I’m treading water. The water seeps through my wetsuit and my skin tightens and prickles. I paddle clumsily, pulling my mask and snorkel over my head. Foam hisses and shatters on the rocks. A startled gull takes off with a wail. I kick against the surge and dive under. I am gliding, scouring the seafloor, the rock ledges, the swaying seaweed. Nervous fish dart behind curtains of kelp, crabs shuffle grumpily back into their caves; a ray glides lazily away to find some peace and quiet. The water is misty and heavy with cold. My limbs feel light and loose, like running water. I hold my hand out in front of my face and watch the blood retreat from my cuticles.
I moved to Tasmania promising myself I would try diving for abalone. Having a deep interest in regenerative food systems, I was curious to see how the concepts that were so beneficial on land applied to the seascape. Spearfishing and abalone diving is one of the most selective fishing methods, with no bycatch. More importantly, diving can connect the hunter directly to the ecosystem they are taking from, fostering an understanding of the ecology and allow them to monitor the populations and life cycles of the targeted species to ensure responsible fishing practises. I was unaware of how much more the water would teach me.
My diving partner, Liam, points to a ledge, signalling that it is my turn. I nod, go up for a breath, then dive down with a slow kick. The shell is mottled purple with a thin coat of algae tickling the water. I slide my ab knife quickly between the rock and the shell. The abalone pops off and floats before me, purple lips pulsing. I suddenly have the urge to retreat, to return to the protection of the shore, to my bedroom, to warm morning porridge. Instead, I wrap my fingers around the abalone and resurface.
My head breaks the surface and I’m gasping for oxygen and explanation. The blade edge is heavy and foreign and I feel like a child with a forbidden toy. As a girl I believed my femininity made me weak, that it softened me and would eventually consume me. I believed I was being hunted, like my femininity was a resource for others to mine. Yet, in those fleeting hours underwater I felt an equalising, a full body exhale. Freedom. Not the light and golden kind, but solid, tangible and direct. A freedom with responsibility, purpose and strength.
Underwater there is nothing. There is everything. The swirling hiss of foam and billowing waves don’t indulge me with the labels and limitations I bound myself with. Underwater I am water. A part of the ecology for those stretched seconds I dive. The relationship I made with the abalone and its seascape is forged into the water like ink. What role do I play as a predator in this community that has provided me with sustenance health and liberation?
Toxic masculine ideologies of domination, colonisation and objectification have led to the widespread deterioration of ecosystems and connection to land in the Western world. The same ideologies have suppressed femininity and its vital characteristics, such as nurturing and protecting, that care for country and self. Can we reconnect with our femininity and become protectors as well as hunters?
Femininity has long been connected to water. The ebb and flow of tides, the waxing and waning of the moon, the creativity and wisdom of water is feminine energy. These cycles are not dissimilar to those women experience in their own bodies. In a time when many of us are disconnected to natural cycles, seasons and ecosystems, we need to reclaim our femininity and lean into the wisdom it lends.
Women have dived and been huntresses in their own right for thousands of years. Along the coasts of Australia, First Nations women dived for shellfish and seafood, enduring freezing temperatures and powerful currents. The haenyeo from the South Korean island of Jeju are famous for their extraordinary freediving and hunting skills, while Indigenous peoples from around the world including New Zealand, Argentina and Indonesia have been divers and fishers for centuries. These cultures have practiced hunting in balance with the needs of their communities and that of their local ecology, recognising the seasons and the importance of rest in ecosystems. Ignorance and disconnect from hunting grounds can lead to ecological breakdown and food insecurity, but these traditions show the value of balancing the hunting and resting and respecting ecological boundaries. Regenerative aquaculture, and all relationships between country and culture, relies on a deep understanding of the local ecology. A key learning is the cyclical nature of landscapes and the subtleties between seasons. In order to live off and in natural, healthy environments one has to value the importance of reciprocity.
The abalone I caught on that first dive was too small to take home. I returned two weeks later. The sea was calmer and heaved lazily against the beach. I began scouring the weedy rock shelves for the spiral shells but soon became distracted by the swaying golden kelp, the fat pink starfish on the rocks, angel fish wriggling curiously behind me. My ears were clicking with it, the water popping all around, light shattering as it fell through the velvety folds of foam.
It was when I levered off my second shell, one as big as my hand, that I accepted that I had become a part of this ecosystem whether I wished it or not. The relationship between me and those pearly shells was now a relationship between me and the ocean. These waters have given me strength and it was up to me to use that energy to care for and understand this place. The generations of female divers before have demonstrated how a hunting life of respect and connection to country not only create and maintain healthy culture and sea, but broaden expressions of femininity and what it means to be a woman. Through a deep connection to place, they leave a legacy of empowerment: a way of life where humans have a role, a purpose, to protect the country that sustains them. A way of life that empowers everyone from the strongest warrior to the shy girl who decided, one autumn day, to go for a swim.