'How can you tell if there are sharks?"
Visitors to Hawai'i want to know lots of things. Which bar does the best mai tai? How can we see volcanoes? Where's Barack Obama's favourite plate lunch place?
But swimmers and surfers have another concern. Hawai'i is shark heaven, with some 40 species cruising its islands - from blacktips to hammerheads. Most steer well clear of humans (and we are, of course, a far bigger threat to them). But still, unplanned encounters are best avoided.
There's a simple way to tell if there are sharks about, one islander told me: "Put your finger in the water. Swirl it counter-clockwise. Then taste it."
He paused for effect.
"Does it taste salty? Then, there are sharks."
There are always sharks. I love these creatures, their perfect evolution, their cold eyes, their stunning movement in water. But I also know there are occasional accidents and incidents, and that's the first thing that sprung to mind when three divers surfaced beside me in Maui last year.
I caught just three words from their spluttering conversation - "tiger shark" and "shadow".
We were a few hundred yards offshore in Honolua Bay, a cove in the northwest of the island. Its remoteness, and the short hike through creeper-dripping trees required to get there, meant few other people. I had the reefs almost to myself. Then it started to rain. Clouds moved across the sun, and the water grew dimmer.
Named for their stripes, tiger sharks can grow over 20 feet long, have jaws strong enough to crack sea turtle shells, and are indiscriminate eaters. The last place you want to be is in murky water with one nearby.
Part of me wanted to panic, driven by a thumping heart and clutching stomach. But another part stayed calm. Without thinking, the swimmer in me zeroed in on the shore, plotted a route as close to rocks as possible, and set off with a calm stroke and minimal splash. The journey took several minutes, but thankfully, the only fins were my own. I hauled myself on to the rocks, steam rising from my body in by then torrential rain. I hardly felt a drop.
'When you're in, you're in...'
As a travel writer, I've been lucky to swim in some of the world's most beautiful waters. I've tracked manta rays in the Maldives, swum with sharks (deliberately, this time) in the Philippines and through kelp in crystal clear water off West Cork. I've snorkelled around a shallow shipwreck off the coast of Tanzania and squeezed through a hairline crack into a cave pool in Oman.
But it's not just exotic swims that matter to me - 99pc of my immersions are at my local pool in Co Wicklow, plodding up and down a 25m lane.
It's not sexy. There are Speedos involved (Speedos are life's great leveller… nobody can keep up a pretence in a pair of those). I don't always want to go. It can be too dark, too busy or early. But once I hit the water and unwrap those first strokes, that's it.
When you're in, you're in.
If you're a swimmer, you'll know the feeling. There's a science to it - the flow of blood and oxygen, the endorphins - but there's a magic, too. Breaking that surface, hitting the cool water, jolts you out of whatever fug you're in. There's a meditative rhythm to the strokes, a drift similar to a long hike, when your body is occupied with a basic, mechanical function and your mind wanders freely. There's a druggy weightlessness to it. But you think creatively, too.
I'm not a year-round sea swimmer (too cold). I don't have a sunrise tribe (too early). But like all swimmers, I love what happens to me in the water, how it soothes stress and takes me momentarily out of life. Even after a bad swim, my skin feels warm. My mind is alert, but also calm.
Swimming is my reset button. I love it.
Today, of course, that button is out of reach. As Covid-19 spreads across the planet, pools have closed, wild swims are outside many 2km radiuses, and swimmers all over the world - like everyone else - are staying home to curb the spread of coronavirus. Clearly, it's a small price to pay to help our frontline heroes, but I miss it.
'Hot chips, and a kick of chlorine'
My first swim memory isn't good.
I remember sitting on the edge of an old-school public swimming pool in Ballinasloe, Co Galway, where I grew up. I was maybe five years old. A beginners' lesson began with dozens of us sitting around the shallow end, instructed to kick our legs and splash. I remember the first drops hitting my skin; the roar of our thundering churn.
Then we were told to get in.
I remember flailing about. I could sense other legs and arms beside me, knew I was in trouble, but didn't have a skill to reach for… to push off the floor, pull with my hand or kick with my legs. I couldn't see like I did on land.
A rough arm grasped me and pulled me to the surface. I gulped a lungful of air. The blur fell back into focus.
