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

•March 24, 2012 • Leave a Comment

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!



Mapping the limits of the soul: southern hemisphere home as a shellback!!

•March 20, 2012 • Leave a Comment

S 08 49.480′ W 172 43.133′

O Southern Cross, O clover of phosphorus! – Pablo Neruda

Sounds so pretty!! What does it mean??

It means I am home to my beloved Southern Hemisphere!!

The past few days have been taken up with initiation into the Ancient Order of the Deep. Now I am a shellback!! Tonight, after some more stuff, I guess, I will become a Golden Shellback!!

I cannot tell anyone exactly what has happened over the past few days, but it was an interesting experience!! Some of it sucked, I won’t lie. But some of it was the most fun I have had in a long time!! Think scary tactile maze with waterboarding while doing yoga!!

I also have a new tattoo!! See below:

I sang a song in front of a crowd of people for the first time ever the other day!! It went badly; I forgot the chords almost immediately and so just played random chords!! I do like the words though, and I’m going to post them here so I never forget them or the first time I sang for people!! The song is called The Microbial Biologist Traverses the Tropical Seas. It is a bit of an autobiography (sorry for the vanity!!), and is a reworking of JK Rowling and Farooq Azam that I posted before, just these words are complete…Enjoy!

“The Microbial Biologist Traverses the Tropical Seas”

Every litre of sediment

contains 5000 viruses

I wonder, do they ever feel alone?

And I wonder just where you went:

seeking cell walls to circumvent,

or were you just looking for a home?

Where do you go?

Where did you go?

If you were a virus baby,

then I’d be your host


I’m surrounded by eels again

And man, they’re closing in!

I mean no harm to them

but they don’t know.

Where do they go?

Where do they go?

How does an evil creature

find someone to love?


The world gave me a bouquet

of some luscious CCA

It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve found

even with these mantas wandering around.

Where do they go?

Where do they go?

Do they arrive in time,

flying so slow?


Mapping the limits of the soul: every school a symphony, every diver has a halo

•March 18, 2012 • Leave a Comment

AKA meeting King Neptune.

There are times when I feel that I have overstated things with the title of this series. Then I think through how much I have seen and grown in this past month. And I ponder the fact that what I have seen and had the opportunity to think on is comprised of such unique and rare experiences. I feel like I have covered a lot of ground in a huge number of directions on this journey; the journey is growing into the title!!

Today, we did our last dives and bid adieu to Baker Island.

I am sad to see it go!! But I know that the next destination will be full of its own unique charms and adventures!! Let’s do this!!

This morning, conditions were not good. The wind was blowing 25knots and gusting higher. Seas must have been at least 10 feet. On the sea, the weather comes to be of paramount importance, and this morning it was against us!!

We launched in a little baby orange boat. While conditions on the surface were bad, once on the bottom, it was calmer even though the water was ‘cloudy’ from the turbulence. Cloudy is a relative term!! Back on the mainland (any mainland) today would have been the clearest day you could remember!!

Towards the end of the second dive we were buzzed by two mantas!! They were no more than 5m (15 feet?) from me!! So graceful! So elegant!

Here is a picture Cristi got of one of them:

On that dive I also finally got an answer to the question ‘how do turtles keep such clean shells?’ I mean, they should be overgrown o a huge degree with algae etc, but they aren’t. Today I was surreptitiously watching a green turtle as it wandered by when I saw it park it on the reef. It was soon approached by a few algae-eating fish who cleaned its shell nicely!!

It was even cooler, because at that time I was being courted by a cleaner wrasse who wanted to clean my fins!! Synchronised cleaning jamboree!! The wrasse was chasing all the other fish away from me!! Until it couldn’t find any fishy skin to clean, and then it headed off all sad. Sorry little dude!

