Under the sea with Fiona


For me, for many years, exercise was all about calorie burn and the quest to take up less space.

But these days I crave something more akin to moving meditation. I want calm and fresh air. I want muscles waking and all senses humming. I want a reminder that my body is not just a brain, and a pair of hands on a keyboard!

That’s the theme of this month’s newsletter, zapped out just moments ago. I chat to five fabulous women who’ve found a way to move that truly rocks their worlds: tap dancing, hill walking, cycling through the desert, hot sweaty yoga, and swimming in the sea.

The latter lass is Fiona Edmonds Dobrijevich, an artist and academic living in Sydney. We met a very long time ago after, ahem, she stumbled across a post I wrote about stalking Russian Olympic champion swimmer Alexander Popov around a supermarket.

I have bloody adored her ever since. I want to dive into her stunning paintings. Her underwater Instagrams from her morning swims are mesmerising. I love her wicked wit, her lyrical writing, and the way she sees the world with all senses full, often from under the sea.

When I sent her my questions, her computer was broken so she sent little audio files. As I transcribed her mellow Aussie tones, I knew I had to share the whole lot.

From swimming with sharks to the smells of the sea to actually placing her hands on the fins of a whale, I hope you enjoy her gorgeous words.

Becoming a pre-dawn swimmer

I’ve been swimming in the early morning, before the sun comes up, for about 24 years.

Prior to that I’d always swam, but it was usually after work or after uni when the sun was going down. The morning swims started when I had a baby (who’s now 23). I had to get up early and do something nice with my day before I was occupied with mother things.

I used to go to South Curl Curl, a fairly tough beach. It has a big 50m rock pool and the good thing about it is that it’s so exposed, the sea water is always going into it so it doesn’t get so cold.

It was a good way of swimming in the ocean, without swimming in the ocean.

A few years back the sea was so rough that the pool was in a state of disrepair and it was too dangerous to get out there. I remember a friend swam with a group down at Manly, in the marine reserve. My friend took me along and I’ve never missed a day since, unless I’m out of the country or something like that.


The early squad

I never thought I’d feel so attached to somewhere else, but the marine reserve is wonderful. The minute I swum there I knew it was impossible to find somewhere better. It’s full of fish, rocks, sharks, octopus, there’s even a couple of turtles there.

It’s lovely wild swimming, so when it’s rough it’s rough. Not anything as bad as Curl Curl in terms of rough surf; it’s quite protected by a large headland.

My little group swims around 5.30 – 6am. We do a couple of rounds of the bay. Sometimes we head out into the open sea. It is a bit of a trap for bigger creatures. When migration is on you can see the whales going down this route.

We swim all year round, even in winter. You develop an attachment to people who will turn up because they don’t want you to be by yourself. Even though it’s cold, pitch-black and a shark breeding ground, they’ll still show up and swim with you.

If you encounter something dangerous or scary it’s one of those things that forges a bond between people – you’re sharing this experience together and it makes you close friends.

Under the sea

Sounds and scents of the sea

I can’t be without it. It’s like I’m not actually separate from it. The smell of rough water is indescribable. When it’s all stirred up, the algae and the salt and iodine and everything is smelly and wonderful. It’s almost like pears. Pears with salt, if you can imagine that.

Some of the other swimmers ask me, how do you always know when the surf is behind you? How do you know the exact time to duck and dive? I’m listening all the time to the sound of the surf, so I know exactly what’s roaring along behind me, whether it’s a big wave or a small wave; if it’s broken or not broken.

You can also hear lots of really interesting things and I’m quite sure it’s the fish communicating. There’s a particular spot when you can hear an orchestra of clicking and popping and scrabbling. It’s not just the rocks but the fish making these funny little noises which I’d really love to record one day. It’s really beautiful. It’s a soothing noise.

Underwater meditation

I think of paintings and colours while I swim. I try and sort my life out. I look at the way things flow this way and that. Because I’m an artist and constantly making things, of course I’m analysing everything visually. I make little paintings and drawings about it.

