Illustration by Nanda Ormond

The Short History Of Snorkelling


There’s a possibility that this series, already straining at the bounds of credulity, needs to wander down a new burrow into the rich sub-genre of flat day fun.

In a world before smartphones, before hair that needed more attention than a hydroponic setup, people actually had to think of things to do when the swell died. Skiffleboarding, paid employment and armed robberies were devised as ways to deal with an unresponsive ocean, and while you wouldn’t want to make a habit of any of them, they could see you through to the next groundswell.

Snorkelling is such a thing. Jacques Cousteau is the undisputed grandaddy of snorkelling. ‘No he isn’t,’ say the two per cent of people who read this column with an eye to factual inaccuracies: ‘he’s the inventor of the Aqualung.’ And of course that’s true. But call to mind his wonderful crevassed face, that shock of white hair, and I bet you’re seeing him in a black rubber mask with a steel ring, and a snorkel draped insouciantly over his left ear.

Or the other way you might see him is in a red beanie. Which segues neatly to the greatest cinematic rendering of the ocean, ever, in the history of anything: Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic. See this film for a thousand reasons, but not least for Bill Murray, shimmying in a silver wetsuit to a helmet full of synthesisers by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh.

Snorkelling had already been represented in film, only slightly less awesomely, by Ursula Andress in the otherwise forgettable Bond flick, Dr No. It’s easy not to notice, but in the famous white bikini scene she has a knife and a mask but no snorkel, so perhaps she was out stabbing molluscs in the shallows.

The Big Blue (1988) flipped the drooling to an unknown French actor named Jean-Marc Barr. He never made another decent film after this freediving classic, but the damage was done: no other man in the history of humanity has managed to look hot in a nose clip. My wife held out on my marriage proposal for three years in case he became available.

The true pioneers of snorkelling as flat day fun were North Shore tough guys like Ricky Griggs and Jose Angel, who reached astonishing depths off Maui diving for black coral. Grigg lived to become a renowned marine academic: Angel blacked out somewhere below 300 feet and was never found.

Our domestic cray season offers many more ways to drown yourself than surfing ever will. If you want to get completely owned by a large orange bottom feeder, try grabbing a southern rock lobster without scuba. Or just be an American right now.

The new generation of spearfishermen seem to misunderstand the fundamental aspects of camouflage. Having camo print all over your wetsuit might be super-effective if you’re planning to wear it to a land war in Asia, but it’s not going to fool a fish. See, their eyes don’t work remotely like ours, so you just look like a gigantic idiot in stripes. It’s further proof of the old adage that fishing gear attracts fishermen, not fish.

And bugger that for seriousness. Snorkelling is meant to be funny. A crab on the bottom waving its nippers like an invitation to a carpark punchup is funny. Walking in flippers is funny because it’s impossible. The soundscape underwater is hilariously alien, especially when you can hear the percolations from inside your own nose. And if you want a brand new vision of your dog, take it for a swim then lie on the bottom looking up at it as it swims circles trying to work out where you’ve gone. Love and bewilderment, suspended in the sky.

Jock Serong