Claudia and I went to a town beach the other day. With half an hour available, we thought we’d go to watch the water. It was a still, sunny afternoon; few people were around. A dad or big brother guided a child on a board out over the little waves, teaching the young one to surf. A couple of women took photos of each other and the two of them together with the sea behind them. A tradesman ate his lunch in his truck in the carpark, listening to the radio. Other people clambered over the dark brown rocks, which stood solid against the bright blues of sea and sky.
A glint on shiny grey skin alerted us to a dolphin. Watching, we saw several of their backs arching gracefully in the sparkling water. And then more and more of them appeared, heading up the coast to the mouth of the river. There were several pods of them travelling by, not far out.
‘The other people here don’t see them, you know,’ I said to Claudi. She was surprised.
‘Really?’ she said. ‘I always thought people saw them, but just didn’t pay any attention to them.’
But if you looked at the people, each absorbed in their own domain, it was clearly true. Nobody saw the dolphins.
I glanced sidewards at Claudia in her sunglasses, dark curls falling around her face. ’I wouldn’t have seen them if I hadn’t been taught how to look for them by you,’ I said.
‘My grandmother was a surf life-saver,' I went on. 'She made sure all of us were taught to swim and to respect the sea. I remember Mum teaching me how to stand in the waves, so that they don't knock you over and how to swim under them. We knew the sea anemones and crabs in the rock pools. We dug pippies out for bait.
'But you’re the one that taught me how to see the big animals in the sea.’
It was true. On boats on the open ocean in the South Pacific, looking for whales, Claudia taught me to see the difference between a whale’s blow or fin splash and the ordinary white tops of choppy waves or waves breaking on an underwater reef. ‘That was where I regained my sense of all the life in the water,’ I continued. ‘I had that as a child, watching jellyfish and tiddlers and the birds diving into the water. But somewhere I lost it as I got older. Looking for the whales with you reminded me that there’s a world of life and activity in the ocean.’
Part of the reason I learned to deny the overwhelming reality of the oceanic world was fear of sharks. I grew up near the coast of Australia’s temperate southeast, where the water is cool enough for Great White sharks. As a child, there was reassurance in having someone bigger, especially fatter, further out to sea. A shark would eat them first, I thought.
Perhaps fear of seeing a shark was one of the reasons that the young man teaching the child to surf didn't look out past the small unbroken waves. Before I met Claudia I was not good, either, at distinguishing a dolphin fin from a shark fin. I would not have been able to enjoy swimming alongside visiting dolphins, because of my fear of sharks.
‘I look for a break in the normal patterns,’ said Claudia. I thought of the many hours she's spent looking at the vast sea. ‘It’s what I did when I was diving with groups of people. I always knew if there was a big fish or animal coming because I saw a change in the pattern of light through the water.’
‘You mean the crosses and checks the light makes on top of the water?’ I asked.
‘No, it's the light rays coming down through the water. Out in the deep, the rays are darkened or make a different pattern when there’s something big approaching. That’s how I always knew if there was a manta ray or shark coming before everybody else did.’
I’ve seen Claudia underwater—truly her element. Arms held close to her body, fins adjusting her position in the current, she constantly surveys all around her, looking as far as she can into the infinite ocean in all directions. I’m not even sure she’s aware she’s doing it.
It reminds me of a man I knew who’d been a political activist under apartheid rule in South Africa. If you sat down to drink at a bar or coffee shop with him, he was constantly alert for who was around, who was listening, who was approaching. When Claudia did this lively dance she was looking for wonder and beauty though, not confrontation.
Sitting by the sea, we've seen many animals these past days. Lots of humpback whales and seals. I've seen a turtle lift its curious head, even dolphins riding inside clear cyan waves. I'm grateful to be married to someone who takes the time to watch our environment, sometimes for hours. She has helped me develop patience.
When we lived in the desert, Claudia sometimes pulled the car sharply over to the side of the road. She'd get out and pick up a spiny lizard, have a talk to it, photograph it sometimes, help it across the road. Sometimes we stopped to watch a big mob of camels or brumbies among the stones and bushes not far from the road. The tourists would drive right by. No one else expected to see them, so nobody saw them. They were not engaged in the pattern of the landscape. They had forgotten that the land is alive.
If you’ve been in a car with Aboriginal hunters, you’ll know the way they can see a snake or lizard, or something else good for cooking, on a stony gibber plain, perhaps two hundred metres from the road. I guess it’s amazing eyesight coupled with some of that same skill—looking for the break in the pattern of a deeply familiar environment.
Humans are good at this in an urban environment, too. Doctors look for variations on the usual pattern: a disturbed heart makes a different pattern on the ECG or a person’s ‘Flight of Ideas’ escalates an eccentric or demanding way of talking into clinical mania. A surgeon knows the spectrum of normal appearance, arrangement and feel of the body beneath the knife. A GP—like me—can be alarmed by a belly that’s too hard. The normal pattern of bellies is to be soft.
Aboriginal trackers identify people and their style of travelling by their footprints. There are still plenty of people with this skill in the remote communities—who can tell, for example, that person went this way and was in a hurry or this one was feeling sad: ‘dragging their feet’. Hunting, they can tell which way an animal travelled by observing the turn of a twig or stone. In the early morning, a hunter might notice a slightly moistened patch on a stone where an animal urinated.
Inside buildings and factories, this attention to detail is applied now in jobs where people import data and code into a machine or watch a cascade of items travelling along a conveyor belt for quality control. It’s in a mechanic’s eye as he surveys a machine for a fault—a disconnected wire, a piece of metal worn on one side. A house-painter uses it to survey the completeness of her work.
Of course, the hunters use other senses than the visual. Finding the animal entails a survey of the surrounding environment: a storm coming, where water lies deep under the ground. Those of us who have satisfying work get to work at something approaching that level of engagement.
In my work as a doctor, even if smelling someone who’s sick is not always pleasant, finding the way that helps them heal is very satisfying. Being able to use all your senses and your intuition, whether you are preparing food, helping a human feel better, fixing a car--if that is your talent--or surveying plants as food grows; work that allows you feel fully alive makes for a rich life.
Seeing no further than the screen of your phone when dolphins are playing just beyond the waves, may be a small sign of an incompletely realised life. We can all enjoy becoming aware of the patterns that surround us and practice observation of changes in the patterns, so we can tell when something big's coming. And when dolphins come by, you are less likely to mistake them for sharks. Or to miss seeing them at all.
Thumbnail picture of lizard running ©Claudia Jocher 2017