For me swimming in the ocean means pretending no other creatures are there. Even when I wear goggles I keep my eyes shut under water for fear of seeing evidence of marine life. I used to love snorkeling as a kid, but freaked out and stopped after an eel curled around my ankle. Yet water has always felt like my element and I can’t stay away from it – even when I’m afraid.
It was with caution that I first eased into the waves at Point Samson beach, a remote spot in Western Australia, more than 1,500 kilometers north of Perth. The sea was crystal clear and cold. The kind of temperature that stalls your breath, shocks your limbs into vigorous motion, and leaves your skin tingling long after you’re out. The kind of temperature that makes you momentarily forget that you’re in the vicinity of sharks, jellyfish, stingrays and who knows what else. Yet even this glorious jolt is not enough to make me abandon my resolve to venture no deeper than where I can stand. I tread water and look along the beach – not a soul in sight – except the retreating figure of my mother whom I dragged along because I was slightly terrified at the prospect of being by myself on such a deserted stretch. My mum can’t swim, so I’m not sure what salvation I expected from her in case of an emergency. Clearly she’s not up for hanging out in the burning sun while I frolic in the water. As she disappears, it strikes me that never before in my life have I swum where no one else has been nearby, in the water or on land. I’m alone!
I look out to the horizon – the grey shapes of tankers are stenciled against the sky. I’m not exactly alone. The ships are headed to Cape Lambert. Behind the headland, two bays along, is one of the biggest iron ore export facilities in the country. In fact, this part of WA, the Pilbara, an area the size of Spain, home to some of the richest aboriginal history and art, is the planet’s main producer of iron ore. More than ninety percent of Australian ore comes from here. Most of the tankers are likely from China, the planet’s largest iron ore user and steel maker. I think: the whole world is on the horizon, the whole globalized cycle of production and consumption. I think: is there anywhere you can still go, anywhere, and not find the rest of the world, at least its trace, if not the crushing signs of its relentless neo-liberal weight?
And then I step on something. I race towards shore hardly daring to imagine what it was that felt at once firm and springy beneath my foot. Later, I stand with the surf breaking round my calves and peer into the water, which throws off a glitter of laughter as if amused by my angst, my feeble effort to penetrate its depths without immersing myself completely.
You can swim at Point Samson and the surrounding beaches only when the tide is in. While the rest of the household revolves around my newborn niece – the reason for this sojourn – my routine is decided by the peak tide. There’s not much do in this tiny hamlet set between the ocean and the outback. The high tide is literally the highlight here, though for some low tide too has a strange allure since you can walk for several hundred metres out across the ocean bed. That’s when I see the jellyfish, dozens of translucent circular blobs spread across the sand flats. They come in all sizes, the circumference of a saucer, a dinner plate, a car tyre. I think: I can’t swim here again. Everybody assures me they’re harmless. The Box jellyfish is what I need to watch out for, or stonefish. Both have been spotted in the area recently. So what am I supposed to do, I wonder. There’s no way I can be minutes from such a luscious body of water and not go in. The Australians only wonder why the hell I want to swim in the middle of winter anyhow. I’m European, I say. 25˚C outside, 18˚ in the water –perfect. Or it would be, were it not for all the sea life. I’m not even convinced the jellyfish are innocuous until I see the neighbours’ children pick them up and hurl them about like Frisbees. Eventually, I prod one too and realize that the rubbery body is indeed benign. It was probably one of these I stepped on that first day, but even knowing they can’t hurt doesn’t make the idea any less disgusting.
Over the next days I spot other creatures while I swim, including a turtle and two stingrays. The latter prompt me to rush out of the water feeling mildly sick. I wonder if the real reason nobody else swims is not the cold, but the fact that it’s deadly. But they’re envious when I mention my latest sighting. The rays are, apparently, also harmless. You have to be very unlucky to get stung. So I head back into the ocean dragging my feet through the sand, as I’ve been advised, to alert the rays so they can get away. Each day the experience varies only slightly – the light is different, the colours, the size of the waves, the number of ships on the horizon – but the delight of being in the water feels ever brand-new, and the sensation of freedom in that liquid expanse remains irresistible. Each day I’m a little less afraid of being there alone. I think: all threat is relative.
Back in Europe my sense of insecurity is fostered by other things including fear about the future of the UK in the aftermath of Brexit, worries about international relations, anxiety about my writing. In Point Samson, those concerns seem remote, and yet for me there’s no corresponding greater sense of safety because there’s another force with which to contend: nature.
Diving under the swell, squeezing my eyes shut, I think: wherever we are, whatever the perceived danger, we find ways of coping – whether by pretending, denying or confronting reality, because we want to endure, to seize every possible drop of joy from the vast ocean of life.