Swimming into the Unknown with Author Bonnie Tsui

Facing my fear of jellyfish, great whites, and stingrays

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Swimming into the Unknown with Author Bonnie Tsui

A woman hopping up and down in the glistening shallows is screaming about a jellyfish. “Ahhhhh,” she shrieks to her children who are playfully splashing at the edge of the water. “I got stung by a jellyfish!” Her yells carry up the beach to where I sit crosslegged on a stretch of white sand soaked by early-afternoon sun. It interrupts my determined deep breathing in preparation to wade into the waters of Northern California’s Tomales Bay, a 15-mile-long inlet of the Pacific Ocean. I am afraid of jellyfish. I am also afraid of other fearsome facets of this bay: baby great whites, leopard sharks, sea lions, stingrays, and strong ocean currents.

As the woman continues to shriek, I picture myself swimming into a jellyfish and emerging with its tentacles wrapped around my head. My breathing goes shallow, but there is no turning back, because soon Bonnie Tsui, author of the book Why We Swim, will join me on the beach.

Why We Swim is an adventurous, deeply researched inquiry into the pursuit of an activity uniquely defined by joy and fear. It’s also a personal document of her own love for water: she learned to swim at five years old and now gets in the water nearly every day. She has swum from Alcatraz to San Francisco and gone free-diving for abalone along the Sonoma Coast despite the many hazards (“cold water, rip currents, rocks, kelp tangles, heavy surf, sharks”). I’ve asked Tsui to accompany me as I attempt this meager personal first: swimming past where my feet can touch sludgy bottom. It’s no Alcatraz swim, but just considering it, I’m gripped by an apprehension both specific to Tomales Bay and generalized to swimming.

Underneath that apprehension runs the promise of freedom and awe that I associate with water. That blue, glittering promise of escape has called to me over the past year-plus of lockdowns and wildfires, dread, and isolation. I developed a relentless longing for getting on or in the open water. All the while my water worry lurked. I went swimming in the bay, but never in depths taller than myself. I paddle boarded, but always close to the coastline.

Tsui is wearing a tank top, flowing floral skirt, and neon reflective shades. She’s trailed by two friends, Rachel and Elizabeth, who just ended a woodsy writer’s retreat nearby. We all sit in a circle on the beach, making introductions and applying sunscreen on this 71-degree afternoon. Elizabeth, a novelist and poet, asks with nonjudgmental curiosity, “So, Tracy, what is the fear exactly?” I explain how growing up I was afraid of sharks in the pool and how, even now, I panic if I get water up my nose. I can swim but I don’t know how to do breathwork and fancy moves. Mostly, it’s the murk, the thought of creatures unseen below the water.

My mind roils with what-ifs involving fins and scales and teeth and slime. It recalls childhood fears of a monster in the closet, the need to check under the bed. In the last several post-vaccination weeks, I’ve set timers to reserve quick-to-book lap lanes at the local pool, even though my best move is a head-always-above-water breaststroke. The murky depths of Tomales Bay, though, are my first formidable hurdle.

Tsui suggests that I strap on my as-yet-unused swimming goggles to take the mystery away. “If you can see it, maybe it won’t be so scary,” she says with a chill, down-to-earth delivery.

Feeling like I’ve lucked into an aqua-literary group therapy session, I explain my growing obsession. How last summer I routinely rallied my husband and 3-year-old to the beach at the crack of dawn, toting scads of sand toys and snacks so that I could steal a few minutes swimming. How in the winter I found myself stripping down to my underwear to plunge into the icy bay with an uncontrollable yelp. How I decided to learn to stand-up paddleboard in 50-degree weather. How I recently tried out kayak camping. How these many months have transformed me into someone with a water thermometer, inflatable SUP, and multiple wind and tide apps.

“You’re becoming who you want to be,” says Tsui.

I’m not sure that those are her exact words, because I’ve already put my notebook away. Later, we’ll try to reconstruct what she said, because it left the distinct imprint of a feeling, if not a journalistic record, and that’s the best recreation we’ll be able to manage. Thinking on it, though, I’ll realize the feeling of it is more like: “You’re becoming who you are.” A contradictory statement that I want to swim inside.

Before heading into the water, we recount the various creatures found in the bay, including those jellies. “These jellyfish don’t sting,” Tsui tells me. (Moon Jellyfish commonly spotted in these waters and washed up onshore do not sting humans.) When I tell Tsui about the shrieking woman down the beach, she shrugs that it’s possible there might be a stinging kind out there. My brain feeds on such remote possibilities.

