Last updated 21 January 2022
With an infinite love of the ocean – meet Lynton Mortensen aka Sea Bull. The first Australian and 12th person in the world to complete the Oceans Seven swims. And in 2021 when Covid prevented any international swims, Lynton decided to swim around Lord Howe Island. Not a walk in the park by any means. This was swimming 30+ kilometers for a full day.
When you first meet Lynton, you may wonder if there is an endurance athlete lurking beneath his bulky stature. But do not be fooled, beneath that large body lies the heart of a lion. Spend 10 minutes with him and you’ll discover his endearing qualities: his larrikin spirit, can-do attitude, humility, and his passion for the ocean. He also is an excellent time manager, juggling his training and swimming around a daytime job as Managing Partner of a specialist Insurance Law firm in Brisbane, with family commitments, a wife, and three kids (two are now young adults.)
I wrote an ‘as told to’ story about Lynton’s swim around Lord Howe Island for the Guardian’s beach series, a day at the beach
The following post is a longer version with more details and photos. Image credits go to wife Lisa, Lynton, and boat captain Jack Shick.
The Lynton Mortensen story
I live in Brisbane (Australia) but my second home is at Currumbin Beach on Queensland’s Gold Coast. I used to play water polo and swim competitively at high school but gave that away for around 25 years. Open ocean swimming was something I ‘fell’ into after an incident in 2012. I had just turned 48. I was mucking around in ankle-deep water at Currumbin Beach on the Gold Coast with my kids. I bent down to scoop up some sand, intending to flick it back at the kids.
Somehow, my hand stayed ‘stuck’ in the sand but my entire body – all 120 kgs – propelled forward. I heard this almighty crack and thought I’d broken my arm bone. But it turns out that snapping sound was my bicep tendon snapping off the bone. I had surgery to reattach the tendon and it was six months before I could move the hand. I began swimming for rehab.
I was pretty proud of myself when I clocked up one kilometre in the pool. My first five-kilometre ocean swim was at Noosa, on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. I thought if I could swim 5km, I’d try and double the distance and do 10km. My first ‘proper’ long-distance was the Mudjimba to Mooloolaba swim off Mudjimba Beach around Mudjimba Island (Old Woman Island) to Mooloolaba Beach (11 kilometres.)
After meeting long-distance swimmer Trent Grimsey, I began seriously training for distance ocean swimming. I regularly swam from Snapper Rocks up to Currumbin – a distance of about eight kilometres and completed a few Gold Coast ocean swims, nowhere near as popular then as they are now.
Between 2016 and 2018 I swam the Oceans Seven and became the first Australian and the 12th person in the world to complete them.
What are the Oceans Seven?
They are solo swims across seven channels around the world – the open water swimming’s version of the seven summits (the highest mountains in each of the seven continents.)
A list of the channels and swim times by swimming legend Lynton Mortensen:
Strait of Gibraltar – 14.4km in 5 hours and 12 minutes
North Channel – 35km in 13 hours and 49 minutes
English Channel – 33.8km in 12 hours and 35 minutes
Catalina Channel – 32.3km in 13 hours and 59 minutes
Molokai Channel – 42km in 14 hours an 49 minutes
Tsugaru Channel – 19.5km in 9 hours and 34 minutes
Cook Strait – 29.5km in 14 hours and 14 minutes
(Lynton admits ocean swimming is not a solo event. Most of his swims are done with his support crew, his family: wife, Lisa, and three kids Lachie, Nick, and Angie.)
[Click on the link for a full list of the solo swims and races completed by Lynton Mortensen ]
To Lord Howe Island
Because Covid meant travelling overseas was not an option, my choices of where I could swim were narrowed. Lord Howe Island has been a destination I’ve always wanted to go to. It’s in our own backyard. But rather than just have a family holiday, I thought I may as well try and swim around it. Because it’s there!
Rather than reinventing the wheel, I researched who has swum around Lord Howe, hoping to pick up some tips. When I found out no one had done it, I realised it was up to me to invent that wheel. It was exciting that it hadn’t been done before.
In my research and speaking to locals about it, I came across the work of Dr. Jennifer Lavers, who heads up a small research scientist for the Adrift Lab based at the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania. One of her projects conducts research on the island on the impact of plastics found in the stomachs of shearwater birds – locals to Lord Howe.
