If I drown in the ocean, if I die in this way – if I slide low and deep, I’d feel lucky today. If I dive in the water; if I crash in that wave; if the sands pull me under, I’d feel happy to stay. Life would lack certain meaning (with respect due to You) – let no fear come between little me and Big Blue.
Chanting this little made-up-on-the-spot ditty on the way home from a long swim in the turquoise waters off the north shore of the Big Island, I realize how very lucky I am to live in some of the last vestiges of Old Hawaii. Paradise does indeed exist, and it remains, at least for me, in places such as this – not in the crowded streets, shops and beachy snippets of Alii Drive.
At first it was challenging to get past swimming off of these old abandoned concrete docks – having roamed parts of the world over the past fifty years where numerous varieties of coral still thrived with hundreds of species of brightly colored fish; where black- and white-tipped reef sharks lurked in caves threaded through with moray eels; where starfish dotted ocean floors. I remember running beach sand through my tiny fingers, feeling the texture of billions of cast-off skeletons of crustaceans, walking endless stretches of abandoned, pristine beach, picking up more shells of a greater variety than I had pockets to collect them. When years later I had children of my own, we reveled in rolling ourselves in the runoff of red Hawaiian clay that streamed down to the white crested surf, then rolling ourselves in sand like sugar cookies.
Many times I have stood on the asphalt and concrete overlooking this ocean near our home – wondering how we could transform it into a different landscape. Now I accept it for what it is and simply dive into the delightful sea below. Lately these waters have hosted schools of baby barracuda and pipefish, parrotfish and yellow tang. Urchins punctuate the rocks below, regenerating and maturing since the last floor robbers came with their giant orange net bags, sweeping the area stark naked clean of these spiny treats. A giant anchor and chain remain from sugar mill days, lending navigation to the depths below. Follow the chain, turn either left or right at its end, and you will cruise along the reef, companion to a smattering of unicorn fish and other inhabitants. Seek the depths beyond at your own risk. The currents on this part of the island are perilous enough to prevent even the largest boats from exploring its waters at will. The ancient Polynesian outrigger canoe was better suited than most modern seafaring vessels for traveling the blue road from destination to island destination. And yet only the tug and barge, listing high and sometimes vertical on the roil of blue-grey waves during times of winter tumult, are a constant in the here and now. For without them, commerce would cease and we truly would regress to the grass huts of yore.
The Alanuihaha Channel is world-famous for its danger and unpredictability. Poised between the looming precipices of Maui’s Haleakala and the Big Island’s Mauna Kea – both exceeding 12,000 feet – this is a channel of changing tides, high winds, volatile seas. Still, the best approach is to become familiar. Befriend the ocean, respect her. There are days and then there are days. Today is calm, windless and warm, even in the early hours of morning. What has brought us the worst drought in memory has likewise gifted us with deep and clear blue cloudless skies and relatively still waters. What has robbed animals of dense emerald fodder and long drinks in cool irrigation ditches has granted us the quality of this moment. Mahukona, “sugar boiler,” is shining forth like a young bride at her wedding.
Most dedicated swimmers living on the islands keep a bag filled with fins, mask, snorkel and suit in their vehicle. Today that kind of backup seems most useful. After sitting and watching for a few minutes, then spotting a tiny clutch of swimmers like mask-and-snorkeled dolphins cruising the reef’s edge, I plop awkwardly in. There is no fear for me in the depths. Some seize up when feet fail to meet floor. For me it means weightless, boundless joy. I flip and turn, readjusting my mask, twisting my spine and hips, stretching my body out full. Finally I reach out, stroke after stroke, along the chain and now, for the first time, to the left. Unchartered terrain fails to intimidate, especially since the surge is all but absent from the surf. I am certain not to get dashed to the concrete jetty, as could assuredly happen in adverse circumstances. I am rewarded with clarity and variety. Popping up like a cork to the surface, I spot a brown skinned man casting a line from the sharp lava rocks ahead. My eyes sweep the shoreline, settling on a young couple cuddled close, eyes fixated upon the horizon. Back under and out, skirting the depths, neck craned, visibility extending its reach. It is this technique that rewards me with an occasional giant manta or honu, sea turtle. Not today, though I am far from disappointed.
I could swim like this for hours, for days. Like Andersen’s Little Mermaid, I am torn between the magic of the deep and the pull to terra firma, like some prehistoric sea creature transforming itself into a land-walking amphibian, fins morphing into heavy land limbs. Stroking my way back to the dock ladder, not quite ready – not yet. I toss my fins and mask onto the hot cement and now, free of the onus of rubber, I turn, flip, arch, pivot, pike, roll, play. There is no temptation to wander far from what is known, just enough freedom to gauge the mind back to neutral. Decision made, I draw the heaviness of skeleton and skin onto earth once again, making transition after transition – sea to dock, dock to car – car to road and back home again – clock ticking, laptop waiting, stomach grumbling.