Swimming across Lake Ontario is one of the world’s most difficult swims, according to an interesting article on Great Lakes ECHO. Powerful currents and rapidly changing water temperatures make swimming across the lake a risky endeavor.
Swimming across Lake Ontario was even more challenging in the 1950s, when eel-like sea lamprey ruled the Great Lakes.
Sea lamprey are ravenous fish — basically swimming vampires — that cling to fish and suck out their blood and other bodily fluids. The invasive lamprey, which are native to the Atlantic Ocean, entered the Great Lakes through manmade canals and proceeded to decimate native fish populations.
Sea lamprey also complicated Marilyn Bell’s courageous swim across Lake Ontario in September 1954. In addition to battling strong currents, the 16-year-old Bell had to pull sea lampreys off her legs and abdomen as she swam across the lake.
I shared Bell’s incredible story in my book, “Pandora’s Locks: The Opening of the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence Seaway.”
Fortunately for Bell, and everyone else who swims in the Great Lakes, sea lamprey only penetrate the skin of cold blooded organisms, such as fish.
We are also fortunate that the Great Lakes Fishery Commission has managed to keep the Great Lakes sea lamprey population in check. The commission spends about $20 million annually to control sea lamprey.
Without the commission’s efforts, many more swimmers might encounter sea lamprey in the lakes. And the $7 billion Great Lakes fishery would be a shadow of its current self if sea lamprey were allowed to regain control of the lakes.
Remember that the next time Congress or Canada’s parliament tries to cut funding for sea lamprey control programs.