The instructor checked in. I thanked the boy who had hauled me up. Tom was his name. I was shocked, upset, mystified. But I didn't want to get out.
I (and my parents) stuck with it. Passing through the grades, I slowly found a feel for the water. Other friends played rugby or GAA; I learned the strokes, won medals and, by my early teens, was schlepping through 5,000m or more in training sessions under a big Speedo clock.
I remember long trips to faraway pools where our swim club spent the day cooped up in hot, crowded viewing galleries for just a few minutes in the water. You might get a final; you might not. You might get a PB (Personal Best) by tenths or hundredths of a second; you might not.
There were hot bags of chips afterwards, their vinegary whiff mingling with the kick of chlorine.
I quit racing when I was around 15. Lots of competitive swimmers do. As a sport, swimming is nuts. To compete properly, you need to be in the water for at least 10 hours a week, most of them with 5.30am or 6am starts. It's hell for parents, too. And then the school day starts.
Through Leaving Cert and college I swam on holidays or occasionally in the pool, but it wasn't until later in my twenties that the grá started to return. I found groups to go lane training with. I bought a decent facemask and a long pair of fins, and started taking them with me on trips for swims and snorkels. The break gave me perspective. I realised that not every journey was from A to B.
'It was pathetic. But it was a baseline'
Today's break is enforced by coronavirus (and hopefully a lot shorter). But it's made me think, too - about what swimming has taught me, what water means to me, and how immersions have marked moments in my life.
I asked the love of my life to marry me on a sandy beach in Co Wexford. Our little girl played nearby. My now wife said yes, and we kissed. Then, I went for a swim.
Hitting those icy waters, feeling the waves slap me in the face, going from bone-dry to cold and wet and ultra-alert was perfect. A new chapter. A reset.
Last year, I had a surgery. The recovery was complicated and my first swim, several weeks later, was an important point for me in marking where my body was at, how much I felt like 'me'. I managed a single, painful length of bad breaststroke, with my 10-year-old son minding me.
It was pathetic. But it gave me a baseline.
One rainy day, I took my then seven-year-old daughter for a snorkel in Achill Island's Keem Bay. It was freezing, but we wore wetsuits. The water was clear, she held my hand and the rocks were teeming with gobies and wrasse. When we got out, warming ourselves with towels and getting treats from the boot of the car, we met a lifeguard. "Did ye see the basking shark?" he asked.
A sea-kayaker had spotted one earlier, he told us. Basking sharks are the world's second-biggest fish (after whale sharks), but they are plankton feeders, and harmless to humans. Seeing one would have spooked us. But the fact that we could have sealed the adventure, too.
There will always be sharks.
'How's he gonna breathe?'
Feargus Callagy shared a similar memory with me.
He's a freediver from Co Sligo and, in 2012, I made a RTÉ radio documentary that told the story of how he had taught himself to hold his breath for over five minutes and dive to depths of 40m or more without oxygen.
When he wanted to relax, to get in the zone before a big dive or immersion, Feargus told me, he often recalled a day spent surfing with his daughter on Achill.
"Nothing momentous happened," he said. "I just know in 50 years' time I'll remember that day."
Wishing to understand how and why he swam (40m is the equivalent of a 15-storey building, and that's not counting the swim back to the surface), I followed Feargus from the frigid April waters of Mullaghmore to the Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt. I cobbled together makeshift waterproof sheaths for portable Zoom mics, got into the water with him and floated by the guide rope, watching him disappear down into the ether.
It reminded me of The Big Blue (1988); the moment when Rosanna Arquette's character first sees a freediver, played by Jean-Marc Barr, drop into the water.
"How's he gonna breathe?" she asks.
"He isn't," is the reply.
Feargus taught me about the 'dive reflex' - an instinctive, physiological response triggered in mammals when we are immersed in water and hold our breath. Inherited from aquatic ancestors, it causes our heartbeat to slow, and the flow of blood to vital organs like the brain and heart to be prioritised over limbs (if you dip your face in cool water, and hold your breath, you'll feel it kick in). Zeroing into an almost zen-like state before a dive is part of the addiction of freediving, and people like Feargus - as well as spear fishermen and pearl divers - have learned to harness it, along with breathing, yoga and ear-pressure-equalisation techniques to swim longer and deeper underwater.
