The sea inside me

Freediver Tania Douthwaite’s connection to the ocean started at an early age. Photo by Tom Braithwaite.

MY career in underwater advocacy began in my childhood, with secret exploits of breath-holding in a full-to-brim family bathroom sink. 

Calm feelings were evoked by the ceremonious (and yet somewhat guilty) filling of a Tiny Porcelain Pool of Peacefulness that, for a timeless moment, belonged to me. 

Facing the rigours of a too-busy family household with a troupe of siblings and an inequitable ‘pecking order’ (that did nothing for my self-esteem), I was drawn to and connected with the water from an early age. 

It was a place of sanctuary, where I could both test my mettle and soothe my soul. 

It was the end of rumination, the quietening of noise and the easing of tensions all in one simple and accessible action, aided by a bathroom sink. 

I held my breath and became water.

I GREW up in Wadjemup-Fremantle with a strong sense of belonging to this coastal village. 

I’ve studied and worked among sailors, divers, fishers, ocean swimmers, surfers, and sea-gazers my whole life. 

I’ve travelled widely in my adult life to explore the underwater world and enjoy the coasts of other nations, but I have always ended up back here.

Living in Fremantle, I am so enliveningly exposed to, and identified with, the sea. 

And not just any sea but the one that exists here in this place – Western Australia. 

These fish, those whales, that seal. 

They are my aquatic family that I have grown up studying and playing with since I was a child. 

I’ve tried my hand at most ocean-connected pursuits and professions, graduating as a marine scientist, working as a freediving instructor, ocean guide, marine safety advisor, underwater actress, fish taxonomist, pearl grader – even threw my hat in the ring on the Board of Recfishwest. 

I became a coxswain at Fremantle Commercial Diving, maintained boats berthed at our cities’ numerous sailing clubs, and wove a life-long creative arts practice around my love of the sea.

When I suddenly lost my partner to a freediving accident in 2010, the first place I went to soothe my distress was the sea. 

How can one understand senseless tragedy? 

After almost a decade in academia, I tried to resolve my grief with the sharpest tool in my kit – knowledge. 

It was to no avail. 

My dream to become a marine researcher was frozen as my brain refused to tie together ideas while it grappled with incredible loss.

I went to the only souls I knew who understood such great loss – the life in the ocean. 

Generations of whales have been separated from their relatives by ongoing industrial whaling, solitary blue grouper wade silently among the memory of lost mates, fur seals play soaked in the water where a shark violently took their loved one – and yet they go on. 

And not just in a sullen, pensive way but still gripping life by the gills and living life to the fullest.

I learned from the best teachers I know – ocean life. I studied them for so long, I became one. 

I spent more than a decade surrendering to a place where the bigger picture becomes immediately apparent. 

Through deepening my connection with the sea, pragmatically addressing my fears with safety strategies and learning how to better embody my own aquatic ancestry I recovered from post-traumatic stress disorder. 

I use freediving and my connection to the sea to resolve my body’s trauma. 

Healing

I returned to where my child-self knew there was healing – in the water, and with others like me.

I always felt the best compliment to my work and healing journey was to contribute back to the place I call my first home – the ocean. 

In the name of conservation, I have dressed as a giant crayfish to ‘Protect Ningaloo’, gathered a blue army of volunteers for the Conservation Council of WA, and painted myself blue to resemble an escapee from Avatar in order to help Save Our Marine Life. 

My proudest work is entirely dedicated to life in the sea. 

The ocean itself and the life forms within it helped me survive and thrive, so working to conserve marine biodiversity through the creation of the annual Fremantle Underwater Film Festival (FUFF) in 2014 and OceanLife Festival in 2022 seemed a great way to show gratitude to that which gave me life. I hope to create the OceanLife Foundation in 2023 with the help of the Fremantle community.

The OceanLife Festival will run January 9-15, 2023. 

It is a partnership with the City of Fremantle, centred in the heart of Freo at Walyalup Koort. 

Our mission is to build a deep connection between human and ocean. 

Through showcasing Western Australian’s who work in connection with the sea, during workshops and events, we will demonstrate our identity as ‘Sea Insiders’, while dedicating our time and energy to making positive change for our blue planet as a collective.

OceanLife is the only festival of its kind – donating 100 per cent of the funds raised through FUFF ticket sales to marine biodiversity conservation projects with Maui Dolphin Defenders, Sea Shepherd Australia and Capes Conservation Group. 

by TANIA DOUTHWAITE

Protect Ningaloo

I have no corporate sponsorship but appreciate support – financial or in-kind – from local businesses and individuals who align with our ocean-connected values. 

We are lucky enough this year to have the support of Moore and Moore Café, Protect Ningaloo, Save Our Marine Life. Please get in touch with me if you think you can help.

The FUFF will screen nightly January 13-15 and the week-long ocean-focused OceanLife Festival will feature ‘Blue Yarns’ nightly at the Town Hall. 

If you want to create ocean art or be educated about the sea, see our community program, or check out our website at ocealifefestival.com. 

For tickets to our short underwater film festival, you can swim on over to http://www.fuff.com.au

Take a breath 

OUR oceans are facing their greatest challenge yet with the layered burden of climate change, overfishing and pollution hammering at the resilience of ocean life across the world.

If we can rewrite the story on our deep connection with the ocean, it cannot end in loss. 

It must end in growth and freedom.

The survival of our species is interminably linked to the health of the ocean. 

How each of us is interwoven into the lives of others who share this biotic community is unfathomable. 

A healthy ocean means human life can survive and has the opportunity to thrive. 

Without the life forms within the sea, we are devoid of spiritual and material nourishment. 

Viktor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning says: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom”. 

Between your next inhale, pause for one quiet, relaxed moment, to consider that your every second breath comes from the ocean. 

Hold your breath as we all have in the womb, and dive into a place where the water and your body have an inherent tendency to work together to help you survive.

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