Reef, wreck and pier
According to the forecasts there was still 24 hours to enjoy the comfortably warm weather before there would be a run of brutally hot days. Wading into the sea confirmed that tomorrow would be when the summer began.
Toes, heels, calf, knee; so far so good. Thigh. Stand on tiptoes. Take a deep breath and sit down. The water temperature comes as a shock, it’s not winter cold, but it’s still cool enough to surprise. The worse bit is that first wave of water that leaks through my short wetsuit and trickles down my back. An involuntary flick of my spine accompanies this intrusion; if I were a shark, my tail would have flipped left to right. I pull on blue fins, which match my toes, adjust mask and snorkel and lie down. My spine does that ancestral flick again. I roll back the passage of evolutionary time and fully re-enter the water. It does not feel like a kind of homecoming.
Full immersion causes a few stabbed, deep breaths; I concentrate on little else but the in and out of breathing. I can feel the chill of water over the top of my head as fin kicks start me through the water. Long and straight they say, don’t splash on the surface. Deep breaths and deep kicks. Soon the industry of muscles warms the water trapped between the wet suit and me. I start to look around, to watch the passage of sand and water.
Finding my way is not easy. The head down attitude of snorkel swimming provides little guidance and fewer way marks. I bob my head to the surface and feel my legs sink. I look for the shore, but it’s not where I expect it to be, a turn to the left and there it is. Waves on the sand, semi solid version of the water above, seem to offer some hope of navigation, and to keep on the same track I try to cross them at right angles. But some conspiracy of wind, tides and waves pushes me off course again – this can happen to the best of us – and I resight land with a head up, surprised seal glance. In the middle distance the water turns green and a rock reef looms. I know where I am. I ghost round the rocky edges; even in the water, hugging the rock fast land, seeking the security of the solid.
In a narrow channel the sand rushes away from me, caught in a water flow that returns waves to the deeper water. Even without the regular beat of fins I can feel myself moving through the water, until the current changes direction and the water goes elsewhere. Water turns to treacle, I slow and drift. It was a tiny 15-metre ride, but the power behind it was clear. The pull of water, the return wash of waves born of wind and tides. It makes me wonder how fish cope with such things.
With rocks to my left and open water to my right I keep swimming. Growth and weed and fish to one side and seemingly empty water to the other. I must have swum along this section of rock wall in the past, but it feels brand new. And as far I as am concerned it is. The wash of weeds, the fleeing fish, the shafts of sunlight, splintered by the waves, make the old new again, again and again. Even a backward glance reveals a landscape remade. Such places bring a disorientating loss of memory. Wrasse dart within the swaying weeds, small, brown and green and female. Goatfish, with a proud dark line along their flanks and enquiring yellow whiskers, feel along the seabed. Snails and worms lie still to avoid detection. The fish flee from my duck dives. The pictures show nothing but the wash of sand and the green sweep of weeds. Sea tulips seem to cross the divide of kingdoms – animals that look like plants. The rocks are clothed in an abundance of shapes and forms – tubes that suck in water, feathers that trap the drift of passing food, sheets of green that pass as leaves, rubber like stalks the hold fast to the solid of stone. The water moves, the carpet of life moves, the stones remain a fixed point around which everything else turns.
As the tide falls the rocks stutter to the surface. Where once there was just boiling water and swift reverse flowing currents land begins to show. Green and slippery, sharp of edge, but softened by the growth of weeds. The wave cut platform comes and goes at the whim of the waves. All around deeper water waits.
An arch beckons; a simple swim through. But I have too much life back on land for me to try. I dive to look from both sides, but don’t pass through. In younger days, when I was just alone, I would have tried to swim through, and maybe spent too long talking about in later.
A kite shape forms in the sand below me and a small stingray bolts from cover. The sand flows in tight spirals off the wings of the ray, just like the smoke that flows over plane wings in wind tunnels; just a different fluid medium. The ray drifts to a stop, allowing me, for once, to get some pictures. In recent years these fish have had a very bad press – Steve Irwin may have achieved many things, but the development of a public appreciation for stingrays is not listed among them. A dark under edge beckons the ray away from sight; I start to swim back towards the shore.
