Maldives4: All About the Fish

Rose early for tea on the deck this morning. At least I thought 6:30 was early. I keep forgetting this is a boat full of swimmers, so they all were up at 6AM, some doing yoga. Yay for them.

We anchored off a sand shoal, just a thin strip of white sugar in the middle of the ocean. Rahgandu Kandu. Nothing but terns and shells and coral. Yes, it looked just like the picture postcard in your head right now. 

The dhoni took us out about 3.5K from the shoal, and we swam back along the edge of two reefs and The Big Blue. Even saw an anemone with Nemo inside. 

The fish here are all about variety: big, small, colors, stripes, dots. Schools of black and yellow Moorish Idol fish swam by us in droves. 

I knew they were Moorish Idols because it was the one fish name I could recall from the vast list of species in a dive book we had on the boat. 

To entertain myself during our swims, I would give the fish I saw new names: Miami Drag Queen Fish, Box o’ Crayons Fish, College Football Team Saturday Jersey Fish, Upper West Side Fish, Aretha Franklin Fish (a fellow swimmer agreed with me on that one), Candy on Gramma’s Coffee Table that No One Ever Eats Fish, Police Do-Not-Cross Tape Fish.

Whoever thought of Moorish Idol wins the fish-naming contest. Hands down.

Our local swim guide would always draw a map of the route at the pre-swim briefing.

Second swim of the day was 1.5K, around the small island of Anbaraa and its lagoon. According to our local guide, the island was leased privately every year for a large music festival. But last year the party got out of hand, the music was too loud, and a few partying people drowned.

So the government revoked the lease, and now it’s available for anyone to enjoy, called a picnic island. 

Creepy story, gorgeous swim.

Finishing off our swim around Anbaraa, with our dhoni moored at the dock.

Dinner was a beach bbq back on Anbaraa, and the crew went all out for us. Candles in the sand led to the “table,” which was a life-sized whale shark sculpted out of sand. There was a small trench all around the shark to put our feet, and banana leaves served for seats.

It was impressive, as was the whole tuna on the bbq the crew had caught the night before. The food on the trip has been crazy good. More on that later.

Snorkel viewpoint of Anbaraa.

Afterward, we walked the empty beach, where thousands of hermit crabs moved around like ants on a sidewalk. So many! All different sizes and styles of houses carried on their backs.

Tomorrow we swim one long 5K in the morning. Nobody better be up doing yoga before 6:00.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth


Maldives3: Beginnings and Ends

I am wondering how long a body can sustain a constant state of awe.

After a big breakfast of omelettes, oddly shaped chicken sausages, and big circles of melted cheese (CHEESE!), we swam our first 3K. 

For every swim, we all pile in the dhoni (think Disney jungle safari-ride boat but more stylish) to our designated starting point, jump off, and swim back to the Sharifa. A kayak, second small dingy, and the dhoni follow for support. They also throw us bottles of water and something called Torq (orange Gatorade but more delicious) at stopping points. So thoughtful!

On this morning’s swim we headed to Fulidhoo island, over reefs with colorful fish surrounding us. We stopped on shore, had water and Torq, and watched 4 to 5 huge rays glide around our feet. Then it was another 1.2K back to the boat and cookies.

Still no assholes showing up in the group. 

After dinner tonight, we came up on deck to watch the stars. With nothing but ocean around us, the constellations came all the way down to the horizon. There was another island barely visible off in the distance, but other than that we were completely alone.

Of course in such a place, we started discussing death, and the eternal question of the existence of life after. I was sitting with three logical doctors, trying to get them to at least entertain the possibility of something beyond. 

Perhaps it is the beauty of this place, and our feelings of privilege and good fortune to be here, that bring up the question of its end. Or our own.

Either way it is necessary to ask, and there is room for the question here. 

After a short time, the conversation naturally turned to Celine Dion’s recent comeback. I’m starting to love these new friends just a little.


–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Maldives2: A Day of Firsts

MV Sharifa and MV TJ.

It’s 8pm and nearly everyone aboard the MV Sharifa has turned in, gone to their rooms below deck for a decent night’s rest. Understandable for those who flew in just this morning after horrendously long flights. It was a big day.

It’s always exhausting doing things for the first time. Today everything was new: from place to time zone to people. 

The people! Swimmers are the best type of folks. Easy going, always up for a challenge, and open if not downright friendly. As for day 1, I couldn’t find a single asshole among the 14 folks on the trip. And I’m judgy, so that’s saying something.

After coming onboard the boat (and some issues retrieving the anchor off the bottom), we left Male harbor for Guiradhoo Reef and our first swim.

Male harbor.

The color of the water here is the deepest blue I’ve ever seen salt water achieve. It’s the exact color of blue raspberry KoolAid. Or blue curacao. No kidding. It’s also extremely salty.

