Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The longest stage of any journey begins when you start to see signs you are almost home.

It is said that “Life is a journey”. We focus too much on the little destinations, the goals that have been set before us, so that we do not live in the moment but are always striving for a distant future. But the destinations are but instants in time: they occupy none of the space of our lives. It is the striving, the journey itself that fills the space between the destinations: this is where we live.
It’s hard to feel that way when you are travelling home. Heading away from home is a form of exploration. Every moment has meaning because travel is the purpose of your life at that moment. But when you set your sights on home you cease to travel, as an activity, as a form of exploration. From then on all the experiences of your travel are an annoyance, something that stands between you and your goal. The goal isn’t to go home: it is to be home.

That was how I felt at the end of my season in Belize this year. Don’t get me wrong: it was a good season for me. I met some very interesting people, and had a great time swimming with the fishies. But once the season was over, I was in a hurry to get home, to be there on my birthday, with Lorena. And a cancelled flight meant I had to get from Dangriga to Cancun overland in a single day. Now I am home, in San Carlos, in late April. The days are warm, the nights are cool and the air is dry. And the sea is chilly. Oh well, I can go a while without snorkelling with no ill effects.

This blog is supposed to be about the Manatee. Well the first one is gone, and the second one is under construction. It has been a great experience working on the new boat this past winter. I had done a little fibreglass work before, but never actually built anything out of fibreglass. This year, with the help of Kerry (aka Bobo), Island Expeditions’ resident fibreglass expert, I have built the decking, the cockpit, bulkheads, hatches and the centreboard trunk, all out of fibreglass. When she is done, she will be all fibreglass except the floor and a folding table attached to the centreboard trunk.

I was planning to photodocument each stage of the process, but I left my camera in San Carlos and took only one photo of the boat with the camera of another guide. So the pictures will have to wait. Now I am home I plan to build the amas (outriggers) and akas (crossbeams between the amas and the main hull) here in San Carlos, and ship them to Belize for the beginning of next season. This gives me plenty of time to work on them. Next season I should be able to assemble the whole boat before I start work and then take her out with me. I will sail her around and find her weaknesses before I set out on my voyage home. This next one will have two amas, so if one fails, I have a backup until I can get it fixed. It will also be very fast as it is longer - 20 ft - and lighter - about 1/3 the weight of the first one. The further I progress, the more excited I become about the voyage home. Sometimes it is an obsession and I have to remind myself to enjoy the anticipation but live my life now. That said, it doesn’t mean I can’t reminisce. So I would like to share some of the moments I experienced this past field season in Belize.

We don’t often snorkel the Western Wall at Glover’s Reef, as it is too far to paddle for most groups, and the groups are usually too big to take the skiff. But this year the number of people travelling to Belize was way down, so we had some small groups. One such trip we decided to skiff over to the Western Wall and snorkel along the outside edge of the atoll where the bottom drops vertically to great depths. The wall is actually a series of walls, separated by ledges. We were snorkelling over one such ledge, with about 20 feet between us and the corals below. We saw the usual assortment of reef fishes, and in small sandy clearing lay a dead squirrelfish. We noted the fish and carried on when someone spotted a large green moray eel, swimming along the bottom in broad daylight. This is unusual, so we followed it as it poked its head in and out of various holes in the reef, until it came upon the dead squirrelfish. It must have caught scent of the fish and come looking for it. We watched as the huge eel writhed and struggled to swallow this spiny fish. The whole effort looked painful.

After the show was over, we spread out and continued to drift southward with the current. I was off to the right of the main group, right near the dropoff, when a large shape directly below caught my eye. My breath caught in my throat as a 12 ft. hammerhead shark swam steadily beneath me. This was the first time I had seen a shark that could easily eat me, while I was in the water with it. The long, lithe body and powerful tail contrasted sharply with the more commonly seen nurse shark. I had a feeling, looking at this fellow, that he could easily turn and take a monstrous bite out of me should he decide to. Rationally I knew I had nothing to fear, as shark attacks are almost always on people who are spearfishing, and the shark really just wants the fish. I also quickly surmised that he wasn’t interested in us because he was already past us and swimming determinedly southward. I tried to follow, but even though he wasn’t in a hurry, he was still far too fast to keep up with. But just for the briefest of moments, he was Jaws, and I was one of his hapless victims.

My second shark encounter was much closer and much, much scarier. I was snorkelling a new patch reef, near the edge of the atoll at Lighthouse Reef, with two guests in tow. We had anchored in about 15 ft. of water, and were working our way around this big patch reef. As we got nearer to the edge of the reef, the patch reef broke up into a series of large dead coral mounds. I got an eerie feeling there. There was no live coral, no fish even. As I rounded one mound, I suddenly saw a big, heavy-bodied shark, swimming away from me, scanning back and forth. Usually when you see a shark during the day, they are milling around, killing time. This one looked like it was looking for something. I turned and looked for my friends. Then I stuck my head back in the water. The shark emerged again, a few feet away. This time he had a school of jacks with him. They knew he was hunting. Again he swam away.

I pressed myself against the coral head and looked for my guests again. I called them over and said “Snorkel’s over. I just saw a really big shark.” Read the italics as a kind of breathy speech. “Ok,” I continued, “Let’s swim over to the boats together, like one big fish.” No one argued or questioned me and we more or less did just that. It seemed to take forever for the two of them to get into the boats, as I stayed under, scanning the water. Then we were all in and on our way back. When the fear is over, you are left with a rush of adrenaline, the kind of high that makes you feel truly and sharply alive. You feel like you are charged with electricity, covered in Saint Elmo's fire. There is nothing like it.

It occurred to me that if one of the Belizian guides was with us, I wouldn’t have felt so spooked. These guys know the sea, they live in these waters, and I rely on them for their knowledge and experience. But when it is all up to me, I don’t quite have the same confidence, not when other peoples’ lives are at stake. Later conversations with Alex, the most experienced of the Belizian guides, convinced me it was probably a bull shark, and that it was wise to get out of the water when we did.

I guess that’s a part of life, isn’t it? Knowing when to get out of the water. That’s my cue.

Island Jack