Swim­ming the Salty Straits of B.C.

ZOOMER Magazine - - CONTENTS -

The fel­low­ship of the sea

AGROUP STROLLS DOWN a wind­ing road on Salt Spring in the Gulf Is­lands of Bri­tish Columbia. You could eas­ily mis­take them for a troop of re­tirees head­ing home to play a reg­u­lar card game. There are shocks of white hair and ma­ture faces. Colourful cloth­ing and con­fi­dent strides. But you’d be wrong to as­sume that this group is plan­ning any­thing that in­volves sit­ting or leisure, as this agile band of older women turns down a steep set of stairs in ex­cited con­ver­sa­tion and heads to­ward the sea.

Help­ing each other they slip com­fort­ably into black rub­ber body suits, masks and snorkels, shar­ing a laugh or two as only good friends can while push­ing and pulling on Vel­cro and tight zip­pers. Sur­rounded by a rough scrab­ble of jut­ting rock, tall grass and gnarly oak trees, they ef­fort­lessly trans­form from land mam­mals to a pod of ocean-go­ing sea life. Free at last.

This is seal coun­try. The Salt Spring Seals, as they are known, gather to swim here in the Sal­ish Sea a few times a week year-round, as they have since Diana Hayes be­gan as Seal No. 1 in 2002. Wa­ter tem­per­a­tures av­er­age nine de­grees all year, and it’s never easy get­ting into the dark, cold wa­ter, but to­gether they feel like they can do any­thing.

“Swim­ming is not some­thing we do,” Elly Sil­ver­man says. “It’s who we are.” The re­tired pro­fes­sor of women’s stud­ies has been swim­ming with the group from the be­gin­ning and sees it as a def­i­ni­tion more than a pas­time. Salt Spring Is­land is an eclec­tic com­mu­nity, home to many artists and mu­si­cians. To find this group on one of their hour-long swims splash­ing along the coast­line is not a sur­prise for any­one here. Unique is the norm here.

“Ev­ery time we get in the wa­ter, the light, the plant life and the rocky mys­te­ri­ous land­scape un­der the sea is what thrills us,” says artist Chris Hunter. “Each and ev­ery time out is a one-of-a-kind ex­pe­ri­ence.”

The Seals swim on sunny days. They swim in the rain. They swim with plum­met­ing tem­per­a­tures and snow on the ground. And when it feels right, they swim un­der a full moon on a warm sum­mer night when the phos­pho­res­cence all around them puts hu­man­ity into per­spec­tive. “When we swim, we are only in­ter­ested in the mo­ment,” Hunter says. And th­ese Seals truly are hav­ing their mo­ment of­ten.

Hayes will never for­get one par­tic­u­larly icy swim. She writes about it as part of her work as a poet. “It was brac­ing, but we felt so alive. Our fears drift by in their tiny ca­noes, wav­ing us on now, un­der the in­flu­ence of the sea.”


“I started swim­ming with the Seals af­ter a run­ning in­jury in 2003. I don’t like pools, and Salt Spring Is­land only had a small above-ground one at the time. So when my doc­tor sug­gested the ocean, I was game. I also scuba dive, so the equip­ment was fa­mil­iar. I swim be­cause I love the quiet soli­tude of the wa­ter, the com­pan­ion­ship of the women and the ever-chang­ing tableau of the sea life. Once I was face to face with a fe­male sea lion that held a salmon car­cass. And on an­other swim, a cor­morant dove in the wa­ter and went right un­der­neath me. Per­haps my favourite ex­pe­ri­ence was watch­ing an oc­to­pus hunt in the rocks be­low me.”


“I have al­ways loved the wa­ter. As a child in New Eng­land, my fam­ily went to the beach. I put down my blan­ket and raced into the At­lantic where I stayed all day. Two years af­ter mov­ing to Salt Spring Is­land, the Seals asked me to join. Swim in win­ter? What an odd con­cept. The Pa­cific is cold, the sky grey. Then, it hit me: I live on an is­land and I don’t swim. So I joined them, with trep­i­da­tion, in mid-Jan­uary. Four­teen ocean years ago, that was. Here I am now, hair still wet and face still salty. I am thrilled ev­ery time I swim. It may be the light, sil­very and grey, or bronze and green. It may be the cold, which fi­nally seems, well, warm enough. It may be the beauty un­der the ocean, which no­body knows ex­cept those of us who be­come part of it, through our eyes and our bod­ies. It may be the friend­ship among us, af­firm­ing our courage each time we swim.”


“From my first swim with the Seals, I was hooked. The joy of be­ing part of an en­vi­ron­ment so alien to our usual ter­res­trial one is hard to de­scribe. Af­ter I slip into the wa­ter at the start of each swim, it takes a few strokes to ad­just, and then I am cap­ti­vated by the beauty, the unique­ness and the priv­i­lege that be­ing part of the un­der­wa­ter world the Sal­ish Sea pro­vides. Af­ter a few min­utes, I of­ten feel such a one­ness with the ocean en­vi­ron­ment that I think I could aban­don my snorkel and breathe like a marine crea­ture. (For­tu­nately, I’ve never suc­cumbed to this fan­tasy.) Ev­ery swim is dif­fer­ent, and the sea pro­vides an un­end­ing va­ri­ety of life forms. There is some­thing ex­hil­a­rat­ing about timing each stroke to the rhythm of the waves, or swim­ming with the chang­ing tide so that a sin­gle stroke makes you feel like an Olympic ath­lete. My most spec­tac­u­lar mem­o­ries are com­pos­ite ex­pe­ri­ences like the feel­ings I’ve tried to de­scribe, of watch­ing a large crab catch and eat a fish, of see­ing the amaz­ing in­digo blue colours of the kelp shim­mer­ing in the af­ter­noon sun. And then, on the rocks at the end of ev­ery swim, the fel­low­ship of the Seals on the rocks af­ter the swim, shar­ing high­lights of the swim and ap­pre­ci­at­ing the wis­dom and diversity of the group.”


“Swim­ming with the Seals brings me a tremen­dous amount of joy. I have al­ways been an open-wa­ter swim­mer. Af­ter leav­ing and re­turn­ing here to Salt Spring, I needed a way to get back into the ocean again. I joined the Seals and am so happy with this in­clu­sive and sup­port­ive group. I love see­ing the wildlife, the beau­ti­ful plants and an­i­mals found un­der the sur­face. A very spe­cial mo­ment hap­pened to me when I en­coun­tered a wild seal dur­ing a re­cent swim. We looked at each other above the sur­face of the wa­ter as we got closer and closer. It felt out­side of space and time. Two sea mam­mals si­lently meet­ing one an­other.”


“Be­ing a Seal rekin­dles and re­cap­tures my youth – that sense of free­dom from sum­mers spent swim­ming in a lake at our cot­tage. Swim­ming year-round in the ocean is pure bliss – I step into an un­der­wa­ter world that calms my mind, while mak­ing me feel alive and in tune with na­ture and my­self. One of my favourite swims was on a clear day when we swam through a kelp for­est il­lu­mi­nated by shafts of light. It was like swim­ming through a peren­nial gar­den. This for­est pro­vided shel­ter for tiny crabs, who wrapped their legs around the bull kelp, sway­ing with the cur­rent. Swim­ming can be a soli­tary ven­ture, so I en­joy the co­ma­raderie among the Seals – we sup­port each other in the wa­ter and on land.”

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