An Ocean Blackened with Dolphins

While I can’t recall the exact reason I was feeling so down this day, it was most likely another heartache story from an ex-boyfriend. All I know is I absolutely craved the touch of ocean on my skin and to once again experience the surreal feeling of riding those magnificent waves. I eagerly ran down the secluded sandy track through the lush forest to check the conditions. I gazed out across the glassy ocean surface and spotted a fun looking 2-3ft shore break. Jumping for joy I bolted back down the track to the car. In no time at all I was running into the warm waters, surfboard under arm, taking in a deep breath of the fresh, salty air. As soon as I was in waist deep, I released my board into the waters and dived to the sandy bottom, resembling mermaid qualities as I once again felt at home under the sea.

A small crowd of surfers were already on the best peak but I really needed solo time in the ocean and didn’t feel like competing for waves. I distanced myself far down the beach and straddled my board as I watched the glowing ball of sun rise above the ocean. A sight I will never once grow tired of. Gazing back to the surface of the water, I spot a set coming my way. Quickly paddling to my right, I position myself towards the peak of the wave and turn my board towards shore for takeoff.

A perfect steep drop, gravity forces my arms behind me as I free fall with the lip and just make it into my first bottom turn. I cast my eyes to the top of the lip, feathering high in the golden sunlight and gouge my fins to break the lip apart, sending sprays of salty water into the skies above. Addicted to speed I race towards the end section of the wave and once again gouge my fins into the face of the wave, digging my arm into the wall, while I lay back and complete the turn, before flicking off the back of the wave, leaping into the depths of the ocean once again. I feel intoxicated with joy and buzzing with adrenaline.

Paddling back out for more, I laugh out loud to myself at the thought of the hungry crowd, a mere 100 metres away, fighting over waves amongst themselves. As I make it out the back of the breaking waves, I once again straddle my board waiting for the next gem to come to me. I look over to the crowd with a big grin, but notice a commotion in the water. Another girl had just taken off on a wave and was almost knocked off her board, as a large dolphin leaped out of the wave right in front of her.

The other surfers were lifting their heads high to get a better view of the rest of the pod of dolphins which had surrounded them. I jumped as I felt the water beneath me move and looked down to see two dolphins, each hovering, completely still, either side of me. I lifted my feet up and let out a loud squeal, unsure of what they were doing.

I’ve spent a lot of time in and around dolphins in my surfing life but never had experienced this kind of behaviour. I felt my breath grow heavy and my body freeze up unsure of my next move. As I closely watched them I became aware that they were here for a reason. They chose to hover close to me, out of every other surfer in the water that morning. Suddenly I realised they most likely picked up on my energy. They were aware that I had been having a rough time and they were here to remind me of the true beauty of life amidst the chaos. Just as the thought passed through my mind each dolphin darted off in different directions.

I decided to surrender to joining the safety of the crowd as I realised there was quite a bit of marine action in the water. As I paddled closer, I noticed a large pod of dolphins were still interacting with the surfers. In fact as I approached, the entire water was blackened with bodies of dolphins great and small.

The huge mumma dolphins appeared to be creating a circle to keep their babies safe in the middle, a trait I had previously learnt about. There had to be at least fifty dolphins present. For some reason the mumma dolphins were highly interactive when they had their offspring and always came up closer to surfers at the time they were nursing their young. I would love to know the reason behind this, perhaps it was to teach them a lesson about humans.

It was such a moving experience to be in the ocean on this day. There was not one surfer out who didn’t have a huge grin on their face and didn’t jump at the sensation of a dolphin brushing up against the side of their dangling legs. The bigger dolphins seemed to have come up with a game, where they would grab the babies in their beaks and throw them into the air.