Our first swim was strictly an acclimatization swim, so just three laps of a designated triangle, meant to see everyone’s speed and skill level. There was a bit of reef, and so many fish it was hard to stay focused. 

We all had a touch of anxiety to “perform,” but as with every swim, once we’d finished and gotten out of the water, we were a united whole. No one cared about who returned first, or who finished last.

I’ve always loved water’s ability to bring a group together. I see it every year at the Whidbey Adventure Swim. Everyone’s nervous beforehand, but once out of the water, everyone’s friends with everyone else.

Back aboard the Sharifa, we all showered off at the back of the boat, and stood around in our drippy swimsuits drinking tea, chatting, and wolfing down cookies.

Ahh, the cookies! A variety pack of creme-filled, wafers, and shortbreads, we went through at least two full boxes after every swim. And it didn’t matter that they had a strange aftertaste, like they’d been stored next to the frozen shrimp.

Water is a sacrament in nearly every known religion. It signals change, rebirth, or a coming together. And while I personally have issues with religion itself, I love watching this process happen, the bringing together and melding of a group around water. 

Tomorrow we swim a 3K in the morning, eat lunch, and then swim a 2K in the afternoon. There better be a damn lot of cookies on this boat.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Maldives1: Acclimatization

Outside our hotel in Hulhumale.

We arrived last night in Male at 10:30 PM, local time. Door to door, it took us 28 hours of travel time. The 16-hour flight to Singapore wasn’t as bad as we expected; must’ve been all that joyful wellness in the food.

We took a taxi to our beachfront hotel, dropped our luggage, then took a short walk around. The air was tropics-thick and warm, and much of the area around our hotel looked to be under construction or abandoned mid-project.

Construction seen outside our hotel bathroom window.

At dawn I woke to the sound of a long thin whistle, then far-away music. It took me a moment to realize this was the Muslim call to prayer, which is broadcast across the city.

After breakfast, before meeting up with the bigger SwimTrek group and guides, Marni and I took a walk on the beach. Women wearing burkas (as required by Muslim-country law) were swimming with their children. We also saw bikini-clad tourists on the same beach, either ignoring or ignorant of the laws in the Maldives.

A Muslim woman watches her son swim.

I’m uncertain how a Muslim country in a tropical destination, which relies heavily on tourism, can enforce a law requiring women’s bodies to be covered. All I know is we were sweating like rain spouts in our thin long pants and tee shirts. It’s a fascinating conundrum to be sure.

Sign at left says no bikinis allowed on beach.

Excited to meet the swim group and get on the boat! Today is the acclimatization swim, also known as “How Do You Measure Up?” Hoping for middle of the pack. Either way, I’m anxious to be out of the city and to get on that blue blue water.

Maldives! Being in the Here


NOTE TO READERS: Complete postings of the trip will be up as soon as WiFi is available and reliable. Sure, I could buy a SIM card and spend a lot of time trying to get posts up through spotty reception on the boat. But as the title above implies, I’d rather be fully present in the Here, than wrestling technology. Thanks for the understanding. See you soon!


ON THE PLANE— Padraig O’Tuoma says it’s really all we have, The Here. He loves simple words that express the most complicated of things, and this is one of the reasons I love him. 

I’ve been looking forward to this swim vacation in the Maldives for 4 months now. Originally, a good swim-friend and I were booked on a trip to the British Virgin Islands. The company cancelled our trip due to not enough swimmers, but as consolation offered us a 7-night swim trip on a live-aboard dive boat, swimming twice a day among the atolls and reefs in the Maldives. 

Twist my arm.

I’ve been packing for the last three days. I wouldn’t recommend it. I had way too much time to worry about The Things. Things to bring, things not to bring. 

Forget second-guessing, I got to fifth or sixth guessing: tinted or untinted goggles; three swimsuits or four; half-deflated yoga ball for the 16-hour flight to Singapore; one tube of sunscreen or two; is this skirt long enough to wear in a Muslim country?

Now I’m finally on the plane, and the Things don’t matter. The seat between my friend and I is wonderfully vacant (so many pillows!), and the six-page menu just delivered into our hands includes a lunch main course described as: “a simple and joyful wellness selection.” 

Honestly, could anyone NOT order a selection of joyful wellness? And yes, I double-checked, we’re in row 56, smack-dab in Ecomonyland. Thanks Singapore Air!

Being in the Here. We have 16 hours and 40 minutes of airplane Here to Singapore, then another four hours to Male International. 

We’re one hour in and everything’s going great!

This week at home, my daughter is getting ready to swim at districts for the first time. Before leaving I placed an inspirational quote under her bathroom light switch, which she’d see every day. Simple words, complicated meaning:

Nothing Behind Matters. 

