The ocean and me: Claire Walsh

Words by Claire Walsh
Photographs by Niall Mehan

See the line where the sky meets the sea, it calls me… OUCH! 

“No Disney,I’m told as something slaps the back of my head. “Yeah well, it DOES call me,” I grumble, rubbing the back of my head and picking up the offending flip flop. I look back at the horizon, this time keeping my Moana-esque yearnings to myself. 

I grew up in Kildare, a landlocked county in Ireland more known for its race courses than roaring waves. Yet the sea feels like it was a part of my childhood. Summer holidays to Irish seasides, bursting out of the car once it came to a stop, stripping down to your togs on the run down to the beach (you’d changed beforehand. This wasn’t your first rodeo.) Being grabbed for the cursory blob of sun cream lashed onto your shoulders and face. It was overcast and 15 degrees. Still, Irish skin… 

I don’t remember swimming as much as playing. Hours in the water, getting knocked over by waves, handstand competitions, or simply looking up at the sky, floating on your back. Neither time nor temperature mattered.

The actual swimming was done in the pool; Saturday evenings and then Sunday mornings and maybe a Tuesday and a Thursday thrown in here and there for good measure. I went through togs quicker than I could move through water. I have an incredible gift, passed down from my father’s side, of forgetting and losing things. “I definitely put them in my bag. I remember,” I insisted. But each trip to the chlorine smelling Lost Property would reveal my still soggy swimsuit. 

Ah, the good old days.

They’re happy memories and at the time I never associated them with having a love of water. it was just something I did, we did as a family. Water was to be respected but ultimately was for exploring and playing in. I presumed that’s how everyone felt. 

It wasn’t until I started to travel on my own years later that I realised how much my ability and comfort in the water afforded me in terms of adventures. Snorkelling, scuba diving, I wanted to try it all! I plotted my route along beaches and islands. Imagine being able to spend as long as you wanted in the water without the risk of hypothermia. This was totally new to me! 

And that was it, the Ocean was a place to explore, to play, to revel in the warm, clear water when away, and to brace yourself and brave it out when at home. 

A place for adventure; Uncomplicated Fun.

I ‘met’ freediving for the first time in Belize. We were introduced properly a few days later in Utila. We flirted with each other over the next few weeks… and as my departure date got nearer, I realised, to my horror, I was falling in love. I reassured myself that it would be forgotten once my plane hit the tarmac in Dublin. I’d look at pictures and think of it fondly, but ultimately I’d move on as I switched my shorts and flip flops for the boots and hoodies of Irish Autumn. 

But I couldn’t. 

I was curious. I was hungry. I found myself dreaming of the scenes I’d witnessed  underwater as I held my breath, the sensations and the challenges. This sport seemed to make sense, to fit. It held so much possibility and promised a whole new world and way of doing things. I knew I’d only scratched the surface and wanted to learn more. 

The following years were pilgrimages to locations where I could do my next level of freediving certification, then become an instructor, then venture into competitive freediving. Returning to Ireland to work and earn money, I headed off as often as I could. At home I felt like a square peg in a round hole. My answer was the Ocean and freediving. 

At the end of 2018, I was about to turn 36. I was single, living in a… let’s be kind and call it an ‘eccentric’ house share and felt that, unlike everyone around me, I just couldn’t get my sh*t together. I was fighting my old pal, depression. The smallest task required maximum effort and any attempts at progress felt more like trying to move through quicksand. Then two things happened; I had an accident that left my leg quite badly burned and a friend died tragically. I turned 36 four days after her funeral. 

About a week later I remember sitting in a daze on the couch, still in my pyjamas surrounded by endless cups of half drunk tea and biscuit wrappers. 

Something had to change. Anything.

I needed a project, something that would give me structure to move, however slowly, forward. How about a half marathon? There was one the following March plus I had family that said they’d do it with me. It seemed like a winner! Only one small problem – injured leg… and I hate running. 

I needed to get back in the water. 

Around then I heard about the Freediving World Championships that were to be held in Nice the following September. Maybe I could go for it. The very prospect shook me to my core. So that’s exactly what I decided to do. 

