voyage of swell

Special Delivery: 400 lbs of fruit for Puka Puka

Swell’s forepeak converted into the cargo hold for delivering all the fruit!

Note** This story, from last year’s circle of French Polynesia, was too good not to share, despite happening nearly 9 months ago. My neck is healed and I’m back in Tahiti, catching up on some writing before heading to the boatyard…:)

March 2012: And so the time had arrived. Cyclone season over, it was safe to head southwest say a final goodbye to the Marquesas. I poured over the chart, locating the tiny, isolated atoll of Puka Puka, 250 miles straight south. Raiarii’s grandfather was the first to colonize this desolate atoll in the late 1930s. Tehani Henere Papa and his wife, Elizabeth, had 22 children there!! Two sets of twins!?! Tehani delivered each one of the babies in a tub behind their little house. They raised the kids on fish and coconuts and the fresh Pacific air. Tehani worked copra from dawn to dusk year round, and when the copra boats came to collect the dried coconut meat that he split, dried, and collected in the large burlap sacs, he could purchase sacs of flour, sugar, and rice with his earnings. Raiarii’s father, Victor, was number 15 of the 22, and left the atoll at age 17 to find work in Tahiti and had never gone back. Interisland travel is expensive and difficult for locals, with few spots on the cargo ships and high prices for airfare. So Raiarii had never visited Puka Puka, nor met many of the cousins, aunts, and uncles from his father’s side who are still living there. Upon learning this story, I decided we must try to sail to Puka Puka!

A load of bananas for Raiarii’s family on Puka Puka…

The wind was forecasted to turn north, giving us a good angle to sail there directly sailing, so we prepped Swell and collected fruit from our generous friends to bring to Raiarii’s family in Puka Puka, where the sandy, salty soil lacked the nutrients to plant food. We gathered limes, pamplemousse, oranges, bananas, breadfruit, papayas, starfruit, taro, and pomegranates! By the time we left, Swell’s forepeak was our cargo hold, carrying nearly 400lbs of fruit!

When the wind began to shift northeast, we raised anchor, and slipped around the breathtaking 2,000-foot cliffs, and pointed the bow south. I would miss the plentiful fruit, rugged mountain peaks, wild goats and horses, shaded valleys, cool rivers, and good people of the Marquesas…

Goodbye beautiful Enata Fenua!

At sea again, with both the autopilot and the monitor broken, one of us was relegated to the helm at all times. I spent hours watching the sea and imagining our rendezvous at Puka Puka. The atoll has no pass by which to enter a lagoon. The reef extends, unbroken all the way around the island, so I hoped that we could find a safe place to anchor Swell. I’d already decided that either way, I would stand off aboard Swell, while Raiarii went ashore to meet his family and tour the atoll.

On the second day out, the winds lightened and steering grew awfully monotonous, but we plowed through the hot, long day, making mile after slow mile toward our special destination.

Busting some early morning moves at the helm to stay awake, while Raiarii gets some rest…

We hoped to arrive the morning of the third day, but the light winds slowed our progress. His family had been notified of our pending arrival, so we trimmed the sails and eeked every bit of speed possible out of the hull in order to arrive before dark. Finally we spotted Puka Puka’s flat-top of coconut palms on the horizon ahead, and simultaneously, the fishing reel buzzed with a strike. Raiarii pulled in a beautiful tuna. I thanked it for its life with a prayer and quickly put it out of suffering, grateful to be able to arrive with another gift for the family…

Our excitement rose as the island grew clearer. Taking turns at the wheel, we cleaned up Swell and ourselves a bit to be presentable upon arrival. No sooner, Raiarii spotted an aluminum tinny plying the seas in our direction.

Greeted at sea by Uncle Richard, Cousin Teva, and the local policeman.

Raiarii’s uncle, cousin, and the local police officer greeted us on the sea and motioned for us to follow them around to the backside of the island. The men assured us there was a spot up ahead that would be safe for anchoring. A pod of large bottlenose dolphins led the way, crisscrossing at the bow. Soon we were precariously close to the breaking waves on the reef, but still the seafloor did not rise beneath us. “Over here,” they called in Tahitian.