With the other swimmers I’m often focused on the particular experience of swimming – rotating my body and breathing. You can get very focused on swimming fast. I’m the slowest in the group, really not that slow, but I’ve had a couple of health issues recently so I’ve slowed down a bit. You really have to concentrate on being like a fish. Or like a surfboard in some instances. You focus on being in a streamlined form to create the speed that will push your bulk along in aerodynamic way. So I do think about my body – about my spine, my chin tucked down, really being streamlined as I pull myself along.

That’s a brilliant way of meditating because everything you’ve been faffing around thinking about – this colour would be nice, I’ll put some ink there, la la la, the fight I had with my husband the night before – really goes out the window – because I’ve got to think about swimming as fast as I can and the sound of my breath and every other little thing like that.

Stingray and jellyfish

Swimming through the seasons

My favourite season for swimming is probably autumn and winter.

Swimming in the really cold water, in that beautiful, refined light is just something else. For the day to begin, to actually come into being, in a sense of lighting up, when you’re in the water with your nose just above the horizon, is really great. Everything seems just so much more intense.

In the winter I also like to look at the phosphorescence, and the colours and light that occur underwater. When you move and the small phosphorous bioluminescent forms, and they’re tiny little plankton the light up through movement. It’s just something about it. I’ve been trying to make art about it, to photograph it, I bought a black light, but various technical issues have prevented me from capturing these things I really want to capture.

I’m writing and researching about the experience of human beings and sea creatures – my upcoming exhibition deals with that. I’m constantly trying to refine all this information about what it means to be a human being in the ocean.

I think it’s really important in this moment to look at how we exist in the world, and particularly the idea of separation of humans, culture and nature. I think it’s important to dissolve that boundary and realise it’s just a social or language construction, because we’re not really separate from that world at all.

Taking photos under the waves

I’m now onto my eighth underwater camera. I use an Olympus TG4. I’ve lost, dropped, accidentally chucked them in the garbage. I have it strapped to my swimmers, tucked down the front, so I can be swimming along and grab it.

It’s a little bit like Henri Cartier Bresson and that idea of the decisive moment – you know when something fabulous is going to occur. You can see the light, you can see the backdrop – you’ve just got to wait for it to come along. Someone might swim past and you just dive and you know it’s going to be nice.

I carry the camera wherever I go and i’ve got quite practiced at doing it – I can also swim freestyle with one arm reasonably quickly.

I’ve been practising a kind of free diving with my friend Maurissio who can stay underwater for about 8 minutes. I practice going under to the bottom. Because I’m so bouncy and buoyant I’ve learned how to cling to something at the bottom so I don’t go up. You just stop moving, get very still and wait for the fish to come. Or you look up at the surface. It’s a really nice thing to do; I usually do that towards the end of my swim.

I like taking photographs in the dark. Not that they come out very often. I like trying to get photos of the sharks that are there but it’s usually murky. I’ve been chasing this same poor old dusky whaler around this week and I haven’t got any decent photos. She’s quite shy. One of these days… I live in hope.

Swimming with sharks

Swimming with sharks

I really love sharks. The sharks here are so gorgeous. My favourite is the grey nurse which you see very rarely. It’s the one I look for when I swim out the headlands.

The whaler sharks in the bay itself are so cute and adorable. They’ve got those sweet ears out the side like a cat.

We get this media narrative of shark attacks over here. Fourteen people may drown in 24 hours, but then there’s one attack and there’s this outcry and political posturing. But there’s nothing done about people who can’t afford swimming lessons, or don’t know how to swim at the beach.

The things I don’t like are stingers. Bluebottles are one thing, but my nemesis is a relative of the Irukandji jellyfish. I’m covered in scars from it and it’s a vile thing, really painful.

The gift of the whale

My dad died a few years back. I woke up the next morning after an awful day and thought to myself, I don’t have a dad. This is the first day of not having a dad.

I hold to the idea that nature will reach out to you when you’ve lost somebody. It was a really awful day. It was July 26th and it had been stormy. The surf was huge, it was still pretty dark.

