JPRI Critique Vol. XXI No. 7 (September 2015)
New Zealand Mermaid
by David Reeve

Editor’s Note: Reeve describes a patch of the Pacific from California’s Santa Cruz County to its Sonoma County coast that, in August and September, serves as feeding grounds for what scientists now estimate is a population of 2,400 great white sharks. They use the Farallon Islands as their patrol base. The “babies” feed on fish, the mothers munch on mammals—and occasionally a kayak that seen from below looks like floating blubber. Jean-Michel Cousteau suggests that great whites can smell one drop of blood from 600 yards and identify sound waves from perspective prey up to five times that distance.

Kiwi-born, Kim Chambers slipped into the cold, shark-heavy waters off of the Farallon Islands just before midnight on Friday, August 7. Take a moment to put yourself in that scene. Midnight. Cold, impenetrable, shark-infested waters. Swim suit only, no wetsuit allowed. Swim for 30 miles. Take your first stroke in waters where giant Elephant Seals frolic and feed, the seals the favorite food of great white sharks. For the next 17 hours and 12 minutes Kim did just that. But moreover, she shunned Poseidon’s lashings, and demonstrated writ large what Anaïs Nin meant when she wrote “life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”

With encouragement from her mother following along in a support boat, and despite battling bouts of nausea and self-doubt, Kim Chambers became only the fifth person—and the first woman ever to complete the swim from the Farallons to San Francisco. She cried as she swam home under the Golden Gate Bridge.

The 38 year-old San Francisco resident declared this experience to be the most difficult of all her open-water channel swims. Good on ya, Kim. That’s Kiwi-tough, and your homeland is right proud of you.

Kiwi’s grow up outdoors. It is one of the lovely aspects of this charmed land. Outdoor play and exploration are built into the curriculum for every age. It is harder to be afraid of nature when you are have always been on speaking terms with her. Students here are still expected to experience the joys, as well as the bumps, scrapes and occasional broken bones that the outdoors dole out.

The ever increasing encroachment of legal risk to school systems has not yet extinguished this prized cultural characteristic. For example, when my 10 year-old went skydiving above Lake Taupo, we were simply asked to sign a single-sided, half-page consent form. Simple as. With their legal traditions inherited from the Crown, Kiwi’s perceive America’s over-reliance upon litigiousness as holding forth not a beacon, but rather a busted flush.

Te-Kuiti is an hour south of Hamilton. As one drives away from the academic and industrial features of the big town, the view dissolves into the familiar landscape of small scale farms perched upon rolling hills, handsomely marked by shelter belts of macrocarpa or lemonwood trees. Wander off the main thoroughfare and you’ll discover beautifully informal aspirations to sell local produce, flowers, preserves and the like along the roadside. The vulnerable honesty box or tin cup sitting next to paper bags full of organic fruit will most assuredly bolster your spirit. This is, after all how we are meant to live with one other.

Te-Kuiti refers to itself as the sheep shearing capital of New Zealand. At the entrance to town is a 18-foot tall, Paul Bunyon-like statue of a sheep shearer. The landmark speaks to both place and identity. In Te-Kuiti, the local economy is dominated by people who work the land. On the window of the town’s bank during winter, would be a handwritten sign requesting visitors leave their muddy boots at the door before entering. Kim grew up in Te-Kuiti, and its work ethic is revealed in her story arc.

At 18, Kim went to the University of California, Berkeley, where she rowed, and studied computer science. She eventually hired on at Adobe Systems, working in the User Interface Design team, helping all of us better navigate the murky waters of software menus. An accidental fall in her home 8 years ago nearly caused her to lose her leg. While doctors gave her very poor odds of ever walking again, Kim steeled her resolve to mend. Taking up swimming in 2009 as part of her physical rehabilitation, she discovered a new passion and purpose: open-water swimming.

In fewer than seven years from commencing her aquatic pursuits, Kim would complete the last of her Oceans Seven swims in the waters off San Francisco. The Ocean Seven marathons include channel swims all over the globe from the Straits of Gibraltar, the Molokai Channel, to the North Channel with its sea of stinging jellyfish.

The discipline of covering great distances in open water extend well beyond the imperative physical strength and courage. It requires the swimmer to remain calm, focused and control their mind in an environment of virtual sensory deprivation for a period of several hours.

Two days before Kim’s Farallon feat, another mermaid, this one a scooter-riding, fifty-three-year-old Moscow housewife, divorced with two grown children, died while diving off the coast of Spain. According to her obituary in The Economist (August 15, 2015), she was the world’s greatest free diver (no tanks) with 41 world records. She served as an Assistant Professor of Extreme Sports at Moscow University, authored a treatise on free diving, coached, and managed, with her son, a diving-equipment company. To become one with the sea she practiced ‘attention deconcentration’, an ancient discipline, close to meditation, practiced by samurai warriors. She also, like Kim Chambers, knew well the dangers, above or below, of the Pacific Ocean.

Following the August swimming success and the diving death, several American mermaids went down to the sea in swimsuits, the sea being San Francisco Bay. These triathletes came for the Alcatraz Challenge, which meant swimming the 1.5-mile distance from the former island prison of Alcatraz to the rocky San Francisco shore. Famous for its treacherous currents, the Bay beckons swimmers and sailors. Lilly Redwine, an 11-year-old from Cypress, Texas, beckoned back. She and her mother made it to safety, Lilly rejoicing that “I didn’t get eaten.” Three hundred swimmers participated to include 72-year-old Celeste Callahan, mother of three, grandmother of six, and a cancer survivor. She remarked “Cancer is nothing; old age is hell!” This in waters whose crosscurrents can, like the German Lorelei, swoon you to death beneath the Golden Gate Bridge, and where recent visitors have included both sharks and whales.

When Kiwi’s compete on the international stage, there is a tremendous interest in seeing how we measure up. Kim’s Herculean accomplishments in swimming are a source of great pride here. Although Kim Chambers now resides far from her small home town posted in a wee corner of the world, it is my hope that, one day when you arrive in Te-Kuiti, you would also see a statue of a local woman who engaged the most daunting elements of nature and self, and made it back to San Francisco every bit a Kiwi.

David Reeve is a University of California Berkeley graduate and a technology alchemist.

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