The project would require me to put myself out there, me – not a company I worked for, not someone else’s dream, me – in a  way I hadn’t before. It was exposing, vulnerable and it left me open to judgement and criticism that before would have paralysed me. It was terrifying. “Who do you think you are?” reverberated in my head, angry and indignant. It was almost enough to abort the plan. The self – doubt was crippling but what was worse was that feeling at the end of November.  Nothing changes if nothing changes… and something needed to change. 

And did it change me! 

My competition dives of the World Championship, and the months leading up to it, were one of my biggest learning curves. I experienced a black out, two national records and lessons that I still think about two and a half years later. Once again the grá, or love was reignited. 

I had a plan. I was going to build up to spending half the year away training and half the year in Ireland working. In the early months of 2020, I thought I had cracked it, it was all set up. What could possibly go wrong…

Now in March 2022, we have two Covid years under our belts, two years of masks and two metres of distance. 2km restrictions kept me more local than I ever had been. As plane tickets to warm waters got refunded and held as vouchers, my morning swims took on a new meaning, a new importance. Instead of just being part of my routine, something I do in Ireland when I’m not off having adventures, I’ve had to shift my perspective a bit – how else would you get out of bed at 5:30am? 

The pre-dawn skies, the craning your neck to hunt for gaps in the cloud; Will we get a light show this morning? The bite of the water, the gasp as a rogue wave hits your shoulders before you’re ready. The string of curses that explode out of your mouth. It’s part of my routine; creative expletives, a wrinkled nose and face pulled into a grimace… and then I breathe. Closing my eyes, focusing on slowing my breath, calming down my mind and releasing my muscles that have tensed against the cold. These breaths are my daily nod to freedive training. It’s a little reminder of all the time spent focusing on my breathing to prepare to hold it. Integrating it into the swims is a comfort, a reminder and a little whisper of I haven’t forgotten you. 

Dreams and plans to pursue freediving goals were put on hold and then postponed… and then appeared far-fetched as I struggled with the effects of Covid nine months after testing positive. My sunrise swims are reduced from a daily routine to twice, maybe three times a week. The cold water is a welcomed treat but it takes a lot more out of me. “Heal me,” I whisper as the water rushes over my shoulders. I watch my friends get out, hopping over the stones that feel like glass on cold feet. I need a few more minutes to cook. 

Floating in the water, I turn away from my friends on the shore already doling out the post swim coffees. I don’t know how I feel about ‘Long Covid Claire’ and I’m even more unsure of her long Covid body. It’s a funny thing not to trust your body anymore. I’ve ventured metres below the surface on one breath, I’ve handled half an hour in six degree water and I’ve done so by listening to and trusting my body. Now, my lungs don’t feel like my own, my body sometimes buckles under the effort of running day to day tasks and my energy drains leaving behind pains and aches in my muscles. Freediving dreams are far away, but so is the active life I led before Covid. 

Turning to face the horizon, I let my eyes rest on the line where the sky meets the sea. I don’t need to think about that now. Here, my body knows what to do. Here, my body knows how to move. ‘Here’ feels like home and despite the fact that I’ve long since lost the feeling in my toes, I relish the sense of familiarity. 

“Are you having coffee or not?,” someone shouts from the shore. “Feck off and let me have my moment,” I reply, sinking my mouth below the surface to hide my smile as I swim back to the beach. I don’t know which I love more, the water or the folks that I share it with. Both have my back. 

“Would you look at the colour of you!” I shrug as I emerge from the sea in all my bluish-red, goosebumped skin glory. 

I wouldn’t have it any other way. 

_ _

Claire Walsh is an Irish freediver and ambassador for Fourth Element. Learn more about her here.

Meet Claire’s inspiring ambassadorial colleagues – people who share her passion for the water, including ocean adventurers, explorers, photographers and filmmakers – here

Photographs by Niall Mehan

current issue

Back Issues

Enjoy so much more from Oceanographic Magazine by becoming a subscriber.
A range of subscription options are available.