I went down to the beach and I thought, I’m going to do it, I don’t think I should not.

Part of me thought that I should mark this day by not going, but I went anyway.

It was very fizzy white water. Very icy light.

On this particular day I swam with my old friend Kent. Swimming with him was calming, like two old sea creatures going out into the surf together.

The surf was really rough, but it didn’t matter because I had Kent there. We headed off and we kind of knew there was a whale somewhere. It was close.

We took off across the bay. It was wild, rough and whippy.

We got to the other side and noticed that back where we’d come from, a bunch of swimmers were backed up against the rocks, not moving. What are they looking at? What’s going on over there?

So we swam back – at Olympic speed mind you. When we got to the swimmers they were all still and bobbing around near the rocks.

It was at that point I looked down and realised I was directly over the top of a whale. It was looking up at me.

I could not believe it. My first thought was, what if it comes up for a breath and I’m stuck to its blow hole?

But to cut a long story short, this whale interacted with the group of us for about an hour.

Every time it backed off, it came up to have a closer look at me.

It was a Southern right whale. They do this funny motion where have their head down and their tail up, and it’s a way for them to look at things closely. It kept doing this. At one point it actually backed up to me, so that its tail flukes were right in front of me.

I thought, this thing could kill me, it’s massive. Massive. Then its tail flukes were spread out in front of me.

So I just put my hands on the whale’s tail. Both of my hands.

It was so solid. It was a force. Like rock come to life. I just held my palms there.

Then it really gently went forward so its tail was under the water.

Possibly one of the most amazing moments of my life.

I realised it was my dad. My dad give me that gift. My dad taught me to swim. He taught me to go under the waves and never be frightened. I’ve never been frightened in the sea. Well, maybe once or twice.

But that’s my gift from my dad, who left me. And he sent me that whale to tell me goodbye.

I haven’t seen that whale again. The next year when they were migrating south, it was very clear weather. Plain sailing. So it didn’t have to shelter in my bay.

I always look out for it in the middle of July, in case it comes back. But it never has.

Fiona and the whale
Fiona and the whale

Pretty addicted

I can’t imagine carrying out my day without having had a swim. I’m pretty addicted to it. It’s all endorphins. You know the whole thing where if you don’t exercise you get that funny headache?

I’m fifty now, so things are starting to wear out. I have a bit of shoulder pain. A bit of this, a bit of that. I have to force myself to rest my tired shoulder. But it definitely is something that I need for my mood, for my thinking.

I’m also aware that I need to other things. I do Bikram yoga, which is pretty taxing and intense. But the swimming, just getting your head under, is one of those things.

A huge thank you to Fiona for letting me publish all her words. And also thank you to the wonderful Caro, Georgia, Paula and Shona who shared their stories on the newsletter too. If you’d like to read it, sign up here and it will be zapped to your inbox right away.

Sas Petherick: Coach, writer, teacher, mentor

Working In My PJs – Sas Petherick

Today I’m kicking off Working In My PJs, a monthly series where I chat to people who are running their own business online.

When I was starting out, I’d longing look at those with fancy websites and dazzling testimonials and wondered what it would be like to have one’s shit together. Did they ever fail to shower for three days or procrastineat six slices of toast or routinely question their sanity, or was that just me?

I was hungry for real, behind-the-scenes stories. So I’m asking some fabulous folks lots of nosy questions to discover how and why they do what they do.

From writers to coaches to artists to makers, this isn’t “hot lemon water at dawn and $10,000 of passive income before lunch” stuff. This is real talk about the highs and lows, the buttock-clenching doubt, and the everyday minutiae of carving out a living online.

I’m excited that we begin with Sas Petherick.

Sas is unconditionally committed to your self-belief. She is a Coach for Thinking Humans and Mentor for Thoughtful Coaches and deftly guides her clients out of the mire of self-doubt. With a Master’s degree in Coaching & Mentoring, and as a Certified Dr Martha Beck Coach, her approach is heartfelt and effective, deeply intuitive and immediately applicable to your life.