—TJ Wiley Forsyth

Not Exactly a Glamour Sport

Open-water swimming isn’t glamorous. I was reminded of that today while attempting to pull on a new wetsuit. 

Does anyone else sweat like a cold Corona on a hot beach trying these things on? And why is there ALWAYS a good-looking, incredibly fit 30-something triathlete/sales rep helping you try them on? Is shaming part of the sales tactic? 

The new suit was a thermal version of the suit I usually swim in. Thermal means lined in synthetic orange fuzz, which is supposed to be warmer for those winter days here in Puget Sound when the water is down in the 40s. Great idea, right?

And even though it was a bigger size than I normally wear, it was still “an umph and a prayer” to get it over my hips. And when I say hips, I mean my ass. We all have our demons. And when I say “we”, I mean women.

Have you seen what men swim in? At least Australia can dish the truth; they call the mens brief-style swimsuit a Budgie Smuggler. If you haven’t heard the term before, just give it a minute….

Budgie, Friendship, Affection, Love

Men’s swimwear could be an entirely separate blog topic. Oh, if only I had the time!

Lately in our swim group, we’ve had some discussions of modesty at the picnic table. The picnic table is where we all meet and chat while changing into our gear before a swim. Every open-water group has its own form of picnic table.

Unfortunately ours is right below a family pizza joint, and a few days ago one of our dear members inadvertently exposed his member to a family trying to enjoy their pie in the restaurant above.

Another swimmer in the group ran into the father of the family after the swim. He said his daughter had a few questions about “that naked man.” He wasn’t upset, but he was curious about why people were swimming in “that really cold water.”

Why do we do it? (I mean swim, not forget our towel and expose ourselves, but that too I suppose.) The question becomes louder to me in these days of dropping night temperatures, the shortening daylight, and finding gear that will best get me through the tough swims of winter. 

The group at the picnic table is already growing smaller. Soon it will be just a handful of us that answer the call to keep getting in. I believe we would all say it isn’t a choice to swim, but a necessity. 

I’m going to have to ask those friends why they keep swimming. And remind everyone to bring a towel.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Why Lion’s Mane Jellies Are the Best!

The title here reflects my suspicions that I somehow offended our scarlet-armed friends of the sea with my previous post (Then There’s These Bastards). How else to explain the 27 (twenty seven!) encounters our group had soon after I posted?

Assuming that an invertebrate can read is a stretch. I don’t think they can even steer themselves, they just float along the currents. I have friends like this.

But many things exist in the world that defy explanation. Like swimming with a swim buoy, I saw no reason not to be overly cautious, and decided to give them some love in this title. They most likely just skim and only read the big print anyway. 

No one was stung in the face, no one swam directly into one, so it obviously was just a threat and demonstration of strength in numbers on their part. 

Being of a certain OW swimmer mindset (see “Definition of Insanity” in previous post), we returned the very next day, same time, same place, to swim. 

The beach was littered with their fallen. And I’m not saying beach as in a long swath of a few hundred yards. There were 12 washed up within a 30-foot length directly below the stairs where we always get in.

It was obvious to me then that some serious reconnaissance had been taking place. They’d been planning an attack for awhile.

We all, of course, swam anyway (see “Definition” above, again). Yet the water was crystal clear, and of the eight of us that got in, no one saw a single jelly. Not one.

After getting out, someone had the gallant and thoughtful idea to collect the ones washed ashore in a plastic shopping bag and throw them into the nearby blackberry bushes. 

But we shouldn’t have.

As much as we find lion’s manes a scary stinging nuisance, the sea has a plan and a place for them. We just might not be smart enough to understand that plan yet. Maybe we’re just reading the big print for now.

As humans we treat the Earth’s bodies of water and the life in them like entitled children, always expecting to receive but rarely giving back. What belongs to the sea must remain with the sea. 

Except Dungeness crab, because they’re delicious.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Then there’s these bast@rds….

When it comes to deadly, highly poisonous, sudden-death kinds of critters, the Pacific Northwest is pretty lame. The best we can do is a super highly toxic mushroom. Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite glad about this. But it kind of lacks in the sexy thrill department, if you ask me.

But we do have red stinging jellyfish! Lion’s Mane. Big ones, some as large as garbage can lids once they wash ashore, like this one that blobbed up on Useless Bay. They’re far from deadly, but can leave a burn to remember if you happen to be swimming in their path. 

I have so far (and luckily) only cruised by or over them. In the water they’re gorgeous, floating silently along the currents like a scarlet ballgown missing its evil princess. 

They’re most common in the Fall, when winds bring the colder water up. Also, when crabbing season starts in June, I will often pass through a severed arm or tentacle, broken off by a trap or pulled-up rope. 

While no longer attached to the main body of the jelly, these pieces still pack a bit of sting. The burn is brief but surprising on the backs of my hands or across my face.

