When I was twenty-one, I was bitten by a turtle.
It was the first summer of the new millennium, and we were in the middle of an incredible family holiday in the Seychelles. I was standing in a natural lagoon where the sea met the shore, watching with wonder as turtles swam around me. There were plenty of other people there too, but the turtles seemed quite happy as long as they were left undisturbed. I remember being conscious of wanting to make my presence as unobtrusive as possible, standing stock still so as not to disrupt the sand or cause ripples in the water. And then I felt a sharp pain in my calf, and looking at my leg saw two little dribbles of blood. I had been bitten.
Apparently, this just didn’t happen. The locals were as surprised as me, but once I’d got over the initial shock of it we laughed it off as just one of those things. We were, after all, in the turtles’ habitat – it was perhaps not that strange that they might get curious eventually about these unusual tree trunks in their midst.
It certainly didn’t put me off feeling that in some way the sea was my territory, too. It has always mesmerised me – to be near to it, floating on it, swimming in it, is the closest I get to perfect happiness. For many years that pleasure was reserved for holidays: the excited glimpse of blue from a car windscreen or aeroplane window, that gulp of fresh, salty air, that feeling of cool water on skin. I dreamt of living by the ocean, with windows overlooking the waves and a desk for writing.
It’s always a little odd to remember that when I’m sat here, writing at my desk overlooking the sea.
When we first moved to Brixham six years ago a new goal manifested itself: to be one of those people who swam through the winter. Each year, as spring turned to summer, I would relish the first swim of the season, that sharp intake of breath as the cold water engulfed me, washing the winter away with every stroke I took. But when it came to autumn I would falter.
This winter, though, something changed. I didn’t stop swimming as the days got cooler, found that as long as I went in at least once a week I didn’t experience that sharp intake of breath and the increasingly icy dips brought a sense of summertime even to the dullest days.
Hence why I found myself, in the middle of January, swimming in the sea with a lovely group of new aquatic friends, clad in a tankini with socks and gloves and hat for warmth – not forgetting my trusty swimming shoes.
We were almost back at Breakwater beach after a bumpy swim across to Ladybird cove when something grabbed my calf. It felt exactly like a large hand. Disconcerted, I looked behind me to see if one of my companions had reached out – but they were all ahead. My mind briefly considered divers, until my eyes widened as I realised the more likely explanation. Trying not to panic, I kicked my feet to scare the creature away and quickly swam the few metres into shore, grateful to feel the familiar stones as I stood and stumbled up the beach.
Looking down at my leg, I saw dribbles of blood running down my calf. Something had bitten me. Our spotters on the beach, realising what had happened as my fellow swimmers gathered around me, confirmed that a large seal had been following us.
My leg didn’t hurt – in fact I was more concerned about the fact that I’d lost a shoe! Until I looked at the remaining one and realised that its mottled grey and green design quite possibly looked an awful lot like a mackerel meandering in the water behind me. I am very, very glad that the seal did not go in for a bigger bite.
My companions cleaned me up, and sent me home with strict instructions to get it checked out – seals carry all sorts of interesting diseases apparently. Cue an evening at A&E on my GP’s advice, resulting in several intrigued and amused medics and a hefty dose of antibiotics.
Having spoken to some other wild swimming friends this is, you’ll be glad to hear, not something that happens very often. Maybe once a year, amongst the whole community of sea swimmers in this part of South Devon. Once again (now that the adrenaline has died down) I can write it off as just one of those things. Even if I am getting a little worried that I might exude a peculiar allure to sea creatures!
I am not going to stop my swims – the winter sun outside the window is reflecting off the waves as I write this, and I know it won’t be long before I’m in again. I might just be a little more mindful of the animals I share my element with the next time though…