I’ve been night swimming the last few nights, encouraged by warm days and high tides later at night. 9:30 on Sunday, 10:30 Monday. The bioluminescence is blooming, so waiting until full darkness brings a magical quality to swimming that we only get a brief period of each year. It’s hard to describe the visuals of swimming in phosphorescence, I’ve tried before and the best description I came up with was that it’s like swimming in stars, shooting stars. The arms and legs stir up the sparks and light outlines the body, moving outward from it in a cloud of light that goes down into the inky sea. I’m at a loss for words to describe it really. It’s simply part of the magic of summertime.
I can’t remember the last time I went into the ocean at night, but I think it might be as far back as when I lived on the Sunshine Coast, fourteen years ago. Living in Gibsons, I sometimes went down to Secret Beach on warm nights to swim in the glowing waves, but then I moved back to the city and dropped the practice. I didn’t live near ocean swimming in the city, nor did I ever feel the urge to go into the water in the crowded neighbourhoods where the beaches exist. Too busy. Too dirty. Chip wrappers and dog poo in the sand don’t invite feelings of communion with the water.
Now on the other side of the strait, I walk across the road from my house to swim within visual distance from the last place I practiced night swimming. At low tide, the bay empties right out past the rocky reef leaving only a rocky/muddy flat, but at high tide it fills up as much as five metres. I follow a sandy shoal in, stepping around the rocks and submerging myself as soon as I can, swimming out to just shy of the reef. I don’t like to get too close, risk an accidental scrape against the barnacles.
Tides, like bioluminescence, remain one of the great mysteries to me. I understand these phenomena scientifically, and yet I still can’t wrap my mind around them really. The fact that at one time of day this bay is a shallow pool, and at another, the water is 10 feet or more deep is not something I can compute in any rational part of my brain.
I am an avid watcher of tides. There are beaches not far from me where mid-tide swimming is possible, but quite honestly I’m spoiled by a beach at my doorstep and so I wait, 3.7 metres allowing swimming out beyond where my feet touch the bottom. At 4.0, the pool is full and at 4.5, only the top of one part of the reef is visible and seems very far out at sea. Such is the illusion that the water creates. Walking 100 feet on land is not the same as swimming out 100 feet in the water. There is an element of danger, the unknown, even though I recognize this bay is also a muddy flat in another life.
The weather hasn’t been overly hot and the nights are temperate, not muggy, but still the water and the air aren’t far apart in temperature once the sun goes down. Full sunset right now is about 9:30 making evening swims possible until quite late as long as the tides co-operate. To see bioluminescence though the night sky has to be full dark, closer to 10:30 and it’s best to swim away from any adjacent light sources including moonlight.
On Monday I went swimming with my friend Kyla in a sliver of the moon’s glow, but the because ocean glows deep with the movement of our feet, the light was visible even with the moon above. We went after the bar, after the open mic, to a beach that is known for this phenomena, sitting on the sandy shore as the light disappeared from the horizon. We got a little chilled, throwing rocks into the water looking for evidence that it was time to go in. Once we saw the confetti-like sparkles rippling outward, we stripped off our clothes and waded through a shallow seaweed before plunging ourselves into the inky sea. We exclaimed at the brilliance of each stroke, at the way our kicking feet below us created a milky way underneath. The luminescent organisms grew more numerous the farther we swam out, the dark sky also full of stars on the cloudless night.
I’m not sure there is anything more magical than swimming naked in a silvery glowing ocean, underneath the Perseid meteor shower. We paddled around for awhile out there, exclaiming as though we were teenagers on LSD all over again, floating on our backs to look at the stars, until Kyla felt a fish nibble her arm and we decided that it was time to go a bit closer in. We went onto the beach for a moment, before swimming back out for another few minutes “to make sure we really saw what we saw.”
On the beach, my clothes went back on full of sand as I scrambled to get dry in the darkness and we turned the seat heaters on in my car on the drive home to bring up our body temperatures, now chilled after half an hour in cold water. As always, the ocean left me stoned. Swimming in the dark has a disorienting effect, bobbling between dark sky and sea, moving without a horizon to fix on and a sense that that the ocean goes down forever, right to the core of the earth. When you climb out from that, it is hard to fix oneself in space again and for the first minute or so of driving my car, I wondered if I really should be doing that.
Back at the house I showered and rubbed oil in my skin, went to bed, dreamed of floating in a bottomless ocean with only the light of tiny creatures and the stars to guide me home.