Tuesday, February 17, 2009

in which the fish speaks of sharks

I will confess to having told a lie, of sorts,
though it is more of a partial untruth, depending from what angle you look at it.

It concerns sharks.
I am, in fact afraid of sharks, despite having made claims otherwise.
To be more specific: I am not afraid of MY sharks,
but I have certain fears about sharks
with whom I am not acquainted.

Perhaps I should start a few years back, when I first met a shark whose intent was questionable, or even further back in time, to when I was little and brought up on tales of the massive shark populations in Middle Harbour. Tales told by a certain nun, who, before marrying Jesus was a doctor’s daughter in Beauty Point, and who, on the edges of the water in Sugarloaf Bay, witnessed sharks gliding about, their fins slicing through those dark harbour waters. So many, she said, I could have walked on their backs.
That were a long time ago, mind, as I said, before she was married to Jesus and was in fact quite young, though why I was the recipient of such a nun’s tale I do not know.

A few years back I competed in the Balmoral Swim, with a rather posh swim club, right opposite the heads at either side of the entrance to Sydney Harbour. The distance was 6km around a course a little closer to the central channel of middle harbour than I really would have liked. All I could think on was the vast stream of sharks travelling the shark highway, down that channel, under the spit bridge, backwards and forwards like peak hour traffic: I am sure I won the race from the sustained release of adrenaline. Since then, and thinking on it now, I have rarely swum in the harbour, and decided that this year I would overcome my fear by registering in the Sydney Harbour Swim. I’ve never done it, and, as a longtime competitor, it’s kind of unusual that I haven’t. I would like, in light of recent nice associations I have of looking at the Opera House through sheets of rain, to fall into some kind of reverie, perhaps as I pass beneath it, and look at it from water level. This is something I would like, yes.
Swimming and daydreams and memories, all at once.

Barely a week passed after making this decision to compete before the headlines were screaming: SHARK MENACE SHARK ATTACK and every stock photo of every gaping Great White that had ever snarled at a lump of meat dangling from a fisherman’s trawler was splashed upon every media page and screen. The toothier the better.
Ordinarily, I would ignore this, but there was talk of a bullshark biting off a diver’s hand in Woolloomooloo Bay, which did in fact happen to be true. This I did not like, as it is just on the race course. And bullsharks are the stuff of nightmares. They are the ones who slink around in the murk and bite people’s kayaks. The unpredictable snipers of the shark world.

(As I type this I am watching in amazement ,as the Girl cub has paired up with her brother for board training: she and he are racing as a pair across the lake where they train. Last moments of light illuminate the water.
He is terrible, she is great. I wonder if she has chosen him as her partner? I suspect not. A large flock of brown ducks scatter as they plough through, approaching the shallows, he falls in and she slaps his rump. This afternoon the boy informed me that since the lakewater was fresh, 
how very novel, that he drank it directly out of the lake if he got thirsty. I have informed him that this is very possibly unwise, and have supplied him with a drink bottle).

But this matter of sharks, as I was saying, is getting out of hand. At every opportunity there is diatribe of every kind.
The very next day a surfer was attacked at Bondi, the first such occurrence for about 70 years. You can imagine the reportage, can you not? All manner of stories emerge, concerning the increasing number of sharks. Particularly in the harbour.

I have had a significant encounter with a shark, one of the Bronze Whalers that live by the North headland. I’m still not sure what prompted me, that very early morning, alone and so very far out to sea, to look behind me.

And see, gliding in my wake, in my blindspot, almost motionless with its gaze locked upon me, between the beach, and myself
Was a large shark.

It is neither common nor enjoyable to see a shark at eye level, gazing at you with intent. Even if it is lit from beneath by light reflected from the sand, even with the flickering light so pretty upon its skin, to find oneself being stalked by such a thing is not a thing I would care to repeat.

It took three strokes before my body began to go into shock, starting at my fingertips, like fire I felt the burning sensation and I realised that would pass out and float limply to the bottom, whereupon I would be eaten and none would ever know, my children left motherless.

At that point I completely dissociated from time and place.
It wasn’t a decision, I just found myself in the
200 m freestyle, open championships. which was roughly how far I was from land, pretty much. I heard the starter call on your marks, and I was off…
Knowing instinctively not to look to my right, since I was heading past the shark, and that if I looked at it any more, my heart would stop.

I think I broke an Olympic record that morning. I swam remarkably fast. When I reached land my legs gave way and I had to sit down. I did not close my eyes for the next three months that I did not see the indelibly stamped image of the bronze whaler silently gliding at my heels. Its fins lit, its cold eye. The billowing canopy of the surface of the sea, suspended on the tip of its dorsal fin.

In matters concerning the avoidance of sharks, there are a list of things which are generally inadvisable. These include swimming at dawn or dusk, swimming among schools of baitfish, swimming alone, and perhaps swimming while menstruating. All of which, in a haze of distraction and daydream, I was doing.

I like to think, though, that an incident earlier in the year had a certain bearing upon this moment, the reason why I turned and saw this shark, rather than having it bite me unseen. It was early September, and I ran to the headland, as I do every day, in the dawn darkness. I saw a fisherman struggling to land something large, running backwards and forwards along the rock shelf, rod bent and shaking into the water.

