"Maybe the goal of the Bryn Mawr swimming test is to get us to strip down to the barest essentials."
By Catherine Hooper ’94
In 1998, I flew to Venezuela to learn to fly-fish for bonefish. Although this trip seemed to my friends an unusual detour from my predictable life as housewife, volunteer and student at the Barnes Foundation outside of Philadelphia, to me it was the fulfillment of an old dream.
When I was a high school student, an English teacher told me that fly-fishing was "not for girls." I had been determined to try it ever since. Now, a decade from that teacher’s fateful pronouncement, I found myself with a little time, a little money, and a craving for something completely new.
I began reading about all types of fly-fishing, special destinations, and several different species of fish. Almost everyone told me just to try an afternoon of trout fishing in a local stream, but it was bonefish that most intrigued me. Visions of bonefish as nearly indiscernible silver shadows that darted across the salt water flats haunted my dreams at night. My husband was getting tired of my talking about their incredible speed (over 30 mph), virtual invisibility, and sensitivity to the slightest disturbance. He reminded me that experienced anglers consider bonefish to be a formidable challenge and suggested that I plan to start smaller since I had never held a fly rod before.
Starting smaller did have its appeal. Wading through flats in the middle of the ocean as the tide came in could prove dangerous, as could the sharks and rays that inhabit bonefish territory. And although I have always enjoyed being on boats and bobbing in the sea, I have a terrible fear of water, and I cannot swim. In fact, I postponed my Bryn Mawr swim test until the day before graduation and passed only due to the kindness of the instructor. But as I stepped out of the little Cessna and onto Los Roques, a bonefish-filled archipelago off the Venezuelan coast, I knew I had made the right choice.
My guide, Felipe Reyes Sabal, spoke fair English and was an excellent teacher. Moments after I set down my bags, we were on the beach practicing casting. While Felipe could send the entire length of his fly line effortlessly into the wind, mine almost always ended up wrapped around my neck or boot. When I did manage to cast the line in front of me, the fly would invariably rap me on the back of the head as I sent it forward. I was wearing my Bryn Mawr ring, and whenever it glinted in the sun, I was reminded that nothing at school had prepared me for something like this, where "feel" and rhythm supersede intellectual effort.
When Felipe and I broke for lunch, I interrupted him between bites of his sandwich to ask him to demonstrate different knots and checked my flies against those in his box. "Listen Catherine," he said at last, "This is supposed to be fun, OK? Fun like playing, like you are a little kid, right?" The Bryn Mawr ring on my finger reminded me of the merits of learning with my nose to the grindstone, but at the same time, I remembered the Latin inscription from Dante engraved inside the band: Incipit Vita Nova, which can be translated as "Here begins the new life," but also as "Here begins the life that is new," as for a child or youth. Something far back in my mind struggled with the ambiguity. Here on this beach, how could I begin childhood again?
Radiant silver ghosts
The next day, my hard work at last paid off. Catching my first bonefish made me feel like my heart burst and soared into the sky. After a long struggle to reel it in, Felipe swept the five-pound fish from the surf and slipped the barbless hook from its rubbery mouth. "Say goodbye to your first bonefish," he said laughing and held it gently under the water. The bonefish kicked away from his hands in a flash and disappeared, blue, into the bluer water. I had a feeling of shock—as if I had just been stormed by a radiant silver ghost. More than anything, I wanted to catch another. The next few days of fishing proved even more exciting, and my casting improved a bit as I began to relax and enjoy myself.
Felipe and I walked for hours across miles of beach, scanning the water from behind polarized lenses for any flicker of silver tail against the myriad shining glints on the water’s surface. We caught Spanish mackerel in the afternoons when the bonefish seemed to disappear and ate our picnic lunches on the deck of our boat or in little abandoned fishermen’s shacks. When I left a week later, I watched from the plane window as Los Roques became smaller and bluer. The wave motion froze as the plane gained altitude.
Things at home were a little different after I returned. My husband grew sick of my talking about fishing and would leave the room if I began. To anyone who would look, I showed my fishing pictures, which consisted of 1. Me holding a fish, 2. Me holding a fish, 3. Me holding…you get the idea. I joined a local fishing club for women and tried small stream trout fishing and in-shore saltwater fishing for false albacore and striped bass. Although I enjoyed any kind of fly-fishing, I was still thinking about bonefish. Reading every available book and article on the subject was only making matters worse. Then, a few months after my trip to Los Roques, I watched a man on television (yes, I was even watching those fishing shows) catch two bonefish on one line in some place called Seychelles.
Within days I owned every nautical chart available for the Republic of Seychelles and had amassed library books and photocopies of periodicals that covered the dining room table. As I discovered, the Seychelles is actually a group of 115 islands in the Indian Ocean. Although the main islands are inhabited and were the scene of the fishing coup that I had witness on television, very little is known about the so-called "outer islands," formerly part of the British Indian Ocean Territories. One look at these outer islands on the nautical chart and I knew what they were: bonefish paradise.
It became my dream to get there. But how? And who would go with me? Being a non-swimmer, I was daunted by the thought of a long sea journey through a remote part of a faraway country. But after months of research and in consultation with Dr. Dominique Didier Dagit, an ichthyologist from Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences, I had a plan in place. A dive vessel from the main islands, run by a British expatriate, would transport me to the outer islands along with a team of highly experienced divers. I would have a dinghy on board for traveling into the flats while the divers were down. But in order to have government approval to go there, I would also have to make observations and collect research specimens for scientific study. Unfortunately, I would need to do this underwater in scuba gear.
