lisa Rinaman, decided to sample the water where Jim’s big swim was to depart and end. Different types of algae can emit toxins harmful to human health, so we wanted to get an indication of the potential health risks.

Toxic Algae Detected
The lab report came back the next day, indicating the toxins detected, microcystin, were under the threshold for recreational use. However, this was a long swim and the toxin levels were still much higher than drinking water standards. As we all know, swimming often results in some water entering our bodies. A quick jump may be fine, but what about swimming for over two hours and covering 6.2 miles?
The swim was in limbo. After evaluating the sample results and observing the green formations in the river, several scientists advised against a St. Johns River swim. Jim himself admitted, “I’ve swum in algae before, and I survived,” but he was well aware of the potential risks and concerned about the safety of his colleagues. Safety is critical, and in this case it overrode the cause. While they weren’t about to cancel the event entirely, each of the 10 swimmers had to individually decide if the potential risk was worth it after being provided a copy of the toxicology report and professional opinions.
On Saturday morning, the day of the event, a flotilla of kayaks, standup paddleboards and canoes waited patiently on the approaching swimmers. More than 100 heads were on the water including the Jax Fire Dragon boat club, Jacksonville Association of Firefighters with two fire boats, and First Coast Outfitters who provided rentals to those wanting to join the event. Groups from all over the state like Paddle Florida and Paddle to the Sea made the event. Some even followed the route on bike with the R.A.M. Ride Bicycle club. The safety team of kayakers and the Riverkeeper patrol boat, the “Kingfisher” joined the swimmers in their quest.
Every single swimmer, all 10, had decided independently to join the swim to accomplish their goal of raising awareness about the recreational benefits of the river and to raise money for Special Olympics. After the 2.5 hour swim, the swimmers exited the St. Johns to applause from supporters who gathered along the Riverwalk to welcome their arrival. Jimmy Orth, Executive Director of St. Johns Riverkeeper took the stage and quickly said “we should never have to question whether or not we can jump in our river due to algae blooms or any other health hazard.” Jim Alabiso followed saying, “I’m pro-river, and I’m pro-jobs. The algae bloom stops tourism in our hotels, holds back patrons at our riverfront restaurants, and makes our city look bad. We can’t let this happen.”
The bloom also almost put an end to a really positive and successful event. JumpingFish presented a check to members of Special Olympics Duval County for $1000 and Clay County for $500. While Jim doesn’t want to encourage exposure to potentially harmful algal toxins, he does hope to demonstrate the benefits of athletics and recreation on the river and to use his talents to help Riverkeeper and others in the fight for our right to clean water. The St. Johns River deserves it, and so do we.

About Shannon Blankinship

Shannon Blankinship is the Outreach Director for St. Johns Riverkeeper and contributes regularly via the “On The River” column building awareness for the many issues that impact the St. Johns River. Shannon received her B.S. from Purdue University in Natural Resources Economics and Policy and her J.D. from Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville. She is currently an elected official in Duval County serving on the Soil and Water Conservation District. She is a board member for the local nonprofit The Girls Gone Green and regularly contributes articles affecting animals and health. She is a Springfield resident and works to promote all things great in the urban core neighborhoods.