After nine and half hours swimming down the Cowichan River on June 30, Geoff de Ruiter stepped out of the water about 15 kilometres short of his goal.
De Ruiter, a PhD graduate in natural resources and environmental studies, had planned to swim 50 kilometres in the river, all the way from the weir in Cowichan Lake to the Strait of Georgia to raise awareness of threats to the river’s ecosystem.
He said that he spent a lot of time walking over uneven rocks on the riverbed and, after so many hours in the water, he developed a huge blister on the bottom of one of his feet that made it hard for him to put his weight on it.
“I had to make a safety call and end the swim around Allenby Road Bridge,” de Ruiter said.
“I never expected that to be a factor when I planned this swim. I also had to exit the water a few time when I began the swim (at 9 a.m.) because the water was so cold, but it began warming up when the sun came above the trees and that made it a little easier.”
De Ruiter attempted the swim to focus attention on reduced water flows in the river due to climate change, and the ecotoxins in common sunscreens that are used by people swimming and recreating on the river.
He said the water levels were low in some places in the river, forcing him to walk along the bottom until it was deep enough to swim again, but he acknowledged that water levels are typically low at this time of year.
As for the impacts of ecotoxins in sunscreens, de Ruiter said he believes the repercussions on the river were obvious during his time in the water.
“My perception, which I acknowledge is not scientifically based, is that you could see the impacts more clearly at the upper levels of the river, where there is more human activity,” he said.
“You could see body parts of crayfish all over the place, but I never saw that further down the river where I came across healthy populations of crayfish.”
De Ruiter said he has been talking to people and businesses from Duncan to Lake Cowichan about the need to start using mineral sunscreens that are safer for aquatic ecosystems than sunscreens that have chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate that are believed to be causing the death and collapse of river invertebrate populations that support the local aquatic food chain.
“A lot of the people and businesses in the Lake Cowichan area are already informed on the issue, but I’ve been working to spread the information as far and wide as I can,” he said.
“My next step is to talk to the Cowichan Watershed Board and the Town of Lake Cowichan about funding signage at the top of the river that will inform the public about the need to use proper sunscreens while in the river. I also want to get the ball rolling with the province and the water board to get the weir on the lake raised. Of course, I also want to finish swimming the last 15 kilometres.”