My Strange Swimming Experiences


I’ve had some strange swimming experiences.

In 2012 I vacationed on a tiny cay in Belize with a group of college friends. The island was so small that its surface area was probably equal to that of a medium-sized suburban house. An even smaller cay lay a quarter of a mile away with nothing but white sand, coral reefs, and pristine blue water separating them. One day I decided to swim to the smaller island and back. I wore a long-sleeved shirt and pants to not get sunburned and waded into the water with my snorkel mask. I carefully made my way around the sharp corals near the island. Once the water became deep enough, I was surrounded by nothing but deep blue water. I couldn’t see the bottom or any distinguishable shapes in the ocean.

Photo by Todd Quackenbush is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

I started seeing ghostly shapes swimming around me. I was scared because I wasn’t sure if I was seeing large fish or if my eyes were just playing tricks on me. I had seen barricudas, rays, and sharks in the water on previous days. I kept swimming. By now I was halfway to the other island. After about 20 minutes I reached shore. The ocean’s depths and creatures made me feel naked and vulnerable and at times like I was going crazy. But I stuck it out and felt strangely triumphant afterwards.

I was six and attending summer camp. The counselors occasionally took us to the Evelyn Kirrane Aquatics Center in Brookline, Massachusetts. One day I stepped into the deep-end of a pool without knowing and began to panic. I tried screaming but couldn’t get my mouth out of the water long enough to take a breath and exhale. I started gulping a lot of water. Luckily, it was a small pool, and I eventually made my way to the wall. I was surprised, however, that I couldn’t signal for help and that no one seemed to notice my distress. Later in life I learned it’s difficult for an untrained person to notice that someone is drowning. Many small children drown each year just a short distance away from their parents.

I lap swim regularly at the Chelsea Recreation Center. Multiple swimmers share a single lane by swimming counter-clockwise. One day, another swimmer was swimming towards me in the opposite direction. According to the rules, we each stuck to our respective right-hand sides. He must’ve been a large person because his wake was bigger than I’m used to. I tilted my head to the side and took a breath just as his wake hit me. Water unexpectedly entered my mouth and nose. I was surprised by how my brain went into auto-pilot emergency mode. I tensed up and began to flail involuntarily. The water and lack of breath was a strong signal to my brain that overrode everything else.