Beachcombing.


I stand on the sandy footprinted beach, look out to sea, watch the waves and wonder; are any of these waves the reflected after shadows of the Japanese tsunami? Are any of these the haunted wave memory of the shifted seabed, the plunging aftershock, the tortured water that came ashore like a strange spreading cloud? I doubt it, but the very idea brings the need for stillness and thought. If you had ever seen such things, how could you look out to sea or even stand on land and not believe that lasting change, random change, could occur at any moment. If the sea can rise up, the land fall away and sweep all before it, how can you look at a hill or a wave and not feel the uncertainty of fear? If the foundations of the earth can be torn apart, if the oceans can cover the land, how do you not feel fear each new coming second?


The riches of the Earth boil to the surface in the very places where it is mobile and weakest. At plate boundaries, the intermittent slip slide of edges brings wealth most days and destruction on just a few. It’s a gamble that few volunteered for and many live with. It’s a numbers game. But if the dice is thrown enough times, in the end, surely, 00 will come up and that 1 in 100 day will arrive, bringing fear, death and suffering. On such days it would be better to be elsewhere. I look down at the rocks at my feet and know that today, here, is not such a day. I don’t know, not really, not in any real way, but the odds are stacked in my favour. The dice always favour the house, and this is my house. Australia is old and stable, resting on its own plate, miles from the action. P finds a crab and H plays at the water’s edge - the day returns, the remote becomes impossible and a protective shield of denial forms between my mind and all that is possible. It’s only natural.

A silver gull flashes over the beach, a grey and silver wind knife. The sand sings in the bright sun, exposed at the turning of the tide. Water rushes out of Port Phillip Bay. It leaves a scribbled handwriting of waves and foam, of rushes and deep slack eddies, dull undercurrents and fierce, dragging tides. It boils without being hot and a dull smoky roar grinds in the background. Waves break and run. This place is solid, not secure. What you find today will be gone tomorrow, there are few fixed points and reality is as fluid as a lie. The gulls ghost over wave tops and barrel through the sine wave trough between them. Here they really are sea gulls; fluid and white, suitable, suited and fit. Staggered drifts of terns, sea butterflies, pass with bouncing direct flight. A gargoyle cormorant, black and heavy, sits on a greening rock - a solid bird, a bird of water as much as air - guarding the water way to the Bay. The light house, white and smooth, sits on another rock, safe from wave wash and tide spray. It too guards the way into the Bay. The bird and the lighthouse, both watching the running tide of The Rip.




The rocks below the lighthouse seem to have an extra layer today - a grey that coats the green. A silt overcoat, a matt cover to hide the gloss of weed and water. The sea weeds look old and tired, as if they have been land wrecked for too long. The turning tide will wash away many things, but here it may bring clean water to sluice the flood's silty wrapper. Red-necked stints flush from the water’s edge and fly, sometimes above, sometimes below the horizon. This seems suitable for such an edge dweller as it passes from sea to sky and back again. Overhead planes and helicopters spook the birds and drive them to flight.



The wind sings a song of sand and surf and when I close my eyes I could be anywhere, surrounded by the world music of the sea; dull Sunday mornings on the North Sea; bright childhood summer days looking out across the Severn’s mud towards Wales; the empty beaches of western Ireland, with nothing but sea between me and the USA, waiting for letters that seldom came; the beach below Forks, strewn with fallen trees, with a peregrine high on the a cliff edge tree, back when Forks was a real place rather than a fiction. They blend to become an every-beach, each individual, but each the same. Visit a new beach and, more often than not, it's like tuning into a new radio station that plays the same music as your favourite, but with different presenters.


Behind the beach, past the car parks and wind harrowed trees, the land flattens into pasture. Stripped of trees and put down to grass, with sheep gathering in what little shade they can find. Ravens hop and peck, opportunistic camp followers, unloved. Some pastures run to long grass, and in damp flushes flowers bloom. Yellow. White. A sweep of shocking pink flowers covers one paddock. Apparently they are called Naked Ladies, as they burst from the soil bare, with no leaves. I feel strangely reluctant to Google their name for further information. Their part of the paddock is rich with a thick scent, heady and smelling of Boots the Chemist or the cheap perfume applied prior to teenage parties - spray and walk. Human perfume is about the contradiction of attraction and concealment, but in the flowers it’s all about attraction. The insects fly their way down the perfume river, arriving at the source hungry and leaving with more than just a sweet drink. Pollen on the move, the vector for plant sex. The smell seems rather sickly sweet - jelly and ice cream, toffee apples and hint of rot, but it has not evolved for me or my clumsy nose. Butterflies rise in strange abundance, clouds even, from the long grass. Is this what it was always like before we waged chemical war on the pestilent and the pretty alike, is this what it was like before the springs were silent? Blues, white and patterned Meadow Argus, they flee from cover to cover, only those too busy with the future seem to be still.



A brown falcon settles down on the flimsy branch of a dead tree, waits oh so briefly and then flies on - its body seems still as its wings corkscrew through the air. Pigeon flush and fly. The smell of sea air remains, the call of distant gulls and barely heard rush of the waves calls me back to the everybeach that lies just over there, just out of sight.


