So, how was your week?

The difficult one-finger hand-stand push-up. What you - well, I - do when no mantas turn up mid-dive.

Me? Finally had a story I’d written about taking up hockey published in the Sunday Age (thanks, fellow rookie Michael Coulter) but had flown north and landed on a remote Barrier Reef piece of sand with some trees and eight-billion noisy birds, Lady Elliot island, so I didn’t have any phone or web access.

Seems like it got a decent response. The headline: “Puck life”. An f for a p and my reputation as a sunny optimist is gone forever. (Even if, in reading back this blog, I spend far too much time in the f life mode, given how 90 per cent of my life rocks.)

On Lady Elliot, I did my second tour of duty as an Earthwatch volunteer. Not as many manta rays as in September, but I had one face-to-face beautiful encounter, which made the week worthwhile all on its own – plus, it was a never-seen-before very large (read: five metre wingspan) female so I got to name it. Introducing Lana Del Ray (see what I did there? Ray and Rey? Working on so many levels … well, two). I cut together a highlights video of her, but Youtube chopped out the music (Lana Del Rey: “Blue Jeans”) because it suspected copyright breach. Those spiders don’t miss a thing.

So I’ve cut together a broader highlights video of the week underwater, if you feel like a break from hockey. It only goes for six minutes. You’ll drool with envy. Lana Del Ray is the manta in the close-ups. The sharks kick in at about 3.49, if you can’t bear to watch six minutes of fish and other critters.

So that’s been my week. Now back in civilization and happily exhausted.

In other news, my footy team, Richmond, apparently looked good in the pre-season competition. The Red Wings’ astonishing home-winning streak is now at 22 wins and has broken all NHL records. Physically spent from the north, I lay on my couch today and watched a replay of the historic 21st straight home win on Gamecenter on my Apple TV. It was brilliant. The crowd at the Joe in the final minute was out-of-control loud and excited. I got emotional listening to the fans, now able to imagine being there. And of course they played “Don’t Stop Believin’“. One day I will hear that song in that stadium. (But no, Detroiters, I’m not coming anywhere near the city or the Joe while the streak remains! You can relax.)

Closer to home, the world junior speed skating championships will retain a hold on my home rink, the Henke, for another week or so, so I plan to go to Sydney for work and then non-work shenanigans before classes start again.

For now, I need to sleep and will hopefully ditch my usual yearnings for happy dreams of manta rays and Stanley Cups. Let’s go Red Wings, let’s go.

Polishing a turd

I’ve always loved the expression “You can’t polish a turd”. I’m assuming any Detroit hockey people reading this get what it means … I have no idea if it’s an Australianism or not. The bottom line is that no matter how hard you try, you can’t turn, umm, human excrement into gold.

Some golden poo today. Pic: deviantart.com

So last night’s second attempt at Dev League was always going to be tricky. Looking vaguely back into the middle-distance of my life, I have a habit of second-time-blues when it comes to fitness and competition. That nasty second run, or that even worse second hit of tennis after a long break … things like that. I’ve always put it down to expectations. When you haven’t hit a tennis ball for months or haven’t played pool, or whatever, you don’t expect much of yourself, are therefore reasonably relaxed and just happy to be back doing something you love, and promptly play like a champ.

Second time out, you’re thinking ‘Man, I was hitting it really well last time … this should be even better now I’ve got my eye back in.’ The words “This should be…” being one of life’s more common but surprisingly effective traps. And you duly stink up the court, or felt, or bowling lane, or Royal Tennis court, or footy oval, or … well, you get the idea. In this case, let’s go with “rink”.

Last night I was slightly off from the start. Sore back, tired, uncertain on my skates. In Intermediate class, I actually felt pretty serviceable, given these things that I couldn’t shake off. At one stage, I said aloud: “C’mon, Nicko, fucking skate!” which drew a look from the chick in front of me. But eve after that eloquent and stirring pep talk, I was only okay.

In Dev League I battled hard, won some pucks, managed to have about five full body collisions (and kept my feet in all but one, which surprised me) but cannot in any reasonable hockey universe be considered to have had a great game. I was slow, not getting to where the puck would be enough … just hacking, basically.

But that’s cool. It was only my second attempt and I have all year to get better, to find the pace, to grow into this. We get a couple of weeks off now because of the world junior skating championships being held at our rink (no, really – the Icehouse techos are even removing all the glass from around the Henke Rink for the event. “That’s why every pane of glass has a number on it,” explained Lliam. “See, you even get some science.”)

I’d love to watch genuine speed skating but don’t know if I’ll get the chance. I’m heading to the Barrier Reef for a second stint of joining Earthwatch to save the manta ray. I did it last September, pre-America, and it totally rocked my world. No phone reception, no wifi … just me, three dives a day, turtles, sharks, rays, fish, corals, a great bunch of scientists and volunteers, fun resort staff at Lady Elliot Island and me, struggling to turn off all my day-to-day issues and live truly in the moment.

I just got a new Mac and celebrated by cutting together a video of my final dive from the last Earthwatch trip. I was surfacing after my final dive of the trip, heavy at heart because I had to return to the real world. As I completed my three minute safety stop at five metres down, I saw some movement near the surface, saw the giant wings flapping, and started to laugh underwater. I raised my trusty GoPro and began to rise, shooting the video below.

Manta rays are known for being incredibly intelligent (their brain is way out whack in being too big for the sort of prehistoric mutated shark that they are, is the scientific way of putting it. Cue Lliam: “It’s like, you know, science!”) and curious. They have an amazing capacity to tell how comfortable you are with them; whether you’re over-excited, scared, tense, or relaxed.

By this dive, on the last day, I was very relaxed – in fact, feeling about as spiritual as I get (Nature is my God. Let’s leave it there) and embraced this manta’s appearance. With a lot of Nicko-free water to feed in, the manta felt the love and returned it, literally grazing me with its wings for close to 10 minutes. I ran out of air (the last part of the video is me on a snorkel) and eventually ran out of GoPro memory.

As the manta finally cruised under our entire group, found me and rose to pass close before swimming away as we climbed on the boat, I raised a hand and waved goodbye.

I can’t believe I land on that tiny, one-end-of-the-island-to-the-other grass landing strip on Saturday and will be in the water by Saturday afternoon. For all the daily soup I spend far too much time living in, my life fucking rocks. There, I said it.

Later, all. Have a great week, enjoy the Wings playing some games at home and let’s hope Jimmy Howard’s finger heals fast.

See you on the other side, when my hair is wet.