For several years I have been working on a project I have decided to call Deep Swimmers. The name comes from a print of a drawing by Robert Stackhouse that hangs in my parent’s home, part of an exhibition of his architectural drawings inspired by the forms of the humpback whale.
The very beginnings of the project have their roots in my early childhood, in what I was introduced to and in the ways I was raised and encouraged to grow, learn and explore. It has its roots in the places I was led, across the continental United States and much farther, across the Pacific to southern waters.
I was too young to remember when my fascination with whales and dolphins began. I loved animals from birth and like all my siblings was practically raised by the Basquin dogs and cats. There is a photograph of me at three reaching towards the open mouth of a dolphin at Seaworld, innocent and in love, unable to comprehend their confined lives. Throughout elementary school and even into high school my drawings were most often of orca, dolphins and horses, animals I worshipped and longed to know more intimately.
The project began in earnest in 2013 with a scene I wrote for a writing class set on a research boat in the northern Pacific. In the scene a man and woman are arguing. The woman is an acoustician studying humpback whales on their migration. The man is asking her to move with him to the southwest where he wishes to start a family. The woman is clear but we don’t know who the man is yet. More scenes followed, leading forward and back, grown now to a two hundred thousand word draft of my first novel Crossing the Divide.
This scene was the first moment in my adult life when my longing to explore and understand the oceanic world came suddenly into form. As I wrote, for the first time in years, the young woman I had been, who had dreamed of becoming a marine biologist came alive.
I thought writing would be enough but I was wrong. In 2014 I first had the idea to visit Vava’u, one of Tonga’s island archipelagos, to swim with the humpback whales who migrate there each year to rest, mate and give birth. After well-intentioned but half-hearted inquiries into what the experience would require of me, I refused the call. Soon, my life changed drastically.
Still I visited bodies of water: I snorkeled in Key West and swam in the Florida Gulf. I explored the Pacific Island of Niue, dragging my mother along to every lagoon and cave we could find. My brother and his friends took me camping in the Lake Tahoe National Forest in northern California where we swam in the freezing icy waters of the Yuba river.
It was three more years–in 2017–before I finally made it to Vava’u and found myself immersed in the waters the whales had traveled in for millennia. I heard their songs, felt them resonating through the bone chambers and cavities of my body. I saw the power in their bodies and looked into the depths of their eyes. It was more than I had ever thought possible. Though I had felt it in increments all my life it was one of the first times when I really understood that every single moment in my life had led me to those moments in the waters of Vava’u. I was grateful for every single instance that had led there and excited about what was to come. I truly felt that anything was possible.
Along the way I had picked up underwater photography, investing no small amount of my savings in a full frame camera and underwater housing. Vava’u was the first time I used my new gear underwater and the challenge of doing so was a good distraction from any fear I had around open ocean swimming. Under the kind and inspiring tutelage of Matt Draper, I threw myself into this new world. I named one photograph from that trip Deep Swimmers (the very first time I used the name of Robert Stackhouse’s exhibition) and was pleased when it won runner-up in the 2018 Otago Wildlife Photography Competition and was exhibited at the Otago Museum.
I was driven to experience more of the underwater world. An influential young man I’d met earlier in the year on a trip to Leigh, a marine sanctuary in the north island, encouraged me to try scuba diving. It was another dream that I had left buried in the past. He led me into the depths of the sanctuary with only our masks, snorkels and swimsuits. Kelp trailed and twirled in the light as though in a dream while eagle rays floated on the sandy bottom and birds dove deeper than I could. When I returned home from Vava’u, I signed up for a course in the foundations of diving and began learning how to scuba dive.
Meanwhile photography and fiction as modes of expression seemed not to be enough. I had time to play and much emotion to express in color, form and energy. With whale-song recorded on the whale swimming trip by one of my new and dear ocean friends as we treaded water above the singing males, I began a series of paintings I call Deep Singers. In many varied colors and shapes I painted the tones and reverberations of the whales’ songs.
(You can see more of my paintings on my website).
Their notes kept me company through a summer where I found myself for the first time, perhaps ever, marvelously alone and happy enough to burst. I painted, wrote, walked, worked and went to movies alone. I pulled weeds and picked bouquets of roses from the garden that served as a buffer between the house where I lived and the city. I listened to music and took baths. I looked at the night sky and visited the beach on warm days. I dreamed of the whales and where they would lead me next.
