Out of the blue, they started to appear. Ethereal, entrancing, effervescent. Unsurprisingly, the beautiful underwater images of talented Cape Town columnist, writer, poet and ‘picturer’ Helen Walne now have a keen  social media following, not only because they document a poignant personal journey which began when she started swimming, first in pools and then in the sea. Here she explains what drives ‘a nut like me’ into the water …

Helen Walne underwater image of her niece in a pool

I started out swimming in pools and soon became entranced with the way water distorts the human body; how we become unformed and then put back together depending on our perspective. This picture is particularly poignant for me, as it shows one of my nieces smudged in the water, as though the fragility of childhood sometimes comes with disappearing.

First ocean pic taken by Helen WalneI’ve probably taken better undersea pictures since this one, but this image is special to me as it was pretty much the first one I took in the ocean. I was swimming with the Camps Bay Sunday Hot Chocolate Swimming Group – a bunch of mad cold-water enthusiasts who take to the Atlantic Ocean every week – and we swam through a kelp forest with fish and sunlight and for the first time in my life I wasn’t terrified of the ocean.

Helen Walne mother and daughter pic at Long St Baths

I take my camera with me wherever I swim. People look so beautiful underwater. Unshackled from our earthly bonds, we appear more fluid and free. I snapped this mother and daughter at Long Street Baths. They swam length after length close together, in perfect synch. It was only when I ducked down and watched them underwater that I noticed their legs were tethered together. The mother told me she was blind and the two of them were training for a triathlon – they would swim and run tied together and ride a tandem bicycle. The human spirit never ceases to amaze me.

Helen Walne underwater self-portrait

I’m not a fast swimmer. I’m not interested in times or distance. In 2007, my brother drowned himself in the ocean. His death changed me and for many years I viewed the sea as an enemy. I took this picture of myself in the Ionian Sea off Corfu while on a recent assignment for Getaway Magazine. The mess of the colours and my hair tells me I have now found joy in the ocean.

I swim for many reasons, but mostly it’s for the play of light, the childlike joy and the meditative surrender to the sea.

Helen Walne pic of Lin Sampon at Long Street Baths

Lin Sampson was my idol when I was a young journalist starting my career. I loved her turn of phrase and her withering observations and hoped one day to write like her. I recently met her while swimming at Long Street Baths – she’s also a cold-water nut who has swum long-distance sea swims. I love this picture of her in the water, her body of experience so elegantly suspended.

Ooen water swimming Knysna Helen Walne

I’m a bit of a social weirdo, preferring to do things on my own. But open-water swimming is dangerous to do alone and I’ve been, happily, forced to hook up with other swimmers. I visit my parents in Knsyna fairly regularly and swim in the lagoon with a group called the Knysna Seahorses. The dawn swim is generally made up of women, who are so caring and supportive and improbably glamorous. Here two of them swim next to a bright orange boat as the sun rises, drenching us in gold. It’s such a happy-making experience.

Swimming has allowed me to meet some amazing people

Knysna Underwater pic by Helen Walne

This is probably my favourite underwater image, for so many reasons. I went for a walk in the Knysna forest with my niece, who is probably one of my favourite people in the world. She’s my brother’s daughter and we’re very close. It was a chilly day, but when we came upon this creek, we had to get in. We stripped down to our underwear and the water was ice-cold. We became slightly delirious and our bodies turned red. I took this picture of her from a few metres away. There was a lot of natural flotsam in the water – leaves, sticks, fern fronds. It was only later when I downloaded the picture that I saw how the flotsam had become weird glitches, like space dust. We’re survivors amid so much confusion and beauty.

Helen Walne Underwater PhotographyIt’s hard to find other people who enjoy cold-water swimming. I fear I have bored most of my friends with endless pictures of myself in water. It’s not because I’m vain, but rather because no one will come swimming with me! My friend Amber loves cold water. She’s a yoga teacher with a wicked sense of humour and an enormous heart. She also has beautiful hair, and we floated around in the tidal pool at Millers Point and she looked like the Lady of Shalott.

There is something so powerful about women in water, as though they are returning to their source

Helen Walne underwater oceanic pic

Since starting out sea swimming about two years ago, I’ve been drawn deeper and deeper. I have a wetsuit now, and goggles and a snorkel, because a magical world exists at the bottom of the sea. I don’t want to take up scuba diving, as all that equipment seems as though it would separate me from the ocean. I might feel like a spectator rather than a part of the environment. So I’m learning to free dive – but even that feels like a label.

For now, I just take a deep breath and dive down. It’s so quiet down there; so full of colour

Undersea photography by Helen Walne at Millers Point

Life is a strange journey. Seven years after my brother died at sea, my other brother died from complications related to muscular dystrophy. I have no doubt that my swimming is connected to making sense of things. When I’m in the ocean, I feel truly at peace and filled with awe at the richness of a world we seldom see. This boulder is in Millers Point tidal pool. It’s nothing special. But when the light catches it, it turns into an otherworldly object: a glowing dinosaur egg; an alien deposit. A beacon of strange hope that feels somehow familiar.

Thank you for this extraordinary photo essay, lovely Helen!

Follow Helen Walne’s photographic journey on Instagram or check out her website for more of her writing. Her startlingly beautiful memoir The Diving  – about making sense of her brother’s suicide – is also available as an ebook.

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