HMS Friday: The First Time Seeing the Ocean
by Mark Lukach
Do you remember the first time you saw the ocean?
On Tuesday, December 11, 1951, The Sydney Morning Herald printed a front-page picture of aboriginal boys seeing the ocean for the first time. It has become one of my favorite photographs.
Just in case you can’t read the caption that accompanies the picture, it says, With leaps of excitement these aboriginal children rush down the beach at Collaroy for their first swim in an ocean yesterday. They are some of the 90 native children from the far west of the State who are holidaying at the Salvation Army camp, Collaroy, under the care of the Aborigines Welfare Board. They had never seen a boat, train or sea before they came to Sydney.
I first saw this picture about a month ago, and I have been obsessed with it ever since. The unbridled joy. The anonymity of the boys, many of whose faces you can’t see. The idea of it: seeing the ocean for the first time.
But it’s the context that makes this photo all the more powerful. This uplifting photograph, one of the best I have ever seen, is set against a backdrop of slow, pervasive, and systematic heartbreak.
The reason these boys were on the dunes at Collaroy in 1951 is because the Aborigines Welfare Board, New South Wales institution that supposedly provided for the indigenous population, took them there. The AWB, and various other local, state, and federal associations like it, are responsible for a heinous crime against the Aboriginal people of Australia and the Torres Island Straits. Acting under a policy that was fully backed by the government of Australia, and lasted from the late 1800s all the way up to the 1970s, aboriginal children were taken from their homes and put into institutionalized schools, or else given up for adoption to white families. It is uncertain just how many children were removed from their families, but it’s enough that there is healthy debate whether the policy constituted an actual genocide. In its wake, the government of Australia created an annual day of reconciliation, National Sorry Day, to acknowledge the tragic history.
The Stolen Generation. That’s what these children are collectively called, even though the policy spans much more than one generation. We’re talking about kids lifted from their homes, often to never see their families again. The ostensible goal was to protect kids from neglectful parenting, especially in the case of mixed-race children. But this was the epitome of paternalistic racism. As one man put it when testifying about the program:
I’ve got everything that could be reasonably expected: a good home environment, education, stuff like that, but that’s all material stuff. It’s all the non-material stuff that I didn’t have–the lineage. It’s like you’re the first human being at times. You know, you’ve just come out of nowhere; there you are. In terms of having a direction in life, how do you know where you’re going if you don’t know where you’ve come from?
This man testified confidentially, but it is known that he was adopted at 3 months old. He never met his birth mother.
So back to the photo. I’ve been obsessively researching it for the past month. Who are these boys? What are their names? What are they doing now? Unfortunately, my hunt has come up empty.
But I have learned a tremendous amount about the Aborigines Welfare Board, and especially this move to bring Aborigines to the ocean. In 1949, the Canberra Times wrote a two-sentence story about the Board creating what they called “The Seaside Summer Camp.” The first camp was held in 1950, and was described by the Welfare Board itself in their annual report from 1951: “The object of this Camp is to give the outback children an opportunity of having a seaside holiday, and at the same time to broaden their education and outlook.”
The summer camp ran for almost a decade, until the AWB closed in 1960. Kids didn’t always go to Collaroy beach outside of Sydney, but the trips lasted a few weeks. In fact, there were two trips–the first were for kids who were still living with their families in the outback regions of New South Wales, and the second for students from notorious schools where Aborigines were often given substandard education and forced to do labor.
Most of the annual reports devote only a paragraph or two to the summer camp, and focus on logistics. The closest thing to a “description” of the camp comes from the 1953 report, which writes, “The camp was blessed with fine weather and there were fortunately no mishaps. At the conclusion of the camp the children returned to their homes and their enjoyment was reflected in their expression of desire to come again to the camp next year.”
In addition to days spent at the beach, where “they spent their time surfing” (1953 report), the children also went sightseeing, went to the zoo, went to the movies, stuff like that. Summer holiday from forced separation from your family.
I don’t remember the first time I saw the ocean. I was only a few weeks old when my parents first brought me to the beach, so of course I don’t remember it. I have always wondered at those who don’t see the ocean until later in life. I’m not the only one with the curiosity–there are countless internet memes of first-time ocean experiences, from an elephant to a woman overcoming paralysis to a 4 year-old Kenyan. I’m posting a linkdump at this end of this article if you want to check any of them out.
But of the many pictures and videos I’ve seen, this one stands out. The ocean is beautiful and awe-inspiring in any context. We created thescuttlefish to reflect our own love of the ocean. Imagine life in a dreary boarding school, uncertain if you’ll ever see your parents again, your days often spent toiling in a baking field. And then imagine that you’re seeing that cerulean ocean for the first time.
This is what that joy looks like.
Here are a few places to learn more about Australia’s Aboriginal policy, the Stolen Generation, National Sorry Day, etc, and are sources I used for this story.
The records of the Aborigines Welfare Board have been preserved by AIATSIS, Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. http://www.aiatsis.gov.au/collections/exhibitions/remove/NSW/protrepo.html
The Bringing Them Home report, released in 1997, which led to the creation of National Sorry Day in 1998. This report features countless personal experiences from the Stolen Generation.
National Sorry Day Committee
The Sydney Herald newspaper picture of the boys at the beach
Also, just a few of the many viral images and videos of first time encounters with the ocean.
Baby elephant sees the ocean for the first time. You guys have probably already seen this, but it’s still awesome. Via earthsky.org
A Brazilian man from the Xavante tribe sees the ocean for the first time, caught on video. Via Treehugger.
4 year old Maasai boy does many things on his bucket list, including see the ocean. Will probably make you cry, just warning you. via waterislife.org
Children of the Amazon see the ocean for the first time. Via peruthisweek.com
Sophie Calle, a french artist, has a book of photographs she took of people seeing the ocean for the first time in Turkey.
A woman from a small town in South Dakota who loved swimming at the pool overcomes paralysis and then goes to the ocean for the first time. Via aol.
Buzzfeed has a listicle of 20 pictures of babies seeing the ocean for the first time.
This two legged dog (yes, you read that correctly) has a blast playing on the beach for the first time. Via Jezebel.
Perez Hilton was kind enough to let us know that Honey Boo Boo and Mama June saw the ocean for the first time. I don’t know who those people are except that they are famous.