Many times I would turn around to see a little dolphin spinning through the air.  It was one of those moments I really felt I should have got out of the water, not knowing if any sharks were joining the party or not, but I knew this was a once in a lifetime experience and I didn’t want to miss a minute of it. I’ve never come face to face with baby dolphins like I had on this day, many of them curiously poking their noses out of the water and looking around with their beady eyes to see what us humans were all about. We were all reminded how incredibly lucky we are to be surfers, playing in the heart of mother nature.

surfing with dolphins

The First Wave is Never Forgotten

I’m waiting out the front of the school gates with my backpack; whistling nervously with a guilty conscience playing on my mind. The day was to begin with my English class with Mrs Watson but I knew the night before I wasn’t going to be sitting at that wooden desk reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I remember finding one of those old “school excursion” forms.   There was a part where Mum or Dad had to sign, giving their consent for a day trip organised by school. I had torn the panel off and glued it creatively next to some article about an art class day trip to excuse me from school that day. Mum was too worn out and busy cooking the evening meal for us three kids to really take notice of what she was signing.

The surf bug had bitten me and there was no turning back. Here I was standing barefoot in my school uniform on a cold, rocky shore gazing at these perfect waves. Behind me the old rusted Commodore I had stepped into at the school gates, boards stacked on the roof, its occupants some much older guys I had recently met. One was laying on his back on the bonnet in his scraggly torn jeans, shirt off, smoking and playing air guitar to the tunes coming out of the rattly car speakers.  The others whipping each other’s backsides with towels before running off into the tussock giggling like little kids.

I had only just learnt to stand up on a surfboard a few weeks before, but my inflated teenage ego and the fact I had a huge crush on one of the guys, saw me paddling out behind him and his friends below the cliffs, not really comprehending the power behind these waves. I knew it was big but for some reason without really knowing them I trusted they would look after me. There were some strange looks from the rest of the surfers out there.  I don’t think I could paddle very well and I was very shaky when I tried to sit up straddling my board to rest. I had made it out the back of the line-up and sat quietly as I witnessed one of the guys take off on a monster wave, bigger than I had seen before. Fear was now well and truly battling with my ego. I was frozen on my board.

One of the guys, Hamish, who was sitting closest to me, had seen something on the horizon. “Shan this one’s yours go, go, paddle, paddle, dig deep!!”  Now it was a mix of overwhelming fear and adrenalin as I thought ‘Here’s my chance’. I paddled fast towards the shore briefly glancing back at this mountain like mound of water coming towards me.  The lip started to feather and I was in the right spot for take-off.  Grabbing the rails I swung my feet up from under me and stood up.  I had done it! I was up!  But I quickly realised things were about to go very wrong for me.

I had become caught up in the lip of the breaking wave and violently pitched forward until gravity took over.  I was falling down from the sky with my limbs helplessly scratching at the crisp morning air. It seemed to all happen in slow motion; the surreal separation of body from mind, the feeling of having no control over what was happening. The image will stay with me forever. Looking over my shoulder mid-air, I could see that deep dark cavern of the wave’s trough so far below me, the very spot I would be unwillingly forced into. I crashed and was sucked up into the face of the wave like being in Mother Nature’s vacuum cleaner. Once I’m taken up and around the curve of the wave I am then forcefully thrown underwater and my body taken up and around the wave for a second time. I hit the rocky bottom and struggle to hold my breath as my arms and legs are tugged in each direction with the swirling waters. It seems like a lifetime that I am held under but I finally surface and desperately gulp in the oxygen.  My vision is hazy, I’m seeing stars and for a moment I don’t know who I am. The stinging pain begins to set in from the cuts on my legs and ribs from hitting the reef. I turn to see my board washing up on the rocks. I make my way in limping up the rocks with my tail between my legs as blood begins to seep from my wounds.

Hamish caught up with me, apologising for pushing me into a wave far beyond my capabilities. He hadn’t quite comprehended the size of the wave he had told me to go, he says. I was lucky to come out alive. How silly and insignificant I felt in that moment. I never skipped school again but I knew this was a much more important life lesson than what I would have been taught in English class. The ocean was now my teacher.