In good news for economists of capitalism, I have finally identified something infinite with which they can justify their tragic models!! It was a school of blue and yellow (both colors electric of course!!) fish that went by me today. It took literally five minutes for them all to swim by!! They came streaming out of the nebulous blue, divided into two flows of fish, which then collided with the reef, and like molten metal flowing around contours in the reef (such a complex topology!!) they swam on, reforming, tributaries flowing into a common course as they swam back into the blue beyond 30m down the reef. It was amazing!!

Every school of fish is a symphony as they bend and flex and twist and turn, in harmonious synchronous movement or in a discordant chaos of directions redefined and relayed, fin strokes out of beat. What a glorious gift!

Today I continued thinking on the halo that surrounds every large organism here. There are schools of small fish like you wouldn’t believe. They like to be near large organisms as we offer a calmer microhabitat. However, they never really trust the large organism not to crush them, attack them etc. So every time I see a school of small fish, while they look uniformly distributed to me, they are in fact stacked up in a startled cloud right outside my halo (I guess this would technically be called flight distance?). I will get a photo of this before I am done, but it has been a frustrating endeavour so far!! But it is this halo of frenzied fish flight that gives so much of the dynamic to the fishy symphony!! Oh how I love my halo!! Oh how it dances! The angels never had halos to match mine!!

Update: Hazing for induction into the league of shellbacks started yesterday, but I have taken down that part of this post as have been asked to keep what happens during this ceremony secret. Like what happens in Vegas. Sorry!!


Mapping the limits of the soul: fields of diamonds in the sky (or sea!!)

•March 17, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Every dive I get the Johnny Cash song (I think it is a cover) Fields of Diamonds in my head. Coz of the fields of little fish dotting the place, of course!!

(An alternative title was going to be ‘Even Boobies Get the Seasick Blues’, why, you will see below. Foreshadowing, my favourite literary device after the most noble of all, metaphor. A perfect metaphor is the sweetest conversational taste I have ever known!!)

Here are a couple of pictures! (but be warned, after seeing SO MUCH colour, you may be reduced to black and white vision for a while due to burning out the colour centres in your eyes!!):

That luscious pink stuff is turf algae or crustose coralline algae. The former is something of a nemesis to the coral (we seem to be finding (but I don’t want to be prejudiced against something so beautiful just yet!!), while the latter is something of an ally to the coral (no ethical-aesthetic conundra there!)

Pretty, pretty, pretty!!

First up today, the eels. Oh how I abhor them. We diligently devised a system that would allow us to sample water from within the crevices of the reef. There is probably really cool stuff happening in there, and stuff that no one has ever found before; think bacteria living on weird chemicals!! But then we encountered the eel menace. What a bust! For the whole time we were diving the apogee of lusciousness that is Howland, the eels were a nuisance. They harshed my mellow big time with their antics.

Imagine; you are at the best party you ever attended. Everybody is so friendly and interesting, you find yourself falling in love with the crowd. You woo pretty girls who appreciate your stories, your jokes. You are sipping on sweet tranquilas. What could be better? But then, as you reach to make another of those fine beverages in the kitchen, approaching the giddying climax of an hilario tale you have been telling a girl who wears glasses with that unobtainable library air, a plain clothes police man, hidden in the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink, starts bashing you in the legs with his billy club and attempting to arrest you for assaulting him. The night is in tatters, but you try again. Speaking with a guy who has just got back from Mongolia for six months, you finally overcome the trauma from the kitchen. The library lady enters the room and looks your way. You might have another bite at the apple! You turn to place your tranquila, liquid soul of lusciousness divinity-transcended, on the coffee table as a prelude to heading over and wooing her once more. As your glass approaches the glass table, it slips from your startled grasp as you leap into the air, grabbing your injured foot. Another police person is under the table, and they tazed your foot! They weren’t there when you turned around!!

That is what eels are like on Howland.

When it came time to use our crevice sampler, having dodged eels for days, and getting threatened every five minutes with eel bites (10-11 stitches required if you get bitten), we looked for crevices that were eel-free. We found one, only to have the tube bitten by an eel, and my dive buddy and I almost die of fright!!

But now we are on Baker Island, and they are not so common any more!!

