Not the Next Kelly Tarlton
Lawrence Patchett rediscovers snorkelling
Before Norfolk Island this winter, I’d never enjoyed snorkelling. As a kid I wasn’t a natural swimmer. My technique tended to be splash, panic, and freeze. And previously when I’d tried snorkelling, the mask had leaked, and I couldn’t work the snorkel. Blocking my nose with plastic underwater made me panic. Plus it was freezing, up in the rivers behind Nelson.
This time it was in Emily Bay, protected by a reef just off Norfolk Island. We were on the island for a family wedding, and the groom had broken his toe en route. The snorkel trip was part of a lads’ pre-wedding programme that also included fishing and golf. We hired the snorkel gear from a local character with a long beard and stories about ice-fishing in Canada until his fingers and feet went numb. It made our project of subtropical swimming seem easy.
As we stepped into our flippers, the groom’s foot showed an ugly semicircle of bruising.
“That looks so painful,” I said.
The first swimming leg took the pair of us towards the pontoon in the middle of the bay. My mask didn’t leak, and I was surprised at how easily I could breathe. The snorkel even sounded right, according to some idea I’d formed from films—it was a noise like Darth Vader with an additional fizz of spit and seawater.
On the pontoon he showed me some basic hand signals for divers—I’m OK, going up, heading back—and we snorkelled out towards the coral. Never having seen a reef before, I wasn’t prepared for the sudden explosion right underneath me. Weaving around the alien plant forms were fish in multiple colours: a bright blue thing as tiny as my fingernail; then a sudden darker fish underneath. I couldn’t believe they all swam so companionably. It wasn’t like the ocean food-chain you see in books, where the smallest fish flees the jaws of the bigger fish, which in turn is being eaten by the biggest fish.
The coral became even more bulbous and weird, and I got so engrossed that I didn’t notice the current pulling me beyond the reef. A wave broke over my head and I looked up to see the big ocean breakers right in front of me. He signalled me back. “You’re getting sucked out.”
Heading back into the bay we found a safer patch of coral and stared at the fish until I started shivering. Back onshore my hands were bluey-purple with cold, but still not as discoloured as my mate’s foot.
Shortly we had to give back the gear, but I used a wetsuit and goggles for two more swims without a snorkel. The breathing was harder, but low tide offered clearer water. A purple-striped eel gazed up from the sea-floor, yawning its mouth open and shut. Over in the rocks a brown fish darted right up to my face. I supposed it was my pink goggles that fascinated him. Holding my breath for as long as I could, I let out a stream of bubbles and the fish dashed away, gone.
I was so clumsy, such a novice. A bigger fish of the same colours swam up. We stared at each other, and I started to wonder what larger fish it might be replaced with. In the local fish n’ chip shop there’d been stories about the sharks that patrolled the island, savaging cattle that fell off the cliffs. At this point I was also beginning to feel cold, so I used that as an excuse to swim in towards the shore. I’d gone forward a few strokes when something came sliding up over my neck and ear. I threw a hand up and lunged away.
Then I turned to see what it was, and found the strap of my wetsuit zip floating towards and above me. It was this strap that had tickled my neck and ear. I’d been spooked by my own apparatus of plastic and neoprene. I wasn’t a natural diver just yet; not quite the next Kelly Tarlton.