High up in the atmosphere, nearing the edge of space, ozone forms a protective coat from the radiation of space. Life is fragile. Such radiation would rip the curves of the vital spiral and unwrite the four-letter code that flows through all Earth formed life.
Low in the water the mortal remains of the Ozone rest in the shallow, sandy waters of Indented Head; a summer town of campsites and caravans, a winter town of empty beaches and views across the bay towards Melbourne. Once know as “The Greyhound of the Bay”, the bare bones of the Glasgow built Ozone were sunk to provide a breakwater for the town in 1925. Fire, water, wind and the storm of corrosion broke the boat to ever-smaller pieces. Today only one paddle wheel and some anonymous superstructure sit above the water. The Ozone, now far from speedy, and a long, long way from home, has long since given up its crafted finery to the sea. But in place of man-made craft, life clings to metal plates and putty soft wooden board. The plan to protect Indented Head with a coat of Ozone may have come to little, but the bay provided a new manifest of passengers. The small, the green and the delicate now take protection in what’s left of the ship. And now, in water warmed by a fiercely hot Sun, I swim to the Ozone to see what I can find.
From the start it’s clear that I will rarely be alone out here. I have other swimmers for company, as well as fish. Young kids with no wet suits and no snorkels dive from the wreckage into the water. I feel overdressed. But when I see the rusted edges and darkened holes I wonder who would care for these kids if a misfortune befell them. Kids need spaces in which to have accidents, to gather cut knees and mysterious grazes, it’s part of childhood. Parents cannot always catch them if they fall, but I’m not sure this is really the place to put such ideas into practice. I look back across a couple of hundred meters to the shore, and swim away from the kids and hope their parents are paying attention.
With a little imagination you would be able to work out that the Ozone had been a paddle steamer – with a large wooden paddle wheel. Casual evidence that it once had two wheels disappeared into the sea more than a few years ago. Now, the blades of just one wheel sit above the water, attracting cormorants and silver gulls. Below the water a stunted forest of algae and sponges coat the metal frames and sheets. Tiny fish – gobies I think – half walk, half swim in the forest and wait in sunlit glades where the metal shows through. I wonder if some toxic residue, some lingering heavy metal – lead, copper, zinc maybe - keeps the kelp at bay in the bare places of the wreck.
Another stingray glides from cover to view and lands on the sandy bottom.
I lap the wreck once, maybe twice. Unlike the water washed rock, the twisted metal seems more familiar, more distinctive in form even when its function is lost. A wrasse glides into a metal cave, and I have no desire to follow. I turn and swim, feet only, back towards the shore.
In the open water the added layers of neoprene and middle age keep me well afloat, and keeps me high into the water. In movement and floating stillness the buoyancy is unnoticeable, the loss of gravity a constant on both sides of the equation. It’s some cross between constant falling and weightlessness. The fish below are as free as the birds above. For some brief moments I drift between both worlds. As the sand nears my face I stand and gravity takes hold. The freedom of water is only noticed in its absence. Feeling heavy and earth bound I start to wade the shallows back to shore.
The diving kids keep deep swimming around the wreck. Their laughter carries over the water towards the shore, echoes from the stones, and returns. From the wreck it must go out the other way too; out over the bay, towards the waters the proud Ozone once cut. Waves meet waves, water and air. The twin fluid oceans carry memories and messages.
A Silver Gull glides close to my head and lands on the sparkling water.
I walk down the beach to where my kids are building castles of sand.
Few meals can compete with the luxury of a cooked breakfast, eaten out of doors, on the morning of a day you have been looking forward to all week.
P is not normally short of smiles, but even she is challenged by the arrival of pancakes and apple juice. Scrambled eggs, decent toast and a pot of tea sit on my side of the table. We share a couple of hash browns – it’s not a day to consult food ratings web sites and nutrition panels. It’s a day for swimming and exploring.
The evening before we had walked on the beach, looking for the kind of treasure that the tide by tide flow of the sea brings. Shells, shiny and bright. Crab claws, cast off but still connected – snap, snap, snap. Sea urchins, speckled rounded balls of shell, some with just a few spines left, most with none at all. Star fish and real fish, hardened in the Sun, half hidden in the weed stranded at the top of the tide.
