South Africa

Maverick Citizen: Photo Essay

Helen Walne’s ‘Underwonder’ World: Like falling into a painting, again and again

Helen Walne’s ‘Underwonder’ World: Like falling into a painting, again and again
"At the end of the cul de sac, in the cooling evening air, Cynthia stopped and gazed across the valley, thinking of stardust and blueberries, and listening to dogs being called to dinner, and wondered if she’d made good choices. *** This exquisite Iridescent Nudibranch was one of a clutch we found in a natural pool this week."

Helen Walne’s Instagram account is a kaleidoscopic record of the ‘underwonder’ – Walne’s own description – of the icy waters just off the coast of Cape Town. Her photographs, taken on a ‘very non-fancy’ Olympus Tough TG5, with a wide-angle lens, are trippy missives from an impossibly iridescent landscape. That it exists at all seems to require the viewer to suspend disbelief, so fantastical are the scenes and critters Walne’s lens finds. The story of Walne’s colourful obsession and her generously shared wonderment is one rooted in loss.

“Iridescent posey. The rock pools at Gericke’s Point near Sedgefield are quickly becoming beloved.”

One of the most wondrous places on the planet right now is the Instagram account of local writer and freediver Helen Walne.

What distinguishes the South African’s creative work from the many other underwater photography accounts is the extension of her observational skills from the eye to that mysterious place in the brain where images become stories. Her captions are often tiny narratives about the “characters” she encounters – starfish and sea slugs and octopuses and anemones who, in Walne’s imagination, bear the names of luckless baby boomers, some of whom are loud or louche, while others are shy and vulnerable.

“After 9 gins, 3 tequilas and a long sloppy snog with an electrician called Randy, Norma-Jane van der Hum left the bar and promptly fell into the arms of a kind oak tree.”

“Since hanging up their showgirl costumes, Flo and Dolores spent their nights on the front porch smoking cheroots, swaying to the sound of crickets and reminiscing about Harry ‘Big Bulge’ Barrett, who would stagger in just before closing time and shower them in dollars and spittle as he sang terrible Kenny Rogers songs.”

“Bernie regretted getting up to answer the doorbell at 6am. His head throbbed, he had faint recollections of flaming Sambucas and his eyes felt like pennies that had been scratched along a cowshed floor.”

“I sometimes feel bad about anthropomorphising the creatures I photograph,” she says. “They deserve better. They’re often universally embarrassing situations, so maybe I’m trying to defuse our petty existence. I’ve been struggling to write for a good few years, so maybe this is my way of having fun again with words.

“I think somehow the captions help people who don’t understand the sea, though, or who don’t get to see the worlds within it, who can’t notice what’s down there because they don’t go there. I often make the nudibranchs and other colourful animals into decadent characters. How can one not, when they appear to be dripping in jewels and boas and have audacious hairdos?”

”Winter/Spring collection.”

Walne, who works as a copy editor, wrote an award-winning newspaper column for many years and is also the author of one of South Africa’s most lyrical and poignant memoirs, The Diving. It is a story of Walne’s relationship with her beloved brother, who committed suicide.

“After my brother, Richard, drowned in the ocean, and after I’d written The Diving, I became drawn to water. It was almost a compulsion. Jung would have a field day.”

First she swam in the Sea Point Pool, working herself up to 80 lengths at a time. Afterwards, she would hang over the railing and watch the sea. She became hypnotised by it and began short, inexpert forays into tidal pools, where she became entranced with anemones. She borrowed her husband’s action camera and began photographing colours underwater. She joined a group that swam across Camps Bay every Sunday but often found herself trailing behind to photograph the light streaming through the kelp or the way human bodies moved through water.

“Loop. I first met the sea when I was six. Fresh off a plane, in this new, strange country. The ocean shredded me and I got bandages. Loop. As a student I had to be saved. The waves just seemed so big. Loop. Years later, shredded, in every way. More than possible. More than all the fathoms and the tidal churn of the moon. Loop. Unloop. Loop. Unloop. If you stay really still, mercury fish are magnets, tiny snails make their way, rocks reflect and kelp is a ladder home. *** This is not me, but the lovely Jeanette, who is a marine ballerina.”

Her reverence for the sea grew and she no longer wanted to “use” it only to exercise. She bought second-hand gear and became slightly more adventurous, though she remained nervous of the open sea and only went in when it was calm. She was always alone. Most of the time, she couldn’t identify what she was seeing underwater.