I nosed Swell in carefully, and we watched the colors of reef begin to show under her hull. It was a tiny ledge of reef that stuck out 30 yards more than the rest in about 30 feet of depth, before dropping off into the deep abyss.

Raiarii took the helm, and I jumped overboard to assess the reef for the best spot to place the anchor. With our concerted effort, I directed the anchor underwater to a barren ledge, where it was sure to stay hooked and not hurt much. We also slid a stern anchor over the deep ledge in case the wind switched.

It could hardly be called an anchorage, but the combo of light northeast winds and calm south swell would let us get away with it for this special occasion. Anchors down, we began to offload the cargo. Eyes bulged as the endless train of fruit streamed out of Swell. Filled with fruit, the little tinny rode low in the water. I scurried around Swell, securing a few things and flipping on the anchor light, as they insisted we come to shore immediately to meet the rest of the family and have dinner together. As we pulled away from Swell, I sent up a little prayer for her safety near the reef…

Swell and I were rather nervous about the open ocean anchoring!

Off we went in the tinny, the dolphins again at the bow as we buzzed back toward a small crack in the reef with a dock for offloading supplies. We followed a wave into the tiny pass as the whitewater crumbled along the reef on both sides.  Uncle Richard neared the dock carefully in the surge, and a splay of arms reached down to help us out. A moment later we stood on land, cloaked in flowered welcome ‘heis’, meeting a lineup of family and friends who’d come to greet us. The kids dove for the bananas and star fruit and we wandered to the house of Uncle Taro, Aunt Patricia, and their four lovely daughters.

Upon arrival.

Raiarii, being shown a photo of his grandfather, Tehani, whose father was Dutch, hence the European features…

Honored by our visit, our gracious hosts fed us until we couldn’t eat anymore as we learned more about the history of the Papa family on the island. Almost a third of the population of 250 were Raiarii’s relations! While eating platefuls of sashimi, poisson cru, and fruit, we listened to stories and looked at old photos of Tehani and the children. It grew late. Weary from our long nights at sea, we asked to be taken back to Swell to rest up for the following day’s island tour and picnic.

Despite my fatigue, I slept little that night. The breaking waves sounded so close I kept sitting straight up and thinking we were on the reef! But by morning I felt assured that Swell was firmly stuck and safe as long as the conditions remained the same.

That morning Uncle Richard came to pick us up and the dolphins again escorted us to the dock. He told us that they loved to swim with people and were always playful and curious when the islanders were spearfishing. I hoped we’d get to swim with them later!

After an extravagant breakfast, we visited Raiarii’s grandparents’ burial site and went to the house where all 22 children were born. Everyone was so delighted by our visit, and the whole day I felt so glad that we’d made the effort to come. After helping prepare for the picnic, we set out across the island in the back of the truckbed, stopping at sites of interest and meeting other relatives along the way. The island had three separate, shallow lagoons on the east side, and we picnicked near the third and swam in the hot, extra-salty water with the kids.

On our return that afternoon, Uncle Taro asked the local mayor if they could launch the community boat so that everyone could come out and take a tour of Swell. He was agreeable, so family and friends piled in and we headed out to Swell. They told us only one other sailboat had ever stopped there as far as they knew, and certainly none of them had ever seen the inside of one. So they were delighted and awed to visit Swell and see that we had beds, sink, oven, stove, water, and all the essentials…

As we all sat aboard Swell, I noticed the waves were picking up. The sets were breaking a little farther out and I’d seen the forecast for south swell on the way. Sadly, I knew we’d have to leave before dark. It was a bittersweet goodbye, having been taken in so graciously and having to part so quickly, but we wouldn’t be safe there again overnight. Many tears were shed as all the family members crowned us with parting shell ‘heis’. Silent drops rolled down Raiarii’s cheeks as he hugged and kissed them goodbye and promised to visit again one day. We waved to their boat until it rounded the corner out of sight…

Just then a big swell lifted the hull and the boat jerked to starboard on the anchor line, reminding us of the reality we faced. The sun was setting, the swell was picking up, and we were getting dangerously close to being tossed onto the reef! We had to get both anchors up before darkness arrived and prepare the cabin for making passage again. As I dove and cleared the anchors, Raiarii pulled them up. I looked around in hopes of saying goodbye to the dolphins, but no sign of them appeared.

