To be out in the Hebrides on a glorious day in August seemed almost unreal. The summer before had fallen so flat: the frantic pace of everything, of just keeping up, of not finding time to stop and reflect. And now here I was: a shining sea merging seamlessly with the sky-a Hebridean day of windless blue clarity, so bright and so perfect that it seemed impossible. The summer’s highest point.
The boat skimmed south – one long flat skim on a mirror flat sea from the drowned slate quarries of Easdale towards the whirlpool of the Corryvreckan. We entered the river of water pouring through the quarter-mile gap between Scarba and Jura and nosed through against the current.
The monsters of the Corryvreckan are not all in the mind: like the unknowable of the deep woods, the myths of the roaring whirlpool are rooted in clear physical realities. There is an inhuman power in the deep tidal waters surging between these two remote islands and, as we pushed upstream, the water brimmed and rose ahead and all about us: glassy and bulging like huge eye balls above the upwellings, moody and choppy where waters mixed and churned…. I couldn’t see into the water, instead my eyes rested on the pooling, streaming surface and I tried to imagine the scale of what was going on hundreds of metres beneath me: the water as a great creature, moon-charged, driven relentlessly back and forth in the narrow pass between the two islands. In my mind I saw it routinely curling itself around the Corryvreckan’s pillar – water-scoured, whirlpool-maker. Here were great movements and moments passing ceaselessly in unswimmable water that would as soon as take you down, as support you on its surface. It was implacable and inhuman, like the movement of stars. Light poured down on us from above and dazzled upwards off the water in a distracting fusillade, but the deep, deep water was working into my mind and I was giddy with the depth of it all.
I saw and heard the whale at the same moment: an outrush of air and a slowly curving grey black back not twenty feet away. Our instinctive response mirrored the whale’s noise: gasps – my five children included – if the whale heard anything it would have been this; by the time the excited chatter burst out he was already nosing back beneath the water, he rose twice more, and then he was gone. I don’t know if he even noticed us, or that he heard anything of our noise; I’d like to think that the deep sounding of his consciousness resonates in another dimension entirely.
Later that evening, the sun setting over Mull, I slipped away from the shouts of the swimming quarry, I scrambled over the jagged slate and found myself, alone, above a sheer drop, perhaps four times my height, staring into 80 metres of blue-green, motionless water. The hugeness from earlier in the day washed back through me and moved everything up a gear-two gears-I caught my breath, for the second time that day, and breathed deeply. I had to dive in! Of course. But did I dare? The slate sheet beneath me seemed to accelerate vertically into the water, soft, translucent seaweed fringed the rock as it entered the water, familiar, but unfeasibly long, as if it had been growing there, undisturbed, for a long, long time.
Something deep within me hesitated: a fear – a huge creature swirling silently in the depths. I reassured myself with exit points and a quick summary of how long I would be in the water. Still I hesitated. I knew that the longing to dive in was always going to overwhelm the doubt, but… I waited again.
Then I launch myself.
For a moment I hang, suspended above the water – the moment before the whoosh and tear of contact. In this moment is all: nothing other than the action and the impact; no room for cares and weary arguments, no sense of the paraphernalia of the day; it is a weightless moment, stripped bare. Fresh deep water – a dark turquoise I have never seen before – sluices through me and extends thrillingly, indefinitely it seems, beyond my fingertips…and then…enough, with a guilty, fearful twist and kick I swim rapidly to my escape point and haul myself awkwardly out of the water. Dazzling light pools silently around me, the ripples slow, still and stop.
The whale meanders through my thoughts: his world is silent and alien to me – thrilling, but unknowable. Briefly he was within touching distance: connected by sight and sound, and the touch of the water in which my hand trailed. For one cascading moment his universe came sliding into contact with mine. I had tried to access his plunging world and won a split-second echo, a sense of deep soundings in the unknown places of my own mind.
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