“All I knew was that the cold water calmed me, that the light underwater was sublime and the colours on the rocks were better than anything Georgia O’Keeffe would have dreamt up. It was like falling into a painting, again and again.”

Then, one Sunday, tired and cold from a Camps Bay swim, Walne had a scare. “I got too brave,” she says, about her solo swim near Oudekraal.

“I was also wearing a weight belt that was two times too heavy (rookie mistake) and hadn’t looked at the tides or the swell or the entry and exit point. Once I was out, the swell picked up, the visibility was almost zero and my weight belt was pulling me under. I panicked. Ripped off my flippers, in a desire to be a land creature again, which just made it worse. Got bashed against a rock. And then screamed for help. I thought I was going to drown. Thankfully, two strapping divers were on the beach and managed to haul me out onto the rocks. When the NSRI boat came to see what was happening, I was too embarrassed to give them my surname. My brother had drowned in that very same spot. What would they think of us?

“Now, it’s clear the incident was some sort of strange, subconscious exorcism of the ghost of my brother’s death and all the years I’d spent in quiet panic. It was as though all of that obsessive swimming and the compulsion to be in water had been leading up to that point.”

“There was a time when I would go to this bowl of water in the mountains, and I would float among the lilies and take pictures of my face, and swim lengths and feel cold and unusual. But there was always the surface and my twinned expression. Now I know It was a ritual of looking for my brother, who had loved this place so much he’d tried to die here. We had the same noses. I wanted to see that again. I found this picture in my archives and I might start swimming lengths again. Only this time, just me. “

She wised up, did a freediving course, met people who identified the underwater creatures she was meeting by names other than “Gerald” and “Janine”, got better gear, and began bringing alien scenes to the surface to share. Now she is “more afraid of skulking men on the beach” than she is of the ocean. She dives almost daily and the repetitive exposure has led her to trust the knowledge she’s amassed and trust that the sea is not out to get her.

“I also know my limits. I won’t get into a rough, boiling sea if I don’t feel comfortable. I’m still nervous of bumping into a Great White but sadly, with their numbers dwindling, that probably won’t happen.”

“The sea was murky as a gnat’s armpit. But, oh, the feeling of being a hand away from a silent giant sieving for krill while the boats and the beach bobbed in and out of view. If a whale had a scent, which I’m sure they do — shrimp and moonlight and the damp unseen — I would have smelt it. Salty, knowing secrets in my nostrils. Oh, to turn and sink in this shadow.”

Cape Town is not widely regarded as a prime diving spot, which is partly why she likes to share her photographs on social media.

“We have some of the cleanest, most colourful reefs, and they are teeming with life. I feel like I am diving for treasure to bring back for others. I am convinced that the biodiversity in Cape Town marine protected areas is equal to the city famed terrestrial biodiversity.”

”You don’t have to go deep or far or wear open-cell vagina wetsuits. It’s all here. In whatever bowls we choose. (Okay, So today *was* pretty special. The first hot day of impending summer, tree frogs making electro and a sea like cellophane.)”

She hopes that if people see what’s there, under the water, “there will be a greater appreciation for why we need to conserve these places beyond just refusing the occasional straw”.

”Uyinene Mrwetyana. I didn’t know you, but I knew your killer. We chatted sometimes when I went to post letters. Or collect parcels. Like you did. I saw him. * Big man with a fringe in the dive shop, who strode over to inform me the weight belt I was buying was only ‘for those who know what they’re doing’. I see you. * Old man in frail care with dementia. How come one of the only things you remember how to say is: ‘You’re very pretty’? I see you. * Alone in the forest, I pass a man near the fungi log. He looks nice enough. High-quality backpack. In the river, I keep looking anxiously at the shore. I don’t see you. I wish I hadn’t seen you. * Men paying sugary tributes and denouncing gender violence, yet referring to ‘our women’. I see all of you. * Snorkelling in the lagoon, a man leans above me on land and tells me I’m not looking in the right place for seahorses. I see you. * Platitudes and hashtags and videos of a burning house, and memes and praying hands and men in suits urging women to speak out. I see you. * A woman scared to leave her house in Philippi lest the men come in the day and take the rest of her belongings. We see you. * I’m so sick of us always having to see you.”


The quirky way Walne brings the gaudy lifestyles of flashy reef creatures to the surface via social media should not for a minute make the viewer underestimate the unassuming intelligence at work here. Walne is a gentle rioter and an incisive social critic. She does this simply by being an engaged observer. DM

Follow Helen’s Underwonder at

A short movie about Helen’s Underwonder is available here


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