Our Beautiful Ocean Scares and Delights Me

Self-portrait of Tim Horan, taken on North Stradbroke Island, Queensland.

If you know me or stalk my Instagram account, it’s obvious I have a singular obsession – the ocean.

What may surprise you though is I was terrified of the ocean from a young age. My father’s insistence I watch Jaws with him when I was just a boy didn’t help. As entertaining as that movie was, it convinced me the ocean was a place of danger and death.

Although I am much older now, there are lingering traces of my childhood fears. A skilled therapist might suggest a small part of my obsession is me wanting to test myself. How close can I get to something that can kill me? I’m not reckless, but there have been a few dicey moments between the ocean and me.

Once – by accident – I picked up a highly venomous sea creature while snorkelling in a secluded Sydney bay. I literally thought I was a dead man.

Tim Horan, snorkeler, freediver, and writer, at Port Stephens, Australia. Pic by Anita Horan.
The ocean and I have a complex relationship. Pic of me at Port Stephens, Australia by Anita Horan.

Another dangerous situation was when I swam alone off the coast of North Stradbroke Island, Queensland. I had not sought local advice on where to enter the water and the deserted beach I waded in from was a bad choice. Ten minutes into my swim and I was seized by a rip current – fast-moving water impossible to swim against. Each time I thought I was making progress back to shore, the rip would drag me out again. I began to panic but forced myself to bottle it deep inside me and focus on the problem. It took me a full hour to extract myself from the ocean and after the ordeal I collapsed on the sand, panting heavily and cursing my stupidity.

When I holiday by the ocean with my wife and daughters, I am more cautious. To the point where they probably think I’m cowardly. A perfect example is when we rented a beautiful beach house in a picturesque seaside town. One morning, we walked down to the jetty where the local fishing boats were moored. We spied the round, shadowy form of a large stingray in the shallows beneath the jetty pylons. I left the jetty and waded into the water up to my ankles to get closer for a photo. As soon as the creature sensed my clumsy splashing, it turned towards me and swam at great speed to where I stood. All I could think of was its wicked barb and the tragic end Steve Irwin came to when he got too close to a stingray.

Photo of a smooth stingray in shallow water off a small coastal town in New South Wales, Australia. Pic by Tim Horan.
A big stingray in the shallows. I referred to it as a ‘Black Stingray’ but after consulting Sea Fishes of Southern Australia, I now think it was probably a ‘Smooth Stingray’.

I half stumbled backwards, turned and then ran out of the water with a muffled yelp. The ray momentarily hovered above the spot I was just standing before gliding away. A peal of laughter broke out from atop the jetty overlooking my exit point. I looked up to see my wife and daughters laughing at my clumsy and fearful display.

I was embarrassed. Not my finest moment, but it is intimidating when a large creature boldly approaches you. Especially one with a powerful sting in its tail. At least my family knew not to get too close… or at least that’s what I thought. I was wrong.

After lunch, I took an afternoon nap in our beach house. I was still exhausted from the lengthy drive to get to our holiday destination and a rest was welcome. When I awoke refreshed a few hours later, the house was empty. Anita and the girls had gone for another walk. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and left the house to look for them. I soon found them down by the water’s edge. All three were crouching down, petting the giant stingray. At first, I was shocked but that feeling soon made way for delight. I rushed back to our beach house to grab my camera and document this unlikely interaction…

My wife and daughters were rewarded for their bravery.

Probably one of my greatest memories ever. Witnessing Anita and our daughters initiate an incredible encounter with a majestic sea creature. No feeling of dread or paralysing fear, just simple, pure joy.

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