I have been lucky enough, due to either surfing or swimming, to share the water with a whole array of life including seals, dolphins, sharks, whales, penguins, turtles, sea snakes, many jellies and of course many fish of exquisite colour. My most incredible encounter to date though happened about 10 years ago, when snorkeling deep out to sea on the border of Thailand and Burma. It was at a time when id been heavily swim training with a club in South Africa for hours each morning before the rest of the world awoke. My friends questioned my sanity and 4am starts, I however, was in that blissful state that optimum fitness brings, strong, energetic and alive. I left South Africa to travel around the world, sad to leave my regimented swimming patterns behind. Wherever I went, I tried to keep up my training, at first resentful to have no pool with crisp tumble turn sides and floating lanes to guide me. However, the more I swam in rivers and seas the more I came to appreciate the changing waters and what they had to offer. I found a river in Eastern Australia where the current was such that I swam my heart out against it for an hour yet stayed in exactly the same spot… the perfect space saving training facility! I swam calm seas, rough waters, murky soups, and slowly I began to swim once more, not to train, but to swim to arrive somewhere, to explore or to test myself beneath the surface and into the depths. I was happy to realise that when fit, one lungful of air can go a long way and it the was the comfort in this realisation that allowed me my most memorable underwater encounter to date.
Myself and a few fellow travelers had hired a small dug out for the day to take us out to sea to a tiny underwater ‘hill’ that came out of the depths, a place known for its sea life, aptly named ‘shark point’. After swimming around for a while, feeling jittery at the thought of tiger sharks, I began to be more comfortable with the huge expanse of water that I was vulnerably kicking around on top of. My body relaxed and my eyes became accustomed to looking into the abyss, searching for any shapes and movement. Then, out of the green came a dark blur, moving slowly, an unrecognisable shape lurking in the depths, slowly growing in size. As it swam closer and closer the shape became clearer and bigger still. My heart was pounding with a mixture of nerves and excitement. Then, like a lens coming into focus the mass of blur sharpened into a visual spectacle, the embodiment of grace, a gigantic flying manta ray. Before I could properly comprehend the shear size of the first ray, I turned to see two more come into view. Such size twinned with such grace is hard to comprehend and for the first while I just lay on the surface truly mesmerised. Any thoughts of vulnerability or tiger sharks were eclipsed by such a spectacle unfolding before me. The next two and a half hours unfolded into an engulfment of magic. The rays swept around us edging closer and closer with the passing of time. We began to swim down alongside them when they came near and see their effortless grace from the side, the underneath, or behind. After more time the rays came closer still, beckoning us down with them. Soon I dared reach my hand out and touch one on the back. His muscles rippled under my palm and I retracted my arm with the shock of the sensation. He didn’t mind and stayed lay parallel underneath me as we swam on. The next time round I dared place my hand on him again, feeling his power, perfectly designed for these waters. The rays liked the contact and came back over and over again, swimming up to the surface directly underneath me, at which point I would hold onto their front or the rear fin and they would fly down to the depths with me, allowing me to stay relaxed and still, conserving oxygen and allowing one breath to last long enough to enter their world. The memories become more and more faded over the years but one clear image, that will never leave me is that of the moments I decided to let go to return to the surface, needing air. After being absorbed by the rays effortless beauty and grace after flying with them, to look up and see the surface so far overhead, like a big sparkly sky, punctuated by the kicking miniature legs of the others, it was heavy and daunting, sublime. To be taken to those depths willingly by a different species, to enter into their world, and feel that playful connection so strong was such a special experience. There was magic in the air/water that day, I couldn’t sleep that night, unable to quite take in the physical communications that was had. We only left the water that day as the boat needed to go back. The rays were still there keen for more play. I longed to go back.
As the memories fade with time I feel fortunate that I had a camera that day, a cheap disposable underwater camera that Id carried around for a long time, never wanting to be burdened with it when I went out to swim. But on that overcast day, for some reason as I left my tent I slung it in my bag with my fins and goggles. A good move!