Mapping the limits of the soul: how do you map something when you don’t know where you are?

I guess a lyrical name to this would have been the John Lennon line ‘How do I go forward when I don’t know which way I am facing’, but it doesn’t really cover it anyways. And we all know my predisposition against the Beatles (and even to John Lennon to some degree, even though he was really amazing)…

S 11 06.483′ W 171 05.132′

Today was our first day with the internet since my last post (yay!), and also our last day here at Swains (sad face!).

Our time here at Swains has been marked by a total immersion magic.

I have two words for you: bioluminescent wake. The joy that is contained in these two words is beyond imagining!! But let’s try to envision the phenomena (that sadly seems to be very unphotographable)!!


You are gliding through the darkish vacuum of outer space. Totally effortlessly light, you move without any restraint. You look over and see a gas cloud exploding, writhing, swirling as it expands. It is a living geometry of white light in the darkness. Within the gas cloud are stars, points of light forming in a hundred suns as parts of the gas cloud begin to condense. Pulses of light emanate randomly from within the cloud, complimenting the more fixed stars. There are flashes of light like lightning. You lose yourself in the beauty of the moment, and lose up from down (oh the universe is filled with false cardinals!) as you stare into the mirrored milky way below you. Then the ship rises over the swell and the wake dies down. The gas cloud folds in on itself and degrades, shrinking under the weight of its own luminosity. ‘All glory is fleeting’, the full beauty of the ocean whispers in your ear. Then the ship plunges again into the next swell! The wake blossoms out into its former size, the white water alight with freaked out plankton, reflecting the heavens. ‘All glory is fleeting, but all glory can be regained’ your heart sings!!

That is what it is is like to see a bioluminescent wake on a ship on a moonless night. Think Wall-E touching the rings of Neptune. (I know it is Saturn that has the luscious rings, but can offer my allegiance to no other planet right now, so soon after meeting King Neptune!)

But the magic did not start there with the wake. The magic has been with us for three days now!

Pretty much everybody on board, whether they saw the juvenile whale shark or not (I did not), uses the word ‘calm’ when describing how Swains was for us. Now, I don’t know how much of the magic of Swains was due to some enchantment innate to the island, and how much was due to the fact that here, for the first time since our first days on Johnston Atoll three weeks ago, we had calmish seas and light winds (6 foot seas at worst, and gusts to 15 knots). But either way, it was serene. That word carries so much weight to me that it needs no emphasising precurser, and Swains earned all of that gravity.

Swains is the first really vegetated island we have seen since Johnston (which had some palms and Acacia she-oak stands). But Swains is your picture-perfect tropical island. It is thickly covered with coconut palms, right down to the thin stretch of beach which fade into the intoxicatingly blue waters of the reef. Here is a picture:

The image goes a long way. But under water is where things really got awesome!!

Here, so close to the equator, I guess, the water is 85F (something like 28C?). It is actively warm. After so many years as a field marine biologist, I am traumatised to my bones about being cold and wet. Sometimes I would look at the ocean and almost have a panic attack at the prospect of having to go in. It takes a certain type of person to put up with the elements, and even then, they break you eventually. Hemingway’s heros; even they would have tried to avoid being splashed by cold water.

But here it is no issue!! Today it rained. A lovely cooling squall with some winds behind it. But the torrential downpour soon killed the wind. The seas were calm. I was glad I had the woolen army jacket my brother gave me as field garb so long ago. It kept me warm as we all shivered. It has been too many days in a row of wet for us to have much body heat left. But then I washed my face with some seawater to wash the fresh rain off my face (the price for being a crusty sea dog is contant vigilance! No fresh water kisses, only salty ones from my one true love!), and the water was sooo warm. It was like washing your face shaving on a winter morning!

Under the water (such warm water, have I mentioned that?), the visibility was ridiculous. You could see hundreds of feet. It was so clear and warm that I often forgot I was under water. I thought I was just hanging out somewhere. Not really on land, but certainly not under water!! Looking up, I thought the surface was the sky. Where else could you be?

This is becoming something of a theme; how I am starting to find it difficult to tell what medium I am in!! Maybe I should be calling this series “a journey through paradise and a worm-holed brain”?

So I am in a perfect place to map the limits of the soul, but completely incapable of mapping the geography of paradise. This is fine with me; I would have it no other way!!

But either way, what with the calm conditions, lack of currents and surge, warm water etc, Swains is the ultimate calm. On many dives, when we had completed our work and still had air in our tanks, we would just hang there in the water column, just watching it all go by, letting the calm sink into us. Normally such a circumstance leads to us running around down there, trying to get photos or cram in some other work. Not here. I wrote on Cristi’s dive slate during one of our hangs ‘Swains is where beauty comes to relax’. That pretty much covers it. Here we did not see an abundance of natural beauty in a hurry, at risk of rushing off as it usually is. Here, everything was at peace. Think: the movement of manta rays as an immersive experience!

On the contrary, we also spent some time jumping off the back of the baby boat into the wake!! It is like a rough theme park ride!! It would probably be shut down pretty quickly, to be honest. Except we discovered a gentle way to make the ride work. When the boat is digging deep at the back, gaining speed before popping up onto the plane, it makes an elevated platform of displaced water right behind the boat. I have dubbed this the ‘blue bed’ ever since Johnston, and have wanted to lie down on it since then!! Yesterday I got my chance!! If you fall backwards, arms outstretched like Jesus (finally embracing, rather than using his supernaturality to shun, the ocean), like those last moments of slow-motioned martyred slaying in a Hollywood movie onto the blue bed, it cushions your fall (remember, you are hitting the water at about 20mph), and then draws you under for a few twists before you surface. Lovely! Jumping at higher speeds (I think the fastest I tried today was about 30mph) makes for a harder landing and a much more tumultuous ride!! Think of trying to play a full game of water polo in a jacuzzi? Yep, that is about it.

The reef here is beautiful in addition to being calm. It has a large algal component, which we have not seen yet, and alot of delicate plate corals. Beautiful! And radiating calm! I will post some photos of the reef in the next day (we are steaming to Tutuila in American Samoa, so I won’t have any other photos to post for a day or so anyways). But for now, here is a photo of a cute little shrimp I like to call Jacques!!

Take this photo, in all of its pink lusciousness, and extrapolate it to a whole, massive reef. Add some algae in though, and some plate coral, and there you have Swains. Or pretend you are looking upon the scene of where, a long time ago, some giants were having a dinner party, but they all got angry when they found out all they had to eat was lettuce, smashed some of the salad-laden plates, threw them all over the place. Then add some pink stuff here and there, and some slightly traumatised fishy witnesses. Boom! There you have Swains! Just make sure to make it calm.

Good night!


~ by maoctopus on March 24, 2012.

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