Courtesy of Jim Clifford who became history’s oldest person to swim across the Catalina Channel.

Around midnight on September 28th, I stepped off the beach at Catalina Island and entered the ocean on one of the darkest nights imaginable.

There was only a sliver of moon visible and no light pollution from the island or mainland California. I had heard that night swimming either freaks you out or embraces you.

My mind was racing with a thousand thoughts. I was not sure how I would deal with the long, dark hours to come. The water was rough and I decided to go right into the pace I wanted to carry throughout the entire 20-mile swim.

I began focusing on my stroke and on unilateral breathing, which I had just mastered for this swim. The black water was disconcerting, but I soon noticed that each hand pull stirred up the bioluminescence in the water and broke up the darkness below.

After I mentally adjusted to the dark space below me, I turned my focus to the night sky and the universe on display in the stars. I had rarely seen a night sky so bright and so full of stars. Roger Finch, an open water buddy from South Africa, had told me by phone earlier in the day that I needed to find the constellation Orion and focus on its belt, a row of four stars. This was a good tactic, since it got me to focus on the night sky above, instead of what was below me in the dark depths. I got lost in the stars for several hours and the time passed as if I was time traveling.

Suddenly, a few hours into my swim, I realized that the whole ocean below me had lit up with its own show of bioluminescence. This was not just from my hand passing through the water, but below me as deep as I could see, there were star, like dots of light, mimicking the night sky. I felt like I was floating in space, suspended between the sky and the sea. It was humbling and at the same time, felt primal on a level that is hard to articulate. If this was night swimming, it was the ultimate experience.

Again, time melted away in the largeness of it all.

I forced myself to stop and feed every thirty minutes, but hated the interruption of my flight through the stars. From the time I entered the ocean at the beach in Catalina, to the rising of the sun over the water 6 and a half hours later, I was lost in the magic of the channel.

The rising sun over the water was beautiful, but I left my heart in the darkness where I found peace and a connection with nature I could never have imagined.

So, don’t fear the darkness, embrace it and become a part of the natural world seldom experienced by man or woman. This is what can await you when you take on the Catalina Channel at night. Who knew?


Photo shows Jim Clifford on right with son Jake Clifford at Pelican Cove in Rancho Palos Verdes, California after setting the record for the oldest individual to cross the Catalina Channel. Photo courtesy of crew member Darren Miller.

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