When he’s not winning gold medals at the Special Olympics, Alec Brice Cox can be found diving inside a predator tank at the Cayman Islands Turtle Centre in West Bay.
Spending hours every day swimming in an enclosed space with sharks may be a terrifying thought for some, but 23-year-old Cox says he’s comfortable with a few friendly nurse sharks and barracudas as his swimming companions during his daily work schedule at the centre.
“If we’re talking about a great white [shark], then I’m never going back into a shark tank again,” Cox said.
Last month, Cox swam his way to a gold medal in the 800-metre freestyle at the Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. He also brought home a bronze in the relay and led Cayman’s swimming team to victory.
But when he cannot train or compete in a pool, he says, cleaning the predator tank at the Turtle Centre is the next best thing.
“The environment is very nice, and the people are nice there too. When I’m in the water, I feel free,” Cox said.
Carrying just a microfibre wash cloth and dressed in bright red swim trunks and rash guard, he drops underwater with an air tank on his back and swims to the viewing glass as a large nurse shark glides past inches from his head. Cox seems unaware of the animal as he begins his job of cleaning algae from the glass. Another shark passes and Cox quickly turns his head to check the shark’s movement. For the next three hours, he carries out his chores.
Lifeguard manager Erin Miller said the biggest threat to Cox and the other divers who do this work is running out of air. “They always have to check their air supply because at 500 PSI [pounds per square inch], they have to surface and have the tanks changed because we cannot take a tank into Divetech at zero [PSI for refilling].”
The sharks and the other fish in the tank are no threat, assures Miller.
“We have guys that have been cleaning the tank for over eight years and there have been no incidents,” he said.
Miller said safety procedures are in place if divers do get into trouble – two groundsmen keep a close check on the divers and can get them out quickly if anything goes wrong.
“The sharks usually come very close to the divers but just swim past. The sharks … are no threat at all … they just mostly suck,” Miller said.
Nurse sharks are bottom-dwellers that are normally found on the ocean’s seabed, where they feed on small fish and crustaceans.
The Predator Reef exhibit at the Cayman Turtle Centre is a collection of tropical predatory fish species mostly found in waters around Cayman and the wider Caribbean.
There are many tropical species in the tank, including the two male nurse sharks, Buca and Freddy. Buca weighs 230 pounds and is 9 feet long, while Freddy weighs 200 pounds.
Also inside the tank are crevalle jacks, horse-eye jacks, Bermuda chubs, tarpons, barracuda and turtles.
Cox first started swimming competitively in 2008 at the age of 12, under the guidance of the late Penny McDowall. McDowall, a former special education teacher, was the founder of the Special Olympics swimming program in Cayman. She passed away earlier this year.
“When she got me in the pool, she said I was a great swimmer for the Special Olympics Stingray team,” Cox said.
He said his schooling started at Red Bay Primary before he went on to Lighthouse School. In 2009, he moved to the Brac’s Layman E. Scott High School where he swam with Brac swim coach Michael Hunt.
Cox moved back to Grand Cayman in 2016 and started swimming with the Special Olympics team.
“I may be a little slow when I’m on land dealing with people and dealing with life but when I’m in the water, it makes everyone equal and that’s when I’m better than anybody,” Cox said.
He said his love of swimming and the water came when he was 8 years old and his stepfather Monte Thornton, a dive instructor, took him scuba diving.
His proudest moment came in Abu Dhabi when he won gold – his first Special Olympics medal. At first he did not realise he had won, as the scoreboard appeared to show he was in sixth place. But then when he went to collect what he thought was a sixth-place ribbon, “They said I was on top of the leaderboard. It was an awesome feeling,” Cox said.
Being a swimmer also came in handy in Abu Dhabi’s searing heat, Cox said, as he was glad to be able to get into the water to cool down.
Cox’s mother Irene Scott said he showed her he loved sports from the time he was a little boy watching sports with his dad Al Cox, who was a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers football team.
“Alec played basketball for the Special Olympics but just as soon as he got into the water, it washed away all the other sports and he swam like a fish,” Scott said.