Thursday, April 21, 2011

Remembering last year in the Gulf of Mexico

Black smoke billows up from the silver surface of the sea. Firefighters on ships send water cannons high. Eleven men are dead. Oil gushes into the Gulf as eons of pressure release. Deepwater drilling disaster.

As ocean dwellers we must do something, we must bear witness. Open our eyes to what could be lost, to the beauty we had. We need to be there, to take the pulse of the Gulf. To feel it beating and embrace what is still alive, look with new eyes at our third sea, our much-insulted coast.

Finding a berth and a ship is not easy, when half the fleet is tied up for safety and the other half is on contract to BP. Hired hands are towing booms, ferrying tyvek-covered workers to the scene of the crime. Finally we find our ship, donated in part and brought in from afar like the clean-up vessels on offer from around the world to the US government.

Chaos reigns and each day the news and rules of engagement change. We apply for permits, ID cards, and study small engine repair. Now you must sign here, pay here, report for official cleaning, and now you must clean your own ship, fill out more forms, produce passports and documentation. Like a war zone, security is in place though the officers turn over weekly and their high-tech equipment seems somehow inadequate to the task. Both the government and BP are out in force and yet clearly not in charge, not in control.

Across the water we meet cleaning vessels, coast guard ships, fellow witnesses, passing with the briefest of communications, unable to ask the question, why are we here? What can we do? Most strangely, most overwhelmingly, we encounter business as usual. We are astonished by the quiet normalcy, the vastness of the Gulf and how quietly it assumes this latest in a relentless tide of insults. There is a need, a survivor’s instinct to muffle the sounds, to continue moving forward.

We are surrounded by a skeleton city of steel rigs, tended by drones who shuttle between them like Soviet-era space ships. The sea feels hollow here, merely a container for oil and yet when we drop divers, our robot, a camera, the sea stars skitter by. Feathery worms reach up from the sand to catch their supper and corals sway, rocking the fish to sleep in the night lit by flames.

All is well and yet, not quite right. In the vastness, in the quiet, beneath the jumping dolphins that appear daily at our bow, lies a brown slime, lie ghosts of the animals who sink to the bottom when they die. Like missing children, they can not be counted but we go through the motions anyway.

Buffeted by weather and logistics, we work our way through each room of this Gulf of Mexico home, counting heads among the fish, birds, dolphins, manatees, workers and homemakers, citizens of this place. We comb the sky with binoculars and post letters from this other world, reporting on its beauty. We visit marshes, reefs, fields of seagrass and open water. Healthy tarpon and hogfish swim among us. Glittering sea fans and glowing sponges reach out with soft tendrils.

When we dock in port we buy batteries and soda, magazines for the crew. We fill up on the same fuel that fills the Gulf. We pass the empty office of the BP customer service center. We talk to shopkeepers, bartenders, marina owners, fishermen. Their anger is reserved, this is not their first war. Most seem to be waiting for an unknown. For compensation? For answers? For time to pass? For the full impacts to be known?

We immerse special strips that are microscopic sponges, to absorb the oil we can not see and track its advance across unfathomable depths. We find evidence of oil persisting in the Gulf despite early claims that there’s nothing to see, that we should call off the search. We bring cameras and notepads, nets and tags, ears and eyes. We record everything, the survivors and the life untouched. We bring in others to bear witness.

From South Florida around the rim of the Gulf to Tampa, Pensacola, Gulfport, New Orleans and then back. At the beach when we arrive sunbathers lie on vacation. They buy trinkets and read the news and sigh over their drinks. It’s a shame but really, what is to be done? In a way they have a point, these events unfolded long ago when greed pushed the drills deeper and deeper. Addicted, we pushed blindly beyond mistakes, beyond our rescuers, until April 20, when the whole thing blew.

Now we stand looking, asking why, asking who and what was it all for. Again a year later, the question is asked. What is right? Is it time to drill again? Who can say? We can say no and we remember. The largest oil spill in US history happened in the Gulf. It’s not the first time, nor is it the last time until we say no, until we take on the work of change, of clean energy, of the future.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Dania Beach, Florida

How could I forget my first love? To swim, just swim in the ocean with no need for fancy equipment.

