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The Ocean Doesn’t Care
On Insignificance, Surfing, and Dolphins
We have just returned from a family trip to Jeffreys Bay. Located in South Africa’s Eastern Cape, Jbay is home to one of the world’s best right-hand point breaks. From a surfer’s perspective, the wave is as close to perfection as exists in the natural world. Its sheer power and form defy the laws of nature.
Jeffreys Bay is also teeming with wildlife. The wave peels down a long point, which great white sharks travel along as they move from deep water to shallow in search of prey. In recent years there has been an increase in shark attacks. Few are fatal, but the frequency gives everyone pause. Sharks are always there, even if you don’t see them.
A place for listening
I have made several pilgrimages to Jbay since moving to South Africa. This year, we were invited by some friends with similar-aged children to join them for a week during the winter school break. We piled in the car and set off on the eight-hour journey from Cape Town, battered by unseasonably heavy rain.
The rain and wind destroyed the surf for three days upon our arrival. Surf trips always carry a significant risk: no surf. You can travel halfway around the world only to find your dream spot is flat with the wind blowing in the wrong direction. Whether they like to admit it or not, surfers must regularly confront their inability to control the ocean’s power.
Then the weather started to change, and the promise of ideal conditions loomed. On our third day, the weather broke, but the waves were still disjointed. The water was murky from all the rain. It’s a golden rule to avoid such conditions in a sharky place, as the big fish love to hunt in the murk.
Ignoring this golden rule, I got in the water. There were a handful of surfers out, which felt like a degree of protection. As soon as I paddled into the lineup, all but one of those surfers got out, and I sat there, freaking out. My heart started beating loudly, and I wondered if a shark could pick up on this heartbeat underwater. I tried to calm down and get a couple of waves. I caught one, but it didn’t do much for my nerves, so I paddled towards the back line with the plan to catch one in.
A large wave appeared before me as I reached the backline. I paddled over the face of it instead of duck diving into the darkness. Out of nowhere, four dolphins appeared less than arm’s length before me as my board pierced the wave's crest. They were in perfect formation as they emerged out of the water. As soon as they appeared, they were under the water and out of sight, but one of them hit the bottom of my board with the force of a grown man tackling me. The hit was so hard I thought they had ripped my fins from my board. Instead, it left a decent ding on the bottom of my board.
I caught the next wave to shore and stood there for a while looking at the sea. It’s rare for a dolphin to run into someone. Maybe they were swimming away from something, and it was an accident. Maybe they were telling me to get out of the water. Whatever the case, the incident stuck with me. It wasn’t ordinary.
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The ocean doesn’t care
Two experiences drive my relationship with surfing. The first is the sense of presence one can achieve in the ocean. When you are moving down the face of the wave propelled by the force of the ocean’s energy, it’s nearly impossible for your mind to be anywhere else. These moments are fleeting, often lasting less than a minute, but when you experience them, the fabric of time and space expands. This flow state is grounding and vital to my ability to handle life’s challenges.
The other experience is more of a teaching. The ocean doesn’t care about me or my problems. My actions in the sea affect very little, if anything. I could catch a perfect wave or do an incredibly satisfying turn, but that won’t change how the wave breaks. I am insignificant in the ocean. We seldom confront our insignificance in a meaningful or physical way. And yet, every time I paddle out into the sea, I can experience it with all my senses. Life is expansive when you feel how small you are. The dolphins in Jbay reminded me of my place.
A friend suggested that I add some playlists to newsletters. Here is a collection of ambient tracks tuned for a psychedelic experience (or as quiet background music when looking at the sea).