A swim in the ocean gives sustenance like nothing else I know

·4-min read

The sand dunes on the ocean floor are as beautiful as any desert I’ve seen. The waves that skim their peaks carve out gentle mountains and valleys. Eddies bumble through the troughs.

From above, mini tornadoes swirl off the mounds. The occasional dumper blasts a crater. Giant flatheads lift like hovercraft out into the blue.

I had never really appreciated this underwater beauty until I took up ocean swimming during Covid. What was once a distant sandy bottom has become a daily fascination. Sometimes the underwater stretches look like ski runs, with chutes and moguls. Others are endless plains. After the bushfires 18 months ago, the ash stubbornly stained them.

Related: Ocean swimming has been my greatest discovery of the coronavirus pandemic | Alison Rourke

There’s a magical silence in the narrow corridor between the crashing waves and the sand. Every explosion of foam looks different as it approaches, like underwater fireworks.

As Covid coops us up again for who knows how long, a swim across this stretch of beach is a worthy opponent of pandemic blues. The winter cold is biting and it’s a physical challenge, but the sea gives sustenance like nothing else I know.

Recently I took a new swim route – just behind the breaking sets. My friend and I stumbled upon a large turtle riding the currents. I could see its fin was tagged, so it was likely local, being monitored as part of conservation efforts around Manly’s Cabbage Tree bay, in Sydney’s north. It looked so relaxed as it weaved its path.

We had been looking for that turtle for more than a year. People said it existed, but I was beginning to wonder. To see it just behind the surf felt serendipitous. The light sandy background highlighted its unmistakable shape that is usually camouflaged by seaweed and rocks. Diving down to swim alongside it was silent and serene.

On another day behind the breakers we were treated to what felt like two sunrises. First when light emerged over the horizon and again when it cleared the clouds. It gave way to moody, grey skies and then a rainbow. All before 7.30am.

In recent weeks, a jellyfish has been haunting these waters: the dreaded jimble. I had never heard of it before this past year, but its distinct bright-pink box shape drifts close to the surface, trailing tentacles. It’s easy to spot on sunny days as the light passes through its translucent body.

It belongs to the cubozoan order of jellyfish – a relative of the box jellyfish, and although it stings it’s not dangerous or deadly. The Australian Museum says it’s the only cubozoan that occurs in colder southern Australian waters. But with a wetsuit and cap covering most of my body, I’m happy to take my chances.

The “seasons” of the sea have also been a pandemic revelation. As surely as the purple bloom of jacaranda flowers signals that summer is approaching, the arrival of giant cuttlefish in the bay forewarns of colder water temperatures. They are followed not long after by Port Jackson sharks, who migrate north each year to breed.

Port Jackson sharks swim north in winter to breed.
Port Jackson sharks swim north in winter to breed. Photograph: David Fleetham/Alamy

By October there will be lots of sharks here. It may be one of the few places at the beach where people swim towards you when you say you’ve seen a shark.

One day last year I counted 12 Port Jacksons in a single swim. Not long after, a spear-fisherman’s footage of a great white just around the headland was a timely reminder of the sea’s pecking order. For a couple of weeks some swimmers stuck to the shallows, skimming the rocks with their bellies, as if it offered protection.

And then the next season arrived with bluebottles in tow.

For now, as the lockdown persists, I look forward to future freedoms along this stretch of sand, including post-swim debriefs about who saw what.

I look forward to summer’s beach-umbrella battles with the wind, to sandals getting stuck in the sand, and of dashing into the water with burning feet.

Most of all I dream of these restrictions being over in time for summer. In the meantime, I’ll gratefully take the wet, cold ocean and its sandy show of seasons.

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