I drive directly to the beach after landing in Fort Lauderdale. A dive shop appears on the left, and after brief consultation with its Peruvian manager I learn of ample freediving and snorkeling opportunities all along the coast. I've always wanted to go to Peru but he prefers the warm water and weather of Florida. Unfortunately at the moment the wind is up and visibility poor. Onward I drive blindly in search of a place to jump in, arriving at Dania Beach.

Too warm in long pants worn for air conditioning, I crest the dune for a peek before paying to park. Red and blue flags over the lifeguard tower warn of jellyfish and hazardous conditions. I call up to the tower and a bronzed figure emerges from its shade. He explains that while jellyfish are rare, it's the rip current that people have problems with. It sounds like I could still go for a swim in the right section of beach. I'm not sure how to respond to his question, "What are you here for?" I just want to be in the water.

After a quick change and lathering of sunblock, I return to size up the waves.
Sunbathers doze in folding chairs with stunted legs. Frothy sand-filled water marks the rip current shooting straight to the Bahamas from the base of the lifeguard tower. I wade in downshore, shuffling my feet as I used to do in San Diego to evade stingray encounters. With freediving fins and a brand-new mask, I happily cruise out through the breakers, my arms outstreched like the prow of a small flexible boat, my frame rising and falling with the surge.

The tawny lifeguard climbs down to go for a swim break and we chat about ocean pastimes. He grew up far inland, until the day he decided to drive to Florida. Here he took up surfing, swimming, became a lifeguard, and now spends his days at Dania Beach. We swim short laps back and forth, crawl and backstroke. He is surprised I can keep up. I'm not in shape for swimming, yet a muscle memory lingers and that same dogged rhythm
returns for short stretches with steady technique cultivated back in high school. And the fins help a lot.

A handful of surfers struggle with uneven, criss-crossing waves. The lifeguard bodysurfs back in and I wait a long time for the perfect wave. It comes and I miss it. Behind is a second wave that I catch with quick flailing arms, then head down in the foam for a short ride. When the biggest waves crash, I duck behind and beneath them to skim above rippling sand before emerging again in quiet water. In peaceful troughs I float on my back and stare at the sky in disbelief, savoring the sheer simple pleasure of being. Immersed in the ocean that I love, I remember her again with a mixture of gratitude and guilt for having forgotten.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Rehoboth, Delaware

We pull up at beach after beach, shopping in the way that surfers do, comparing the waves at each break along the Delaware shore. At the first stop I brace myself for disappointment, trying to lower my expectations since I have heard little positive about surfing the US east coast other than North Carolina.

Cresting the path over the dunes, I am surprised by the waves. They steadily pelt the sand, regularly spaced, too close to shore but curling nicely. We move on in search of a more forgiving place to surf our kayaks for the first time. Yet the second beach looks meaner, the waves crashing in even shallower water. I envision being thrown into the sand with my kayak on top of me. We move on, driving all the way around to the north entrance of Henlopen State Park.

Roof racks, surfboards, and people in hooded wetsuits let us know that this is the spot as soon as we reach the parking lot. We dress nervously for the cold water, still frigid beneath the bright sun. I walk to the bluff for a glimpse of the seal-like surfers hopping waves by the jetty and my stomach flutters. Is this really a good idea? These boats are for whitewater and rivers, not meant for beatdowns in the sand.

We paddle out, helping each other launch before easily pushing past the zone of crashing waves to the gentle swells beyond. With the exception of a few poorly timed waves hitting me hard in the gut, paddling out in a kayak is much easier than on a surfboard. After waiting a while the next wave curls invitingly, "What are you waiting for? Got something better to do?" and I paddle hard. Two strokes, the kayak grabs the wave and we are off, front surfing, carving, magic.

Later on, I find that the boat surfs just as well with or without me. I flip forward and hang upside down as the boat continues in towards shore undeterred. The washing machine is fiercer than I remember from regular surfing. Eventually things get quiet. Finally I roll up and catch my breath in the shallows before paddling out.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Oakland, California

Early morning on the canal by Jack London Square, a clear blue sky opens an unseasonably hot spell. We stroll down the boardwalk of a rough neighborhood gone condo. Mostly. From the waterfront the riots of a few days past are unseen, unheard, though their imprint remains.

