I was a HOT MESS in the Ocean. This Turtle Taught Me How to Swim

What can we learn from nature if we LITERALLY let her instruct us? A lot. Here's how imitating a turtle in the ocean helped me learn crucial lessons on mastery, calmness, and the power of slowing it down.

The turtle is ahead of me.

He is drifting. Drifting. Drifting. Drifting.  So, I speed off in his direction until we are within each other’s line of sight. He lazily looks at me. I feel acknowledged.

And then I start to play my turtle swimming game. I take a deep breath through my snorkel.  Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. The air I’ve inhaled fills up my body. I stop kicking my flippers. Instead, there is only one rule to my game:

  • I am only allowed to do EXACTLY what the turtle is doing.
  • If the turtle moves his front flippers. I move my hands.
  • If the turtle comes up for air. So do I. 
  • If the turtle slowly reorients to the left. Well, so do I. 

I came up with this game a few weeks ago. I have been struggling ever since.

Eva is a HOT MESS in the Ocean

For a year of the pandemic, I lived on the beautiful island of Gili Trawangan, Indonesia. It is a pristine paradise. The biggest perk? Hours on end in the ocean filled with stunning coral reef and colorful marine life 

When I first started going into the ocean I was a hot MESS. Arms flailing. Legs furiously kicking. Jaw clenched too tightly around the snorkel. While my friend seemed to artfully flit about the coral reef, I floundered. The sudden depth. The unpredictability of the current. The newness of marine life. Made Me Freak Out.

So, with my shoulders up to my ears, I would haphazardly fling my arms and legs trying as hard as I could to navigate the current without disturbing the coral. 

Jerking. Thrashing. Helpless. 


The fish didn’t appreciate my behavior. 

I was oblivious to my mad-hatter energy. Until one day I had a realization. I had gone into the ocean at high tide. After much flailing, I cleared the waves and finally made it to the reef. Only – the coral reef was EMPTY.

When I turned around, I saw ALL of them behind me. Schools upon schools of fish. Hovering up and down in their own spots, watching me. 

I could hear them say to each other: “Watch out boys, this one is out of control”.

As the days rolled by, my ease in the water increased. I began to trust in the ocean and my ability to float, swim and move with the tide. I learned how to thread water with minimal effort and also how to drift. And I made a conscious effort never to be such a hot mess in the ocean to ward off the poor fish.


That’s when I began to learn from the turtles

The reef we used to swim around had A LOT of turtles. It was always a joy to see them. More than anything else, I was so impressed by their sheer magnificence. The elegance. The ease. 

Why did they look so at ease unlike me – the Underwater Mad Hatter? 

The more I watched them, I realized they have incredible control of their body. I so longed to be like them. 


And so – I decided to play The Turtle Game

I wanted to be like the turtle. So I decided to do exactly what he was doing. 

This is how it would go:

With my body afloat and my flippers more or less still, I’d bring my arms out and away from my body completely in sync with the turtle. 

“He is going slower than usual,” I note. Maybe he’s on to the game too. 

As his flippers slowly, slowly, slowly rise to the top of his shell – with a determined and SNAP he hits the water downward as he brings his flippers down.

Just in step – I do the same. At least I try to. 

Part of it is my impatience. The rest is my lack of skill. I bring my hands down far too fast. My fingers are touching my hips – while his flippers are still halfway through this stroke. 

Neverminded, I tell myself. Let’s start again.

And so, on and on and on and on and on we go. Every time he raises his flippers, I raise my hands. I allow my wrists to flare all the way up and snap them back down when he does the same.

This game kept me so occupied. It’s challenging to go this slow… 

To swim at the pace of the turtles – is not easy. Especially when he is staring back at you with easy-peasy condesencion. 

All of my perfectionism and impatience would rise to the surface as I watched with envy how he manages perfectly to glide and drift through the water. 

Every now and then… he’d slowly alters the angle of his flipper and is off on a tangent. 

Turtles swimming. It is an art form.

As for me? I’m just learning. It seems I could live my entire life, following turtles around in the coral reef before I could claim similar mastery and grace. 

Slowly, slowly, slowly. 

Maybe one day, I will get there.

That is the hope.


Nature teaches us. Nature regulates us. How can we imitate Nature?

Biomimicry is a word I learned from Adrienne Maree Brown’s Emergent Strategy. As I understand it, biomimicry is a way we can learn from nature by imitating the ways in which plants and animals organize and flourish in the wild.

When I learned of this word – I realized…that is what I’m doing with these turtles. 

What do I learn from my turtle teachers? Two things:

  • Slow. Slow. Slow. It. Down.

Unlike my furious wasteful flailing and gasping, the turtles are able to swim for hours on end without expending unnecessary energy by going slow. When I go slow too, I feel a sense of awareness, calm and stamina.

  • In stillness, every shift takes you far.

When the turtle shifts its flipper, ever so slightly, well – that’s when it is able to move in a completely different tangent. When you are going slow, in control, and with precision – the slightest movement has an impact. 


Biomimicry can be the easiest way to co-regulate our nervous systems

One of the challenges of living is trying to toggle between the world outside of us and the universe within. How do we find ways to listen to our nervous system? To be calm? 

Meditation, breathwork, and awareness are the go-to ways.

But it isn’t always easy or accessible to start meditating. That’s when going into nature and literally imitating nature can be so helpful. 

The gift nature gives us is one of presence and nervous system regulation. 

And imitating a very peaceful wise turtle – is such an easy way to coregulate the system. 


Can you engage in some BioMimicry today?

If you aren’t as fortunate to live next to a beautiful coral reef – maybe there are a few ants nearby? A spider web? A plant? A tree? Taking a little time to attune to the miracle of nature in an urban area. 

If you have the mental capacity to get curious; here’s a small wish that you do pause and see the spider webs and smell the roses.

As you attune to the slowness, I do hope you are able to tap into the calm. The clarity. The infinite. The all. The nothing. The joy.

I hope for you a small slice of this bliss today and every day you are so fortunate to share with all of us on this little blue planet we seem to find ourselves on in this moment of time.



Editorial village credit: Thanks to Fiona Proctor for revisions and input on this piece.


Eva writes about creativity, social justice, spirituality and feminism. She is a Pro-Justice storytelling coach who supports social justice conscious entrepreneurs, leaders & visionaries in speaking up after years of conforming and playing small.

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