I R M A

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M a r i n e  E c o l o g i s t  &  M e m o i r i s t

MARK WILSON

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Mark R. Wilson | Hurricane Irma Survivor

E X C E R P T.

“You can’t go out there!” “You can’t swim, you idiot.”

This is very true, I can’t. Still, I have to go out and see the two basking sharks swimming long lazy circles in the bay up close, I just have to.

We are at Kennack Sands on the Lizard Peninsula in Cornwall on a warm sunny June afternoon. The surrounding rugged Cornish cliffs are cloaked in green and gradually slope away to sea level to expose the small sheltered little known sandy bay. The tide is low exposing the compacted dark wet sand that the next incoming tide will soon reclaim. Further up the beach is the warm dry fluffy sand favoured by the few outstretched sun seekers at this little known Cornish gem. The shimmering pale green sea is gently rolling to shore in soft waves that break just offshore into a calm, white froth that lazily flow in to massage the sand and fringing rocks.

I strip to just my shorts and make numerous, tentative attempts at building up the courage to enter the inviting but cold water. I manage to make it no further than thigh deep into the frothy white surf. The courage, of course, is required to face the water, not as perhaps many would need, to face the huge but harmless sharks. I am becoming increasingly frustrated at my shortcomings in the swimming department as I wade in and out of the surf only to be encouraged back to safety by Jo every time. Then a light bulb moment, there is a small beach hut in the car park selling buckets and spades and all the usual beach paraphernalia.

“Let’s go to the beach hut, they might sell body boards,” I say, excitedly.

With a groan; a roll of the eyes and in tone you might use when giving into a child’s persistent demands for ice cream Jo replies, “come on then.”

Yes yes yes, they do indeed sell body boards. £20 is quickly exchanged for a brightly coloured polystyrene ticket into basking shark territory. I don’t know how to use this either, of course, but it floats doesn’t it, so I’ll be fine.

We make our way across the near empty car park and back to the beach where I scamper past the scattered outstretched sun bathers waiting for the ultra violet light to trigger the melanin in their skin into action, then upon reaching the flat wet sand my trot increases to a run until I reach the water’s edge. As soon as I reach the water I attach the leash to my ankle and excitedly make my way to the water.

Jo has caught up with me now and announces loudly and with a wry smile, “it goes around your wrist, stupid.”

“Oh, does it,” I reply in a sheepish slightly enquiring tone, “thanks.”

I correct my rookie error, smile and off I go wading through the white surf with purpose this time. The water quickly reaches my chest so time to get a-top my new seagoing companion. I manage to get aboard quickly but just as quickly fall off the other side, whoops. I am not out of my depth, yet still I cling to my inanimate new best friend gratefully. The second attempt at boarding is made slightly less enthusiastically. I’m wobbly but I am on. Paddling commences, first with one arm at a time then both together, neither feels overly affective but I am less wobbly when both arms are used simultaneously, so off I go rowing my way toward the waiting sharks with all the grace and agility of a wind up bath toy.

The sharks are approximately three hundred feet from the beach and after a few strokes of my favoured rowing action good progress is actually being made, albeit still slightly wobbly. Once within a few metres of the sharks I begin to appreciate their size. The dark triangular dorsal fins are standing proud above the surface of the water and rather than appear ominous they beckon me closer while providing a clue as to the size of the harmless plankton feeding leviathans swimming below. Both sharks are swimming in large circles and seem to be following the same path. I keep moving carefully on with the intent of positioning myself in their path while at the same time doing my utmost not to intrude. Each time they pass I get a tantalizing glimpse, not only of the sharks, but while I don’t yet

know it, of the future. Then suddenly one of them rises higher out of the water while at the same time moving closer. Revealing the entire dorsal fin, tail and snout enabling me to estimate its size and it truly is huge easily be fifteen feet long. I have to see them under the water too.

“Damn it,” I say aloud, I should have bought a mask or swimming goggles as well. I slip from the board anyway and, despite the attached leash, I take care to keep one hand firmly gripped on my small refuge like a climber clinging to a rock face. Without the necessary eye wear, it is of course difficult to see the sharks clearly under water. I do, however, see a very large blurry shark shape.

I R M A

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