- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 24, 2004

AUSTIN, Texas - As a scuba diver, Paul Ellis has explored coral reefs the world over. Brimming with color and marine life, they are his passion. Saving them is his mission.

At 61, Mr. Ellis is training for the swim of a lifetime, a challenge he calls “my personal Mount Everest.” On Aug. 5, he will splash through a 35-mile endurance quest from Cozumel to Cancun across Mexico’s Yucatan Channel. The goal is to raise awareness of the peril facing the world’s coral reefs.

A 2002 report by the Institute of the Environment’s Reef Check program at the University of California at Los Angeles found that virtually all of the world’s reefs show signs of declining health, with much of the damage done in the past 20 years.

Mr. Ellis’ swim is 14 miles longer than crossing the English Channel, but distance is only one challenge.

Darkness, currents, tiger sharks and jellyfish promise to make it one of the toughest tests this former Marine has faced. He will jump in at about 1 a.m. and isn’t expected to emerge for 12 hours.

“I’m no superswimmer,” Mr. Ellis said after a training session at Austin’s Barton Springs pool. “I’d better be ready. It’s a long black way from Cozumel to Cancun.”

Mr. Ellis doesn’t look like an extreme athlete, and he is no daredevil. He is more of an Average Joe, standing about 5-foot-10, 195 pounds with graying hair. He is founder and chairman of Austin Business College. Mr. Ellis’ confident, free-spirit attitude has been clouded by what he has seen in 30 years of scuba diving.

“I have seen through my own mask the astonishing deterioration of the coral reefs of the world,” Mr. Ellis said.

Most of the world’s coral reefs are in decline because of overfishing and pollution. Mr. Ellis ultimately hopes his swim will get 1 million people to donate time and money to marine conservation.

He has spent more than $30,000 of his own money on the effort.

Other swimmers have used the sport to raise awareness for a cause.

In 1998, Frenchman Benoit Lecomte swam the Atlantic Ocean in 71 days from Hyannis, Mass., to Quiberon, France, to raise money for cancer research.

Last summer, Christopher Swain, of Portland, Ore., became the first person to swim the full 1,243 miles of the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River to draw attention to pollution. In 1996, he swam 210 miles of the Connecticut River to draw attention to human rights issues.

Mr. Ellis chose the Yucatan Channel because he wanted to highlight Mexico’s efforts to protect the Meso-American barrier reef, one of the largest in the world.

“I want to be a good example to my children and grandchildren,” he said. “I want them to know it’s never too late to make an impact.”

His first attempt at swimming the Yucatan Channel in July 2002 was thwarted by bad weather and changing currents that forced him out of the water after about 11 hours.

Undaunted, he trains by swimming six days a week, splashing back and forth in laps of nearly a tenth of a mile at Barton Springs. His swim-stroke coach is former Mexican Olympic swimmer Josh Ilika, and he has received professional advice about his nutrition.

The swim will take Mr. Ellis about 15 miles off shore in water up to 4,000 feet deep.

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