Baker is awesome!!

It is a small, circular island with raised sand dunes. Unfortunately though, as a small, circular island it offers no lee. The surf wraps all the way around the shore, and the swells roll through more or less uninterrupted, making the Hi’ialakai move about a lot more than she has over the past couple of days.

I keep trying to get ashore, but the island is quarantined. That means that nobody is allowed to go ashore without a permit from FIsh and Wildlife, who administer the island. It is an important refuge for seabirds. To go ashore, permitted people need to freeze their clothes for 48 hours prior to heading in to make sure they are not bringing any invasive/pest organisms with them. I guess that around here, Australian marine biologists are considered exotic pests!! Not the first time!

Today, a booby (a seabird that is quite elegant in flight or on the surface of the sea, but not so good on land) landed on the ship. I heard about this as people were yelling and the booby flapping and squawking. I did not know why everybody was so keen to get the booby off the ship. It turns out that they land on the ship, and when they cannot see the horizon, but are still subject to the motion of the ocean, they get seasick and are loath or soon unable to fly off. A vicious cycle I am most sympathetic to!

On the human front, today these were posted around the ship:

This can only serve to escalate our hazing, as we graduate from being ‘polywogs’ who have not crossed the equator on a ship and been ‘appropriately’ hazed and has risen to become a ‘shellback’. This is looking to be a very interesting experience! There have been a whole range of events suggested as part of my personal hazing, including acting out a whole English movie with me playing every English part. That was before the doctor started her one-woman mutiny against the shellbacks who run the ship!

In good news though, we heard today that we will be simultaneously crossing the date line and the equator, a rare honour, making me a ‘golden’ shellback after I am initiated!! I will be a golden shellback polar bear (polar bear from crossing the Arctic circle on a ship)!! Serious maritime kudos!! After this, I will have only the Antarctic circle and the Greenwich prime meridian to go, and I will have collected all the significant marine crossings!! The pirate’s life for me!!

In bad news though, today we heard also that someone has filed an official complaint about the food (service?) here. The food has been really good so far (once we even had banana custard – called banana pudding in America – like my mother used to make quite a lot in Brunei, man that took me back like a hug from the past), but after the complaint, that will no longer continue. Starting the day after tomorrow, I am afraid that we can expect ‘fuck you’ food from the usually jolly stewards. No more lemon meringue pie for us, oh no. 😦

Tomorrow is our last day here on Baker. After that, we steam for a few days, crossing the date line meridian (not the functional date line though because of weird politics of time that I don’t understand) and the equator (I will be very, very surprised if I do not have to swim through rotten food – not good for all my various coral and razor blade cuts!) and find ourselves in the glorious Southern Hemisphere at Swains, the first inhabited island we have seen since Oahu three weeks ago!

Mapping the limits of the soul: when I was faster I was always behind

•March 16, 2012 • Leave a Comment


I have been hemorrhaging days without posting; but don’t you fret, I have been busy busy busy!! Samples to collect, samples to process. Sleep not to get.

Our last day on Howland, oh sweet Howland, was yesterday. Then we steamed overnight to here, Baker Island.

The last couple of days on Howland were magical!! Howland really is a wonderland! It is a seamount with walls of coral wonderfulness dropping down hundreds of feet. And those walls are zipping with fish, ambling with turtles, gracefully gliding with manta rays, lurking with sharks.

I saw a school of over 30 reef sharks, just on the edge of vision, drift on by, sharky motion abounding, some flashes of light from grey skins. Being a shark is 90% silhouette. 10% cruising.

The dolphins were out of control. We slammed (I do not like how our assigned boat rides, it is all slapping and brute force; no elegance there) all over the reef in our fast bright red boat. The dolphins loved us!

It turns out that dolphins are all about playing, but they only want to play with you if you are all about speed. But after a few days of getting to know us, even when we stopped for one reason or another they would patiently and expectantly wait with us, kind of like small children fidgettingly hopping-from-leg-to-leg would wait for a too-slow adult to dole out chocolate. Then we were off again, and they were so happy!!

