Jim Alabiso was standing on a dock in Mandarin one day in 2007, looking out at the St. Johns River. From where he was standing south of the Buckman Bridge, he said he noticed “how vacant the river was,” that “it looked like a desert.”
“I thought how cool it would be to swim across it,” he said. “But people told me it was too polluted, and my skin would fall off.”
He called an environmental engineer with the city of Jacksonville, who told him it wouldn’t kill him, and that his skin wouldn’t fall off.
So “I took that as permission,” he said.
Alabiso has been swimming across the St. Johns since, and founded an organization called Jumping Fish that advocates recreational use of the river, and the need to environmentally protect it.
Jumping Fish also advocates for all waterways in general, with a mission to create “an economy of athletics, recreation and tourism – ART – around them.”
While now focusing on the St. Johns, he eventually wants to take the cause to a national and international level.
Since he’s a swimmer, he’s currently building awareness through swimming.
In 2011 he swam across the St. Johns solo, with a backup team – three and a half miles from Orange Park to Mandarin.
In 2012, he swam 12 miles from Mandarin to the Fuller Warren Bridge with two other swimmers. Calling the event “Up the River,” they finished with a large audience at the Riverside Arts Market, under the bridge.
In 2013, he and nine other swimmers swam 10 kilometers, or 6.2 miles during “Up the River Downtown,” starting at Jacksonville University and finishing again at the Riverside Arts Market. The event was also a fundraiser for Special Olympics, and held in conjunction with the St. Johns Riverkeeper.
Alabiso and other organizers spoke at the Arts Market, where thousands of people came out to support them. As a river advocate through Jumping Fish, Alabiso urges the elimination of fertilizers that pollute it, and also speaks about the dangers of changing the river through dredging, and removing water from it for commercial and other uses.
Alabiso, 58, didn’t start swimming until he was 49, following recovery from a bad bicycle accident that required surgeries and put him temporarily in a wheelchair.
He also stopped smoking, lost 90 pounds through healthy eating, and is now in great shape. He swims in the ocean year round with the Duval Ocean Swimmers, an open water swim group – and even on the coldest days he never wears a wet suit.
Alabiso would like to see Jacksonville become a thriving recreational hub, “the Lake Tahoe of the Southeast.”
By building awareness through river swim events, he believes his movement has sustainability through increased support from the community.
Swimming the St. Johns last September during Up the River Downtown, he said he looked behind him and saw 75 kayakers following along as support, along with stand up paddleboarders and members of the Jacksonville Fire Dragons Dragonboat Club.
“It was an armada from the community,” he said. “It brought a tear to my eye.”
The 2014 Up the River Downtown event is slated for August 23.
For more information, visit the Jumping Fish website at jumpingfish.net