Image credit: Shamier Magmoet
Losing my heart to fear
By Jamila Janna
The surface of the water broke as I clumsily threw my weight into the chilly south Atlantic Ocean. The assurance of the ocean’s safety raised me to the surface swiftly. I chuckle to myself. The ease of having this intimate and playful encounter with the ocean took some work. It took patience. Without any thought, I placed the snorkel in my mouth and let the sea hold me up as I glide on the surface with my mask on. The waters of Windmill Beach are crystal clear. A school of juvenile mullet scurry towards their next feeding locale. I glide towards the kelp forest that encloses this pool of water to make a small clove. Inching closer, my breath draws deep and so too the water. When I find my pitstop, I hover in between the kelp and pry into the activities of the marine fauna. I have seen fish in these waters before. I have heard the crackling of the hidden critters. I have seen the kaleidoscope of sea urchins at the base of the kelp. Yet, every single time… every single time, I cannot help myself from admiring the beauty of this shallow seascape.
Image credit: Jamila Janna
My mother’s worried words come to mind. As a black woman, I have only known one narrative about the ocean. The ocean should be feared for its hunger to administer the coup de grâce to an emotionally and physically distressed victim. I remember the tales from schoolmates who warned that evil supernatural entities drape at the edge of water bodies at dawn and dusk. It is neither dawn nor dusk, but fear is oftentimes an attracting force in its own right. I remember learning about the slave trade, how perhaps, the ocean administering the coup de grâce to hungry and abused slaves was a kinder end compared to the life that came when they walked on land again. The trauma of black and brown slaves has wounded the fabric of the ocean and we still feel the pain of these lost bodies centuries later. I think about our history in South Africa and how people of colour were denied access to beaches such as this one. How twenty-eight years ago I could have been arrested for being here.
Perhaps these are the reasons – marshalled by fear – why I grew up enviously watching my cousins swim in different water bodies and I was discouraged by my mother from entering them. As I grew older, I craved to know what swimming really felt like. Not the scared dance I would do when a mild wave hit me at South Beach in Durban. Not just cautiously laying down at the intertidal zone while pretending to be doing the best swimming any South African would see! Ever. I wanted to know what the absence of fear felt like.
Snorkelling is a beautiful yet underrated activity that allows one to foster a positive relationship with the ocean without the pressure to break the bank by hiring scuba diving or freediving equipment. When I first snorkelled it was during my master’s field trip in uMngazana in the Eastern Cape Province. I was with my supervisor, Dr Nasreen Peer, and our field companion, Dr Nelson Miranda. After we collected the water samples and waited for the BRUVs (baited remote underwater video) to record the fish activity along the mangrove pneumatophores, a few metres away we donned our masks and snorkels for the exploration of the mangrove pneumatophores. It was the shallow part of the estuary yet the entire time my heartbeat echoed in my ears chambers, and I hoped to Allah that this was not how I died. A few days later we were in Kosi Bay in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Kosi Bay is one of those places that are closer to what paradise would look like. The mangroves are vast, the waters are clear and the vibe is subtropical. We repeated the process where we collected our water samples, deployed the BRUVs and snorkelled a few metres away from the underwater surveillance. Unlike uMngazana, the estuary’s banks were narrower and dropped sooner. Nasreen warned me not to touch the pneumatophores because there were hard corals and bivalves that could cut me. As I took the steps that led me into the water, my amygdala signalled to my body that I was in danger. Cortisol and adrenaline flooded my bloodstream, I heard my heart race and my breathing changed. Today I would be brave, I told myself and I slowly submerged myself in the subtropical waters. I moved slowly on the surface and as soon as I felt that there wasn’t any solid ground under my feet, my amygdala signalled for more cortisol, more adrenaline and all the fear that would convince me to get the hell out of this dangerous situation. I fumbled in the water, panicking, cutting myself on the hard corals and bivalves, rethinking my life’s decisions, choosing life over deep waters and I terminated any further exploration. The channels weren’t deep, now that I recall the moment, but that day, fear convinced me that its depth could match the depth of the Mariana Trench.
Image credit: Tsepo Mlambo
Months later I snorkelled a beautiful Africa shaped rockpool in Inhambane, Mozambique, while I was on my field trip. Fear still kissed me good luck as I took a few minutes to mentally prepare for my entry into the warm waters, but courage and curiosity held each hand the entire time I explored the waters. Once I got back from my field trip I signed up for the Water Confidence and Drownproofing: Fear and Water course with Argonaut Science, a non- profit organisation founded by Dr Nelson Miranda and Dr Nasreen Peer. Nelson was my instructor and approached me with patience and adjusted his teaching according to my needs. That day he encouraged me to approach learning with gentleness and kindness. Since that session, I gave fear a chance to teach me what I needed to foster a positive relationship with the ocean.
A few weeks after my course with Argonaut Science I dreamt that I was freediving somewhere in Kenya. I woke up that morning and I understood my fear, the primal response that coddled me in the wake of danger. When I let myself indulge in apprehension I acknowledged that fear loved me selfishly and did not want me to carry trauma. I have since snorkelled with other water babies seeking healing from their own fear of drowning. Witnessing their small wins as their confidence grows with every snorkelling session, I can’t help but lose my heart to fear. Fear is a teacher, and when you choose to learn from it with kindness, fear guides you to take digestible bites from a challenge that seems overwhelming and scary. Fear lets you pause so that you are honest with yourself about your limits.
I raised my head from the water, and looked at the surrounding landscape. I smile at my snorkel buddy, Tsepo, who I had left behind. Windmill, you beauty, I think to myself. I hold my breath, mimic a duck dive and attempt to freedive as I have seen my friends do countless times. I am just too damn buoyant!