Ben Cousins is 72 years old and is passionate about the ocean – he has surfed it, swum in it, and now free dives in and around the ocean kelp forest south of Simonstown, south of Capetown, in South Africa. At the start of our conversation in this podcast. Ben quotes poet Emily Dickenson - ‘That it will never come again - Is what makes life so sweet’. Many people find it difficult, scary even, to contemplate diving into this ocean ecology of waving and curling live and sentient vegetation, while Ben does it almost routinely. He lives life to the full, with the gift of time now in retirement, a life made more complete by free diving almost daily in the kelp forest, at various locations.
Ben is a South African who was in exile for 19 years in Swaziland and Zimbabwe, working in agricultural training and extension, carrying out research on communal grazing, livestock production and rural social class formation in Zimbabwe. Production, property and power are his keywords. By shedding light on the interconnections of these three P’s in land and agrarian reform in Southern Africa, his work is helping policy-makers and civil society groups to reduce poverty and inequality through redistributing assets, securing rights and democratizing decision-making. Complex stuff, important stuff. Like the ocean ecology now on his doorstep, the one he is trying to make sense of, its complexity, its importance to environmental stability, by immersing himself and making notes, keeping a diary, day-by-day. Finding difference and change in often very small detail, feeling his way in this other-worldly world, making observations with beautiful writing. Like this extract from his entry for March 31st 2021:
Rainy, grey, cold …. but wonderful visibility at Miller’s Point after lunch, with the tide coming in. What an exciting swim! First a small Dark Shyshark, about 40 cms long, in shallow water inside the rocks lining the protected inlet, snaking slowly along under the kelp. I try to follow but lose it after twenty seconds.
Then a large octopus! Main body about 40 cms across, moving towards me about two metres down, and coming to a stop on the bottom as it sees me hanging on the surface. Changing colour to merge with the background surface area of dark sea urchins and light-coloured rock, hence variegated, and then back to dark grey as it moves slowly towards the seaweed. I remain as unmoving as I can, as we watch each other across the divide. A number of klipvis move in, as interested as I am, and one large one gets up very close with the octopus. I dive down to get close too, but there is not much kelp around to hang on to. I detach one of my gloves and try to drop it down to the octopus, hoping to arouse some interest in a foreign object, but the glove floats on the surface instead of sinking. Another dive down, but this disturbs the creature, and it moves under a rock to which some seawrack is attached, and is now almost completely hidden. The klipvis attaches itself to the seawrack too, which sways backwards and forwards in the swell. I see a crab nearby, scuttling away, and wonder if the octopus has seen it. No, apparently not. After about ten minutes of observation, it’s time to move away.
Then a pyjama catshark moves into view, a small one about 60 cms long, waggling its way slowly through the undergrowth. I manage to follow it for around five minutes, since the kelp is not too thick in this particular spot. I find myself hoping that it will catch something to eat – but not the octopus! The catshark’s movements are mesmerizing, but as it heads for deeper water, my increasing chill suggests the swim is over.
These are not just small animals he is describing; the drama of just a few moments in the water is captured in words that linger. In the podcast, we talk about his every day swimming and diving passion, his diary, making sense of the kelp forest and its inhabitants, its aesthetics, about his pre-retirement intellectual life, but also his passion for jazz and how it relates in his mind to ocean ecologies. Since the movie ‘My Octopus Teacher’ won an Oscar for the Best Documentary Feature in 2021, interest in ocean ecology, octopuses and the kelp forests has swelled. Ben’s local swimming is in the very same place that the movie was made by the Sea Change Project. Ben has the privilege of seeing the kelp forest in all its physicality, day-by-day.
Across the world, especially in the year that has passed, its repeated lockdowns, much has been made of being in the outdoors for physical and mental health. Of bathing in open water, and of the growing popularity of forest bathing. Ben combines both ocean and forest by exploring the kelp forest on his doorstep. It has been a privilege to share words and experiences with him in this podcast – it makes me want to be there, in the kelp forest, looking, hoping to see. Ben has compiled a diary extract, one for every month of the year, which you can find on the publications page of this website.
Listen to the podcast here
Read the diary extracts here