An opening extract from Georgie Codd’s new non-fiction book, We Swim To The Shark, published by Fleet Books on 30 January 2020.
I’m up to my waist in dark water, looking back, looking forward. It’s early. No one else is on this New Zealand beach apart from Alex, my travel companion and friend, who is standing by the sand dunes, wrapped snugly in a coat and scarf. She waits, a distant moral support, ready to call for help if I start to drown. The waves are calm and cold and I’m looking for shapes, which is difficult, because that’s also exactly what I don’t want to see. So I’m looking while trying not to look. Skimming the sea with my eyes.
I wade and wade until I have no option but to swim. I spot something ahead of me, far out in the water. A black dot rises up and then it’s gone. Might have been a trick of the eye. But then – maybe I see another one. Yes. There are two.
I want to go back to the beach.
A glaring crimson line splits the sky. I’m so out of my depth I could put on stilts and still not touch the bottom. I can barely see Alex. She could be anyone, over there. And in here I am no one. A pair of legs, a pair of arms, a pair of fast-breathing lungs. In here I’m too human. And now my pair of human eyes sees that those black dots aren’t dots any more. They’re fins. Unmistakeably. They’re about twenty metres away. They’re coming closer. Then they’re gone.
No word could be large enough to describe the size of my panic. Fear courses through me, setting my mind to a state of hyper alertness. My reflexes hone in on every noise, every sensation, and recoil. What’s that? What’s this? What’s beneath me? Is it under my feet?
I start to sing, hoping that the sound of my own voice will make this situation feel more familiar. What comes out of my mouth is not something I’ve ever sung before. It’s tuneless. More just a rhythm. I sing, ‘Please go away please go away please go away’ in a falsely upbeat tone, like, no, this isn’t bothering me, there aren’t any sea creatures here, ‘Please go away.’ But, at the very furthest reaches of my brain, I can also hear myself thinking something else. A phrase I cannot say out loud.
And then it does: a single black shape directly in front of me; a monolith rising up, leaning forward, sinking down. It’s the fin of a dolphin. An adult dolphin. And it’s so close. Four metres away. Three.
It is silent. Eye level. Touching distance.
And now gone. But I have no idea where.
There’s a sudden spurting noise behind my head. Pah.
I thrash and turn. It’s gone again, with nothing left to show for it. Not even a ripple.
I realise that the dolphin must be circling me. It is darting between my naked feet, the master of grey water I can’t see through. When I look up more fins are approaching. This is quite a lot like a nightmare. More awful than a nightmare though: with my eyes open it gets worse. Two more fins are coming. How can this be an experience that little children dream of? Who could think that swimming with a pod of dolphins would be a fun thing to do? Why did I think it would be a fun thing to do? These creatures are wild. Indecipherable. Anything could happen.
Still out of my depth, and very much outnumbered, I’m close to hyperventilating. I’ve got to go. I’ve been in for less than ten minutes but it’s too long and I’m not ready. I start to swim back to shore. I need Alex to be bigger. I need to be bigger. Because right now I am tiny and I don’t like it.
Some time ago, a man I met told me he’d dived with two wild dolphins. His name was Paul. As Paul and his dive buddy floated underwater, the dolphins started to mimic them, raising themselves up as if standing, hovering soundlessly opposite in the blue. Staring.
Paul’s friend, James Deane – the owner of a dive shop in South London – is also suspicious of wild dolphins. When we talked about fear and the sea, that’s what he told me. ‘The only time I’ve ever been truly scared was with dolphins,’ he said. That was during a dive in which he found himself surrounded by fifty of them, or more. The water was murky, he said. The dolphins had smiley faces, he said. When he saw them he thought, They’re up to something.
As soon as my feet meet the seabed, I can breathe again. Until this moment I never realised how closely my feet and lungs worked together. I can stand and not lose my breath. I can look back out to the open water, and, with solid ground underneath me, the fins don’t seem like so much of a threat. They’re still sinister, yes, but they’re further away now. And Alex is closer. I wave to her and a coat-wrapped arm waves back. Good old Alex. Now I can see there are other people gathering on the beach, only they’re stripping down and pointing at the fins and looking enthralled, not scared.
I try to picture this scene the way they’re seeing it.
Black fins good.
Black fins good.
They’re coming into the water, these people – two men and a woman – and they’re so delighted to be here; to be this close to the pod.
I want to be that delighted.
A large wave looms. Two shadows are caught inside it and they’re racing. The other bathers squeal with pleasure. There’s a baby dolphin playing near them now. It jumps. Makes a splash.
For a second, this looks almost enjoyable. And in that moment I feel myself being pulled towards them. There’s a current inside me, dragging me back. It is terrifying. And I can’t seem to escape it.