She has been both my coach and client, but more than anything she’s simply one of my most favourite humans on the planet – hilarious and deeply intelligent, putting buckets of heart and integrity into everything she creates.

Let’s go behind the scenes of her thriving corner of the interwebs.

1. Can you recall THE moment you realised you were ready to work for yourself full-time?
I absolutely remember this moment! I was engaged in quite dramatic snot-filled sobbing at the time.

It was the final morning of a retreat I had co-hosted and the whole week had been full of mind-blowing amazingness. For the first time in my life I knew in my bones what I wanted to be when I grew up. So the idea of going back to the office on Monday felt like a death to me (hence the ugly cry).

It took two more years of working at the office while building up my coaching practice on the side before I could make the leap. It was totally worth it.

Sas at work

2. Pick three adjectives to describe your work.
Deep. Playful. Thoughtful.

3. What do you do, specifically, to earn your own crust?
This is such a great and under-asked question! I have been steadily increasing my income by about 20% each year over the last five years and I am on track to have my best year yet.

About 35% of my income comes from 1:1 coaching, 25% from my two group programmes, 20% from mentoring other coaches, 15% from retreats and the remainder is from sundry things like affiliate payments.

4. What does a typical working day look like? Do you like structure/routine or are you more a by-the-seat-of-the-pantser?
I always thought I would be so much more free and easy but I’ve found my work thrives with a bit of structure. My weeks follow the same pattern: Monday is writing day – blog posts, newsletters, marketing etc. I have client sessions on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday (I have the energetic capacity for 3-4 sessions per day). Friday is left over for catching up on client notes or admin and I try to meet a friend for lunch or finish up early.

5. As this series is called Working In My PJs, may I ask about your workplace attire?
Comfort is everything and I love natural fibres, so mostly cotton t-shirts, linen tops and ‘lounging pants’. I have a vast selection of cardigans and I have happily embraced the Ugg.

Sas is ably assisted by Badger the cat
Sas is ably assisted by Badger the cat

6. One of your latest creations is Magnetic Conversations, a programme for coaches. What happens for you at the different stages cooking up a new offering?
I have found that I go through a pretty consistent process. When I get an idea for a new thing I am usually super excited and full of possibility. I have learnt to just enjoy this bit without taking any action for a little while. This helps me think about why it might not work.

Then I go and interview a bunch of people who might be potential buyers of this new coaching offer to find out if this would be useful to them. Market research is my secret weapon to creating offers that have an actual audience and I have a complete system for this (there’s whole module on it in Magnetic Conversations).

And then it’s Creation Station: the actual writing part. For Magnetic Conversations I had a rough idea of the modules I wanted to cover, but I spent a lot of time thinking about how my audience might prefer to learn, and the best way to disseminate the information. I tend to write a lot and then cull a lot as I don’t want to overwhelm people with too much stuff.

This is always when my doubt hits, and it’s a variation of:

  • am I including the right things?
  • clearly everything I wrote today is a pile of crap.
  • this has all been said before by thinner people.

I’ve learnt to call my ‘hide a body’ friends when this happens. They bring me down to earth and make me laugh.

And I used to do everything myself. Which was crazypants. Over the years I have slowly built an incredibly talented virtual team who help me bring my work to life. I love working with other self-employed women who are doing their dream jobs. I highly recommend our very own Shauna for the best project management and copywriting in the biz, Ali Duffey at The Maltese Kiwi for laser sharp copy editing, Micheala Latavanha at Bonfires and Ukuleles for design magic and Evan Leah Quinn for website brilliance.

7. What’s your least favourite work task?

8. What’s the nicest thing someone’s said to you about your work? 
I keep all the emails and cards and messages of gratitude that clients send – to me these are love letters of the highest order (and this blows every corporate performance evaluation system out of the water). One of the best emails I ever received said: ‘Would it be ok to thank you in the acknowledgments of my book? It wouldn’t exist with you!’ (I totally cried at that one).

