Celebrate Your Life – Experience the World
Destination Swims: Catalina Island, CA
By J Kat” Loren :: Sometimes when adults sank themselves into the ritual stupor of cold gin under the hot afternoon sun in the boat’s cockpit, and laughed loudly at stories sounding dumber to me the more they drank, I would slip over the side unnoticed. I waited until the laughter told me they were engrossed in themselves and no longer concerned with my tanning progress on the long sloop’s bow. Without a sound, I grabbed hold of one gunnel and slowly rolled over the side of the boat. Swinging my hips parallel with the deck I gently lowered myself into the sea. My lithe, young body sank noiselessly beneath the surface until I kicked into the prone position and made for shore.
The harbor at the Isthmus of Catalina Island was much less crowded than the main harbor and when we anchored here, I had few boats to hide behind until I reached the shore. So I often swam the distance underwater, brushing past the astonished orange Garabaldi and the schools of silver fishlings, until I reached the edge of the island where vast kelp beds grew so thick you could practically haul yourself up and walk across it like a floating green carpet.
It was a maneuver I practiced in the backyard pool on hot summer nights when sleep evaded me, when I pretended I was a seal swimming effortlessly. Breast stroking underwater, I counted the kicks and pulls – one, two, three – years of long practice on childhood swim teams enabled me to know just how many strokes I needed to swim the length of a 25 yard pool…the distance I could easily breath hold. Then, when my lungs involuntarily flexed as if breathing in on itself, I broke the surface of the water, drew in a great breath of air, glanced back to see the adults still sitting in the cockpit drinking, munching, awaiting the sunset, oblivious to my disappearance.
The rock walls of the island shoreline caught the tidal currents, exposed the kelp beds, and molded the ocean surge. Long strands of giant kelp washed along side like a woman tossing her long hair back and forth underwater, caressing the stone and singing with sighs and whispers. As the tide moved gently in, the long strands curled over themselves then dropped listlessly to hang in the ebb, forming tunnels no playful seal could resist. Nor could I. And though I knew it was a dangerous game I played, this escape from the boat full of adults, I played it still. Every summer on the island I challenged myself to slip away from the boat, swim unnoticed to the rock wall and search for a tunnel in the kelp, wide and tall enough for a child to swim inside and follow it to its bitter end like a seal pup playing double dare you. I always rested for a moment at the edge of the kelp bed, willed my heart beat to slow down, and took three large breaths before diving into the tunnel and madly, frantically swam as fast as I could go to reach the other end. It was a ritual of sorts, a game I played, teaching myself to breath hold longer and longer with every passing year.
Sometimes the tunnel dipped four feet below the surface and wound along for a good 40-50 yards. It was no use thinking of turning back once I was well inside. It was no use thinking of breaking through to the surface either. The kelp bed lay above me like an interwoven prison wall ready to grab my hands and feet and tangle me helplessly in its grasp, to drown me before I could escape. No, there was no escape.
Once in a while, the distance scared me as I felt my lungs explode with the desire to breathe in the water. But every passing year gave me the amazing capacity to transcend my fears, trust my swimming skills, move in with the surge of the tide and out with the ebb. I learned the nuances of the sea. My lungs expanded to hold more air than anyone of my peers on the local swim team. My confidence grew.
I didn’t know it then but swimming through the kelp beds of Catalina Island was the beginning of many years of destination swimming adventure in the open sea. It was the perfect training ground where seals learn to swim – both marine and human. It is still the perfect destination to swim during the warm months of summer. A place I return to from time to time, with fins and scuba tanks now that I am older and not so lithe – to swim, like a seal, through the wonderful kelp beds of Catalina.
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J “Kat” Loren is a Pacific NW-based journalist and author of more than a dozen books. She currently focuses on writing health, fitness, ocean conservation and travel articles. Her blog “Crazi Culture” is a popular read among those who like eclectic topics and travelogues about odd places and adventures. http://www.craziculture.com Jloren.firstname.lastname@example.org
“Where Seals Learn to Swim” is part of the Destination Swim series by J. “Kat” Loren.
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