Today, twelve years on I am absolutely engulfed in surfing and love challenging myself in bigger conditions. Currently living in Byron Bay I have recently returned to this very break in NZ.  Hamish, still my close friend, walking beside me with his hands interlaced behind his head, watching the waves roll in.  Laughing as we reminisce this day; my first real surf experience.

New Zealand surfing

Indonesian Boat Crossing

With no sign of any Westerner, she passed cautiously through the rotted wooden boat catching glimpses of dark faces peering through the shanty cabins intrigued by her blonde hair and tan skin. Given the spontaneity of the six-month journey she quickly realised that her basic Indonesian would not serve her in this situation.

There was a task she had been putting off for as long as she could bear but she was now desperately needing to locate some form of a toilet. The rear of the boat was dark and unexplored, a kerosene lamp clattered noisily against the wall, hung by a tattered rope giving just enough light to locate the only door she hadn’t attempted to enter, a door barely hanging upright on its hinges. An Indonesian man sat nearby, cigarette poised between his lips, his dark eyes staring her down, she passed with little care as she was at the point of bursting.

Sea sickness hadn’t bothered her until the sight of the apparent toilet, perhaps it was lucky to not be so well lit as she closed the rusty door, barely managing to fit in the small area, the rock of the sea causing her to slip and slide on the mouldy floor, the stench almost unbearable. She noticed a small coke bottle and plastic pipe letting water pass through the drilled hole in the wooden deck, barely keeping up to its intended task but assuring her she must have been in the right place.

She returned to her sleeping area, stomach now churning, once again finding her spot nestled between dozens of Indonesians on the floor. Chickens noisily contained in woven cages, cockroaches scrambling past avoiding the heavy footprint of restless children. Her iPod became her saviour, relieving the anxiety and reality of how far she had stepped out of her comfort zone, the lyrics of her favourite songs meaning more than ever before, each beat matching the beat of her heavy heart as she eventually drifted to sleep only to be woken by the violent sway of the boat in the treacherous swells. She lay quietly observing the movement of life around her.

She began to cultivate thoughts of the human condition, the basic need for survival and safety, food and water, love and equality. Later she would discover a boat travelling that night on the very same route had capsized in the rough seas killing seven locals. She had risked it all for the prospect of perfect waves.

She was two hours away from her destination, now travelling by a small dugout canoe navigating bays lined in palm trees and mesmerising crystal blue waters. It had taken almost three days of travel. The sight was absolutely spellbinding. A surfer standing tall in a perfectly groomed overhead barrel breaking along a pristine reef. An immense grin crept over her weary face and shivers lit up her spine, her previously held doubts of the journey vanished and she had finally reached the ultimate surfer’s dreamland.   Mentawai

Tahitian Heartbeats


The air was surprisingly fresh as we rode our bicycles, boards under arm weaving through the lush gardens that surrounded our surf shack. Dawn is always a magical time of the day for surfers and today was no different. The dark of the sky was awakening to dreamy pastel colours, the wind barely a breath, the burning tropical sun yet to crawl its way up the volcanic mountaintops.

In the distance we hear a loud scraping of metal against road and spot a rusted out car coming our way, the noise is atrocious but as we pass we lose it laughing at the site. A topless Polynesian guy with his big stomach only just fitting against the steering wheel, he rests his monstrously proportioned arm on the open window, but is actually holding the entire car door up, on one hinge with his grip, casually cruising along with fresh baguettes on the dash as though he’s rolling in a Bentley.

We already feel like a part of the family as we stash our bikes at the boat shed on the edge of a turquoise blue ocean. The iron roof held down by chunks of coral, a dirty concrete floor and a broken timber window propped up by an empty vodka bottle. We tiptoe inside to see if anyone is awake, we hear a “wooo” from the one small bedroom and are greeted by three smiling faces.

They are always so stoked to see us. It’s the classic big momma Polynesian woman always laughing and making jokes in French that we don’t understand but laugh anyway. Dad is the hard worker, baring a toothless grin, he does what he can to bring food to the table. Their teenage daughter is nursing her young baby, they are all sharing a 3m x 3m room, three single beds and a cot lining the walls.