If my plan worked, I would be perhaps the first angler to fish the outer islands of the Seychelles. But for this privilege, I would have to become dive-certified and complete several difficult dives in a foreign land. My knees trembled as I scheduled the classroom and pool sessions that constituted the training. What if I failed? It would mean humiliation, disappointment, and the end of my trip plans. But it is the Bryn Mawr way to conquer fear and take on new challenges. I steeled myself to do just that.
Finding the air
The classroom sessions passed by easily enough, but before my first pool session, I collapsed on the floor inside my front door with terrible stomach cramps and bouts of nausea. When I finally got myself to the swimming pool, I pulled aside my instructor, Louie Vitiello, a 300-pound former bricklayer, and tried to talk my way into some sort of compromise. After a few minutes, he told me to get into the pool or he would throw me in.
I jumped in. The water was terrifying and icy, even in my wet suit. I couldn’t breathe. Water seemed to fill my mouth, eyes, nose and ears. My heart banged about my ribs like a caged animal. But I pulled myself, coughing, up onto the side of the pool to strap on my tank and fit my regulator to my mouth. Louie watched, impressed by my mechanical repetition of all of the requisite safety checks and procedures. At least I was good at the classroom stuff.
When he took me under the water with all of my gear, I found I could not breathe again. Something was wrong with my regulator! There was no air coming through! I fought to the surface, where suddenly it worked just fine. Louie tried to calm me down, explaining that panicking under the water can get you killed. "Take slow, deep breaths," he said. "The air is there—you just have to find it." As we sank back into the water, Louie held my hands in his. I looked at him with panic in my eyes, and he looked back placidly, nodding gently, keeping his eyes focused on mine. A thin stream of air flowed through the regulator into my mouth. I sucked on it with all of my might. Louie kept eye contact with me, allowing us to continue sinking all the way to the pool floor. I felt my breathing steady just a bit, and my shoulders release from their position near my ears as our knees touched bottom. Carefully, he instructed me through sign language to remove and replace my regulator. I did it, but poorly, frantically pressing the button that expels the water. I finally managed, although with lackluster results.
With the other skills we tried, I managed just as badly, until at last, when I had to fill my diving mask with water and clear it again, I panicked and shot to the surface. "That’s enough for today," Louie said, joining me. The utter relief I felt at that moment, though, was soon supplanted by the fear of the next day’s class. And the next day’s.
The following two weeks of learning to dive were not easy. The nausea and cramps went away, and each lesson was easier than the last, but I never felt comfortable in the water. During my last session, the dreaded swim test, I sputtered and coughed from one end of the pool to the other, barely passing once again. Louie dunked me, splashed me, and made me do every extra skill twice over. At the end of the session, I realized I was actually having fun.
Casting like a pro
When Louie signed off on my dive card, finally allowing me to travel half way around the world and seek bonefish who had never seen a fly, I felt elation swell inside me. A little over a year after catching my first bonefish in Los Roques, I was catching my 100th in Astove Atoll, Republic of Seychelles. I was casting like a pro now, and it dawned on me that I was having fun "playing, like you are a little kid," as Felipe had urged. It was that entirely focused and obsessive fun that children experience, but that I had somehow lost along the way. It felt good to get it back again. When I slipped the barbless hook from the fish’s mouth and released him, he swam around my feet and picked at tiny crabs and shrimp as I looked for the next silvery tail.
Above and beyond the fishing, I experienced a connection to a pristine natural world of which I could only have dreamed just a short time ago. On the flats, I waded with hundreds of sharks, watched fleets of rays scurry up from the sand, and stood still as schools of sea turtles the size of dinner tables floated past me. On the beach, I found nautilus shells and watched fruit bats and giant crabs take over as the dark descended and turtles came ashore to bury their eggs. From the diving ship at night, I caught giant trevally that had been drawn by lights on the surface to feast on flying fish. Those friends who had thought my trip to Los Roques the previous August was a detour on my life’s path would never have believed it would lead me here.
On slow fishing days, I went diving with the rest of the team. I never felt completely at ease under the water, but I was no longer afraid. On long drift dives through fast-moving channels, I was pulled along with sharks, barracuda, and countless brightly colored, small fish; I felt like an awkward cousin at an underwater birthday party. The other divers, who were much more skilled, congratulated me on "getting wet," congratulations I accepted completely.
Perhaps the most satisfying aspect of the trip was the groundwork I put in place for Dr. Dagit’s upcoming expedition to the outer islands of Seychelles. My work on her behalf demonstrated that the rich marine life in this region is indeed unique and worthy of study, and has provided the hard evidence to back her funding proposals and future plans.
In the space of two years, fishing has taken me to places I would never have dreamt of going, has introduced me to people whom I am blessed to know, and helped me overcome the barriers of fear that held me back from fully enjoying my life. I feel younger and able to enjoy play, even the real work that play can be. And although fishing has been the vehicle, I believe it could have been any hobby or pastime or sport that forced me to do something new, something unexpected. So I have to think back to Bryn Mawr, where I first learned to take on new challenges. Maybe the legends about the origins of the swim test are all wrong. Maybe the goal of the test is to get us to strip down to the barest essentials and dive into a place where nothing has weight, where thought concerns only breath and movement…and to begin childhood again.
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