In 2018 I returned to Vava’u and my experiences there floored me anew. This time I was more afraid. The closer I get, the farther I go, the more that is at stake. I want so deeply to arrive, to discover and in my desire I stumble, afraid. Afraid of missing it, afraid I won’t be brave enough or strong enough, afraid I won’t be able to maintain the joy of arrival, won’t be able to remember it and keep it in my heart. However, we get where we are going by any means.
On the first day a humpback calf, roughly a month old, approached me, playing and turning with only a meter between us. We looked each other in the eye and caught fright at our closeness though there was pleasure in our meeting. I came up and he went down and I watched his body slip into the azure waters thinking of how each line on his body was a mark, a pathway, a map, the cartography of his mother’s love written in the scratches of barnacles.
Again my heart broke open and again I understood that every moment of my life had been leading me here. Each moment a line, a pathway, a thousand doors thrown open. What came next? Where would this moment lead? What lay beyond these waters and the way-finding souls onboard I had come to love over each short week? The threads that lead us are tenuous and loose, requiring focused attention, commitment, exploration, experimentation. I did not know what would come next but I knew I must be willing to find out.
(You can see more images on my website).
When I reached home I began two months of full time study with Dive Otago to become PADI Rescue Diver certified (more on this in a later installment). I finished my certificate in foundation diving with 43 dives and over a thousand minutes of bottom time under my belt. In those two months I gained confidence, faced fears and discovered how strong I could be in a way that was new and freeing. I met sealions, went night diving, saw octopuses, seahorses, schools of blue moki and many other species of wildlife that call these waters home. I liked who I was underwater more than I had ever really liked myself. What I was doing was just for me, not for anyone else. The underwater world feels like a dream but isn’t, it’s very real.
Meanwhile I began work on a series of large abstract paintings pieced together with wood from my parent’s farm and made using materials purchased with money from the sale of my own paintings. The canvases are 1.6 x 1.8 meters and still aren’t large enough to imitate the experience of being immersed in the open ocean alongside marine megafauna–but a close try. One large work is finished with four more planned. They do not have a name yet. In an oversaturated digital world I feel proud to have painted something that needs to be seen in person to truly experience.
The latest installment of the project–or where the whales have led me lately–takes place on Banks Peninsula near Christchurch where I was a field assistant to Jesu Maria Valdes and Lindsay Wickman, students and friends from Otago University, doing research on Hector’s Dolphins. I was part of this badass team of women for four weeks, a third of their summer season of field work (more on this in the next post).
The photo ID and sampling work we conducted from the 19 foot aluminum-hulled boat Grampus–named for the Rizzo’s dolphin whose hull is similarly silver and covered in scratches–has given me an immense amount of knowledge to the support the portions of my novel set on a research boat in the north pacific. Lindsay and Jesu were kind and patient, talking me through the equipment and the processes involved out on the water for marine mammal research. I’m beyond grateful, not only because I have learned so much, gaining inspiration along with field experience and cetacean interaction but I also had an absolutely amazing time.
To correctly qualify this project–the first novel, the photographs and paintings–to communicate the scope of the work, the scope of its reach across the Pacific where the whales migrate and also within my very being is a daunting task and will probably wait until my novel is finished. I hope the reader will know how vast the reach is. Who knows where it will lead next? Least of all me but I am excited to find out and I have inklings, as I’ve had all my life, of names that roll strangely off the tongue: Mozambique, Timor Leste, Cairns, Alice Springs, Hawaii, Barcelona and the Basque country. Where will the thread lead next? I don’t know but I trust with all my heart that it will be exactly where I need to go because it is the same thread hat led me to the exact coordinates where I came face to face with a baby whale, the same thread that birthed me into the arms of the most loving family I could have asked for, the same thread that has pulled me around and around the globe to see one beauty after another–and when I cannot find beauty in the landscapes of the world, I find it in the hearts and minds of people I meet: family, strangers, partners, new and old friends.
The project will never be finished. It is a life’s work–the work of letting myself be opened and led, of letting the world in and letting what exists within me out.
In every photograph, painting and word this is the message I most want to share: we are bound to the earth by love and energy. The living world dreams us as we dream the living world. Call it providence, coincidence, synchronicity: two or more seemingly separate parts meeting–too brilliant to be designed and too fated to be an accident–over and over again in different forms and in different ways. Bring your focus to the workings of beauty, to the natural wonder that is our time on this earth.