Anchors clear, we drifted away from the reef with the wind, readying the mainsail halyard and jib sheets. Just then, one of the dolphins launched into the air beside the cockpit, hovering horizontally for a moment and looking right at us as if to say, “What? Leaving already?!?”

Raiarii and I looked at each other, breathtaken. I jumped in and we took turns swimming with them until it was too dark to see…a magical finish to a magical stopover…

Dusk swim with the welcoming crew at Puka Puka.

We finally dried off and rounded the corner to wave a final goodbye. In the soft dusk, we could see all the family lined up ashore. They flashed their headlights and honked their horns, jumped up and down and waved madly, and we did the same. Slowly we drifted farther and farther away with the wind. We were both sad to have to leave so soon, but grateful that the weather had afforded us those precious 24 hours spent there. After half an hour had passed, we saw the lights of the cars heading home and turned to take on the passage ahead.

As the excitement dwindled, our exhaustion surfaced, and with no self-steering we decided to heave to and sleep for a few hours while Swell drifted away from the atoll on the open sea. I lie there for a while in the cockpit under the stars, spilling over with gratitude and joy. I would never forget our ‘fruitful’ visit to Puka Puka…Time with family is a precious gift! Regardless of our lineage, I hope we will learn to treat each other like the One Great Human Family that we are!! One Love!

Goodbyes are never easy.

Giddyup! ‘Back to Nature’ adventure revisited…

 

Long-awaited arrival at the legendary bay of Hanavave.

 

Lost in the stars, I lay huddled on the port side of the cockpit in my sleeping bag. The eastern horizon hinted the coming twilight, but my gaze was fixed skyward. Swell’s soft rhythmic lurch through the small upwind chop, told me I could relax. I didn’t want to jinx myself, but intuitively I anticipated a successful arrival. On two other occasions, I’d been forced to alter course and sail elsewhere. This time the wind was strong enough to be single-reefed, but Swell wasn’t fighting. The wind would pick up later, I knew, but I was optimistic with 17 miles to go at 4:40am. Intuitive notions aside, experience had trained me that no landfall should be celebrated until the anchor was firmly set!

 

As dawn haloed the island’s striking silhouette, I couldn’t help but mentally wander through the tales of Thor and Liv Heyerdahl’s romantic ‘back-to-nature’ adventure that took place on this very island in the 1930s…ancient carved petroglyphs, toppling waterfalls, brisk mountaintops, hidden caves, action-packed tidepools, abundant fruits, and resourceful locals swirled through my imagination…

 

A few hours later, the sails luffed indecisively as we moved into the swirling wind shadow of the island’s 3,500ft peaks. Despite little sleep, I was abuzz with excitement as we furled the sails and started the engine. Gusts swooped in at us from north, then south as we neared…adding to the mystique of the legendary bay where ominous stone cliffs, gravity-defying spires, swaying palms, and turning seabirds awaited!!

Change in altitude thanks to my courageous equine friend.

Mountain picnicking!!

 

 
We embarked on jungle forays to experience some of the sites that had impressed Thor and Liv.

A petroglyph carved in stone–one of many in this valley steeped in myth and tabu.

Ol cheveaux watching over the hard stone where rocks were once sharpened into weapons and tools.

 

Locals heading out with their hounds to hunt wild pigs a few bays to the south.

Proud Marquesan hunter’s home.

 

Today Marquesan lives meet somewhere between modern convenience and ancient tradition.

 

Twin Tikis watching over Swell and the wedging lefts.

Post-surf, barefoot architecture project…relaxing on my stone throne…

  Leaving it to the dolphins for a while…view from the beach shack.

Breadfruit lunch…giving new meaning to eating ‘whole foods’! Now it’s off to find Thor and Liv’s cave dwelling…

 

Healthy bees are the Earth’s (and our) best friends.

 

Beauty overload, I can’t hold my camera still! Goosebumps as the full moon rises over Omoa valley…Boundless gratitude!!

A Pain in the Neck!

 

What the heck, I broke my neck!?

