The hard conformity of concrete floors and the Star Trek whoosh of automatic doors. A heady chemical brew is replaced by a fresh air; cool and light. Familiar faces on the pool deck and in the lanes. The single step over the poolside edge; under water in a single stride. The routine of a double leg lift that lets the water reach over my head.
Spit and wash the glass of the mask. Sit or float to pull on the fins. Swim fast to warm up. Blow hard from the second water shock, pushing choking splashes from the snorkel.
Dunk the goggles in water and shake off the excess drops. Pull the elastic high on my head; float and push from the wall. Stroke and kick. Stroke and kick. Blow bubbles and rest your head on the leading arm. Swim slowly to keep going lap on lap. Turn at the wall and wonder if I should learn to tumble. More bubbles and a straight dark line. More bubbles and a straight dark line. If the time is right the darkness falls and the pool empties. Winter swimming.
The noisy music of breathing and the deep breath of forced relaxation, retained even through growing experience. The anticipation of discovery.
The repetition of exercise. The anticipation of completion.
Just out from the edge of the beach a whale back of orange granite slips out of the water. A pair of Pacific Gulls sit atop the rock watching, keeping an eye open for opportunity. Slighter Silver Gulls flash overhead, seemingly unwilling to land on the whale, unwilling to share a piece of land with their larger cousins.
The first leg is often, but not always, away from the beach; almost always towards some structure where things can be found and seen. Old boats, broken and rusting. The wooden poles of jetties, slick to the touch and greened by age. But most often the destination is marked by the presence of stone; reef edges, steep boulder boundaries and mini mountains, rising from the shifting sands below, structures that will hold the fluid life of the sea close to it.
While the destination may be fixed in my mind, the pathways to them can be twisted and slippery. They say you may never be able to wade in the same river twice, and the same idea applies to the sea. Even the return journey to the beach will take you somewhere new, even if the final place is the same. Repetition has, at least for me, yet to flow into familiarity. I may recognise the beach poles and distant buildings, but once in the water, only the general location remains known. Rock caves found one day seem not be there the next. The boundaries may stay the same but the detail changes.
The beaches and rock walls of Freycinet are completely unfamiliar, just the whale back rocks off shore provide any form of marker. Halfway up the east coast of Tasmania, this is a place of cool crisp water, clear and yet rich. The next landmass to the east is New Zealand, and beyond that the west coast of South America. To the south, beyond the southern point of Tasmania, an Earth girdle belt of ocean cuts off the icy southern pole.
Although there are no paths, I follow a predictable path; along the edge of rocks and through gaps in weed beds. I avoid the open water, with its ripple sand floor and seeming lack of life. Life clings to the rocks and I follow suit. But this still feels like a greater choice than following the paths that travel on land. Here my choice is based on interest, rather than some choice made by others, some time in the past. I could strike off the path on land – and in many places this would pose no real danger – but it is not really the done thing. You follow the path, keeping an eye out for the next guide arrow or paint flash. The interwoven undergrowth – the bush – does not encourage off path meandering in the same way as is possible in the sheep grazed uplands of the UK. The presence of snakes is hardly encouraging either.
But in the water the choice feels so different. The path exists where I choose to take it, and in the deeper water it takes on a depth that is not possible on land. The path becomes three dimensional through choice, with only the necessity of breathing bringing me back to the 2D world of the surface. I suspect I would enjoy diving greatly.
I swim around a corner and a huge ray lifts from the sandy floor and moves a few meters away, the edges of its body moving like a shaken blanket. A few small silver fish share the movement and swim away with the ray. Small wrasse rush away from the disturbance of my presence and now and then squid hang in the water until they reverse out, jet propelled. I can’t name most of the fish I see, small or large. Zebra stripes. Spots. Small rays and sharks, the cousins of the carpet sized ray.
Once there was an octopus, huge and plastic, with arms that seemed to reach in and out at the same time, and could spread in all directions. Sharing the water with it was unsettling as it seemed to move towards me and then back away, and then come forward again, as if it was debating some form of option. The fact that this is basically a sentient and intelligent snail was, in hindsight, even more unsettling.
