‘Forecast is good for snorkelling tomorrow. Twenty-three; light, variable wind; sea state calm. The sea breeze will kick in later in the day, of course … Feeling adventurous?’ enquired the voice on the phone.
‘Not particularly. Why do you ask?’ The darkened window mirrored my expression: a suspicious frown.
‘Thought we’d give the rib an outing, take a gander at the Pope’s eye.’
‘Leonard, is this some kind of weird nautical jargon?’
‘Ah. Sorry. Forgot who I was talking to there for a mo.’ I heard him take a breath, then he continued in his best attempt at a posh accent: ‘Would Milady care to take part in an excursion in one’s rigid inflatable boat, colloquially referred to as a RIB, to the small, artificial island known as the Pope’s Eye?’
‘Why, Leonard dear, that might be delightful. Would one care to reveal to one the whereabouts of this Pope’s Eye, at all?’
‘A mile east-southeast of Queenscliff pier, just north of the ferry route. Shallow water inside the rock wall, drops off steeply outside. Great spot for blue devils and boarfish. Might even see a fur seal or a pod of dolphins. Thought we could have a go at snorkel diving.’
‘And this RIB – a large and seaworthy vessel?’
‘Naturally. Commodious and luxuriously appointed. Bristling with the latest high-tech gadgetry. A powerful outboard engine to carry you to your destination like … ah … dunno, something fast and graceful.’
‘Grace-full. I see what you did there … Okay, count me in.’
‘Great. Nine o’clock sharp. Bring your winter wetty – bit cool out there, even in Feb.’
At nine o’clock sharp, I stood on my front lawn, surveying the commodious and luxurious vessel on its rusty trailer behind Leonard’s ute.
‘I’m not going out to the middle of the Heads in that, matey.’ I prodded the chalky, fly-spotted rubber. Shook my head at the puny, ancient outboard.
‘Grace, Grace. This is a perfectly good boat. Three-point-eight metres. Great little dive boat. Solid as a rock.’
‘Rocks are not known for their buoyancy.’
‘Stable as the Sorrento ferry.’
He talked me round, of course. He always could.
As I skimmed across the turquoise water, seagulls and terns wheeling overhead, wind in my face, I had to admit: it was glorious.
We picked up a mooring buoy within the sheltering arms of the horseshoe-shaped structure: an incomplete gun emplacement from the nineteenth century, I was told. Russophobia had waned before the mini-fortress could be completed, leaving a rocky nub in the otherwise sandy channel.
Leonard donned his gear with swift efficiency. Having helped me with mine, he flipped backwards over the rounded gunwale into the water. My entrance was forwards, feet first, slower and less elegant, but eventually I was in.
A little fussing with my snorkel and mask, then we sallied out into the channel.
The drop-off was vertiginous. Scores of fish, some familiar to me from the shallow inshore reefs, some never seen before, swam and browsed amidst the leathery ribbons of kelp, the frilly leaves of sea lettuce and brown fronds of other algae which formed a luxuriant, undulating blanket over the cone of basalt blocks, tumbling into ultramarine depths.
I was disconcerted to feel the insistent tug of the tide out here, but my fins gave me sufficient power to overcome it.
Hearing Leonard’s muffled call, I followed the direction of his outstretched arm with my eyes – and saw a great, winged form pass ten metres below us, then disappear into the hazy distance – an eagle ray!
Suddenly my guardian was below me, swimming down, down. Where the hell was he going? Ah, to point out a gorgeous purple sponge.
Back inside the horseshoe, Leonard talked me through diving to the sandy bottom two metres below, equalising my ears on the way, and returning to the surface. It was surprisingly difficult to get down: the first few attempts I merely floated bum-upward while my arms and fins thrashed vainly. Eventually I got it.
Triumphant at achieving my first snorkel dive, I surfaced next to a gannet. The bird glared down its dagger beak at me, then skittered away in alarm as I vented my snorkel. The last I saw of it was two big paddle feet, powerful wings thrashing the water and a squirt of watery poo.
Hey! I’d just completed my first circumnavigation of the Pope’s Eye. And learned to dive with a snorkel without inhaling half of the Bay.
‘You use this as your dive boat?’
We sat on the bouncy gunwales, drinking coffee, passing a packet of Timtams between us.
I’d seen Leonard’s scuba gear at his place, of course, and he’d mentioned his love of diving. Yet I’d imagined a bigger boat, with room for other divers, oxygen tanks, compressors – whatever paraphernalia was needed. Not this tiny, vulnerable rubber dinghy.
‘Plenty big enough for me and my gear. Bit of a squeeze with Shorty on-board …’
‘Shorty being …?’
‘Bloke who used to dive with me.’
‘And with the name “Shorty” he’d be …?’
‘You got it: massive. Six-five, hundred-and-forty kilos. Bloody great Norwegian Viking with a bushy red beard.’
‘… and also the kindest, gentlest, most loving man I ever met. Looked after me, in jail. Wouldn’t hurt a fly.’
‘… and he was in for?’
‘Armed robbery and aggravated assault.’
‘We all make mistakes, Grace.’
‘True. But you don’t dive together any more?’
‘No. He died.’
Leonard seemed to have very bad luck with his friends, I thought.
‘Nah. Was riding down the Bacchus Marsh Road at three in the morning, got wiped out by a drunk driver.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that … So who’s your diving pal nowadays?’
‘And is Buddy a huge Viking, too?’
‘It’s called a diving buddy, Grace. I dive solo.’
‘Oh. Is that safe?’
‘What’s safe, love? But the risks are manageable, if you’re careful.’
Next week in Beach Walker:
Chapter 17: She’ll Be Right
Leonard prepares to give his talk, and a young hooded plover takes to the air.
Disclaimer: The people and events described in this story are entirely the product of the author’s imagination; they bear no intentional resemblance to real-life people and events. The locations are authentic.
Hurry on next week!