As some of you know, I recently suffered a cervical spine fracture of my C3 vertebrae. In other words, I broke my neck! Don’t worry, I’m ok! I was extremely lucky that my fracture did not effect the spinal column, so there was no nerve damage and I will recover fully and relatively quickly… So that’s this month’s excuse for blog delays! :)

I’ve been lying prone and mostly immobile for more than two weeks now. Luckily, the sea has rendered me thick with patience, as this is not unlike a tough passage. The first few days were the the roughest–unable to lift my head and stuck in the warbled cross-chop of pain meds. It felt like I’d lost control of the ship! My friends and family were shocked by the news. Impossible!? How could this have happened?! But what at first seemed like disaster, has been laden with learning.  The only thing I could do was surrender, get silent, go inward, Listen…

Voyaging aboard Swell has taught me that everything that happens in life can be used to grow. In each adversity there is opportunity, if you choose to see it that way. ‘Maintaining a joyful mind’ is possible only if you are willing to stay present through the hard stuff, too. By raising the sails of surrender, I’ve discovered a new quality of stillness. Rather than self-pity and sorrow, blessings and insights abound. Surrendering to an unchangeable situation makes it possible to hear the wisdom that resides deep within all of us–the stuff we know we know, but store away in some remote inner lock-box. What if we listened more?

Yea, this has been a real ‘pain in the neck’, but in order to live wide open, every circumstance (chosen or not) must be embraced with equal fervor, ridden with equal grace, and accepted with Trust and Love. This means everything we encounter is part of the game; our teachers are disguised in our most perturbing situations and people. How we react to them allows us to choose who we are again and again and again. The option to choose Love or Gratitude or Humility or Kindness or Generosity or Joy never goes away! Lived this way, life becomes an extraordinary adventure of unlimited potential and boundless growth as you challenge yourself to evolve into the best You!! So don’t fret, soon I’ll be back on my feet and better than ever! Thank you to all my wonderful friends and family for showering me with so much love, care, and good healing vibes!

 

My big day at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego.

 

“Maintain a joyful mind. Nothing wasted, nothing lost. All part of the perfection…” Flying via the birds and butterflies in Coronado–Thank you Dixon family!

And in case you’re wondering, here’s how it happened…

 

On October 8th at 8:29am I sat in my faded green station wagon in one of the sea-side parking spots at Torrey Pines State beach. I’d been getting anxious to get back to my travels, but numerous things seemed to be keeping me in California. I’d been nursing a swollen ankle for a whole month, for which I couldn’t pinpoint any significant injury? I’d been staying off it, ice, massage, acupuncture, but whatever was wrong had been oddly persistent. As the clock struck 8:30am, I reached for my phone to call a family friend’s orthopedic office about scheduling an MRI for my ankle. The doctor had offered to help, as i don’t have medical insurance in the US. I dialed the number…

“This is the T-mobile refill center. Your account has expired. Our refill center is experiencing technical difficulties. Please call back in half an hour to an hour to refill your account for continued service.”

“No!” I thought. Cursing myself for forgetting to refill my ‘On the Go’ service before it had run out.

I looked out to sea. I’d spent much of the last month away from it, knowing I couldn’t get in. But on this particular morning, the feeling to be near it had overcome me. Small waves tripped on the shallows and spilled upon the shore. The horizon was steady, comforting. I felt a sensation of being ‘home’.

The tide was dropping; one particular sandbar beckoned as the second consecutive right peeled and spat. With half an hour to kill and a bladder full of tea, a swim seemed in order. So without another thought, I was zipping up my Patagonia R1 spring suit and hopping down the rocks, one fin in hand. I limped across the short strip of sand and collapsed into my beloved ocean at knee deep. Ahhhh!!

My second wave looked like a beauty. It approached from the north, standing up as I kicked into it. But as I plunged down the 2 ft face, an odd warble cropped up, tossing me head over heels. Totally unexpectedly, my head hit the sand. My body was angled such that all its weight and momentum fell upon the forward part of my head, snapping it backwards in the process. “No way,” I thought…

I came to the surface. “Ok. I’m conscious.” Check. “I can move my arms and legs.” Check. “I’m ok. I’m ok.”