From force of habit I keep to the rock walls and the edges. The abundance can be startling, the chance encounters remarkable. But for the time being I stay close to the security of stone, unwilling to enter the open water that lies further from the shore.
My arms and legs start to feel heavy. I drag as much air into my lungs as I can. By this time it never really feels like enough. I drop from a four stroke rhythm to three and then down to a two. The line before the wall, a few meters out, comes as a welcome sight, knowing that I will soon reach the wall, from which I can push and glide.
Without the background thud of the engine you can hear the wind and the splash of the water on the side of the boat. The waves splashing on the boat make a strange noise, neither rhythmic nor discordant, but a kind of both that comes and goes with its own beat. Although it relies on the presence of a boat for its expression, at its heart it’s a wild sound.
The boat drifts with the wind and we catch the scent of the seals. This is a smell that is wild in almost all ways. The kids on the boat wrinkle noses and pinch their nostrils with tight fingers. People move off the end of the boat in pairs, and shuffle off the dive step into the open water.
It’s best to avoid swimming too close to the platform on which the seals sleep, lest half a tonne of waking carnivore slides off and on to your head. If the truth be told, the smell alone is enough to make you keep your distance. The platform on which these males loaf is called, with a certain lack of sensitivity, Chinaman’s Hat because of its conical roof. The colony is a Man Shed for yet to be and over the hill male Australian Fur Seals. The once and future seals are a uniform silky brown, dense furred and whiskery. The old boys all carry scars from past disputes. They have more character than the youthful wanabees, which I admit may be the view of an old man!
Dropping off the back of the boat, into water where I cannot see the bottom, feels more like diving than swimming – the sudden step, the drop that ends in a cold solid softness that wraps around you and eventually holds you up. Those first few seconds are always a test in my faith in buoyancy, the pull of gravity, the opposition of displacement.
A seal appears in front of me, just a few feet from my nose, or if I was stupid enough, within arms reach. I keep one eye on the seal and one eye on H who is swimming with me. The seals make a mockery of any thoughts of my own manoeuvrability, with loops, twists and turns that would snap the spine of a yoga guru. I spin, left handed, trying to track the seal with the camera I hold in my right. Bubbles bleed from the seals fur as it dives and disappears, leaving behind nothing more that a growing screen of silver spheres, growing as they reach the surface. The seals are at home, and I am merely comfortable.
I have no guide for exploration but the ghost of the long gone seal – I swim in a direction that I cannot justify; one that comes simply from the direction I am pointing. This is discovery by chance with no compass rose of experience or geology to help me – I may as well be swimming in circles, and there is a good chance I am. No paths, no markers. The only definition comes from the seals that come to visit me – I become the marker that defines travel for something else, and when that happens, my own path becomes clear.
There seems to be no other way to describe the behaviour of the seals than play. A small male shoots below me and twists vertically to burst through the surface just in front of me. If both of the animals in this dance were humans, one would be showing off or teasing the other – and that one would not be me. For all I try, I am bound in many ways to the surface, brief forays below the surface are the exceptions, not the rule. For the seals, their world and the pathways within it are truly three-dimensional. But here, in the open water, I can get a brief feel of what such freedom must feel like. No lane makers. No need to follow the rocky wall to my left. Up and down remain logical, but left and right are defined by the point of my nose – and as I spin the part of the world to my left changes and changes in a way that makes nonsense of the idea. In a world where all pathways are possible and location can change, what is the meaning of direction?
I hear a sharp whistle – the signal to return - and look around to find the boat. Once more direction makes sense. H is only a few feet away. Did I follow him or did he follow me? We swim back to the boat, and pull ourselves back on board. Air, gravity and a sharp south wind bring me back to my own world. I reach for a towel.
I swim four more laps, trying to stay smooth in the face of tired arms and heavy legs. I pull myself out of the pool and onto the deck. Air, gravity and the sharp tang of chlorine bring me back to my own world. I reach for a towel.
The seals circle the boat. Gulls hang overhead. Later dolphins arrive to show us the way swimming is really done. I can’t help but smile.