Beaches close fairly regularly here in Hawaii while tiger sharks measuring up to fifteen feet cruise on through. When waters are murky, best forego the swim. Plenty else to do. My own shark sightings have invariably occurred at this, my favorite beach – though not today. Feeling the ocean tells me it’s safe to swim, but first I bide my time, warming my fully clothed body in the brilliant sunshine while visitors from colder climes run around in bikinis. Mauna Kea is about as protected a bay as you’ll find on the Big Island, and due to restricted public access (best arrive early to secure a parking spot), never crowded. Beginning of the week on a windy day and it’s mostly tourists – young families with grandparents in tow. A lithe towhead of a girl about eight picks every beach morning glory blossom in sight. She’s making a lei, and raises her hands to me the Observer in proud demonstration. I haven’t the heart to tell her that her blossoms will all be wilted within the hour. Everybody looks happy, and why not? The beauty of the place is staggering.
Offshore winds pick up out of nowhere like tramps in the night. Hawaii’s seasonal shifts are not at all like New England’s – where a nighttime chill in the fall air will by morning produce a palette of colors as far from off-the-rack as bouillabaisse is to Campbell’s soup. Changing seasons here are far less dramatic – one must watch the ocean, be aware of the tides, the color and clarity of seawater; direction of wind. Here on the north shore, one is less inclined to sleep with windows open in order to ward off ill health. Degrees of dampness vary tremendously, and the night air can leave one with cricks in the neck and shoulders during colder months.
Today the ocean is a turquoise jewel, a sparkling crystal of invitation. Fins and mask in hand, I wade in. The first wave fails to render me breathless – a sure sign that winter has passed for good, if fledging cardinals and mejiro birds fail to jog the memory. The ocean never lies. Stroking out into deep water, the bay once shared with scattered others becomes mine alone, and I soon discover why. An offshore wind whooshes into my ears on a turn, and I subsequently notice a subtle underwater silt cloud while reflexively surfacing to check my mask for fog. Experience has shown me I am still safe, but I won’t swim back across the length of the bay today. Calmly I complete my single lap, end to end, tucking into the coral reef for a peek only to discover it has created its own little torrid environment. I quickly turn, roll onto my back and kick my way back to shore, lungs inspiring the bright cloudless atmosphere above. It takes awhile, but I don’t panic the way I did when first caught unaware in similar conditions. Fear burns up energy reserves, and fighting the sea is never wise.
Still and all, I’ve had my day – nothing trumps the freedom this elicits, save free-falling into azure sky before a parachute opens. And this is only conjecture on my part, for I’ve never been skydiving. Nor will I regret, at life’s end, never having done so. I recall years ago when moving from Hawaii to New Mexico, mourning the imminent loss of Big Blue. My dear friend Linda had lived in both places and gently remarked, “Yes, but in New Mexico, the ocean is the sky.” At 8500 ft. elevation, this indeed proved to be true. Still I’d rather be swimming. Or sailing on, gazing at or floating in water. Maybe it’s an ancient memory of gills, or perhaps it’s because the body is over sixty percent water, much of which is saline. Like the fish out of water that I am, something always compels me to return to the sea.