Satisfying my inner mermaid

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They tell me I could swim before I could walk. Well, that’s how I remember it. No doubt it’s an exaggeration, but there are photos of me, a chubby 1950s baby, sitting up and photos of me swimming in my father’s arms, but no photos of me walking.

We grew up near the beach, and when most of my classmates were at Sunday school, we were swimming. While Mum dealt with my “difficult” younger brother, Dad would take the neighbourhood kids to the beach. Later, thanks to a win on a horse, they bought a weekender at Whale Beach, in those days right on the fringe of suburbia. Weekends and school holidays were spent in the water, on the sand, or roaming the rocks and sandhills.

So although my late January birthday makes me an Aquarian, I think it is my childhood rather than the power of the zodiac that made me a water baby. I was clumsy on land and hopeless at sport, but in the water I felt free as I dived through  waves or turned somersaults under water. I surfed too, initially using a surf-o-plane, later learning to body surf. One winter I even raced at the swimming club every Sunday, but what I enjoyed most was simply playing in the water, imaging myself as a mermaid.

Years passed; I married a fair-skinned non-swimmer, gave birth to a fair-skinned son and a less fair-skinned daughter, nd ended up living in the suburbs, with trips to the beach a rarity. We had a backyard pool, which compensated somewhat, but each summer I became filled with with an emptiness – a longing for summer days spent swimming in salt water, drying out in the sun. Nonetheless, the prospect of driving for at least half an hour, finding a parking spot and then getting hot and bothered on the drive home meant that I usually procrastinated. Summer would turn to Autumn, the emptiness would dissipate, and my inner mermaid would leave me alone for six to eight months.

I expected that, despite my resolutions, this summer would follow the same pattern. Then I read that parts of the Parramatta River had been declared safe for swimming. The factories that had used it as a garbage dump have been replaced by designer apartment blocks, and whatever remediation was deemed necessary has been carried out.

Three days later I was testing it out. Ten minutes’ drive and a short walk through a park and I was at Chiswick Baths, a small netted enclosure, providing me with a chance to swim in salt water. It wasn’t crystal clear, but it was cold and salty and refreshing. I swam, I floated, my spirits soared. For the first time for years I will be able to swim regularly as often as I want.

This summer my inner mermaid will be satisfied.

Scuba diving at sixty-something – or you can’t talk underwater. 

I’m a water baby. If you believe in astrology, it’s because I’m an Aquarian. But I think it’s because I grew up around beaches. Anecdotally, I was swimming before I was walking. A chubby bottle-fed child of the fifties, I was content to sit and observe the world go by. In some ways, nothing has changed. But my father  was a swimmer  and a surfer, and an early photo shows me at the Spit Baths, grinning happily, held by my Dad and supported by a blow-up whale with a ring in it. The photo is black and white, but I can clearly remember the pink of the whale.

Sundays were spent at the baths or Freshwater beach, and although I never swam competitively, I loved the allure of the water; the feeling of support and the washing away of all the clumsiness of land-based activities.  I even caused my mother a few grey hairs by jumping off the  rocks at Bilgola beach, believing I could swim. My response, so I’m told, was  “but it looked so lovely”.  And I still think water is lovely. Being in a boat elicits a huge sense of frustration when the water calls, but is inaccessible. Bush walking by a creek is similar, but at least  sometimes the water is swimmable. So it was almost a no-brainer when I started thinking about the things I wanted to do before I got too old, to put “try scuba diving” near the top.

I’ve had opportunities to dive before on Reef holidays. But, impatient as always, it seemed a waste of time to learn the mechanics of scuba, when snorkelling was a jump-in-and-get-started-straight-away option. When I started mumbling about wanting to try it, my husband gave me a gift voucher for a discover scuba dive experience. It still took a few months to get there. A head cold, a day of vertigo and agonising over whether to spend money on a medical assessment first all led me to procrastinate making the appointment.

But finally the day arrived. There were a few hiccups getting there. On the way,  a huge four-wheel drive tailgated me, and as I glanced in the rearview mirror to see how close it was, I missed the turn off to Manly and found myself heading west across the Harbour Bridge, straight into lunch-hour city traffic (and pedestrians). So I was less than calm when I eventually arrived fifteen minutes late.

There were only two of us there for the dive, so we received excellent attention from the instructor and two trainee instructors. We watched a video explaining the techniques we would need, signed all the waiver forms, tried wetsuit and fins for size, and finally jumped in the van for the ten minute drive to Shelley Beach.

Then the dream shifted to reality. Naively, I had imagined scuba diving to be a weightless experience. Just me and a tank of air quietly penetrating the deep. How wrong I was. The scuba diver needs a weight belt (18 lb. in my case), an oxygen tank, inflatable vest, wetsuit, boots and fins. I managed to manoeuvre myself into all the paraphernalia, then began the walk to the edge of the water. My centre of gravity had totally shifted, my thigh muscles complained at the extra weight they were being asked to transport, my shoulders felt as though they were being pushed into the ground. I think it was less than two hundred meteres, but it felt like two hundred miles.

Once again we were given an explanation of what to do; push grey button to release air from vest, pinch nostrils to avoid extra pressure in ears, and breathe. It seemed straightforward. Until I tried. Suddenly I was descending with this massive weight on my shoulders, pressing and pinching – but not at the same time. And I couldn’t ask for help. You just can’t talk under water. We’d been taught hand signals: I’m OK, I’m not OK, I’m going up, I’m going down. But not one for “oh my god, how can I possibly do all this at once?” And all the time this massive weight was pushing, pushing down on me. So I spluttered to the surface, where I could talk! I received lots of reassurance – and had another 3 lb weight added for good measure. I tried again, and again, until finally I was down, facing the bottom and seeing fish, kelp, rock platforms and all the other wonders of submarine life.

But not for long. We had been told that diving was a hands free activity – a bit like Irish dancing. This protects the diver and the sea life. But it isn’t instinctive, especially for a regular swimmer who feels as though she is rocking from side to side from the unexpected shape of the vest while being crushed by the weight. So another panic propelled me to the surface.  I felt good floating on my back, especially once the neck of my wetsuit had been loosened. I decided to snorkel for a while. Shelley Beach is shallow, and snorkelling gave me a good view, but I was there to scuba, so, after a bit more snorkelling, I decided to try again. I checked my technique before I went  down, then that was it. I was really scuba diving. Hands beside me, air expelled, ears equalised. It still felt as though I was carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders, but I felt free. I stayed down for about 20 minutes, successfully clearing water from my mask without surfacing. I missed the dusky grey whaler (shark) that the experts saw, but did see fish of various sizes and colours, as well as rock formations and seaweeds.

Finally it was time to swim back to shore – on our backs. Getting out of the water was a challenge, with legs of rubber and the weight of the tank pulling me down as two of the guys helped me to my dry land. Then the long slow walk back to the bench where I could divest myself of gear and return to a normal body size and shape. In contrast,  I felt weightless as though I could take off in a puff of wind.  I played the age card, and left the younger, fitter members  of the team to pack away the gear, while I munched a welcome cookie, and decided it was too far to walk back  to the kiosk for a coffee.

Will I do it again? At the time I said no; the effort of carrying the weight wasn’t  worth the difference between snorkelling and scuba diving. But given the chance, in another place with the chance to go deeper, and without the walk, I probably would.