They would never let us go without signalling and yelling in French, asking us to take fresh papaya and bananas from their garden. They are clearly so incredibly poor, we try to give money for the fruit but I’ve never seen anyone refuse so passionately.

We head down the sandy road indulging in freshly picked bananas and I’m nervously gazing out to the reef break. The swells big. Usually I’m happy for the welcome challenge but I’ve heard of this waves’ personality and it put me a little on edge.

It seems you’ve got to earn your everything here, the break sits about a kilometre out to sea and the currents on the paddle out can force you back to shore if you rest for even a minute. I fear if anything was to go wrong out there.

I’m happy to make it to the edge of the reef with burning arms where we can finally rest as a rewarding current decides to run out to sea, rather than back to the now distant land.

A monster wave grows out of nowhere and it’s much more solid than I’m comfortable with, the sheer thickness of it almost outweighs its height.  Fear kicks in as the rewarding current now feels like I’m being escalated to my grave and there’s no way back. We’re in water deep enough to be safe but the current is rapidly pulling us around the back of the lineup to the thickest part of the wave.

The next wave starts to appear and this time a big Polynesian guy is paddling for it, he’s super deep and committed, digging his arms hard into the face of the wave. He briskly swings his feet under him & grabs rail to pull into the most perfect round barrel I’ve ever laid eyes on. He is a giant of at least 6’5 and built solid, but appears to be an ant fading down the face of the wave.

We see two other local guys out and approach each with handshakes and are welcomed to their wave. The respect is absolutely mind-boggling here and every surf is a step back in time.

There’s no resting in the lineup here, every minute or so we each paddle back from the current that continually swings out to sea. I display a forced air of confidence as one of the local guys explains to me that the current gets so strong some days that no one will surf it, even though the wave itself is perfect.

With a grin he smoothly comments that the only way to get back into shore is to catch a wave over the reef. He then turns his board around and glides into a bomb. My idea of being a spectator to this surf is crushed by words I would have rather not heard. I can’t even fathom the thought of paddling into one of these giants. The current suddenly feels stronger through my heightened fear, my arms are beginning to cramp from fighting against it. I’ve never felt so intimidated by the ocean as I have in this moment and am nearly reduced to tears.

I paddle towards the land hoping to catch a smaller one in, but in no time I’m scratching back out to the horizon to get under another bomb. I try again as my arms burn through exhaustion, making it quite far in this time. Another wave starts to form but there’s no way I can make it back out and under it, I can feel the water is shallow beneath me.

It was hard to tell where it was going to break, with so much current moving up the face, I charge towards the big wall of water and duck dive as deep as possible. I clear the turbulent tube of water but am clipped just before surfacing and sucked in and under, I hit the reef hard with my knee and hands. The water above feels like concrete rain pushing me deeper and deeper.

I finally surface standing on dry reef and am faced with another bomb wave. I’m in the most critical barrel section where not only one wall comes parallel to shore but a second wall forms from the south to meet together to form a wedge.

I gaze up to the skies as the lip breaks high above me. I make a split-second decision to turn around and hang on for life as I ride the whitewash in. Like a bus hitting me from behind I just manage to cling on to my board. Within no time, all is quiet. I’ve made it into the peace of the tranquil blue lagoon, breathless but safe. Tropical fish casually swim at my feet, a surreal scene in absolute opposition to what I just faced.

I have a strange feeling of invigoration back on land as I go about my day, a feeling of taking on something much larger than I, the humble pride that comes from being a surfer. The land and ocean expanse all seem to speak a different energy after a surf out here. I think back to the unspoken meaning behind the local guys making sure everyone greets with respect before touching any of those waves.

Perhaps there’s a mutual feeling at the core of our being, the waves representing the challenges in life, crossing the line, facing our fears and being brave enough to come back and take it all on again.