Oceans away

Oct 11, 2013

ScienceOnline Oceans started today down in Miami. From the tweets coming through with #scioOCEANS, it looks like it’s off to a great start. I’m not there, staying back in North Carolina for work and family. But I know Karyn Traphagen and David Shiffman have put in hundreds of hours preparing for this conference, and it’s sure to be another ScienceOnline success.

Still, I really wish I were there. Oceans and I go together.

When I was 13, I moved to the Caribbean. When I was 22, I moved to Hawaii. When I was 27, I moved to the South Pacific.

My memories of St. Croix and Waikiki and Vanuatu are all through my blog, chronicling my fun in the surf and long days on the beach, of sea turtles and nurse sharks and needlefish and snorkeling above the coral reefs in three different seas.

I miss the smell of ripe seagrapes and trying not to miss the green flash as the sun disappears below the horizon, the refreshing feel of a cold Heineken being handed to me. I recall lying beside a giant leatherback turtle laying her eggs in the sand, and swimming amidst dusky dolphins in the frigid New Zealand waters.

Great memories, punctuated by the scary: my mother and brother getting terrible infections from the sewage pumped into the bay at midnight, the shock of tumbling beneath a wave as my lungs screamed for air, the howling winds of hurricanes.

I miss the ocean.

So I dug into my Peace Corps journal to find another memory of the ocean.

Here are two entries, about troca shells and the dugong in Lamen Bay of Epi Island. This was midway in our service, Erin was back in Ohio for a holiday visit, and I was spending a month as a trainer for the next class of volunteers to come to Vanuatu.

December 19, 1998
Saturday afternoon before a nap, a rest I’ve worked for! This week I was busy with my sessions — lots of talk and discussion. Great classes.

And today, I tired myself out. After class got out at 11:00 a.m., I came [back to the hut] for lunch, then walked along the beach for nearly a mile, to where William and 20 others were gathered in their canoes for harvesting troca shells from the reef. The tabu on the shells was recently lifted, and at 350 vatu per kilo, these villagers will rake in the money.

I walked past the group on the beach having lunch — I wanted to go to the point where I could see Paama. Paama, and Lopevi (which has grumbled a bit today), were faintly visible in the haze. I continued down the beach, alone and with my fantasies of Erin. It’s amazingly peaceful and erotic and exotic at the beach there: lorikeets squawking, a gentle breeze, lots of green bush and blue sea. Amid my daydreams, I had to squat to shit in the sand, the diarrhea pouring out of me. I pulled up my pants just as the Vanair plane flew by on its way from Epi to Ambrym!

When I started walking back, I met William waiting for me at the point, concerned probably about my prolonged absence and the incoming tide that cuts off the breach route. We returned to the canoe, and paddled out to the reef, tied on to an outcrop of coral and jumped into the water. At first, I snorkeled close to the canoe, holding onto the outrigger. When I got more comfortable and bold, I swam around admiring the coral and at times diving down like William, who floated near the bottom, snagging mollusks from their cubby holes. I retrieved a troca shell from three meters down, proudly extending it into the air when I surfaced. William just said, “Put it in the canoe.” We finished with me paddling us to shore, and then William brought us back to Lamen Bay, me perched at the canoe’s forehead, smug and relaxed and content. Epi is beautiful, Vanuatu comfortable.

January 3, 1999
Finally, today, I swam with the dugong.

I woke this morning and relaxed in bed with Outside Magazine, which features a list of 100 adventures to try in a lifetime, then went to an earlier-than-usual church service. After church, William and Api and Christina and I went to the sandy part of the bay, and there was the cowfish. Not a stunning animal, but placid and approachable. I dived down to touch its scarred, slimy back, being careful of the strong dolphin-like tail. When I tired, I climbed into a dugout canoe and paddled after the dozen kids trailing the dugong through the cool water — this was funny to watch, as the dugong surfaced for air and with a few strong kicks propelled forward as kids and adults furiously paddled after. Amazing that a phalanx of reaching arms doesn’t scare the creature off.

Walking back, William handed me a warm, wet slab of banana laplap, and I hungrily ate it, thinking, Outside Magazine didn’t list this, but it should: swimming with a South Pacific dugong and then walking back to your custom hut while slobbering over laplap.

Anton Zuiker

© 2000 Zuiker Chronicles Publishing, LLC