I let the water push me in and stood up at the shoreline. Pain gripped my neck. I knew I was hurt. “I’m alright,” I tried to convince myself, heading carefully for the car. “Ok, what do I do…? My phone doesn’t work. I guess I could ask one of these joggers to call for help? …But then again, I have no medical insurance…Surely I can make it up to my sister’s house where I can use her Skype to call someone…”

I strained to hold my head up each time I accelerated the car on the 3-mile drive to my sister’s house. My neck felt loose, unstable, weak…I made it to her apartment and laid down, but the pain seemed to be getting worse. I called my friend Chrissy, an ER nurse at Sharp Memorial Hospital. Surely she would know what to do! Lucky for me she’d surfed early and had the day off.

“I’m on my way.” She said immediately.

She whizzed me off to the hospital and we walked in the back door, where she said she asked her doc co-worker to come have a look before deciding to check me into the ER.

Dr. Healy firmly recommended a CT scan, so Chrissy and the on-duty nurses—real live angels if you ask me– checked me into a room and stabilized my neck. As they tucked me under the blanket, I thought again and again how grateful I felt to be in such caring, capable hands. Shortly after, I was wheeled off and placed inside the CT tube. The metal machine whirled; my mind did too. Warm tears rolled down my cheeks. I was scared. Back in my room, the pain intensified and I finally succumbed to the offer for pain medication. Chrissy inserted the IV and I floated off on a morphine cloud awaiting the results…

Chrissy saves the day!! Thanks for being my ambulance, nurse, and heroic friend! You made me laugh all day!

 

Meanwhile Chrissy waited for the results to show up on the computer, “Radiology found no fracture!” We both sighed and smiled. She removed the brace. Just then, Dr Watt, director of the ER and a fan of my adventures stopped in to say hello. “I’m happy to meet you, but so sorry it’s here!” He said. The feeling was mutual! I’d been using his Surfline password that Chrissy had given me about a year prior…I never thought I’d get to thank him in person! We were laughing about it as Dr Healy came rushing through the door. “Secure the collar!” He said. “There is a fracture at C3.” He’d reviewed the CT results himself and found the fracture of my spinous process at C3. Good work, Dr Healy!

 

After all the non-stop adventures, remote places, and constant risky business I’ve gotten up to in my short lifetime…it didn’t seem possible that I could break my neck bodysurfing benign beach break in sunny California!? But as unlucky as it seems, I was very lucky. Had the bone been crushed farther, enough to even lightly press on the nerves running through my spinal column, I could have been paralyzed to the extent that I could not even use my chest muscles to breathe. I’m still grasping this…so for now I’m grateful. Grateful to be alive!?! Grateful for the fabulous medical care I received (that includes you, Mom!) Grateful to be a tiny, (but living!!!) fleck in all the Grandness!

 

My hair especially seems to miss the ocean!?–Shorebreak hair, Whitewater hair, Double Over Head hair, Offshore Closeout hair!

Sister Kathleen fearlessly takes on the dreadlocks on Day 6! Right after finding my soulmate (see below).

Dawwwwgg and Capt Lizzy?

Bait for Breakfast

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Bait for breakky! What does it mean when the fish jump right on deck!?

Back in the islands, the cyclone season dwindled to a thankfully uneventful close. Swell had sprouted sea ‘roots’ after nearly 2 months in the same rolly bay. Algae swayed on Swell’s waterline, while resident bait fish circled below. Mornings would begin with the sound of thrashing water near the hull–a tuna or the likes–chasing the baitball into a frenzy such that a dozen or so would leap upon Swell’s deck! First to rise would chase down our flapping-flopping little bait buddies, thank them for their lives, gut them and toss them into the pan with a spoonful of butter. Breakfast!! YUM! Lower food chain delicacy!

But the time had come to cast our thoughts toward the next horizon. It took three days of algae scrubbing to free Swell, Miti Miti, and her anchor gear from the extraneous greenery.  The crabs and mini shrimp crawled in our ears and pinched when they got stuck under my swimsuit. Our bait friends and the teenage jacks scored an easy meal, darting amongst the newly freed algae clouds. I dove down the anchor line…down, down, down to 50 feet and hovered there in the sand…the sounds of the seabed crackled and hummed in my equalized eardrums. I was gonna miss this place.