The road to Phillip Island was lightly garnished with dead foxes and rabbits - alien road kill. The Sat Nav seemed to have downloaded the maps for Bolivia or Mogadishu - “At the next junction turn left and drive away from your destination” . I turned it off. Each lamp post of the bridge over to the Island was topped with a Pacific Gull, each a picture of stillness. Pelicans sailed on the water under the bridge, each a picture of motion. Cape Woolami is just over the bridge. Turn left and park where you see the sea - I did not need the Sat Nav to tell me this thankfully. Most of the car spaces were full of surfers' cars, some old, some new, but most with bumper stickers and slogans. Young men called each other dude and swore with casual indifference. Time and a place boys, time and a place. It became apparent that I was in the middle of the World Knee Boarding Championships - I’m not making this up! A PA crackled with names and encouragement, but at least the amplified language does not veer into the Anglo Saxon. Wildness flies. I try to think positive man, but I fail.


The beach cuts down to the sea with an ankle turning steepness, the water is deep close in, safe to stranded in a single breath. I encourage the kids away from the water's edge. Brilliant, brutal, light reflects from the sand, the waves rush, each step breaks the crusted surface of the sand. The headland, away from the crowds, beckons. We walk past a dead seal pup and a penguin - both smell. I check the penguin for a flipper tag and think of the five fingered limb within. A deep time relative, with a shared history that diverged an unimaginable time ago, brought back together, here on this beach in the autumn sun. A cow fish, hard and dry, lies on its flank looking for all the world as if it has been carved from wood and sand, painted and left out to dry. The kids play in the sand and we make little progress - today is not the day for a walk.




A set of steps cut into a moss coated, slimy green soak brings us to the cliff top, where we sit and watch the surfers, eat chocolate and sip some water. Thick fleshy plants coat the ground, and snails coat the plants. Hidden between the bulked up leaves are hundreds of shells, mostly empty, some still home to a living snail. Any movement off the path is accompanied by a sharp, ugly, bursting of shells. Patches of bare ground, stamped with webbed foot prints mark the entrance to shearwater burrows. Most of the cliff top is a shearwater rookery, although there was little evidence of it other than the bare ground. It could easily be mistaken for a rabbit warren. What little evidence that could be seen were the bodies of dead chicks - scattered with surprising frequency among the plants. Gulls and ravens played catch as catch can with the corpses, a gruesome game of tug of war over bones, feet and broken wings. It was not a pretty sight.


A hawk flies over the cliff tops, distant and difficult, flushing most of the birds. It is mobbed and flies away, becoming a distant speck, as the clamour of alarm calls fades. We sit down for lunch, trying as best we can to avoid the snails. An Australian White Ibis, not looking the least Sacred, eyes our lunch, anticipating but not receiving. The day ticks over. Another beach adds its flavour to the everybeach mix. Under a clear blue sky, next to the rushing sea we walk back towards the car.

The continuing adventures of marine boy (and his dad)

I’m not sure when it all started, when it became impossible to walk over a bridge without looking over the edge. Without looking for fish. I’m not sure when it all started, when it became impossible to walk along a pier without looking over the edge. Without looking for fish. Beach edge, pond side, creek bank, it’s always the same. The search for the fin flash of silver. Salmon in the Leven, flooding from Windermere, chub in the Somerset Brue chasing finger squeezed flakes of bread, surface swirls for floating crusts. Toad fish by Swan Bay Pier, bright sun surf whiting at Point Lonsdale. But more often than not I can’t put a name to the fish - mystery fish below a bridge or darting, shadow scared, in rock pools. Fin after fin breaking the surface of Broom harbor - maybe more fish than I have ever seen in one place - all without a name. Sometimes you see more than fish, a passing crab, the single swirl of an otter under a bridge, a water vole; but mostly it’s fish.

Standing on the bridge over Tidal River watching the fish dash and feed is like looking into another world. A world of buoyancy and flow. Winds have to be strong indeed to prevent the movement on land, but the flow of a river must be different. In the paper this week was a story of a platypus which had been found far out to sea, washed from the river by the floods, by the tyranny of water.

Seeing fish from the land or its built siblings is to see only half the creature. One tail flick and they are gone and we don’t see the fish, we see the fleeing fish. And that’s different to the fish itself. A zoo tiger is a caged tiger and that’s different from a tiger itself. To be able to see the fish as it is (or maybe see more of the fish as it is) you need to join it in the water. Recently I have started to have swimming lessons - not because I can’t swim, but because I want to swim better. For a few minutes in each of the lessons I feel like I am actually swimming, not just making the movements that prevent drowning. Each lesson those few minutes get longer. When you watch a fish dash away in fear you are only seeing the movements needed to avoid death. But when the fish don’t seem to mind you being there you see a different kind of swimming altogether. The range of movement approaches dance and the single minded swim sprint from fear to safety fades away.