9. What are your favourite ways to procrastinate?
Procrastination is always about escape for me, so I love finding a whole other reality to inhabit for a while. I may have spent more time in Stars Hollow and Westeros than Lorelai Gilmore and Ayra Stark combined!

10. What is your beverage of choice while working? Do you have a favourite vessel?
Black coffee until midday, then sparkling water. My current favourite mug is from the incredibly talented and brilliant Amanda Banham.

Sas' mug of choice

11. Working for yourself can be a lonely business! Do you have any sources of support? What are the warning signs that it’s time to Leave The Compound, as you hilariously put it?
Working alone is definitely the hardest part of this self-employment gig for me. I’m an extrovert and energised by other people. I have a lot of pals in the States and my oldest friend is back home in NZ so keeping in touch over Skype is both technologically magic and nowhere near as good as in person. I am currently working on some very cool ideas for live events!

(Shauna’s note: since the interview Sas has launched her fabulous Write Yourself Home one-day workshops – there’s upcoming dates in London and Bristol. Get the lowdown on her retreats and events here!)

12. When it comes to getting organised, are you a digital or analogue person, or a combo of the two?
I am a fan of both. I live and die by my Google Calendar, but I also love scratching a pen on the page.

  • I use Scrivener for creating and writing, Basecamp for projects, and Satori for managing my coaching practice.
  • I write all of client notes by hand, type them up and email them to clients (slow but effective).
  • I have an A5 lined Moleskine that is my business journal (a mix of ideas, quotes and general vague plans).
  • For the last month I have been trying out the Best Self journal which is a 12 week daily planner and I really like it!

13. You’ve been blogging for over a decade now. I admire how you smoothly transitioned from personal blogger, to coach-in-training, to really owning your role as a coach and mentor all on the same blog. The decor has changed, but you’ve retained your warmth, creativity and unique Sas-ness.

What’s it been like to navigate these changes in your online presence? Is it something you had to ponder, or has it been more organic? How have the changes been received by your readers?

That is so kind of you to say. And to be honest I don’t think I thought too hard about navigating these changes (maybe I should have?!). My blog has always been a way to tell my story because it’s the only thing I have any real authority on. So I have just kept talking about my experience, sharing my lessons, and since I became a coach, offering to help in one-to-one sessions, inviting people to retreats, showing up with pride and joy in my work and deep respect for people’s ability to self-select.

It still blows my mind that some readers have been with me since the very start. But some people have really not understood or liked the changes I have made. Sometimes that really hurts but I have also learnt that being me is not a crowd-sourcing activity.

14. As a longtime citizen of the internet, is there anything about the online world right now that you feel is total poppycock?
SO MANY THINGS. One thing that consistently astounds me is the ubiquitous idea that you can create a six-figure business quickly and easily and then you can go and do yoga on the beach all day. Also: ‘digital nomads’. No.

15. You’re a Kiwi who has lived in the UK for many years. Thinking particularly about the roller coaster that is showing up online for your business – do you ever feel a sense of Kiwi-ness or British-ness popping up or informing your approach?
All the time! ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ is a both horrible and brilliant New Zealand concept that involves keeping anyone from every getting ‘too big for their boots’. I think it’s horrible because telling anyone – young girls especially – that you are too big, too bright or that you feel too much, is the fastest way to shame a person into submission. But I also think it has been quite brilliant for me to grow up in a culture that questions anyone too flashy. I appreciate my ability to spot a bullshit artist from 100 feet (see Question 14 ;).

16. What do you see out the window of your work space right now?
The garden is covered in a thick white frost (I don’t think anything has thawed for weeks!) and the morning mist is lifting. There was a red-breasted robin on the garden fence earlier, which caused much consternation with my furry office assistant.

17. Can we get a gander at your work space?

Sas Petherick's workspace
How’s the serenity? Gorgeous pic!

Thank you Sas for your time.

Want more Sas in your life? Check out her blog, upcoming Write Yourself Home workshops and other fabulous offerings.

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