We made rounds of goodbyes through the valley over a few days–always proportionally more difficult the longer the stay. We loaded up the mountain of fruit and parting gifts, but no treasure was greater than the friendships and love we’d been given there. I would miss the kids too much…their purity was my daily refuge.

On the morning of departure, they waved madly from the rocks on the shoreline. I paraded Swell a few times round the bay, blared the fog horn, then pointed the bow to sea behind watery eyes…

Not too far away–and yet a world apart–we pulled Swell into a narrow, silty bay. A rivermouth cut through the west end of a blacksand beach and rocky cliffs climbed skyward on both sides. Astonished, we watched waves peel down both sides of  the cliffs! The roaring NE trades were making waves…A leap from Swell and a short paddle found us looking over the ledges of a ledgy little right hander…

I’d harvested enough watercress for a few more precious salads–a bonus on top of the unexpected surf. The valley was wild and empty, except for a few wild goats and horses we spotted wandering around the rugged rocky slopes. Raiarii learned to splice 3-strand rope and fixed our chaffed stern anchor rode. Subtly, the voyage transformed into its next phase, and the newness of getting underway again felt as good as it had two months prior, to toss the anchor and get settled…A time for everything I suppose.

 

‘Stuck’ in Paradise

I didn't mind being 'stuck' here for a while...

 

“Lose yourself and find the key to paradise…” –Jimmy Buffett

Cyclone season was soon upon us, so I relaxed into knowing we were too north for cyclones and shouldn’t be heading anywhere south or west for a while. We came upon a bay with a long righthander and a hollower left. There was a vacant copra platform perfect for yoga, a shower spigot by the quay with potable water, mountains to roam, a waterfall cascading into the sea, and hardly anyone around. We surfed and bodysurfed and longboarded. We fished in the nearby waters, jumped off the rock cliffs, and made fast friends with the local kids. Raiarii went off hunting for wild pig and goat with local hunters, while I enjoyed mornings in the galley after a surf, making fresh juices, jams, homemade granola, sprouts, yogurt, bread, or baked goodies (we finally got the part for the oven!) We’d often build a fire to cook over and watch the goat family descend from the hills to graze by the sea in the late afternoon. Grateful to stumble upon this heavenly paradise, I felt whole and peaceful and fortified by nature’s endless blessings. We rigged a hammock on the bow from an old piece of sail. I’d lie there after dinner, dazed by the zillion tiny lights moving slowly across the night sky.

Algae grew thick on the anchor lines, and soon Swell had adopted a little ocean ecosystem in the shade of her underbody. Mini shrimps, crabs, algae, hatchling fishes, a seahorse, turning bait balls, passing tuna schools, and a roaming manta ray family made us feel warmly received in our exceptional temporary home.

...my yoga palace (copra stoage)...shower down by the rocks on the left...

 

 

 

 

My best beach buddies, Mo'u and Mohina.

 

We'd conserve cooking gas and hang out in the dirt. The smell of fire, breaking wood, cooking in the open air...so good for the soul! Blight even taught us how to start a fire without matches!

 

When we couldn't eat all the fruit we found or were given, I'd make fresh juices or homemade jams.

Morning swim with a resident manta.

 

 

Plastic-Coated Paradise??

Photo by Mckenzie Clark.

 

…Yet another plastic-ridden beach thousands of miles from any significant metropolis…

Mckenzie and I hiked over the hill from where Swell was anchored hoping to find some wind-swell peaks to surf one morning.
Instead, we discovered this spectacular 1/2 mile-long beach coated in plastic trash (and Portugese man-o-wars!) from end to end. This beach faces the tradewinds on an island nearly 3,800 miles off the coast of Central America. We found shampoo bottles from Chile, a hard hat with ‘Miguel’ inscribed on it, polypropylene ropes, oil containers, broken jugs, toothbrushes, plastic bags, fishing nets, soda bottles, you name it…The plastic was brittle and broke easily when we tried to move it. Tropical sun breaks it down into smaller pieces over time, but they don’t ever biodegrade. What doesn’t reach this beach or others in the Pacific continues on to one of the five ocean gyres where floating plastic accumulates. We are literally turning our oceans into plastic soup!