Jennifer’s project resonated and gave me the impetus to do something. I contacted Jennifer and told her I was planning on swimming around the island. I offered to promote anything within that capacity. I love the ocean and the marine life whose home I swim in. I’m one of a number of swimmers around the world, working on changing attitudes towards our ocean environment. I like to think we’re creating a ‘sea of change.’
We ended up fundraising via social media and raised around $15k for the project. Hopefully, we also raised more awareness of the work of the Adrift Lab team.
I had a team of support people – my family and fifth-generation local, Jack Shick, my boat pilot. Jack took us for a reccy around the island in his boat a few days before my ‘swim.’ The conditions were pretty rough and all I kept thinking was, this is going to be one hell of a ride! Jack and I discussed options and we decided I’d swim counterclockwise around the island.
Two days before the swim our family was riding bikes on the island. We pulled into an inlet for a snack. A guy was standing nearby. I looked at him and he looked over at me.
“Hoi Trevor,” I said, recognising my mate Trevor Hendy from the Gold Coast.
And he yells back, “Hey Lynton.”
Hendy, a former World, and Australian Ironman Champion runs a swim school on Lord Howe. We chatted about my plans to swim around the island.
The next day (before the big swim) I was at the beach with my family. Trevor arrived and came over for a chat.
“This could be serendipity,” he said. “But I think after talking to a few islanders you should swim clockwise instead of counterclockwise.”
A local fisherman had checked the currents and spoken to Jack the boat pilot. I trusted Trevor with his knowledge of the island’s waters and his expertise in the ocean after years as an Australian surf lifesaver. It was a last-minute decision, but we changed plans to swim clockwise. This turned out to be a good decision.
A crazy Valentine Day adventure
On the morning of the swim, Sunday, February 14th, my wife and our three kids were up at 4 am, having breakfast and preparing my swim food. You can’t do ocean swimming, without your support team who follow in a boat. To keep my energy up to swim for such long periods, I stop around every 40 minutes, treading water while consuming a ‘feed’ – drinks like Gatorade, electrolytes, or Ovaltine.
We left our cabin at 5 am (it was still dark) our backpacks packed with food and camera equipment. Because Lord Howe is a bike-only island we had to ride bikes down a massive hill, in the dark, our only lights coming from our phone torches. I thought if I survive this, I can survive anything!
When we arrived (safely) at the beach I met Michael Bannister (Banno) part of Trevor’s swim school. He offered to paddle with me (on an ocean paddle ski.) Banno has a long history with the island, and he’s also an experienced lifesaver. Having this diamond of a bloke paddling by my side gave me extra reassurance. Trevor was involved with the swim school but hoped to meet me when he could get away. Along with my family on the boat, three local islanders, Stephen, Caroline, and Rachael, volunteered to help.
I dived into the lagoon at 6.30 am. Nearby, one of my sons was on an ocean ski, and Banno, lying on his paddle ski. For some reason, it was extra comfort having Banno paddling at eye level.
Heading out of the lagoon around the top of the island conditions were a bit rough. I was having to punch through the chop. I like the rough and tumble conditions. I work better in those conditions over when it’s a millpond. I’ve earned the nickname Sea Bull for good reason! I was in my element.
The extraordinary Mt Gower
We had a good run around the island into the deep ocean. Coming around Mount Gower was extraordinary.
As I was taking a break to consume one of my feeds, I looked up at Mount Gower, towering above at 875 metres, with a sheer drop into the deep blue ocean. It was like Jurassic Park meets Atlantis. I was staring in awe, mesmerised by my surroundings when Trevor Hendy paddled over to me on his ocean ski.
“Oi mate, are you just taking it all in?” he asked.
“Yeah mate I am, when are you ever going to do something like this again?” I replied.
I’d established there was no point in just swimming at a fast pace around an island. Time was never the issue. This swim was also about the journey, appreciating the splendour and the beauty of it all. And I was so grateful to be tere doing this.
And that’s when it became a bit interesting.
Galapogas whaler sharks
A few days earlier, at the end of one of our discussions about swimming around the island, Jack Shick asked me a question.
