Flipping Sharks

Flipping Sharks

IMG_8391The Washington state ferry from the San Juan Islands to the mainland was the end of the trip. It’d been a day of chasing whales—an orca museum combined with Lime Kiln State Park, the best spot in the world to see whales from land. We did not, however, see any whales. Tim, Lev (Tim’s two-year-old son) and I had made a day of it, but now we were on our way back to Mount Vernon, Wash., and Tim’s farm.

Then an announcement came over the loudspeaker: “There will be a presentation on whales at the rear of the boat. Anyone interested is welcome to attend.”

Whales. I’d be there.

The naturalist presented to several rows of kids and families, but the kids quickly lost interest. I stayed, peppering her with questions about orcas. And she told me something peculiar. I was asking if changing ocean temperatures were causing more interactions between local orcas and great white sharks, and if so what was the outcome. “It’s pretty remarkable,” she told me, “they are meeting, and they fight. And when they fight the orcas win.”

“The orcas are pack hunters,” she said. “The sharks are loners. The orcas have learned that if they can flip the sharks upside down they essentially can put them to sleep. Killer whales are smart enough to take advantage of that fact. They’re pairing up and using the technique to put the sharks to sleep. Then they drown them.”

Whale versus shark, the whale wins. Awesome. And what’s this about putting sharks to sleep?

Less than a week later I found myself in Belize, snorkeling “Shark Alley” on the second longest barrier reef in the world. The sharks there are nurse sharks, a tame cousin to the white shark. Our guide Carlos took the opportunity to demonstrate exactly what the naturalist 2,600 miles a way had explained—he swam directly over a 6-foot nurse shark, put one hand on its back, another on its belly, then rolled. Instantly the shark went limp. He carried it in his arms and swam it over to us, let us pet it and touch its skin.

I wanted to try. I could see them swimming just six feet below, brown arcing bodies in the reeds. I dove down several times before I could work up the nerve to touch them. But then I went after one, put my hand about where its shoulder blades would have ben if the man-sized shark were human. Its skin was course as sandpaper. I swam with it, tracing its path, one hand on its back, then kicked myself down close and slid the other hand under its belly. We were tight together then, the shark and I. I rolled.

The shark rolled with me, and as it flipped and its belly rose toward the surface it went limp. I held it close, kicked my way upward, cradling the ancient beast in my arms. It felt about like holding a worn out Rottweiler in my arms—things were fine, but how long would they stay that way? After a few kicks I rolled the shark back over. It flicked its tail and instantly resumed swimming. I released my arms. It carved away.

I did this three times. One of the group members caught it with a camera.

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It was amazing to be so close. I have since learned that what our guide was doing is frowned up, and that I shouldn’t have followed his example. I probably could have guessed that had I thought about it, but I didn’t. I looked to him for direction, and when I saw an opportunity to do something that scared me, something that seemed both amazing and stupid at the same time, I swam at it full steam. Literally. And so I got to carry a shark in my arms. Life is an experience and that was a unique one, even if it was foolish, illicit and perhaps damaging. Now I know. So don’t flip sharks. But it works. Orcas do it, and I have too.

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Great Reefs and Little Rats

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Bleaching in the NYTimes.

In Australia things are a mess.

First, the Great Barrier Reef: mass bleaching has left huge tracts of this 1,400-mile wonder dead. It’s the worst such incident scientists have recorded, and the third event of this type in two decades. In some places as much as half of the coral has been left dead.

Bleaching occurs when water temperatures climb too high. The warm water makes the coral release its colorful algae, turning it white. And often once released the coral needs temperatures to come back down if there is to be any shot at recolonization. Corals that do survive such warming events often do not grow as rapidly as they should.

Screen Shot 2016-06-14 at 10.12.13 PMSo that’s one. The other Australia story is also from the Great Barrier Reef, but this time from land: a small rat known only to live on one island is likely extinct, and the cause is us. Scientists are calling the Bramble Cay melomys likely the first mammal to go extinct as a result of climate change, and they haven’t minced their words:

“Anecdotal information obtained from a professional fisherman who visited Bramble Cay annually for the past ten years suggested that the last known sighting of the Bramble Cay melomys was made in late 2009.

The key factor responsible for the extirpation of this population was almost certainly ocean inundation of the low-lying cay, very likely on multiple occasions, during the last decade, causing dramatic habitat loss and perhaps also direct mortality of individuals. Available information about sea-level rise and the increased frequency and intensity of weather events producing extreme high water levels and damaging storm surges in the Torres Strait region over this period point to human-induced climate change being the root cause of the loss of the Bramble Cay melomys.”

“Human-induced climate change.” There it is. The rats have abandoned ship. Never a good sign.

I head to Belize next month with two missions: one to work on a social service project with American high school kids, and two to check out their reefs, which had their own bleaching event in March, also the third in recent decades. So I’ll get a look firsthand at what warming temperatures do to undersea life. So that’s to come.

King of the Reef

King of the Reef

image1I didn’t expect much.

I left on the 1 p.m. boat. The captain had warned me the waves were up, that it would be a bit rough for snorkeling. “Everyone else will be underwater,” he said, “but you might have a hard time.”

But I wanted to go anyway. I’d come to dive, and day one had already been too windy. I figured I could handle a little chop, so I climbed onboard alongside 25 other passengers.