Here and everywhere, the plastic continues to pollute, contaminating the surrounding environment with the toxic phthalates used in PVC plastic, bisphenol A or BPAs used in polycarbonate plastic, and brominated flame retardants or PBDEs used in many other types of plastic.  They enter the food chain from the bottom and move there way up effecting bird life, fish, marine mammals and eventually humans. Do you want your next order of fish and chips with or without plastic toxins?

 

Is this the kind of world we want to leave for our children?

 

Let’s reduce our plastic use!

Let’s demand alternatives to single-use plastic!

Let’s clean up the mess we’ve made of Earth!

 

Some corresponding organizations to support and follow:

The Clean Oceans Project

5 Gyres 

Algalita Marine Research Foundation

Surfrider Foundation

Plastic Pollution Coalition 

Mizu Stainless Waterbottles

 

 

 

 

Nocturnal for a Night: Shine-eyes and rock pillows

All decked out in my lobstering get-up!

 

No one put more wood on the fire, which I interpreted as a sign that we’d be going soon…Not home, not yet. Tonight I’d be following my local friends out to the reef to look for lobsters.

 

Makae made no grand announcement. Just stood and gathered his gloves, then donned his homemade jerry jug backpack. It must have been near midnight. The moon was much brighter than my headlamp so I turned it off and let my eyes fully adjust to the night as the brisk walking awakened me. I was excited! I’d never walked the reef at night and as much as I knew I was going to feel sorry for the lobsters, I knew that Makae and Steven respected them–never taking lobsters below the size limit, and never taking females with eggs. This was their stretch of reef from which to live and to nurture, and they’d already witnessed what happened to their neighbors’ reef–those who had taken too much. Their was little left, few lobsters and no coconut crabs…In fact, the coconut crab, native only to this region and known for its delicious meat, is extinct on nearly every heavily populated ‘motu’ or atoll island in this region…:(

 

They moved quickly over the reef ahead of me like nocturnal reef creatures themselves, but I imagined that they’d followed their father and uncles down this same stretch of reef for probably twenty years…

 

The night air was cool and still; the trades were taking a break. The sea rose and fell gently out to the horizon–smooth, silvery, undulating—a glorious night to be at sea. Once my eyes had adjusted, I could see almost like daytime. Without the piercing sun, I felt free as if I could walk for miles…and that we did. As we got out on the reef where the waves washed over our feet, I felt the rhythm of the sea and dropped a ways behind…there were crabs of every color and shape and size, big pinchers or small, fat and squatty, or lanky and quick. All fit for battle and equipped with grippy little hairs on their legs to hold to the reef as wave after wave pounded over them. I’d bend my knees and brace myself for the hit, while they just carried on with their munching, popping their eyes up at me from the same spot when the wave had washed back to sea. There were spotty eels and lithe-legged brittle stars and urchins waving at me with their spines. There were cowries as big as soap bars, hermit crabs just as girthy, and a myriad of fishes swirling about…each species, each individual going about their own business, and at the same time ‘turning their cog’ in the greater reef ecosystems’ fine-tuned balance. I marveled thinking that all these visible creatures were only the very tip of a vast pyramid of reef biomass starting as micro-miniscule bacteria, archaeans, protozoans, algaes, corals, and such…

 

I looked back. My mast light was long out of sight and I had to halt my observations if I was going to catch up to my guides…Running was no option. Only careful placement of foot would keep me from taking a spill or re-injuring my knee on the sharp, slippery reef…

 

When I finally caught them, I could see they were well on the way to a decent catch.

 

“How do you see them?” I asked once I finally caught up.

 

“Come here,” Makae said. “Look where my light is, you see the little reflectors? Those are their eyes…”

 

“You’re going to reach in that hole?” I questioned. “What about eels?”

 

“The eels and lobsters don’t like each other. If you see the lobsters are there, it’s safe to reach in…but no eyes, no put your hand in! I already learned that!” He said showing me a scar on his right pointer finger, which I assumed was an eel bite…

 

“Oh…” I said. That seemed reasonable enough.

 

“What’s that?” I called, as his bright light passed over something marvelously colorful in a hole in the reef.

 

He moved the light back…“Parrokee, sleeping.”

