Having a whale of a time


A blog by TOK Speaker, Colin Douglas

The year is 2013. I’m nearing the end of my 1st year of university. And my plan to fund the upcoming summer break with the remnants of my SAAS grant is looking less feasible with each passing day. I’m going to have to get a summer job.

A friend recommended I join his ranks as a lifeguard. He assured me it was good pay, with flexible hours, and a great team of other similar-aged folk. I scratched my non-existent beard and “hmmm”-ed, still not fully convinced. “Oh and you get to wear shorts every day”, he added. Deal. Sign me up.

It turned out that before I was even considered for the role of a lifeguard, I had to first be a lifeguard. That is to say, I had to fork out money, time, and effort to complete my lifeguarding qualification and prove that I was competent in all the required areas (swimming/rescuing/CPR/etc).

Fast forward a few weeks and I’m now a fully qualified Hasselhoff heading in for my first ever shift as a lifeguard. Was I excited? Sure. Was I nervous? Extra sure.

 The intensity of the lifeguard training had dramatized my expectations for that first shift. As I walked into the building that Tuesday morning, I wondered how many rescues I’d perform that day. Would it be as high as 30? Or maybe only around 15 or so?

I was way off. I performed 0 rescues that day. Zero.

I should clarify that this is because no rescues were required. Not because I just let them all drown.

You may be thinking it’s a good thing that nobody got in danger that day. And yes, I suppose that is a good thing. But the overarching merit of the situation wasn’t enough to detract from the fact that I felt BORED.

So. Goddamn. Bored.

There were only 3 people that came into the pool during my shift. Three!

All of them over the age of 70.

I basically spent the full day watching old people float. Not exactly how I’d envisioned my first shift.

The following day was almost an exact replica of the previous day. The same people came in at the same time and did the same amount of swimming. And I sat there watching from the side- lines, feeling the same as the day before. Bored.

Luckily, I had a day off on the Thursday. A third day of the same would be enough to send me to sleep mid-shift. I spent a chunk of this day wondering if I’d perhaps made the wrong choice with this job, and whether I might be better suited elsewhere. After a few hours of deliberating, I made a decision. I decided to forget about it for now and decide another day.

That Friday I was back on poolside for my 3rd shift. And this shift was different from the outset. For starters, it was a backshift. I clocked on at 5pm, as opposed to my previous 8am starts. Then, at 6pm, we closed the pool for an hour. I was informed that this was to give us time to set up the Aqua Disco.

“Aqua Disco?”, I thought. It sounded like something off Eurovision. I was intrigued, so I pried further. It turned out the Aqua Disco was a weekly event for 8-12 year olds that took place in the pool. Two hours of splashing around with music, disco lights, waves, and an inflatable assault course. At 7pm we re-opened the pool.

3 million kids all came piling through the door at once. Or so it seemed. In reality there were only about 100 or so. But the sheer amount of energy each of them brought was enough to make it feel like 3 million.

I watched as they spread in all directions. Some heading for the deep end, some heading for the assault course, others racing upstairs to the flume. All of them contributing to a cacophony of excitement and fun.

I realised that I’d been standing dumbfounded and had forgotten I was there to do a job. I quickly switched tracks and joined my fellow lifeguards in the acts of whistling, pointing, and loudly reiterating the rules of the pool.

Twenty minutes passed and the decibels had only increased. Yet, over all the noise, I then heard a loud bang. I turned to see that the pool door had been kicked open, slamming off the wall before slowly swinging back.

From the doorway emerged a young boy of around 8 years old. Blue swim shorts. Purple goggles. Hands on his hips. He stopped after a few paces, standing with his chin in the air as he slowly scanned across the room. He looked like he meant business.

As I asked myself who on earth this kid was, the question was answered right away. One of the other kids in the pool hurriedly grabbed onto their friend and pointed saying, “Look! There’s James!”.

Excited murmurs seemed to spread across the pool as more people started to realise that James had arrived. There was an air of suspense. An expectation that something either great or terrible was about to happen.

James started to run toward the pool.

Time seemed to slow down in this moment. Everyone else frozen like statues as James reached the edge of the pool and jumped high into the air. He seemed to soar far higher than any respected physicist would have calculated.

At the peak of his flight he arranged his body perfectly flat, totally parallel to the water line, and began the rapid acceleration downwards – all the while making the sound of what can only be described as a rather distressed whale.


James struck the water with the most incredible belly flop I’d ever seen. Time returned to normal speed once again, and all the kids jumped around cheering as the splash rained down over them.

Later that night, after all the kids had gone home, I remembered about James and asked one of my colleagues if that was a regular thing. “Every week”, he said. He then went on to tell me that James had always been a regular at the pool, and that for as long as he could remember he’d always done his whale impressions on entry to the water.

At first all the other kids weren’t a fan of this. They used to complain about it and move out of the way when he arrived. But James didn’t stop, he clearly enjoyed doing it for nobody but himself, and eventually everybody started to love him for it.

Perhaps we can all learn something from James. Perhaps there’s a lesson in there about integrity and being unashamedly you. Maybe we could all benefit from not shying away from the things that we find fun, interesting, or even inspiring.

There are certainly times where it makes sense to fit in with those round about you. There are times when we need to come together and be more like a fish in a large shoal with others, all conforming and moving as one. This allows us to work as a team and accomplish more than we could individually.

But there are times when we need to be unashamedly us. Times when we need to stay true to who we are and what we enjoy, even if it makes a big splash. There are times when we need to be more whale.

“Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.” ― Bernard M. Baruch

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