But they were different than me—each one had a wetsuits, rebreather, buoyancy vest, mask, fins, dive computer, camera, seemingly everything. Mountains of gear lined the benches, stacked next to silver airtanks. The hiss of venting tanks filled the air. A teenager struggled into his neoprene. A middle aged women fitted her buoyancy vest.

I took a seat and opened my book.

“Life is a peephole, a single tiny entry onto a vastness—how can I not dwell on this brief, cramped view I have of things?”

– Yann Martel, Life of Pi

The boat roared to life.

“You’re not getting dressed?” the woman next to me asked.

I looked down at my chest and scanned myself all the way to my feet. I was wearing nothing but swim trunks and flip flops. I looked at her. “It doesn’t take much,” I said.

“But aren’t you diving?” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “Or, no. Not scuba diving.” I pointed to my hat, a souvenir from my course in April, Frontline Freediving smeared across my forehead. “I just need a mask, snorkel and fins. I won’t be long.”

She blinked. Paused. “Your snorkeling,” she said matter-of-factly.

“Something like that,” I said. She smiled. I went back to my book.

Something like that.

When the boat slowed everyone started their final fiddling. I didn’t. I grabbed my mask, tucked my fins under my arm and walked to the back of the boat.

“You’re ready,” the captain joked.

“I am,” I said.

“Pool’s open,” he said, smiling.

I jumped.

The water was warm, 82 degrees, felt almost bathwater. Fish hung lazily beneath the boat. Sand sparkled 30-plus feet below. Ridges of coral meandered out like starfish arms. I kicked, letting my fins carry me.

The divers slowly made their way in after me. They descended to the floor, casting of long streams of bubbles. I hovered above, letting the air trickle over me, caress me, the photo negative of a shower. I breathed deep through my snorkel, feeling my pulse slow. Then I flipped, kicked and dove.

The act of freediving is built on the first word: FREE. There is no tether, only what your lungs can handle. It is light and fast and peaceful and silent. The scuba divers cross the ocean floor like SUVs, exhaust spewing skyward with every breath. I float silently. It is beautiful.

Three other divers saw the manta. I had just dove, was aiming for the bottom, when a shadow passed overhead. A big shadow. I turned. A kite the size of a coffee table with a mawing hole for a mouth glided by, beating giant wings as he went. Remoras clung to his underside. I froze. My camera was in my back pocket. I fumbled for it as he arced past me. I beat my legs to get astride him, but the great waves of his body sent him slicing through the water at a pace I couldn’t match. I let go of the idea of capturing him digitally; I wanted only to see him, to behold his magnificence. He looked like a king inspecting his subjects below, attended to by two courtiers. He paid no mind to me, just kept flowing.

 

I returned to the surface. I have no idea how long I was down. But my heart was pounding.

The dive continued. I was up and down, up and down, for two hours, saw a black-tipped shark, a nurse shark, a young sea turtle and several lobster. I saw thousands of beautiful, graceful, brightly streaked fish, and corals of every shade. It was all amazing. And the manta had inspected it all.

I came you at the end, last to climb the ladder back to the boat. I was covered in goosebumps, nearly shivering from diving to the cold waters of the deep. One of the divers looked up at me as I boarded. “Are you the freediver?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I got a great shot of you.”

I smiled.

Storms, Rays and Cyclones

Storms, Rays and Cyclones

IMG_7875The ocean hides amazing things.

I grew up on the ocean. As a kid I spent my summers playing among schist outcroppings and granite boulders on the coast of Maine, hopping from rock to rock and splashing in tidepools.

In middle school, however, my relationship with the ocean changed: I got my lobster license, a dingy and a handful of traps. A 10-year-old kid, my working days began early, often before sunrise. I would row around, hand-hauling traps off the stern, collecting lobsters, rebaiting as I went.

It sounds idyllic—summer sunrises over a glass-calm ocean—but to middle-school-me it was not. It was hard work, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. I remember finding out I’d brought in several lobsters that were just under the legal limit; I didn’t understand at 10 that “close” didn’t count in measuring shellfish. No one had gone over it with me step by step. I had a boat. I had traps. But when it came to the details, I was on my own.

Everybody has to muddle their way through youth somewhere. Much of mine was done on a lobster boat. The fish oil would permeate my skin, causing my hands to swell then the skin to die, peeling off in long strips. Back at school each fall I would have to explain why my hands were shedding. I spent off days working sternman (think “lobsterman assistant”) for a friend of my stepfather’s. His name was Earl. He was older, groaned every time he had to sit or stand, but he was kind, loved to tell jokes.

He also loved cheap cigars. And his black lab came fishing every day. I spent 1o hours a day filling baitbags with dead fish, breathing a combination of them, diesel fumes and cigar smoke. It was enough to put me off the ocean.

That was when I was 15. Almost 20 years later, after two decades spent among mountains, the call of waves came back to me. The space I needed from water was over.

Then last week I came across this:

 

I spent my youth at the ocean’s edge, whether that was at the shore or the surface. But of late I’ve been looking below. Or more accurately, within.

Today I fly south to spend more time within: the Florida Keys. I’m headed there for four days on the water, in the water, within the water. My blown eardrum is hopefully healed, and the third named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season is hopefully going to blow out to sea, leaving the water calm enough to enter. We’ll see.

But a dream of mine is a cyclone of another kind: the one of manta rays pictured in Peschak’s talk. That is a rekindling of the oceans draw that might leave me spinning, but this time I wouldn’t object.

Next trip. Or soon at least.