“My wife wants me to ask how you are with sharks,” Jack queried.
“What does she want to know? I replied.
“She wants to know if you’re comfortable swimming with sharks,” he responded with a smirk.
“I’ve never met a shark I didn’t like,” was my tongue-in-cheek response.
You have to go out there with that mindset. You know you’re in their backyard, but you’re not their preferred meal of choice. I’ve been fortunate to have done some free dives with scientists who have educated me on how to behave with sharks.
The oceans around Lord Howe are home to Galapagos whaler sharks, not known to be aggressive, but in packs, they can be. I’d spied one cruising below me at a depth of around 50 meters. At my next feed, there were more, and they were closer.
As I continued swimming, the shark numbers were increasing, they were dropping their dorsal fins and their body movements were becoming jerkier. Shark experts have told me it’s important to try and keep eye contact with them and stay perpendicular in the water rather than lying flat like a fish – an attempt to present yourself as something different. I was moving around, turning to keep my vision on them, when suddenly, a bigger one emerged from the deep swimming straight towards me, eyeballing me from about three metres. They were letting me know I was the one in the water in their domain.
I yelled out to Jack, “I think they’re definitely inquisitive now mate.”
Jack yelled back, “Don’t worry big fella, it would take 20 of the bastards to eat you!”
That gave everyone a good laugh and helped break the tension!
I carry two shark shields – two metres of trailing antenna attached to a small power pack. The antenna emits an electronic field around me. They cause harmless spasms in sharks’ short-range electrical receptors that in theory, turn them away.
I counted 12. Jack said there were about 15 and they were moving around.
Trevor paddled over and said to me, “You’re counting them to see whether there’s 20 aren’t you?”
My eldest, Nick dropped the shark shield in the water. I gave it a tap to feel that it was working ok. I continued swimming behind the line attached to his kayak. The ‘safe’ range of these shark shields is within two meters. Anything outside of that, the shield doesn’t work.
We continued swimming. Occasionally Nick would be a little casual about the distance between me and the shields. A couple of times I called out to him to slow down! I didn’t particularly want to test the range today!
The sharks dropped off a little, eventually trailing away by the time we got around Mount Gower.
Returning to the lagoon at sunset was beautiful. When we came around the island into the lagoon we were homeward bound. For an ocean swim to be officially recognised you must finish in the same spot where you started. There were a couple of channels to go through to finish the swim. We timed it almost perfectly as the tide was going out. If we’d arrived two hours earlier we’d been sitting waiting.
Trevor and Banno paddled ahead to check the currents and the swell coming into the lagoon. Trevor said the swells look like they’re just coming through, not breaking.
The plan was for me to swim out around the reef then come in across the reef.
“You will be right,” they said.
“I’ve been counting the sets,” Trevor said. “They’re three-minute sets and they’re not breaking.”
I thought, well he’s the expert. I could see the swell standing up and coming through and over. I’ve done that many ocean swims I can read the currents.
Trevor went ahead and Lachie, on a ski, took off. He punched under the wave, it was just magic to watch. I started swimming hard, trying to get the wave but I was picked up and thrown on the reef. I don’t know how, but I managed to come down between coral beds. I was so lucky.
I was laughing hard, because Trevor Hendy, the ocean legend indicated there hadn’t been a wave all day that had broken. But the one I chose did. We re-grouped and I managed to punch my way into the lagoon.
My family jumped into the water and swam with me to shore. I managed to avoid coral the entire swim but somehow I scraped my ankle over some at the very end. Nothing was going to stop me from walking up the beach and grabbing a cold beer from the local greeting party. The official end time was 6.59 pm.
I’d done it, I’d successfully circumnavigated Lord Howe – 30 kilometres plus in 12 hours and 29 minutes.
Walking into Pine Trees restaurant that night for dinner I received a standing ovation. It was a little embarrassing. Ocean swimming is not an individual event – it’s a team sport.
I’m grateful to be the first person to swim around Lord Howe Island and for the opportunity to give back to the ocean environment I love by supporting Dr. Lavers’ work.
International recognition for the swim
Lynton’s swim has been recognised as no. 45 in the World’s Top 100 island swim
Lynton is humble about his achievements. Whenever he can with his swims, he raises money for worthy causes.