The Lure of the Mysterious Deep Blue
Since moving to the coastal town of Torquay, South of Melbourne, I’ve befriended the ocean. It’s not like we weren’t friends before, I just never knew it well. It was like that friend I’d been meaning to catch up with and the reunion was always awkward. Well into summer, I would throw my pasty white body into it and get stuck in rips waving desperately at the lifeguard.
Growing up in Sydney, I lived in a house in the ‘burbs complete with blooming jacaranda and gum trees. The beach was an idea, a destination. A long drive with the anticipation of glimpsing it over the hill on a sweltering summer’s day. We’d clod home dripping sand everywhere, melting icy pole in hand, red raw skin.
I see it now every day glimmering in the morning sun. Some days it’s bright and sparkly, other days it’s dark and brooding. Tempestuous like an enraged lover. Yesterday the horizon blended silvery into the ocean and looked like a giant shimmering wall. A celestial barrier.
Torquay is full of hippies, surfers, artists and aspiring sea-changers. The ocean draws them all here. They speak a certain language designed to delineate their membership from the common folk: bra’ or ‘sick at’ ‘I’m frothin’! (Frothin’=enthusiasm, not epilepsy). The collective surfer identity is still planted somewhat in the 90s.
Perhaps since learning to surf, I have greater respect and understanding for these dreadlocked oddballs. It’s more art form than sport, the beefiest of guys borrowing the elegance of swans as they glide across glass-smooth water curling green along the coastline. A dance with nature.
A surfer on the documentary ‘Fishpeople’ described it as ‘meaningful play’. Like dolphins jumping bounding out of water, there’s no function to surfing other than its pleasure. Perhaps fitness. But there’s the feeling. The surfers talk about it.
“… these blokes dancing themselves across the bay with smiles on their faces and sun in their hair. I couldn’t have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day. How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared.” Tim Winton
So I’m trying to crack the Torquay psyche because I grew up 973km’s away from this place. The surfer dudes are as alien to me as Russian oyster farmers.
I’m getting dressed for a friend’s 40th and discarding clothes, one outfit after another. I’m going for ‘boho chic’ which is the local prescription. I’m not really a fan of surf brands which seems blasphemous here in the creative hotbed where Roxy and Quiksilver started.
Sydney subscribes to more of the ‘I’m on a 6-figure salary’ kind of look. A bit more polished, like you could walk into a job interview at any moment.
The thing is, I genuinely want to fit in.
And I wonder if the key to understanding the culture is to understand the pull of the ocean.
Perhaps it’s the great mystery of the ocean, this vast, limitless body whose depths are unfathomable, capturing the imagination through aeons, since the ancient Greeks.
You can play in it, swim in it, travel across it, explore it’s depths, hunt in it, study it.
In 2017, I was up in the Whitsundays with some sailing friends (everyone needs sailing friends) and we stopped off at Nara Inlet, a spot deeply significant to the Aboriginal Ngaro people.
We pulled up and scrambled up the slope, information boards dotted along the way. Each one describing the lifestyle of the Ngaro people, a seafaring group whose lives were inextricably linked to the ocean. They hunted large marine mammals in bark canoes; dugongs, small whales and turtles.
I tried to imagine life playing out in the ocean, hunting in the teeming playground of creatures. Reading the conditions, swimming for great lengths of time without oxygen.
I mean, a week in a yacht was starting to get old.
But the night we anchored in Nara Inlet, the ancient ocean’s spellbinding pull was clear. I lay in a hammock, looking up at the extraordinary fabric of stars glittering across the sky. The silence was punctuated by the gentle lap of water on the boat’s hull.
I could hear a dolphin, emitting puffs of water, freewheeling through the water, leaving eddies in its wake, looking for fish.
Down below the water’s dark surface, a network of phosphorescent algae glowed, sparkling like the stars in the sky.
I breathed it in, that feeling. I am a tiny speck in this vast and limitless ocean. I think for a brief moment, I got it.
The ocean is an inherent part of who we are, it speaks to us at a primitive level. The very blood running through our veins holds the same amount of salt as the deep blue. Perhaps why we’re drawn to it.
Torquay is sprawling ever outwards. As more Melbournians embrace the sea change, it’s busting at the seams, new suburbs popping up overnight much to the chagrin of the locals.
I sometimes feel like a fish out of water, but every now and then, when I’m sitting on the beach, and the late afternoon sun sparkles on the surging waves, I feel like I’m home.
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