There's something frightening, and magical, about being
on the ocean, moving between the heavens and the earth,
knowing that you can encounter anything on your journey.
The stars had set. The sea and sky were inky black, so
black I could not see my hands pulling water in front of
my face, so black there was no separation between the
sea and the sky. They melted together.
It was early March and I was seventeen years old,
swimming two hundred yards offshore, outside the line of
breaking waves off Seal Beach, California. The water was
chilly, fifty-five degrees and as smooth as black ice.
And I was swimming on pace, moving at about sixty
strokes per minute, etching a small silvery groove
across the wide black ocean.
Usually my morning workouts started at 6 a.m., but on
this day, I wanted to finish early, get home, complete
my homework, and spend the day with friends, so I had
begun at 5 a.m.
There were vast and silent forces swirling around me:
strong water currents created by distant winds and large
waves, the gravitational pull of moon and sun, and the
rapid spinning of the earth. These currents were
wrapping around me like long braids of soft black
licorice, and I was pulling strongly with my arms,
trying to slice through them.
As I swam, all I heard were the waves, rising and
tumbling onto shore, the smooth rhythm of my hands
splashing into the water, the breaths that I drew into
my mouth and lungs, and the long gurgling of silvery
bubbles rolling slowly into the sea. I slid into my
pace, and I felt the water below me shudder.
It wasn't a rogue wave or a current. It felt like
It was moving closer. The water was shaking harder and
buckling below me.
All at once I felt very small and very alone in the deep
Then I heard a sound. I thought it was coming from the
At first it seemed to be a whisper, then it grew louder,
steadily, like someone trying to shout for help but
unable to get the words out. I kept swimming and trying
to figure out what was happening.
The sound changed. It became stranger, like the end of a
In my mind, I quickly went through a list of the ocean
sounds I knew and compared them with what I was hearing.
There were no matches.
The hairs on my arms were standing straight out.
Whatever it was, was moving closer.
The ocean was charged with energy. It felt uncertain and
expectant, like the air just before an enormous
thunderstorm. The water was electric.
Maybe that was it; maybe the water was warning of an
approaching squall. Maybe energy from distant winds and
torrential rains was being transmitted through the
I checked the sky above and the distant horizon.
Both were dull and as black as ink and there wasn't a
cloud in the sky.
I lifted my head to see the wave height. The shore break
wasn't increasing and there weren't any wind waves. Not
even dimples on the ocean's surface. There was no sign
of a storm.
It didn't make sense. The energy in the water was
intensifying. I felt like I was sitting on a tree branch
beside a nest of angry, buzzing bumblebees.
All at once, the sea's surface erupted nearby. There was
a rushing and plunking sound.
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