Things people do

For the Love of Sharks

Death in jaws. I’m chewing over the phrase. It plays on itself better when spoken aloud. The topic’s on my mind – not in the back of it – alive in every lurking cluster of sub-surface seaweed, tainting the turquoise ocean with their sinister shadows. They move with currents, lurch to the surface as waves lift and pull them, tug at my peripheral vision.

I’m alone outside the breakers, every sense engaged. The nearest people are two kilometres to the north and a hundred metres above sea level. I know, because I can see them. My not-quite-reliable-enough-to-drive-without-glasses vision can pick them out, two dots, standing at the lookout over the enormous expanse of beach. They’re watching me, I guess. I’m watching them.

I hope they come closer.

It’s not because I want to talk to them. It’s not even that (as I repeat in the rational part of my mind that keeps getting shouted down by my utterly spooked Fear Of Bloody Death department) they could help me if I was abruptly attended to by a large man (named Noah) in a grey suit.

No, I want them to be closer because at least then there’d be witnesses. I’d live on as a story. Gory, yes. Remembered? More so than the alternative; a scrap of wetsuit turned up by a search party and an expert opinion on a tooth pattern.

An over-the-shoulder view back up the beach. See the shadows? Yeah, those ones. You see them.

An over-the-shoulder view back up the beach. See the shadows? Yeah, those ones. You see them. Bastards.

Two grey fins slice the surface tension in shallow, clear water to my south. They dissect the ocean in a perfect line toward me. My heart takes a quick run-up and slams into my ribcage before I confirm that, yes, they’re dolphins. Five, in fact. Two large females, an adolescent and two babies.

I wait, and bob around a bit. There’s rarely much point trying to guess the path of a dolphin pod. The local ones seem to like people; I slide off my board and drop below the surface as they close the distance. They’re approaching through a plume of sand kicked up by a recent wave; I surface and idly squeak my fingers along the bottom of my board until they emerge into clearer water. The squeaking seemed to entertain a dolphin I encountered once, and now it’s a habit of mine. I wonder if they notice. I wonder if it annoys them.

They’re feeling social. I duck my head back under, open my eyes. It’s a curse that our underwater vision is blurry. The front mother-child pair drift by me slowly, at half depth, turned on their side to study me. They pass within arm’s reach. I twist in the water. The other three split around me, fearless, curious, close. The baby is nestled, almost connected, slipstreaming under its mother’s pectoral fin. I can make out their eyes, just, in the dappled light. Then they’re past.

I realise I’ve been holding my breath and surface with a gasp as they do. A wave is bearing down – a good one. I lunge back to my board, take off and fumble a clumsy line through a short barrel. The next wave is bigger, and I’m stuck inside. The dolphins flash up in the blue face of the wave as it crests, then slingshot out the back and disappear as I duck the whitewash. They’re gone.

Elation subsides quickly. I have no-one to share the moment with. Seconds feel like minutes. A shadow cast by a sand plume sets my heart racing again. The dry easterly wind brushes the top off another Southern Ocean set, detonating on heavy sand after a nine thousand kilometre journey from the storms below South Africa. I last fifteen minutes more before I ride a wave to the shore. The Fear of Bloody Death department go back to their desks (I presume to watch videos about asbestos and spiders hiding in shoes and the dangers of driving fatigued).

A trail of footprints: evidence that I'm shark-proof again.

A trail of footprints: evidence that I’m shark-proof again.

I look back at the people on the lookout. They’re specks, turning back to their car. I wonder if they could see the dolphins. I wonder if they were alarmed, as I was, or perhaps jealous, or if they enjoyed seeing what they saw.

I shuck the top half of my wetsuit. Westcape’s notoriously sticky sand has gathered in the folds, and now my elbows are ringed with pieces of shell. The sun dries the salt water on my shoulders as I trudge back towards the headland. As I climb the wooden stairs, a single surfer trots down past me. We exchange smiles in silence. Words don’t feel necessary until after the fact; until I realise I might not speak to anyone else that day.

I turn back at the top of the steps, breathing a little harder than usual. The surfer is paddling out at the north end of the beach, riding a rip that rushes out past a huge rock that looks like an upturned Christmas pudding.

There are only two cars in the car park: his, and mine. I take my time getting changed, enjoying the ambience of the day. As I reverse out, another arrives. In my rear view, before my car drops below a sand dune, I see a couple clamber up to the lookout. One points at something down the headland, at the north end of the wide, sandy expanse.

And now, a day later, the experience feels as real to me as the moment it happened. Every vibrant detail, preserved in whatever passes for 4K in the mystery of a human memory. Sitting comfortably inside, I can send a memo of thanks to the folks who staff my Fear of Bloody Death department – specifically, the shark watchers.

If they’d been off duty yesterday, that moment wouldn’t have been as vivid. As clear. As alive. As real.

Death. It wasn’t really close to me, that day. Probably. But the fact that it could have been – all terror and primal instinct and cultural hysteria wrapped up in thousand kilograms of large-toothed fish – made me feel further from it than I ever have before.

Thanks, sharks. For being somewhere. As long as somewhere isn’t where I am, when I am.

In answer to the begged question: Yes. It is worth it.

In answer to the begged question: Yes. It is worth it.

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Categories: Surf, Things people do, Thoughts | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Looking backward to go forward

Two years ago, I had a car packed with camping gear and food, a bank balance made healthy by two years of saving, and five months of holiday laid out in front of me. I’d just quit my job at Griffith Uni, with the intention of moving to London, some further study, then a new career.

