We were gearing up in a deserted car park when it became apparent the water was choppier than I would’ve liked. It wasn’t too concerning though. I was knee deep preparing for an upcoming expedition, so testing gear every day was critical. A day missed in the ocean would be a huge setback, and it would take more than some choppy water to keep me on land.
Rockingham is about 40 km south of Perth, known for its shipwrecks, dive trails and of course, Point Peron. Point Peron is a wide open, vast dive site, and one of our best in WA (in my humble opinion). While in the shallows, you’ll be exclusively in search of leafy sea dragons, indigenous to these parts only, and quite the spectacle. But getting a bit deeper to the back reef area is where the magic truly happens. You’ll find intricate cave systems, giant plant-covered swim throughs, fish of all kinds and a colony of sea lions that love to play with your fins.
These largely misunderstood behemoths are spotted up and down the WA coastline, especially among surfers. And sadly, there are the occasional run-ins that have completely freaked out the Aussies in this area. According to The Western Australian and SharkSmart statistics, which are recorded by Australia’s government, “WA is seeing a trend of increasing shark bite incidents reported, with the yearly average from 1990 to 2000 being 1.5; 2001 to 2009 being four and 2010-2020 being six.” But don’t let their bad rep fool you. It’s important to note just how unlikely it is that you’d ever actually be attacked, even if you were to encounter one of these apex predators. In fact, statistically speaking, you’re more likely to get hit by a car.
I hadn’t personally experienced a single encounter in four years of diving at this pristine location. I didn’t think twice about it as I put on my new expedition-ready gear and entered from the shoreline. And with that, we did our standard checks, like any good dive buddy pair, and set out.
And so the tour began, with a shore entry filled with slippery rocks. Even with the wind, we still had a solid 10m of visibility and no drastic current by any means. As we swam through tiny holes and crevasses, this untouched underwater world began revealing its secrets to us. Tiny creatures popping their heads out to get a closer look—from the blue swimmer crab and rock lobsters to full schools of old wife fish that are only found in Australia and New Zealand. The plant life was alive and vibrant, sporting shades of purple, yellow, pink, vibrant greens and deep reds. The truly alien spectacles and peace down here are just some of the many reasons I love diving.
Now, for anyone who spends even a little bit of time in the ocean, you know how rapidly the tides can change. Mother nature is an unpredictable force, and it doesn't wait for anyone. In this case, she had decided we had overstayed our welcome in a rather dramatic fashion. In the blink of an eye—conditions went from good to mediocre, and then from mediocre to bad. The chop had turned into a full blown SWELL. And that swell turned into a current, dragging us far in one direction to only then spit us back out from where we came. The conditions were getting so rough at this point that it was becoming hard to even swim.
The trek back to shore was taking far longer than either of us would've liked. Movement was slow and steady. As trained rescue divers, we knew to remain as close to one another as we could, checking in on one another as frequently as possible. Our beautiful seaweed forest turned to silt, and we realized we were hovering over sand. With nothing protecting or surrounding us, we were officially in the open ocean. And next thing I knew, I was completely alone.
Being alone in the ocean is one thing. But being alone in great white infested waters, in bad conditions, is another. This is where, no matter what kind of diver you are, no matter how much training you have, there's going to be a moment of pure unadulterated fear. As I look up, down, left and right ... I spot nothing but the vastness. With none of the conventional visual cues that we’re used to on land, like landmarks or horizon lines, divers can often lose the points of reference that help maintain their sense of direction and orientation. And this is precisely what was happening to me. I was lost.
I tried to keep my cool and followed typical protocol for this situation. I searched my surroundings for my buddy for one minute before slowly and calmly ascending. While your survival instinct is telling you to climb as fast as you can, any diver knows how dangerous that can be. It can result in decompression sickness, which can quite literally kill you. And dying in this already stressful situation would certainly not help my buddy in this predicament, that’s for sure. So I gradually made my ascent and just kept saying my favorite line in my head, “cool, cool, cool.”
While suspended for what felt like the longest minute of my life, the visibility had become so bad I couldn't even see my hand in front of my face. The water was literally turning shades of green. But while I couldn't see anything, my senses of touch and hearing managed to kick into overdrive. I could hear the clicking of the sea all around me—shells, crabs, crays. I could feel light brushing happening around me, which I presumed was a standard school of fish—but in the terrible conditions, I couldn't actually say for certain. My skin started to crawl, realizing the distinct possibility that one of these swimmers could very well be a great white.
The minute of searching passed, and no buddy. I finally managed to surface only to realize that I am far, far away from the shoreline. Far enough that it's going to be one hell of a swim, but fortunately close enough that I can even see it. Keeping myself calm with rhythmic breathing, I do all the safety checks possible: I'm good on air, I know my way home, my compass is set, there's an exit plan. Now I’m only worried for the safety and whereabouts of my long-lost buddy. Fortunately, she’s an even more seasoned diver than me, and I hope she’s safely executing her own plan to the shore … As long as something ELSE hadn't gotten in the way.
I start my surface searching while keeping my air source in my mouth. The swell is so big at this point that I’d be swallowing and inhaling loads of seawater without it. That's when I spot a bobbing head, moving synchronously with the waves. She must have been out there for a while, and I just wasn’t able to spot her until now in these conditions. I flag her down, our eyes lock, and set off to the beach. In moments like this, you cannot swim fast—you need to swim smart. We can't go back underwater because of the lack of visibility, so we’re left to the surface.
We turn our backs to shore, and start kicking our way, flipping around every now and again to observe what's below us. It’s while traveling back to shore that I find I’m experiencing the chills and my stomach is brutally churning. But it’s not from fear of our circumstances, it’s something else completely out of my control. I feel that knot in my stomach rising to my throat and I know what’s coming. It's my dreaded sea sickness. And just when I thought we were almost out of this…
I didn't take my sea sickness tablets because I didn't anticipate THIS current scenario. When this happens to me [which frankly is often] it's such an overwhelming bodily reaction, there's nothing to be done other than to release. Vomit is inevitable. And I have a very calculated decision to make. All while sick to my stomach.
If I take my air source out, and vomit cleanly into the open ocean, I have the potential of drowning. But vomiting into my brand new Scubapro reg would hurt my soul. I mean…C’mon it was a brand new regulator! But unfortunately, I had to accept that this was a much safer decision. And just like that, there she blew… hot chunks.
I’m now feeling exhausted and obviously completely sea sick. But the idea of drowning while covered in a bath of my own vomit - well, it seemed like a less than ideal way of dying. So, I decided it wouldn’t have to end like this, and my survival instincts kicked in full throttle. I'm now PUSHING my way through the sea, and giving mother nature all I've got to stay with her. “Swim, swim, swim, vomit,” seems to be the cadence of my trek to shore. I finally lock eyes with my buddy, and I can see a look of horror on her face as she observes my unbecoming condition.
I don't remember how long it took us to get back to shore. I don't remember how long I laid on the beach, utterly gassed. I don't remember taking my gear off, or packing it back up in my car. And I certainly don't remember cleaning the puke out of my regulator. And I have no idea if there were shark fins following us at any stage of this journey. It was all a blur given the circumstances. But what I do remember are the thoughts that ran through my head during that wild experience.
I couldn't help but think how thankful I was for the countless hours spent properly training for scuba. I thought about how critical it is to never dive alone—even if you are beyond skilled. And, I thought about the unwieldy power of nature. I was spared this time, or maybe I spared myself. But I might not be so lucky next. When enough is enough ... you’d best respect and listen.