I’m the last one into the water, wading along the path carved by the others. Tsui dives in and then I do, too, goggles on my face for the first time. I glide along, parting curtains of eelgrass with my hands, watching green strands undulate in rays of sunlight, feeling like the camera in a BBC documentary. A school of small fish darts by in a flash of silver. I swim and swim, eelgrass giving way to cloudy sameness, taking clumsy gulping breaths above the surface. I drop my toes to feel for the bottom and there is none. I’ve caught up to my swimming companions and they want to know how I’m doing. I’m OK, actually, aside from having taken in an accidental gulp of water that I’m now gently and subtly coughing out so as to not alarm anyone.

In fact, my relative calm makes me feel like I had been faking up on the beach. But my fear has suddenly lessened, seemingly due to some combination of having spoken my fears out loud and being able to see the mysterious underneath with my goggles. Unvoiced anxiety is like the imagined shark: You speak the anxiety, you look under the water’s surface, and the fear changes. There’s also the fact that it feels like Tsui, a veritable water expert, has granted me some kind of permission—not to vanquish my fear but to swim alongside it.

Suddenly Elizabeth starts shrieking and shouts something about a jellyfish. She revises: it was just a floating piece of eelgrass that brushed against her leg. Now she’s laughing at herself because moments earlier on the beach she had been coaching me on how to remain calm by focusing on my breath. I float, I freestyle, I breaststroke, all the while pushing myself deeper, determined to go further out than any of my companions. My skin tingles with anxiety and relief. Pulling my goggles onto my forehead, I see a deer and white-spotted fawn traversing a rocky edge of empty beach where sand gives way to a forest dripping with electric-green lichen.

As Rachel and I casually breaststroke and talk about the magic of this place, I forget about the jellyfish and baby great whites. Tsui’s investigation of what “seduces us to water, despite its dangers” focuses on swimming for healing, health, play, competition, and flow, as well as “a way to find community, through a team, a club, or a shared, beloved body of water.” Fear is diluted by the companionship of awe.

After Tsui does a couple of laps back and forth, taking it easy having recently broken some ribs while surfing, we all swim to shore. I take to my back through the shallows, the eelgrass swirling across my shoulders like nature’s car wash. I emerge last, met with shouts of “Good job” and “You did it.” Tsui starts a cheer of “T-R-A-C-Y!” She tells me, “You actually looked very calm out there.” Elizabeth adds, “I panicked the most out of everyone.”

Later, I call Tsui and she tells me about accidentally plunging her fingers into a jellyfish during our swim. “I can talk about these things in a very calm way, but when my hand hits something, before my brain catches up, I recoil. What the fuck is that?

“I think it’s kind of cool,” she adds. “You cannot control that feeling and the recoil. You can’t control everything.”

She talks of “letting go of the fear so that you can laugh at it.” That doesn’t mean that it disappears, but that “you learn to coexist with it and that fear lessens over time.” “It’s waning with every swim that you take. It is inoculating you every time that you do it.” She calls swimming in the open water “a controlled exercise in fear.” Tsui adds, “It’s relatively low stakes—if you don’t fuck it up.”

Now that we’re out of the water, Rachel reveals that she’s seen small sharks out there in the past that “dart up” from the murk. That evening, she alerts me to an image posted on a local news feed with the tongue-in-cheek caption, “Rare sighting of the legendary Tomales Bay Sea Serpent last night in Inverness. Here be dragons.” It’s a hazy, Loch Ness Monster-like image and commenters weigh in to alternately declare it “driftwood,” “a sea lion temperature regulating,” or “gray whale phallus.” There is some pleasure found in such horrors; they are an inextricable part of the joy. Tsui describes the sublime as “the meeting of nature’s opposing forces and ideas: pain and pleasure, terror and awe, fear and exhilaration, life and death.” Through this, “we come closer to the acutely vivid experience of life itself.”

Water is “filled with vitality and, also, it can kill you,” says Tsui. “I love the paradox of the body in water,” she adds. “Swimming is the constant state of not drowning.”

Walking up the densely wooded path from the beach, where a sign warns of mountain lions, I know the paradox of the body in water will keep me coming back. This will be just the first of many times I swim into the bay beyond where I can stand, where the murk is made less fearsome by goggles and companionship but never fully free of its terrors. I’ve spent most of my life thinking of my swimming trepidation as a purely negative force, an inconvenient roadblock limiting my full enjoyment of nature. Now it seems more like a key component of the appeal of water. It’s not just the sparkling positives that beckon, but also the “controlled exercise in fear.” There is no glimmer without the dark.

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