Queenscliff has two piers, one where people walk and fish and the other for the pilot boat - the guide ship for the tortured waters of the Heads. A current flows between the piers and you can float on the surface, buoyed by a wetsuit, and just drift. The water is clear and the depth small, rock reefs appear and a few gentle fin kicks bring you closer. The reefs are like islands, flush with life in the seemingly barren sand. Some change comes about and sea grass starts to grow, a marine meadow. Small fish flicker between the strands of plant and, with eyes keener than mine, find food. They upend and kiss the plants or the seabed. Small clouds of sand break away from the sea bed as feeding occurs. Where the reefs have walls the edges are patrolled by wrasse, colorful dwellers on these mini drop-offs. Fish faces emerge from small caves and cracks, crabs wave claws, transparent shrimps, living glass, flick between safety and food. Purple specked brain anemones, soft and plastic, roll in the current. Lying on the surface is a strange Cartesian world of two dimensions. The buoyancy of the wetsuits keeps you pinned to the surface and diving is difficult. Once you stop trying you bob back to the surface. When you are trying to look at a fish or crab the journey to the surface seems rapid and disappointing. When you are at the end of your held breath the journey to the surface seems long and the rush of air distant.

Swimming in the rain was strange. You could hear the plink fizz of the drops in the water around you, you could see the bomb crater double splash of impact and rebound. Lying on the surface, at the boundary of two worlds, the rain only falls on your back. I could feel the impact but not the wetness. In the water, surrounded, the wet feels dry, feels normal, and you don’t feel the extra touch of the rain as it runs down your neck. The rain does not give the feeling of otherness it does when you are dry. Hardly surprising, but surprising anyway.

H has never snorkeled before, but looks relaxed as he drifts over fish, biscuit stars and elephant snails. He sees a squid, but it’s gone by the time I get there. Arms folded across his back he looks like a seal, albeit a seal with a mask and snorkel. He circles thumb and first finger to say he OK. You can see him smiling inside the face mask. A fin kick and he is off. Independent on a cool summer’s morning.

Under the pilot pier life abounds, the stanchions and piles rich with weed and sponges. Limpets cling in the splash zones, worms wave their fans. Around each wooden pile the currents have cut a trench, and here fish seem to gather. Wrasse, gobies, sliver fish, bronze fish, fish with glitter jewel colors. Small fish, large fish, larger fish ghosting in the background. The trip ends and we walk heavy footed along the beach. Shark eggs, abalone shells, dead-men’s fingers, storm washed beach finds in the rain. Sandy feet, and tired legs. We go in search of lunch.


Summer comes to an end, autumn beckons. Before the water chills we head to Portsea for another swim. I’d been here before, and was spreading words of confidence and encouragement to H. The journey down was punctuated with accounts of some of the more ridiculous world records that people have gained. Most needles in the head, most straws in the mouth, most time wasted sticking needles in your head - that sort of thing. The water around Portsea pier was as clear as clear can be, but there was still a kind of veil drawn over what you could see. The glitter splash of small fish hardens the surface, colours shift and the back swish of waves pulls at the sand. Nets are cast for crabs, lured in by chicken frames. Buckets full of crabs line the pier edge, all legs and claws, destined for the pot.

We walk backwards into the water, facing the land, avoiding the embarrassment of a fin fall. Within minutes we are drifting over seaweed gardens, green and mobile. It feels like you are drifting over a forest canopy, like some giant bird. This time a waterproof camera hangs from my wrist, but I soon find out how hard it is to use. I’m moving, the fish and plants are moving and the sunlight blanks out the screen. Point. Click. Hope. Click again. Pheasant shells are gathered from the sea bed, disturbing the sleep of snails. Old Wives - a classically stripy fish - hover by the rock edge. We are guided into deeper water by the liquid flowing edge of a rock band. When you dive down, you can peek into the dark under shelf of the rock edge. Secret places, with hidden things. If you try to show anybody you can never find them again, as if seeing them causes them to disappear, some form of Schrödinger’s fish. It might be there, but then again.

Under the pier the rush of the water is stronger, funnelled by the wood work and the shape of the shore. Photographs are even harder to take. I play chasey with a crab, round and round a pillar pole. Eight legs are much better than a floating man, hindered by fins, wet suit and millions of years of evolutionary history between me and my marine past. Bright coloured sponge gardens, lemons and oranges, coat the poles. The plants wave, frantic Mexican waves, back and forth, back and forth.

A weedy sea dragon drifts out on the under pier gloom and despite my best efforts eludes being photographed. In the end I stop trying and just watch - not wanting to be prevented from just looking by the desire to take a photograph. This decision is made easier as the battery goes flat, and the camera becomes nothing more than bling.

Sitting in the darkness under the pier, looking out into the sparkling, sun bright water, feels like staring into the emptiness of space. The millions of little cells catching the light in green sparkles, I breathe in what they produce and wonder at the connection of it all. Tiny plants, me and H, the sea dragon, all on a tiny blue planet, a water world, spinning through space.

Here, in the last week of summer, I’m glad I can pay attention, I glad I’m swimming with H and showing him things you don’t always see.
A marine boy (and his dad) in a water world, with no need for fairy tales to explain what we see, and a sense that showing your kids the world as it really is has to be the most important job in the world.