In September 2010, I was lucky enough to visit French Polynesia. I stayed on the islands of Tahiti and Bora Bora. The fanciful cuisine of the former — particularly the long-standing food truck tradition — was certainly a favorite memory. But it was only off the shores of Bora Bora that I got to scuba dive. And I do love nothing more than being underwater. Whilst immersed in the almost too perfect turquoise seas, I swam with pregnant manta rays and big fat lemon sharks. Gifts from the gods, to be sure.
I hadn’t completely forgotten about the dives, but almost two years later, they were far from my mind. And then, about a month ago, I got a message from an old dive buddy — a Frenchman who lives near Avignon.
“I was watching a documentary about mantas in French Polynesia and I saw you,” he wrote. “Did you see this documentary? I can try to capture few pictures for you if you want.”
And then it all came back.
It so happens that a French film crew was on my dive boat that September, and they were making a documentary about the manta rays in the motu. They filmed the briefing, the dive and then interviewed me afterward. Miracle of miracles, I made the final cut.
The film, “Les reines du lagon” (The queens of the lagoon”) is by Dominique Martial. Mon ami francais sent me a screen shot and some video clips. Apparently, I sound way more sophisticated in French! The parts I saw were magical. Hope I get to see the whole documentary one day.
I had saved some cookie tins from the resort in Bora Bora where we stayed while diving. They were the tastiest tropical butter cookies I’ve ever had! I poked drainage holes in the bottom of the tins, filled them with soil and then planted a trio of succulents in each.
Now, whenever i water them, I will be thinking of Bora Bora and my magical moment with mantas, en francais!
Made my third annual pilgrimage to Ano Nuevo State Park in early January. My friend Tony and I have been coming here every year since I moved to California. It’s a very apt and beautiful place to start the New Year.
Ano Nuevo Point was named by a Spanish chaplain on January 3, 1603. He spied the coast from the deck of explorer Don Sebastian Viscaino’s ship and, though he never stepped foot on the land, named it honor of the New Year. (Read more about Ano Nuevo’s history.)
The state park also includes Ano Nuevo Island. Only open to researchers, the island and its long-deserted Victorian house make for a striking addition to the coastal views. (Read more about Ano Nuevo Island Light Station.)
At this time of year, thousands of female northern elephant seals give birth and then nurse their young. The males spend their time defending their harems or plotting sneak-attacks in hopes of capturing and impregnating another’s female. (Not exactly romantic, but, since the elephant seals are thriving, this method seems to be getting the job done.)
In March, the adults return to the sea. After having spent three months on land with no food, they have lost up to a third of their body weight. The pups remain behind and have a few more weeks to hone their swimming skills before they, too, will leave the land.
Returning seals have to get past the bevy of Great White sharks that thrive in Northern California’s coastal waters. If they survive and make it into the deep blue, their yearly cycle will begin again.
Elephant seals can dive up to 5,000 feet (1,524 m) and stay down there for as long as two hours. The females tend not to hunt as deep as the males, as they’re partial to squid. The boys are, naturally, bottom-feeders and live off the likes of skate and crab.
I also re-read “Elephant Seals” by Carole and Phil Adams (1999) each year before my visit. You can purchase the book via the FES online shop, as well as in person at the Ano Nuevo State Park store.
If you want to see the Ano Nuevo colony, you must sign up for a docent/ranger-lead tour. You’ll get up close to the seals and support a good cause. Reserve far in advance, particularly for weekend slots.
Sea lions bark! They have whiskers and cute little ears! They’re playful! Need I say more? Oh, well the photography bit …
This was my first time out with my new telephoto lens (Canon EF 70-200 mm f/2.8L). I saved money by scrimping on the Image Stabilization feature. (It was still an expensive lens!) Thought I was being crafty, as I’d read enough reviews saying it wasn’t quite necessary.
But then I bet those folks weren’t bobbing on a boat, trying to photograph fidgety sea lions, who are themselves on a bouncing buoy. As you can imagine, this makes for a lot of blur. Oh well, at least a few of my shots turned out OK!
I’ve been sailing on the San Francisco Bay quite a bit this year. It’s amazing how quiet it can be when you switch the motor off — just the sound of the wind whipping the sails above and the water slapping the boat beneath. It seems nearly impossible that you are floating just off the shore of a major metropolitan area.
Still, sometimes the prettiest sights are the ones that greet you on your return. The Berkeley Marina tends to be a surprise stunner at sunset!
Two friends recently asked me to read a poem during their wedding ceremony. So I’ve been on the prowl for poems about love, scouring my college copy of Norton’s Anthology of Modern Poetry and back issues of the New Yorker … Read this Tennessee Williams poem in the April-4 issue of the latter, and it has been hanging in my head ever since. I suppose this would be way too dark a choice for most folks on their wedding day, and so the search continues. But, despite its post-apocalyptic nature, I must say that I find “Your Blinded Hand” most beautiful.
Your Blinded Hand
everything that greens and grows
should blacken in one moment, flower and branch.
I think that I would find your blinded hand.
Suppose that your cry and mine were lost among numberless cries
in a city of fire when the earth is afire,
I must still believe that somehow I would find your blinded hand.
Through flames everywhere
consuming earth and air
I must believe that somehow, if only one moment were offered,
find your hand.
I know as, of course, you know
the immeasurable wilderness that would exist
in the moment of fire.
But I would hear your cry and you’d hear mine and each of us
the other’s hand.
That it might not be so.
But for this quiet moment, if only for this
and against all reason,
let us believe, and believe in our hearts,
that somehow it would be so.
I’d hear your cry, you mine—
And each of us would find a blinded hand.
While canoeing along the southern end of the Everglades this past March, I came across many little islands in the making. These islets, often in the form of one or two lonely red mangrove trees, struck me as a symbol of hope.
Despite the vast sea stretching endlessly before them, floating seed pods willed themselves into a sandbank somewhere, harnessing the powers of great tidal shifts, forming themselves a new home. In the spirit of exploration and even of the persistence of life against all odds, these lone trees turned themselves into lone islands … And where lone islands form, other life is sure to follow.
High in the treetops of narrow inlets and the tiny, well-rooted trees all around us, birds would perch and, sometimes even nest, forming silhouettes against the colors of a sky transitioning into darkness. How glorious that in five, ten or twenty years time, I may be parking my canoe on the banks of one of these “lone tree islets,” now independent islands in their own rights, and spending a night under the stars.
In this day of crowded flights and eternal commutes, it is refreshing to get somewhere by the mere strength of your limbs. Canoeing eight miles out to the barrier islands off the Florida Everglades felt like exploring another world. I couldn’t help but be amazed and inspired by the fact that we managed to get four people, three days worth of food and water, and enough gear to provide clothing and shelter for us all out to these uninhabited islands without so much as a drop of gasoline.
As we paddled through increasingly choppy waves the last hour of our first day, I suddenly felt a new awe for those explorers who—before sailboats, steamships, compasses or even GPS—loaded up friends, family and supplies onto outriggers and canoes and headed deep into the wide unknown sea to find new places. They must have been incredibly brave. They also probably had amazing abs.
A fantastic piece by Nadia Drake of MercuryNews.com on the sounds of the Northern Elephant Seal: