Saturday, August 28, 2010

in which the fish is herded into shore

When the sea is breathing in such great sucking breaths I do sometimes worry what on earth will be dragged up from the bottom.
Sometimes it is dark, cold water from far below: from  the domain of deep silent creatures whose blood is fixed at icy levels, whose fins fan currents which are viridian green and frosty.  Other times, it is just sand, and the battered fragments of olive brown kelp.

When last the high seas came, huge rolling furrows of might marched in even rows from across the Southern Ocean, roaring and howling, foam dripping from salty lips. The cormorants headed inland and pelicans sought shelter in the lagoon in flocks like squat clergymen, the old geysers with oversunned pelts sat on their bench as always, waiting silently to pick a fight, the words hanging off their chins, waiting for me to slap.  they restrain themselves mostly, as do I as I snap on my little swimming cap, adjust my goggles, daring them to make a stupid comment. Homophobia, misogyny, climate change...

On the first day of the swell I had to do nothing, for as I watched, my eyes round, my mouth open, the sea rose like the great wave off Kanagawa and reached up in an incredible arc, unbroken. Unbroken, it raced up the beach, unbroken it slapped the wall, and reached all the way to the beach house and slapped the old bastards right off the bench and strewing sand all the way up the car park. Up they jumped in fright, scrambling to stand on the wooden bench, drenched and grazed with sand and water. I watched,  laughed silently, and gave the sea a knowing smile which it staunchly pretended not to see.

Never have I seen the like! They talk of that wave still, a week later. I  smile at the memory of looking down the road and seeing the tops of the waves as if they were dancing over the houses like enormous muscular entities, the wind whipping the foam into plumes the size of trees. I swam in the rock pool that same day with my heart thumping like crazy, the sea desperately feeling round in the crevices of rocks with grasping fingers to toss me out or crush my bones. Folks, spying me there in my pink cap cutting through the slabs of storm foam, sure and solid, fancied they might join me, but soon retreated when faced with the walls of water.
I cant help being here, i feel like saying to them, I really can't.
And I know exactly what to do and where to go, where to hide from a thumping, how not to get flung out onto the rocks upon my head.
But i don't. They just shake their heads and scramble out. The Old Geezers laugh at them.

 The next day after that the wind gave up and had a rest, so the sea had nowt to do except jostle and fret, its body muscling and  rolling, curtains of sand rising from the ocean floor and foam like torn lace washing this way and that. Lively water it was too, sizzling with life, with things.  It was this day. the day after the day of the Great Waves, that the dolphins came back.

I had not seen them for a month or two, but here they were, just off the back of the ocean pool, and the pod had grown by at least a third. The biggest one was there, that I call Two-fin, because it appears there are two dorsal fins, or one with a large slash out of the middle.  Two-fin is always in the lead, purposefully leading the others around and around in that strange little love-knotty dance, tighter and tighter they embroider the surface of the sea until they all break free and fling themselves jumping into the air on the crest of a wave. Moving in circles. Revealing themselvs suddenly, amongst the surfers, their huge bodies silhouetted, silent, gliding.

It seems it is winter when you see them most here. They often arrive and circle and hunt for an hour or so and then at some secret sign all head off, leaping back out to sea, out towards North head. One dark winter day when the ocean was stirred much like this week I was in the middle of the beach at sunrise when they appeared. Quietly I put on my goggles and slipped in, alone, feet-first off the sand bank as they were so close to shore, and watched them from underwater, weaving and circling through the weed strewn water.

It is no small thing though, to be in water with such large creatures, face to face. For they are huge, muscled and dark: they are like water made solid, they are silent and full of purpose. One holiday, up  on the North Coast, I swam in the ocean at the unpatrolled beach on which we camp. I am timid of this ocean, as it is warm and busy with creatures large and small. It is unknown, unwatched. I  swam parallel to the beach with long hard strokes, looking below at the shadows in the ridges  of sand, and the occasional stream of whiting pouring along them from time to time,
when  suddenly a huge black shape appeared at my side,
then  another,
 then many.

I was surrounded by dolphins.

The sudden appearance, when one is out to sea, of an animal of equal size in very close proximity, is a terrifying thing. At eye level, you are vulnerable: it is an entirely different psychological perspective than  to be at sitting height, with the relative safety of a piece of floating fibreglass from which to view the world.
They swam at me, around me, not quite touchingme until I realised I was being herded to shore.
They kept urging me into the shallows, swimming closer  and closer around me in a tight and thrashing circle, until I could stand, at a depth I never imagined a dolphin would even swim.  Still they herded me ashore, further, until I stood ankle deep, and then they all turned and headed back to sea.

The beach was deserted and  I had to walk quite some way back, heart thumping, trying to make sense of it all. The fishermen dragging their tinny up at the end of the beach, gutting fish and spangling the sand with scales, remarked that they had seen a shark, which is nothing new.
 It might have been a dolphin, I said, but they squinted at me briefly, shaking their heads.
I paddled out every day after that on a board, desperate for them to come again, but they did not reveal themselves to me again, not face to face, not from my board.

It was not until I had returned home and was watching a news report that I had a fancy as to what my rounding up by dolphins might have meant. A group of swimmers in New Zealand were herded together buy a pod of dolphins, which swam around them in a tight circle and herded them towards shore. They were protecting the swimmers from a large shark which was circling beneath the surface, by screening and bunching them together.

I have always wondered if those dolphins had surrounded me to protect me from an unseen shark.
 I like to think they did, getting me safely to shore. Finding me alone out there, they gathered about and took me home.


The local dolphin pod stayed for a week, hunting and circling. Folks sat on the cliffs and paths above to watch them. I tried to swim out and join them, but the sea grabbed me by the head and threw me back, giving me a good slap on the way, so I pretended I had no intention of heading out the back throught he huge dark green channels and over the vast peaks.  I made like I was merely rinsing my hair, making the most dignified exit I could muster, before hearing the sea say to me
leave them be, let them alone
and I stood dripping on the wind blown sand and watched them from there.


The wind made a good show of things at night, pushing the sea into submission, blunting the sharp edges, wrinkling the oily slick surfaces with icy vigour. After only four days, the sea had tired, and gave up. So did the wind, sitting back breathless and watching the sea become a hard flat millpond beneath a luminous sky.

I swam in the rockpool with burning skin, concentrating on my stroke, imagining the cold to be fire until I could not feel it anymore. Until my skin had turned to scales, silver and moonlit and impervious to the cold. All I feel is the soft breathing of the sea, shifting next to me, held back by rock.
I swim and swim and swim like a shard of ice.

It is a week since the Great Waves came, and the dolphins have returned to wherever it is that Two-fin always takes them: somewhere just out past the Heads, I imagine. They could be anywhere in my dark and vasty sea: I can never see as far as I would like beneath its shining skin. There is still a sandy
tide-mark and driftwood beneath the bench from when the sea told the Old Geezers to hush their mouths, and smacked them soundly.

I slip in now, and feel how the wind cannot defeat the great body of the ocean: it is warm and clear and full of life. The sun dances in patterns across the ocean floor, and blow as hard as the wind might, it can chill the rock pool, but not the sea.

I head towards the horizon. There is nothing but light, salt, and water.
Nothing but me, and the sea. And somewhere, not too far away, stitching together the endless shadows of the vasty ocean, Two-Fin and the dolphins swim wreaths in their endless dance,
round and round and round.