One of my favourite places from the trip. It just seemed so right, drenched in sunshine.

I’ll spare you the full recap, because I’ve done it before. No, this post is about something a little more personal. My contract ended last Friday at Lottolab, as we weren’t able to secure more funding to continue our work at the Science Museum. I’m now out of work, having (!) turned down a job writing news for the Science Museum a fortnight ago.

In my “Goodbye Griffith” post, I put down in black and white a bit of a mission statement:

With Kevin Rudd backing down on climate change legislation until the next election cycle, I feel I’ve made a good decision: I can’t sit and watch major problems, for which a scientific approach offers the best understanding and possible solutions, be decided on the whim of polls. I hope the contribution I can make will be a significant one, but even if it’s not, at least I’ll have tried.

It eerily echoes what I quoted, more than a year later, in one of my most heartfelt and scary posts I’ve written: Extinction. I referenced Frank Turner’s song Eulogy:

On the day I die I’ll say at least I fucking tried, and that’s the only eulogy I need.

I still feel that way. But what have I done about it in 24 months of studying, socialising, spending and other words that start with s? It’s a question that nags at me. My lifestyle’s not a profligate one in London, and I would wager my personal carbon footprint is lower here than it was in Australia. I talk the talk online, and I’ve taken part in some climate action events here and there.

But, my work was a step or two away from where I wanted to be. Putting on Lates events was great fun, and I think the educational side of Lottolab – the i, Scientist program – is world-class in encouraging critical thinking, curiosity, and questioning in kids. Another side of my work was running a drop-in neuroscience lab: similarly, interesting for people to interact with science in such a different and real way, but a notch down the ladder in terms of changing how people see the world. And then there were the Lates events. For me, in hindsight, big successes of orchestration and excellent experience for me to learn to cope with managing large teams under intense pressure, but really speaking, it was about entertaining people.

http://vimeo.com/40650656

Now, I’m not going to run out and sign up as a volunteer to canoe in front of icebreakers, but I’m getting closer to a picture of what I want to do with my life, and I want to keep building towards it.

I want to be a cumulonimbus. Sorry. Back to the navel gazing.

I want to be a cumulonimbus. Sorry. Back to the navel gazing.

So, what do I do? Just like I was two years ago, I’m unemployed. This time, though, I have considerably less cash to throw around, meaning a new job is a priority, not 5 months of travel followed by the student life. That’s the downside. The upside is I’ve grown an enormous amount in terms of what I know I can do. From weathering a night alone in a tent during a storm that ripped roofs off houses, to co-ordinating 40 people in delivering a science event for 600 guests, to interviewing an expert on bioterrorism, or even just learning how to navigate London on foot – the last two years have been tremendous. It’s hard to imagine how the next two could be quite so action packed. The next steps might be more ‘sensible’.

Or could they?

Categories: Puzzles, Things people do, Thoughts | 8 Comments

Ch-ch-ch-ch-chaaanges

I’ve changed the layout and style of my blog. If you remember the last change, you’ll remember I am pretty bad at picking one of these and settling on it, so be prepared for some tweaking over the next few days. Hopefully nothing ends up broken.

Here's a bonus photo, from a simpler time on the South Coast of Australia.

Categories: Things people do | Tags: | 7 Comments

This gives me ideas

I missed this one when it went viral in 2009, but back then I was planning my own adventures. Now, on a sunny London afternoon (yes, they exist), having just been for a walk in the park (… for those counting, this is a pre-scheduled post!) it seems like a fantastic idea.

But how far could I push myself on a project like this? A week? A month? A year? Where would I do it? China has many obstacles; the language would probably be one of the biggest. Also, though, the culture isn’t something that fascinates me. Europe? Or is it too developed to be fun? Australia? Would I survive the wilderness?

Would I walk, or ride a bike, or drive a car like I did in 2010?

At Congo, New South Wales, on a crisp winter afternoon...

Could I build surfing into the trip, and if so, how would I manage the gear? Could it be an amazing way to experience the United States?

As you can see, my head is buzzing with ideas. London has been an urban adventure, but it doesn’t sate in me the hunger awakened by my youth at the shack, then travel with my family aged 11, then 5 months with Dad aged 15, and my own adventures since.

That there is The Shack at Point Turton, and it holds some of my most precious memories.

If you navigate the map downwards (south) of those buildings, you can see a dark brown area of land – ‘the swamp’ – which we, as a handful of kids, used to explore and trek and play in. It was full of twisted trees and sheep bones and little mystery hideouts. We clambered through barbed wire fences and felt a sense of wonder at the world, but also what I can only describe as naturalness at being there, a state that can only be achieved when the journey is not about achieving ‘place x’ but simply to see what’s there.

OK, this is garbled and long, but it has planted a more determined seed than the existing one inside me which chatters away, vaguely telling me to ‘see more of the world’. It might not be tomorrow, it might not be this year, but… watch this space.

Categories: environmentalism, Fun Things On Land, photos, Road Trip, Things people do, Thoughts, Travel, Videos | Tags: , , , | 11 Comments

A Dirty Adventure, Part 3

Even a mobile phone was a beacon in the darkest parts.

Surprises lurked in even the most bare parts of the trip. The hunted?

Continue reading

Categories: Fun Things On Land, photos, Things people do | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

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