Making waves and skirting sharks: Mariam bin Laden on her Saudi Arabia-Egypt swim

Saudi endurance swimmer and humanitarian swam to Cop27 site Sharm El Sheikh to call for protection of coral reefs

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Saudi endurance swimmer Mariam bin Laden has made history again — this time as the first woman and first Arab to swim from Saudi Arabia's Tiran Island to Sharm El Sheikh in Egypt.

Bin Laden, a dentist and advocate for Syrian refugees, joined fellow endurance swimmer and UN Patron of the Oceans Lewis Pugh in the Coral Swim event in the Red Sea.

They were aiming to bring attention to the devastating effects of climate change on coral reefs ahead of Cop27.

On her leg of the swim, bin Laden had to contend with high waves and strong winds — and avoiding sharks.

The UN climate summit will be held in Sharm El Sheikh from November 6 to November 18.

Pugh is swimming approximately 10 kilometres a day in the 160km expedition that began on Oct 11 and is due to end on Oct 25.

Starting on Saudi Arabia's Tiran Island, Pugh's route passed Sharm El Sheikh on the Sinai Peninsula and will end at the Egyptian city of Hurghada.

It’s not the distance, it’s not the kilometres ... but it is very high risk
Saudi swimmer Mariam Binladen

Bin Laden accompanied Pugh on the first nine-kilometre segment, near the Gulf of Aqaba, from Tiran Island to Sharm El Sheikh.

“The world is so beautiful and it’s so big. We need to discover it and we need to draw attention to certain issues,” bin Laden told The National.

“The cause [for this swim] is to protect our environment and specifically to protect our coral reefs. The Red Sea is full of coral reefs. I think it is the most beautiful sea in the world and we need to protect it,” she said.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warns that even if global warming is limited to only 1.5°C — the most ambitious target set by the 2015 Paris Agreement — the world’s coral reefs will decline by at least 70 per cent.

With 2°C of warming, virtually all coral reefs would be lost by 2070, it is estimated.

Bin Laden previously set out to break swimming records to raise awareness of the plight of refugee Syrian children and inspire more women to participate in sport.

In 2015, she became the first Arab woman to complete the 4.5km Hellespont Swim in Turkey, from Europe to Asia.

She was also the first woman ever to swim the 162km length of the River Thames in England, completing the feat in 10 days in June 2016.

Two months later, she achieved a dream she'd had since age 11 — becoming the first GCC woman to swim 34km across the English Channel, taking 11 hours and 45 minutes. The 2019 documentary I am Mariam bin Laden follows her journey.

She added another first to her list in 2017, when she swam 24km along the Dubai Creek and Dubai Water Canal in about nine hours.

Bin Laden has donated proceeds raised from the swims to provide free dental care at Al Azraq refugee camp in Jordan, home to more than 55,000 refugees.

She opened Dr Mariam Dental Centre in December 2016, in collaboration with IMC Hospital and the Jordan Hashemite Charity Organisation.

The opportunity for the Coral Swim came up when bin Laden met Pugh at an event at the British embassy in Riyadh earlier this month.

“When I first met Mariam, I realised straight away that she would be an ideal person to join me in the crossing from Saudi Arabia all the way through to Egypt,” Pugh said in an Instagram post last week.

“I always envisaged that the Coral Swim would be a gathering of swimmers from across the region, coming together to protect the Red Sea.”

Swimming from Saudi Arabia to Egypt had been a goal in the back of bin Laden’s mind, but she was nervous about how dangerous it could be.

“I always wanted to do it, but I was scared that this part is full of sharks,” she said. “I always thought that I would have to swim it inside a shark cage.”

Pugh reassured her that they would be using Shark Shield, a device that emits a three-dimensional electrical field which deters sharks and is placed under the boat.

They had to swim close to the boat and avoid early mornings and late afternoons due to the feeding time of sharks.

“But the thing that was scary is that the waves were high — a metre to a metre and a half — and there were strong winds. So we were pushed away from the boat, more than the radius, more than three metres away,” she said.

“That was the scariest part for me.”

The swim was completed in two segments over two days due to weather conditions and safety, taking a total of around four hours.

“At one point the current was against us and the wind was with us. So, we basically were in a washing machine state. We were swimming for half an hour and didn’t move,” she said.

Bin Laden says she is “very grateful” she completed the swim, owing her safety to “praying the whole way” and the presence of her mother on the boat. Before she set off, she kissed her mother’s hands.

“Since the day I was born, she’s always with me — all my swimming, all my studying, everything. She’s my backbone,” bin Laden said.

When bin Laden reached the Sharm El Sheikh shore, she looked back at the sea in which she swam in awe.

“It’s not the distance, it’s not the kilometres, because I’ve been swimming more hours and more kilometres, but it is very high risk,” she said.

Symbolically, swimming from her home country also touched her.

“The Red Sea means a lot to me. I’m from Jeddah. I swim in the Red Sea; it’s a part of me,” she said.

Updated: October 18, 2022, 5:28 PM