Of course, breath-hold diving can be dangerous. When freedivers make stupid decisions, chase crazy depths or dive alone, they can black out and die (many have). But when they swim responsibly, they pass through a looking glass. Scuba divers can go deeper for longer, but liberated from tanks, regulators and buoyancy vests, freedivers swim in silence and get closer to marine life. They float, momentarily cutting the cords with life on land.
In Egypt, I read the theory, sat in on classes and spoke to world-famous freedivers like Italy's Umberto Pelizzari. But Feargus left the deepest impression.
"It's literally just you and your thoughts," he said. "It's wrong to say time stops, but it's that kind of sense you get. It's a little bit on the spiritual side, a little bit hippy-trippy, but it's something that I really do enjoy."
My own swimming journey took a leap forward that spring. I could never do what Feargus did, but I learned how to better control my breathing, to lean into the mindfulness of freediving, and was able to stretch my time swimming underwater to 90 seconds or so.
The practical tips were liberating, but it also felt good to be given a vocabulary for what swimming made me feel. The sense of peace, the way entering the water allowed me to slip out of life for a while, however briefly. In moving up and down the pool, or finning through the sea, swimmers are also travelling inwardly. It's hard to see a parallel on land, but I find similar sensations when I listen to a favourite piece of music. You're at once cut loose from everything, and strangely hyper-present.
Of course, not all swims or dives are transcendental experiences. Very few dips take place in Hawai'i; and I've had plenty of forgettable days on the Wild Atlantic Way.
Sometimes, you push off perfectly, eat up the metres. The water feels sensual, almost silky around you. Other swims are just sh*t. You feel useless, like a sick thing, the water slipping through your fingers. I've learned that good swimmers respect the water, know their limits and listen to their bodies. They share the freedivers' mantra. "The ocean will be there tomorrow."
'All good writing is swimming underwater'
Humans are drawn to water. Simply looking at the sea, a lake or river can have a hypnotic effect (especially in today's frenetic, 24/7 world). The healing powers of swimming have been heralded for millennia, and you can see why it inspires so many parables and expressions, too - we talk of deep dives, of being out of our depth, of treading water or swimming against the tide.
"All good writing is swimming underwater and holding your breath," F Scott Fitzgerald wrote. As a writer, I'm naturally drawn to that. But it's not just the romance that appeals to me (the immersion, the similarities between unentered water and blank sheets of paper).
It's the drudgery, too. Like writing, every swim involves a ritual. It starts with gathering together your gear. You travel to your pool or piece of coast, you get changed, leave dry land for the jolt of cool water, roll out the first few strokes or finned kicks, and gradually - all going well - start to warm up and work out. There's therapy in it.
But there's more. Non-swimmers are bemused at the apparent boredom in pounding out length after length or churning through cold water. Swimmers see it differently. Stroke after stroke, breath by breath, swimming not only creates space to think, it imbues a discipline.
Thousands of hours of swimming have stitched a self-drive into my DNA. I trust the process. I know my body. I got out of Honolua Bay. I finished nasty training sessions. I can get through what life throws at me, too. When I feel anxious, depressed, frustrated or overwhelmed, I know where I can go to start the process, to reset.
When you're in, you're in.
Of course, today, I can't get in. One irony of Covid-19 is that it has taken away the very thing that thought me these lessons. The coronavirus is first and foremost a public health crisis, and an economic catastrophe (in calibrating Ireland's restrictions, I'm not sure Dr Tony Holohan and NPHET have my ablutions front of mind). But I also know there are millions of stories like mine out there. A regular swim is what I need. I miss it.
'The sea is so wide'
Several years ago, on Mayo's remote Mullet Peninsula, I stopped at a small plaque in Scotchport.
"Dear Lord, be good to me," it said simply. "The sea is so wide, and my boat is so small." It made me think of a swimmer, suspended briefly in the vast ocean. Today, it makes me think of my family in this unnerving pandemic. For now, just thinking of my swims is a tonic, a distraction. And there's that old mantra, too.
The water will be there tomorrow.
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Health & Wellbeing
The water is at its coldest now. It's only 8°C but it feels like it's freezing. At high tide the women gather. Springing from cars, stripping off jackets and scarves, donning colourful hats and goggles. It's time to get in.