Pumice Revisited and Other Tasty Creatures of the Sea

You might remember the curious flotsam Aluna encountered along the way on last November’s trip south from Fiji to New Zealand, remnants of a serious outburst of some underwater volcano sitting proudly on one of the many folds along the crispy western border of the Tonga Trench, which slices in an only very slightly oblique line into the ocean floor of the Southwest Pacific, creating a steep-walled crevice of astonishing depths that in fact continues from it’s origin just south of the Samoan Islands under the new name of the Kermadec Trench all the way down to the Land of the Long White Cloud and a good bit along its eastern coast into the lower latitudes of the roaring forties. Well, guess what! That stuff is still happily floating around out there and to my great astonishment pretty much in the same area.

I started hearing the familiar sound, like a half-awake sea fairy erratically knocking on an invisible wooden door somewhere in the bow section of Aluna’s hulls, soon after we had entered the high twenties of the southern latitude degrees, but it clearly intensified as we progressively descended the planetary grid. At no time was the ocean as calm on this straightforward voyage north as last November, so the feather light rocks were nowhere as congregated, and it seemed that most of the smaller pebbles had sunk or vanished and only the bigger morsels were left.

The most cunning experience of the re-encounter with this exciting phenomenon was to see the radical transformation it had undergone. While last year the pumice seemed recent, bright yellow in color, as if only just solidified from globs of lava in their shocking encounter with seawater under considerable pressure, now it consisted of accreditations of veritable floating islands full to the rim of the abundant exuberance of life.

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Bright-orange lipped gooseneck barnacles, some finger thick, opened and closed, unrolling and extending their fragile filter apparatus into the salt air, that was all of a sudden their only hope for an extended afternoon snack. We had just extracted the lump from its floating medium with the dip net, leaning over the forward beam and plunging it into the approaching waves. It was a maybe fist-sized rock, and on its flat top, amongst a rich bed of wet-green algae sat what was apparently the main officer of that craft on a permanent drift. An about half-inch wide crab of light-brown color was wielding his miniature scissor-equipped extremities wildly at our faces, as if protesting with utter importance, and in self-assumed representation of everybody else on board, the sudden and highly uncomfortable removal of his home turf from its surrounding and generously supporting element. Amongst the thicket of chocolate-brown stems of the barnacles sat completely immobile what looked like the maritime version of an obese earthly centipede. Its jet-black body was sprinkled with a forest of light-grey filaments, which seemed to function like hairs on its back but then without clear separation turned to spindly legs on the underside.

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We lay on our bellies for a good long while, marveling at such an abundance of intertwined life forms. Modern and more and more sophisticated mankind looks through giant telescopes in hopes of finding planets other than our own, where life might have found a foothold for establishing its marvelous alchemy of exuberance. Here we had the honor and luxury of being able to contemplate at our leisure and without any other scientific instruments than our very own and decidedly naked minds, a myriad of planets of all shapes and sizes floating along Aluna’s hulls. They were wandering about in their wavy universe at the interface of water and air, the ever-moving membrane between liquid and gas, and had their straight-lined orbits distorted by the meanders of gyrating ocean currents. Each had developed a similar but deeply unique biosphere, creating endless variations on a theme from a handful of species in a critical dance of mutual support and sympathy. As long as the human hand is far and held at bay by distance and inhospitable isolation, Mother Nature is, as it has been for eons, a potent player of the wild and rowdy game of creation, expanding the stringent limits of mere possibility at her very leisure, growing persistently, expanding constantly, and establishing apparently with little or no effort lush and luxurious gardens for pioneering populations of creepy critters, so amusing to the eye of the beholder, so obnoxious to the whole institution of thinking, so ridiculous for any kind of reasoning, so outrageously spontaneous that we could only remain in awe, laying on our bellies, poking our pinkies into the soft, wet and salty coating, before releasing the tight-knit society, the miniature civilization, the biological colonization back into its proper place as tireless flotsam, hell-bent on edging out a good living from just about anywhere on Earth.

