Growing up in Auckland, a city sprawling between two harbours and surrounded by beaches, the ocean has always been nearby. It’s the centre of loads of my childhood memories – like the family trips we’ve taken to the same seaside cabins every year for a decade, where the shore is so close that the grass outside the cabin door is mixed in with sand and the waves are a constant roar in the background.
So when I think about being a kid, I think of the smell of sunscreen and salty skin. Of the slightly dizzy feeling you get after being in the sun all afternoon. Of playing in the waves on turbulent days when the current tugs at your legs and you can barely catch your breath between swells; and of the moment when you’re past the break and you’re bobbing, gently, up and down. And of the night time, when being far away from the city means the stars are thick like gauze and the Milky Way slices the sky in half.
A couple of years ago, I decided to learn how to dive. I was living in Wellington at the time, and my course took place in autumn. For the next six months, I went diving every weekend; learning how to navigate in the murky harbour. Wellington often feels like a raw place – a swirling mess of wind and sideways rain – but when the sun shines on the water it’s all glistening blues and greens. The ocean in Wellington during winter is cold and dark, sitting at somewhere between 9 and 12 degrees. Where you can dive depends on the wind, so Saturday and Sunday mornings at dive club meant crossing my fingers until we decided where we could go.
A Southerly meant diving in one of the Harbour beaches – frigid, still, eerie; every underwater rock coated in a blanket of silty grime. Beyond the wreckage of a bike or an old beer bottle, there isn’t a lot to see out there. But a Northerly meant we could go to Taputeranga Marine Reserve out the front of dive club, at a spot nicknamed Mermaid’s Kitchen. There, it’s another world. The fish are huge and brave, and the crevices are littered with sea urchins. Fluorescent seaweed lines the colossal rocks that extend from the sea floor to the surface, and when down there we’d twist and turn around them to see what we could find (I was always hunting for an octopus or two).
Being underwater is an intensely strange experience. You can’t hear much except the gasping sound of your regulator and the bubbles that trickle out when you breathe. Because you’re loaded up with so much gear, you move slowly, purposefully. The colours are all tinged with blue, punctuated by bright spots of reddy orange.
In a way the actual diving part is a lot like yoga – because it’s a lot about balance, and a lot about breathing. Just as the ocean inhales and exhales a current, you inhale and exhale to move up and down. Best of all, if you don’t kick up the ocean floor accidentally, the creatures won’t be scared, and you can make eye contact with a friendly fish. In my favourite part of Mermaid’s Kitchen, there are two huge rocks that form a corridor you can swim through. It’s like something out of a movie – immense, beautiful, slightly terrifying at first. The best part is swimming through it. You halt at one end, inhaling as the current pushes the water away. Then, as the current shifts, you exhale and kick. Because of the way the rocks are angled, the water floods through quickly, and you zoom along. It’s exhilarating.
Sometimes, when I’m lying in bed or zoning out on the train, this is what I think of; this is what I miss. When I sat down to write out a diving water story, I couldn’t decide on just one. I think it’s because it’s not just one story, but all of them, that has shaped how I feel when I think about the sea. It’s all the times I’ve kicked my way through that corridor; all the times I’ve fumbled over the sharp rocks on the shore to reach the edge of the water. It’s how they’ve stitched together to form one salty, nostalgic blanket.