But best of all we find a sea cucumber. It looks like a stout pale sausage that tapers to a point at each end, bent into a horseshoe shape. To be honest, it looks like something else really, but it’s the wrong colour. A gentle poke with a toe shows it’s still alive. Its whole body starts to roll around its length, and without changing its horseshoe shape it moves forward towards a patch of damp looking sand. I assume it is not long for this world. Silver gulls gather a polite distance away, but their intention is clear. P decides this strange creature is called Brian. As we walk on the gulls keep their distance, seemingly unsure what to do. I don’t ever recall seeing indecision in gulls before.
A cool breeze from the sea sends us in search of dinner.
We push back the breakfast plates and talk about the day ahead, what we hope to see and what we will do when it’s over. In a display of culinary single-mindedness P suggests ice cream.
Out on the pier people wander and watch for movement in the water. Huge shoals of tiny fish silver around the poles and dart into the open water. I don’t know what species the fish are, but the numbers are huge. At least one species seems to be doing well. A cormorant sits at the base of a set of metal steps. Its head sweeps back and forth, apparently looking at the fish as well. The head sweep behaviour seems mechanical and fixed, as if the bird is confused by the abundance in front of it. I assume it would be able to catch at least some fish by simply falling into the water. For the short while we watch, it just sits there, with its back and forth head and a statue still body.
We leave it to its fishing.
Few activities can compete with getting into a new wet suit to render you embarrassed, contorted and overheated. We both alternate between frustration and humour as well pull at tight fitting legs and stubborn zips. P goes red in the face and glows like a space heater. I stand under the shower for a while just to cool off. It’s a relief when we finally walk into the water.
The pier at Portsea is a well-known and popular destination for divers and snorkelers. I cannot afford to embark on another equipment hobby, so I limit my ambition to snorkelling, which only requires a small amount of kit. Walking backwards into the sea to avoid the penguin like waddle caused by wearing fins – which must never, ever, ever be called “flippers” – brings me into direct contact with a diver. We have the whole ocean to swim in, but we still collide. I make a joke to that effect and the diver looks at me like I am a mad person. It’s a depressingly common response. I pull a face at P who laughs – she knows the truth!
Within a few fin kicks of the beach we find a stingray hidden under a rock. Its sharp tail wafts from side to side. I wonder about the safety of the bare foot swimmers and paddlers. These rather splendid looking fish seem to be having a bit of a boom.
Under the pier the currents are fluky and unpredictable. Water rushes round some of the stanchions and seems held back by others. This causes pockets of flowing and pockets of slack water. Being half in one and half in another twists you round in circles.
Brightly coloured sponge gardens coat the woodwork and biscuit stars cling on with sucker feet. Down in the deeper water wrasse and puffer fish pass from shadow into light. Crabs and fleet footed shrimps dash behind the round poles, hiding from the strange neoprene creatures pointing cameras. In the open water the huge schools of tiny fish have gone elsewhere.
Out in the open water, away from the pier, we swim along a rock ledge and over fields of sea green. This is where the dream fish of this trip lives – the weedy sea dragon. Related to sea horses and looking like a plant this is a remarkable fish. The male holds the growing eggs in a pouch and carries them around with him. Wonderfully camouflaged, their fins are almost perfect counterfeits of leaves and they are startlingly hard to see. The guide mentions that you can find them by looking for lengths of seaweed that sway with a different motion to the ones around it – and those out of sync limbs will be the fish. Put another way: look for seaweed that is swishing while its neighbours are swashing. Under these circumstances your failure to find any is not really a surprise.
P pops her head up and points down into the water – her snorkel drops from her mouth and she says “Cow Fish” with a broad grin. And she is right. We both swim along watching it. It’s a silly name for a funny fish.
All too soon we have to climb out of the water, and the pull of gravity takes hold again.
As we are walking back along the pier P describes the cow fish – and then, remembering it may almost be lunch time, asks if she can have an ice cream.
I am in no position to refuse.