Another more essential and practical lesson on nature’s infinite abundance came at the end of the trolling line one day. I’ve never been very good at fishing on passage. There are usually way too many things on my mind with the rig up in the air and navigational chores to upkeep for venturing into yet another absorbing activity while underway. So the equipment on board Aluna for trolling is rudimentary, to say the least. But last year it had seen a significant addition with a couple of the world-renowned and fabulously famous Curly’s Lures. They are a handmade marvel of ingenious engineering, composed of a careful selection of interlocking parts that range from cut transparent ballpoint pen shafts with a filling of glitter, to a double layer of common rubber squid skirts of a precise combination of hues, all fine-tuned with blobs of blood-red nail polish, and professionally rigged on a swivel and steel leader, manufactured conspicuously but contemplatively under the tropical sun of Savusavu by the one and only Curly Carswell, Fiji original, recognizable from afar by his trademark flaming-white beard, which puts any and all incarnations of Santa Claus out of business at the blink of an eye. He lives on a comfy houseboat of his own design towards the upper end of Nakema Creek, right off the Surf and Turf Restaurant, where for a tidbit of money you can splurge yourself on the world’s best ice cream, if you are so quasi-diabetically inclined.

There’s usually a critical mass of consent amongst blue-water sailors that with your vessel going at less than six knots, there’s little sense in putting out your trolling gear. In order for game fish to get excited about your lure it needs to dance and jump about a fair bit, and only above six knots does it seem to cut it for a catch. The barely four knots Aluna was pulling herself along in the light afternoon breeze a bit more than half way through our trip was not exactly promising a guaranteed reward, but there was nothing else to do and dinnertime was around the corner. The line unraveled from the spool for a good three boat lengths, was fastened to the cleat on the aft beam and clipped onto a stub of rope with an aluminum can filled with pebbles suspended from the shroud. The latter starts rattling as soon as there’s something pulling on the line should your mind be absent from the needed vigilance of the task.

Diner time came without any rattling and I was about to dig the can opener’s blade into the tin lid that covered up previously parboiled tuna flakes, when I hear Beatriz’ excitement going alight while dancing, line in hand, on the aft cabin hatch right outside the galley window. She had apparently manipulated the line with a series of carefully choreographed pulls and tugs, and had connected with the subsurface marine life telepathically, enchanting slippery muscle packs to gravitate towards the offered lure at the end of the line. I pulled on the line myself, but couldn’t feel any more resistance than was to be expected from a good hundred feet of monofilament fishing line slicing through the wet. It was time to pull the line in anyway, so I wound it all back up. To our big and pleasant surprise there was a golden-green whiz of flashing color approaching through the frothing eddies of our wake. The half-meter long Dorado came aboard with hardly a fight. The lack of resistance was astonishing. With no great misgivings it seemed to accept the pointed knife stuck into its brain that terminated the speedy and brawny splendor of its life and brought its muscle mass one step closer to our frying pan. The hunter’s bounty always implies a mental frustration and no small moral dilemma, but tasty it is and physically very rewarding. By no means the least of the excitement lies in the chance to study up close and utterly personal one of nature’s most splendid inventions, a sublime slime covered muscle bundle of supreme hydrodynamics with a ferocious front end that would, had it not been cowardly tricked into biting the crooked end of a fishing line, have crushed and thrashed through a great amount of lesser critters in the expansive reach of its powerful flukes. Effervescent colors fade fast under the slippery skin, folding fins retract, tiny teeth have been carefully arranged in rows on a bony plate extruding from the upper jaw, rounded gill flaps run up the entire height of the oval body and when opened reveal the ever pressing search for fuel needed to oxidize the flesh of many freshly caught victims of the reef police. The frying pan was full to the rim and sizzling happily that night and soon satiate reasoning did away with the moral dilemma and got busy assimilating the fullness of life force that had just a short moment ago left the unfortunate critter of singular beauty at the end of the line. 

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2 Responses to “Pumice Revisited and Other Tasty Creatures of the Sea”

  1. Paz Says:

    Que buena narracion de la vida en el mar, las disfruto siempre mucho, Besitos!

  2. Thomas Says:

    Must be an awesome lure to catch in the deep. Sailing into the world is so much better than watching it on TV. Good to learn news of your voyaging. Please take good care, Love, Thomas

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