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What I learned from the ocean
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
What I learned from the ocean
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
What I learned from the ocean
Pass it on
Pass it on
19 November 2018

What I learned from the ocean

Climate activist Anna Rose draws on an experience of the ocean as a metaphor for our comfort zones.

Written by Anna Rose

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Photo by Jenny Bess on Unsplash

The ocean was my teacher yesterday.

Well, she’s always my teacher—I just don’t get many lessons anymore. I live in Canberra, surrounded by the Brindabella mountains and Monaro plains. Landlocked. So when I go to Sydney, if the ocean temperature is above 16 degrees, I swim.

Yesterday at Bondi, the water was 17 degrees. I woke up in my friends’ apartment, grabbed a towel and walked to the beach, passing the old-timers talking in their speedos, the morning joggers, the Bondi yogis drinking green smoothies, the homeless people, the dog walkers and the mothers with tired eyes pushing prams along the concrete.

When I got to the shore, there was only one other swimmer. It was a surf morning: big waves, lots of whitewash, and the water got real deep real quick. Back when I lived in Sydney, I wouldn’t have gone out on a day like this. But this was a rare treat and I wasn’t going to waste it because I was scared of what might happen.

So I stepped in. Dove under the shore breakers. Wet my hair. Felt the bracing chill. Waited for the set to finish and swam out. The other swimmer—a man in his sixties—used the break to swim in. He gave me a friendly nod on the way.

The water was deceptively calm. I’d seen the waves in the previous set and knew they’d be back but I wasn’t worried. I stretched out, felt the buoyancy and the push-pull of the current and took slow leisurely strokes while looking up at the sky. Peace. Some people have religion, some have meditation. I have the ocean.

Then I looked out to sea and saw the swell of a wave forming. Bigger than the previous set. I could feel my heart beat in my chest. The wave reared up and I raced towards it, coasting over the top of the crest and letting it lift me as it broke just over the top of my head. The pattern continued—big wave, swim towards it. But they were becoming bigger and faster, each one pulling me closer to the whitewash zone. So I started diving under them instead of rising over the crests, and a little voice posited some questions: How long has it been since you’ve been in big waves? How’s your back problem? It’s making swimming harder than it used to, isn’t it? Why did you go swimming alone, and early—before the lifeguards are on duty? Memories surfaced of being dumped by big waves as a teenager: being rolled over and over under a wave of whitewash that won’t let me up for air.

But there was another voice in my head that I forced myself to I listen to. You used to be a surfer. You were in waves bigger than this every morning before school. You know what to do. Breathe, go under the wave, come up for air, repeat. You checked for rips before you got in; there aren’t any. You can either wait this set out until it’s calm, going under each wave, or you can go in—you’re close enough to shore that you can ride a few waves in without much difficulty. You can do this. 

I took some deep breaths, dove under a few more waves, then decided to let them carry me in. Soon I felt the sand under my toes and was back at the shore wrapping my towel around me, heart pumping harder than usual.

The rest of the day was great. I felt alive. My mind was clear, as it always is after I’m immersed in salt water.

A few weeks prior to this incident, I ran a workshop about comfort zones with a very special group I’d been part of at Heron Island research station. The concept is simple. There’s a diagram that shows the three states of life we can be in: our comfort zones, our learning/challenge zones and our danger zones.

The idea is that we should all be operating at the edge of our competencies—stretching and pushing ourselves so we don’t stagnate. Getting out of our comfort zones, but not so far away that we enter our danger zone, where we’re overwhelmed and at risk of hurting ourselves or others.

That morning at the beach, I’d unwittingly stumbled on the perfect metaphor.

  • Lying on the sand on your towel = comfort zone
  • Swimming in waves just a bit deeper than you normally would, and coping = challenge zone
  • Drowning in the deep ocean = danger zone

Each of these zones can be totally different depending on the individual.

I was fine that morning because I had the skills, experience and attitude necessary to cope with the big waves—just! But those waves were big enough that if it had been a different person, with less ocean experience, who had allowed panic to set in—there could have been serious trouble.

Climate change demands big things of us. We have to rise to a challenge bigger than our parents could have dreamed we’d need to. Bigger than our school system prepared us for. Bigger than the challenges we navigate in our everyday lives. It’s a planet-sized challenge, and we can each play a role.

But we’re running out of time. The sea is rising, friends. It’s time to learn to swim.

Anna Rose

Anna Rose is an Australian author, speaker and environmentalist who works on a number of strategic initiatives to help Australia make progress on climate change and sustainability.

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