The contrast of this pale pearl-colored water is so stark, the soft clinking movements of boats in the marina so dispassionate, the dogs so mundane on their walks before their owners scurry to work. At the edge, brown ducks dive among sawed-off pilings. The half-submerged cylinders are bone-white and dislocated without the dock that must have been. Closer to the square, kayaks lie stacked in the sun, heavy machinery lies unmanned on a new hotel site, and even the sun seems to hold its breath as it rises.

On the other side of town, we walk to Lake Merritt, brimming with birds and the mussels they pluck from shallow brine. Not a freshwater lake but an inlet of San Francisco bay, its boundaries are ringed by grass and a paved path streams steadily with walkers circumnavigating its several-mile loop. At one end a personal trainer pitches his services for two bucks, standing at attention between weights and a fitness ball. At another, winter greens grow in cordoned-off community plots. The least hospitable stretch narrows to unadorned concrete with cars rushing by.

Yet flowing water and the constant movement of wings proclaim peace, an oasis among urban violence and noise. Tall trees reach across the grass, a homeless man wakes, and seven television news vans line up in a row, antennae extended for more bad news.

Monday, January 5, 2009

St. Lawrence Seaway, Montreal

Montreal is a long way inland for an island surrounded by salt water. A petite mountain covered in snow, the city in January shimmers with light for scant hours each day. Warmly dressed pedestrians fill the streets undeterred. And yet, on New Year's eve at negative thirty celsius, the plaza fills with people and fiddles fill the air, amplified voices carrying across the harbor. Chunks of ice shift. Sleeping fish stir in the mud, awaiting spring.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Patagonian Fjords, at the far end of the Americas

Cathedrals of Yosemite granite stretch above our heads, covered by lush temperate rainforests to rival the Amazon. Here in Southern Chile and below these icy waters lie coral gardens rarely seen by human eyes. Eight hours of the droning motor finally carries our small boat beyond the clouding influence of rivers and glaciers, and we slip into the fjord for a dive with high hopes.

What seems like a layer of dust carpets the first few meters of dead mussel shells, the fringes of a nearly vertical ecosystem. Farther down we cross terraces formed by the advance and retreat of glaciers in the recent geologic past. Still deeper a garden awaits, individual flowers spaced across pink coralline paint that grows like wallpaper all across a smooth diagonal stone floor (or is it a wall?). Each flower a coral, or sponge, or waving arms of a sea cucumber in yellow, pink, orange and white. Furtive movements skirt my peripheral vision as harlequin-painted shrimp and slender fish preen before scurrying past.

From above all is hidden by a thick surface layer of accumulated rain. Glaciers greet the ocean with sediment, milky and opaque. Great rivers add their own contributions moss, tree drippings and leavings from the village upstream. A village wary of frigid, powerful currents, where scant few catch a glimpse of the living seafloor.

And so this garden grows in secret, visited rarely by fishermen and frequently by seabirds. Bone-like fans and solitary sea whips arch to face the current. Oversized hermit crabs roam the floor in gaudy purple gloves. Algae spread slowly all the while, drinking dim sunlight as it trickles toward the deep.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Ozette and the Olympic Coast

The bright grey morning calls me awake, softly, with muffled waves below my perch. I am careful not to move suddenly, in a lone sleeping bag wrapped in nylon on top of a high bluff on the beach. It's not strictly recommended to sleep here, in just barely enough square footage to lie down before the grass drops off steeply to piled driftwood and 360 degrees views of the ocean and temperate rainforest of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary. But with good weather and cautious intentions, I slept peacefully under the stars.

A quick scan with the binoculars reveal a mother otter and her pup breaking their fast with shellfish, immediately below the bluff. For hours they perform on the stage below, diving, eating, floating, and playing among the fronds of kelp; a daily ballet of parent and child. When the mother dives, the pup ducks its head below, though its buoyant fur prevents true immersion. Next the pup mimics cracking mussels on rocks, or to be specific it's not sure exactly what the mother otter is doing but waves its paws as the first step. Eating the fruit of these labors is of course is no problem, and both otters happily breakfast together on the kelp forest's bounty.