Dolphins live, I think, for one thing: that moment of pure cadence hanging in the air at the top of a jump. They crave it, and when they get a nice leap, some sweet stillness at the peak of the movement, they are visibly happy!! A peace seems to come over them in that moment that is really beautiful to behold. I feel special for being allowed to see that moment so clearly and so often!

On our last dive on Howland, I was laying out the transect tape (essentially a long tape measure that we use to estimate how much of the tape’s length is taken up by each organism or group of organisms), when I went to tie it around a stone fish!! It was perfectly pink, in keeping with its crustose coralline algae neighbors. If it hadn’t flinched slightly at the right time, I think both of us would have had a terrible time!!

Below is a picture I took:

Those last couple of dives had warm, clear water. I had become a fish again, moving with the ultimate economy of fin-strokes, moving my breathing. This is where I feel scuba diving becomes art. I was at ease in my environment. It felt like a womb; so peaceful and so perfectly like I belonged. There was a little current, so moving with it was like relaxing in a submarine lazy river, drifting along checking the sights. I wish I had gills!

Aside from that, we also had another visit from a couple of manta rays!! Mantas are the ultimate family-oriented marine animal. They are always seen in pairs. I got no photos, as I was busy being a model microbial biologist at the time, and didn’t have my camera on me. My dive buddy Cristi got some though, and I shall show them eventually!! I love the way they move; it is such a calming swooping movement. If only I could be more like the manta ray, then I would not know stress!!

I should write about the first day on Baker to get this up to date, but it is late, and bed calls me. Those who know me know that nothing short of a fascinating new friend can allow me to withstand the calls of my bed. As I am on a sex, drug and alcohol free ship, there is really nothing to stand in the way of my bed’s dominion!!

But I will relate this:

Tonight was one of our first clear nights in a while. I went and laid under the stars on the bow. Getting there was a treacherous path full of possible-faling-overboard it was so dark. But the view. Oh me oh my! I saw the Southern Cross for the first time in years. I felt a peace come to me. As I laid there, with the ship rocking under me, the stars swinging through their arcs due to the ship’s movement, it looked like the stars were the surface of the sea seen from below coming up from a dive. The Milky Way was swirly. Fixed things (oh most beguiling fallacy!) gently oscillated, my brain assigned salty meanings, as those are its currency these briny days. To see the sky and stars up above as a sea through which we swim; now that was a wonderful moment.


Here is some cuteness for y’all to end on (although, to me, this ended on that last resonant point):

mapping the limits of the soul; Let me ‘splain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up.

•March 13, 2012 • Leave a Comment

AKA: if you are going to hide out at the circus, you had best dress as a clown!

Today I learned what a reef is…and it rewrote everything I thought I knew!

There is no time, and nowhere near enough sleep, to write a whole post.

To sum up, swam with dolphins, kinda dove with them too. Saw manta ray. eels are everywhere; a constant threat. Tried to get my teeth cleaned by loitering cleaner wrasse.

The wall of mouths and wall of mucus collide in my mind, making me reconsider what I thought before!

Blue and yellow fish comprise a rapture of the deep appealing to my love of sparkles to lure me into the deepest blue!

Sharks swam across our transect line with their casual arrogance.

My mind is out of colors. I feel like acid has nothing on this. It is like I drank liquid imagination.

And this is on the planet you walk every day. Think on that next time you walk down a street!

The internet is slow, some pics are on facebook. Here is one:



Mapping the limits of the soul: Howland Island am

•March 11, 2012 • Leave a Comment

We woke to Howland Island just off our port side. The bottom drops away to the abyss within a mile of the island. That’s where you will find us!

This is the island that Amelia Earhart died trying to reach to refuel. Earhart tower is named in her honour. Otherwise the island has a quirky and fascinating history, like a lot of these little islands do!! Look it up in wikipedia!!

Here is a photo:

Today is an homage to girl power!