 

I peered in the hole, and there on its side, was a foot-long parrot fish! I couldn’t understand how he’d gotten in there, or more importantly how he would ever get out, but he didn’t seem the least bit bothered. This was one tired fish…The light didn’t phase him. Steven even reached in and stroked his side, and the little guy just kept on sleeping like he had the plushest rock pillow in all of Polynesia. It made perfect sense, the parrotfish did his coral grazing in broad daylight and he was certainly safe from predators in the coral crevices…

Shhhhhh...parrotfish sleeping!

 

“Look, they’re all over…” Steven said, shining his light on a few smaller parrotfish cousins, all snuggled into their own nearby holes. Amazing!

 

“There, Liz, grab that lobster! Take the antennae!”

 

Just 6 feet to my right, his eyes twinkled in Makae’s light…

 

I didn’t really want to…but I knew I had to…I moved slowly over, reached in, felt the brush of his antennae, and pulled him out…

 

He flapped and flapped his mighty tail, making a terrible sucking sound. I winced but held on tight and tossed him into Makae’s bin before I knew what had happened…

 

They cheered and we carried on…

 

The first light of dawn was just tinting the horizon as we returned. For the last mile, I was draggin my boots…kinda wanting to crawl in a reef hole and rest my head on a coral pillow like a parrotfish!

 

Custom lobster backback...Lobsters so big we could eat the legs!

 

Open Trap Surgery

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A black tip, looking for a way out...

Three days later, I kept thinking about those trapped sharks…so I rallied a friend and we sped off on a quest to free the hostages.

…It was farther away than I’d imagined. By the time we found the trap it was late afternoon. I jumped in the water and peered through the fencing to see what I counted to be 16 sharks circling in the 15’ by 20’ trap. There was not a single fish left inside. Who knows how long they’d been in there, but by the looks of things, they were hungry. They nosed at the fence and lashed their tails, swimming lap after lap in search of an exit.

We had to work fast; not only was the sun going down but if anyone saw us, word would surely get back to the owner that we’d been messing with their trap…

I donned my mask and leapt off the dinghy, searching the perimeter for a place where we could simply open a hole for the sharks to exit and then close it up again. But after scanning the length, I found no such option. The trap was securely fixed all the way around. After brief discussion, we agreed there was no choice but to resort to ‘open trap surgery’.

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Steady...steady...trying to shoo the sharks out without falling in the trap...

I took my swiss army knife and a short length of rope, then dove down to cut three sides of a 2’ by 3’ square in the plastic fencing. The sharks swam by curiously—they were mostly black and silver tips, but there was also a decent sized lemon shark. With the dinghy positioned adjacently, I peeled open the hole in the fence and tied it back with fastest half hitch my fingers could yield, then rocketed back up to the surface and into the dinghy.

Oddly, the prisoners weren’t quick to find their freedom. In fact, it took another half an hour for us to shoo them all out, tapping and splashing the top of the water to scare them to the side of the trap with the exit hole. One by one, they finally all found their freedom. And when we were sure they were all out, I hopped INTO the trap this time (to be sure I wouldn’t meet any hungry lingerers) and sewed the fencing back together with a long piece of nylon cord.

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Freeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!!

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The last to go, the sole lemon shark finds open water...

…I smiled as we sped back across the lagoon. I knew I’d sleep better that night knowing the sharks were swimming free …and, my shark karma had never been better!

Simply South Pacific Living…

“Those who dwell among the beauties and mysteries of the earth are never alone or weary of life.” –Rachel Carson

…After three short upwind hops over the last month, I’ve just arrived to the second biggest of the  atolls (population~800)…vegetables, a health clinic, internet, and even a post office! Ahh the luxuries of civilization!  So after too long without a good internet connection, here’s a peek at what I’ve been up to…


Sunrise from the mast.


Captain’s duties, daily anchor check…


Shark behavioral studies…


A fire to warm the soul…


…and cook the lobster! Hand plucked with ultimate respect from the reef at midnight the night before.


Laundry day…don’t worry, I’ve got eco-detergent!


The laundry can wait…!


Getting to know my neighbors…


Beach day! No waves, but finding parking wasn’t a problem…


A change of venue from my usual practice in the cockpit..We must make time to give back to our bodies, minds, spirit…


Peace. Freedom. A home that flies over water…Daily love and gratitude from a sheltered corner of the South Pacific.