Would you like me to help you with that? I asked,

 all smiles, disguising my intent, wading knee deep into the sea, peering into the dark crevice of the rock shelf.
We saw it both at once flashing and twisting out into the dawn light, a thrashing baby Whaler shark, all rows of teeth and pale gold eyes, writhing and snapping furiously. I held it to the sand, and ordered him to fetch his pliers so I could release the hook.
I felt the little body beneath my palms twisting, enraged. To my surprise the fisherman leaned down and obediently snapped the hook in half as I held its rubbery little head. Its teeth were immaculately terrifying, its underbelly the colour I imagine heaven might be: milky violet.

I grasped the small sandy-coloured demon behind the fins, and propelled it into the water

I’m letting it go

and no sooner had I released it than it turned tail and came snapping straight after me, and I had to hot foot it up the sand: I swear it tried to follow.
Eventually it took off, quiet as a shadow.

I like to imagine, that having swum into the shark’s lair at feeding time, like one huge fish among the thousand others, smelling like food, and laying myself on the Whaler family table that morning,
That I was let off, that some impulse of recognition led that shark to let me be. When it looked me in the eyes, it let me go.
because I had released the baby of the family.

In a few weeks I will take to the dark waters of Sydney Harbour. I will not be able to see into the depths, though I am sure if there are creatures there, they will be able to see me. I am going to swim, and dream, and think of sheets of rain, and remember moments when the nature of light itself seemed to change, and as I pass through the water, I will celebrate all those things. Such small and delicate things, which, fragile as they might be, mean the world to me.

Please note that in a moment of uncharacteristic loquaciousness, Miss Shoufay, 
the queen of Infinite Indigo
has made a confession in response to some of the comments on an earlier post....


Blue Mountains Mary said...

Oh my word that photo with the thin strip of bright light and then the painting - thank goodness for them because I am feeling a little discombobulated by the freaky cold eyed sharks!!

Molly said...

One word comes to mind---KARMA. Glad you showed your fishy friends your love and compassion for them early on. Glad they remembered........
Stay safe , Miss Fifi.cantie

Christine said...

The scientific name of this is Acetyl Hexapeptide-8. It is considered by many in the industry to be like a topical version of Botox injections because it can help to relax frown lines and the furrows found at the brow and in crow's feet. Scientists recommend a concentration of 5-10% and I use a concentration at the higher end if this safe range of Argireline in my night cream. 

Isabelle said...

What, Christine?

Oh Fifi, do be careful. Walking across parks is so much safer.

Corstorphine - do you mean that these bags are made here?

Ampersand Duck said...

I think Christine might be a cyber-shark.

I have always had a healthy respect for water sharks, even since I had a high school teacher who was a very hairy man except for a big naked pink strip up one side of his body, caused by merely being brushed up the side by a shark. Very impressive. And scary.

Ulrike said...

Far out, fifi, the image of the whaler shark with his gaze locked on you and a glint in his eye, just put shivers up my spine.

Sharks are about 2 million miles outside my comfort zone, even though I love the sea.

Hope you go well in harbour swim!!!!

Anonymous said...

Oooh I think there should be a warning about shark pieces. I shouldn't read them but once I start I can't stop. The boys will never get me in the water this weekend now after reading that. Although I guess it would improve my swim speed no end if I saw a shark.

But yes, running is much safer so I think I will stick to that.

As for your race - surely it will be fine. If someone had been gobbled up by a shark in the past I'm sure they would have abandoned it years ago. That's my logic for life really - I know there is always a first but I always reason that I am rarely first in anything so it is highly unlikely to be me!

Good luck with it anyway.

Anonymous said...

Aww thanks. So hot here today that we are off to the beach. I will indeed go into the water. presumably I am OK because I tend to stay within my depth or close to where I can touch the floor? My sons think I am very pathetic. They don't help my little fears as they keep going underwater and pretending to be sharks to frighten me!!

I still haven't lived down my hysteria last summer when I stepped on some large flat fish thing which had buried itself in the sand in the shallows.

Pam said...

If a shark attacks someone at the starting line, does that mean they'll then be handicapped? Wow Fifi, there are times is life when the statement "Holy S#*!" just doesn't cover it! Good luck with your swim (and by the way, there is nothing worse than being bitten on the kyak).

Rita said...

This post really gave me the chills...not only because it is superbly well written, it deftly describes the two legged sharks of my night & daymares.

Awesome post!

Luhlahh said...

Wave you seen "WhaleDreamers" It was part of the Sydney Film Festival. Saw it on Friday night. It's tooooo long, tries to cover tooooo much and features tooooo many damm belly-dancing hippies. BUT. There are some magical scenes and moments where it really hit the mark on humanity's oneness with the planet, our seas and the dolfins and whales in particular. And how indigenous cultures are aware of and still honour that. Worth a look. I think you'd find some stuff you'd like.

little red hen said...

I am actually relieved to hear you are in fact a little afraid of sharks! Another fabulous read! Good luck with your race!

sexy said...