But it’s not enough of a threat to keep myself and most of my friends from swimming. Even when some of us have been stung on successive days in the same area, we still show up and swim in the EXACT same place. (What’s the definition of insanity again?)

The sea is dangerous and its storms terrible, but these obstacles have never been sufficient reason to remain ashore.

Magellan

Besides knowing the seasons, and hoping a fellow swimmer shouts and points one out in the water ahead of me, there’s really no tactic to avoid a Lion’s Mane. My swim trajectory for the day and theirs will either cross or not. 

All those gazillion different paths through the water from point A to point B on a swim, and I might be unlucky enough to smack straight into one. 

I like to think about this idea. It reminds me of life. How sometimes everything aligns in a way that is perfectly horrible. Or tragic.

Or glorious. 

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Summer’s End: In Complete Denial

September, Useless Bay, 9:30 am mile swim

It feels like a stolen morning. Sunlight is casting a squint-bright glaze on the flat water of the bay, it’s high tide, and the summer-house crowds have gone back to their frantic mainland schedules of carpools, private schools, select soccer, and 50-hour a week jobs. 

Poor bastards. Me, I’m writing on the beach today, sitting in my towel with a pleasantly soggy swim bum.  The water was unusually clear, so I could watch the small perch darting around the sea grass, and globby moonsnails pulling themselves across the bottom as I coasted along the top of the bay.  

Am I lucky? You bet. Privileged? Absolutely. Entitled? All I can say is I never expect days like today. Every bright and cloudless dawn is a gift in the Pacific Northwest, especially in September. 

The American white pelicans, special visitors to Deer Lagoon these last three years, are beginning to gather for their trip south. The apples I “borrowed” off the trees of a burned-out abandoned house are already crisp-sweet. And there’s even a few maple leaves reddening.

But so far they are only hints of Fall, and I’m glad. Every season begins and ends, a birth and a death every three months. Summer’s end just seems like the stage-four, every-major-organ-has-a-tumor, two-weeks-to-live kind of death. 

But a sudden death is always better than suffering. 

In a few weeks there will be a morning that feels like someone slammed the door closed on the sun. That day I’ll pack a second swim cap, and wear my lambs wool slippers down to the beach. 

But that isn’t today. If I close my eyes and just listen to the short waves washing quietly up on the sand, I can tell myself summer is still young. I have all the time in the world.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth

Miraculous Lake Dorothy

No one can avoid a challenge in life without breeding regret, and regret is the arsenic of life.

— Esther Williams.

We were hiking back from a swim at Lake Dorothy in the North Cascades. The rare sunny, 80-something-degree day and the water’s clarity made children of all seven of us. Water ballet, swim dives, and belly flops caused hoots of laughter that echoed off the evergreen mountains around us. 

Of course, the high-jinx ensued only after a respectable distance swim. We are, first and foremost, serious open-water swimmers, and the best belly-flop award doesn’t just happen, it must be earned.

“When are you starting your swim blog? Have you started it yet? You haven’t?” On the narrow trail back, I was tired and euphoric, which always leaves me emotionally open, a state that makes this control freak very nervous. 

“I honestly don’t know where to start,” I replied. It was a safe answer, and left out all the self-doubt, endless excuses, and real fear that what I desire to share doesn’t have merit, or interest. Does anyone besides me care less about “how we swim” and more about “why we swim?” 

Almost every open-water blog I’ve seen is about the individual’s experience with the big three: location, challenge, and distance. How far, how fast, how cold, long, hard, choppy, windy: the stories are amazing and inspiring. But very physical and goal-oriented.

I have always been more interested in the call some open-water swimmers have to water. Open water, big water, salt water, wild water: any time, any season. That need we have not just to be ON it, but IN it, full submersion, nothing less.

The group swimming that day at Lake Dorothy had very little in common: different careers, different domestic situations, an age span of 30 years, and after a lively conversation, we even  vehemently disagreed on the IQs of chickens.

 Yet stroking out into turquoise waters so clear we could see a pair of antlers on the bottom (turned out to be just a stick, dammit), we shared the same ecstatic energy and joy of being in that water. Sharing the water and the experience, individually yet together, is both powerful and empowering. 

Halfway to the big rock mid-lake, the friend swimming next to me stopped and said, “This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever swam. I could die tomorrow and feel like I didn’t miss a thing.”

Seeing the girlish grin and rapture on her face, I knew exactly how she felt. We all did.

And isn’t shared euphoria the not-so-distant cousin of a miracle?

So I’ll be blogging my swims here on Whidbey Island, and other places I’m lucky to swim (Maldives in November, stay tuned!). I’ll chart the where, when and how. But what I really want to learn is the “why.” Not just my reasons but those of others as well, those of us that can’t just look then regret it, we must answer the call and dive in.

–TJ Wiley Forsyth