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A Lake Inside the Ocean

August 22, 2011

July 15 – 25

16.30.70S  –  143.49.30W

Cruisers are not uniform in the timing of their first visits ashore. Some splash the dingy before the yacht has quite fallen back on her anchor. Others pause, ensuring the hook’s impression upon its host is amiable and lasting before making a move. Still others appear never to leave the boat at all, but instead regard new landfalls from the comfort of the cockpit, fully satisfied with this form of exploration.

I am in the middle camp, often staying aboard a full tide cycle before my first row in. I clean below, rest a bit, and inspect what there is of coast with binoculars; I have a cold beer, make a hot meal. I relax. The transition from open ocean to bay should come on slowly, I think. In any case, there was little choice our first day and half of our second at Makemo. Though comfortable, our berth put us a quarter mile from the beach, and the strong, offshore winds made the pull ashore daunting.  I worried Coot’s flat bottom of thin plywood might pound to pieces in the chop. So I sat in the companionway hatch looking out and exclaiming, “It’s just like Ringworld!” over and over.

If this seems an obscure reference to you, join the club. I had to dig long and hard to remember Ringworld as a science fiction novel from twenty years ago, my only recollection of which was the framing idea: that in some distant future humans create planets in space that are not spheres. We have solved the gravity issue a different way, by building enormous, rotating rings, the inside of which contains the atmosphere and the land that we have peopled. Imagine looking into the night sky from your back yard in suburban New York and seeing the bright lights of Europe declining at twenty degrees, and way across the other side of the ring, Asia.

Upon examination this was not a superbly apt analogy for a south pacific atoll, which is neither perfectly round nor spinning in space nor thickly peopled with hyper-moderns, but it was the best my grasping mind could conjure at the time and serves to illustrate how unusual and without parallel is the idea of a landmass that isn’t land in the middle and water along the outside. From islands to continents, that’s the earthly paradigm, or so I had thought.

Let me put that another way: an atoll is really weird.

Sure, the geology is easy enough. A volcano bubbles up from the deep and forms an island, that, over the centuries pushes quite high. Around the island forms a coral reef. The volcano moves on leaving the island and the reef. Wind, rain, and sea erode the island, but the living coral remains. After some time (and there’s the rub) the island washes away or sinks or both and is replaced by sea, but the reef keeps on. Its coral is sometimes broken and piled up by storm or eaten by Parrot fish and shat out as sand* so that beaches form on the inside of the reef to which early Polynesians add coconut trees and rats. The Tahitian Chamber of Commerce snaps a photo (carefully excluding the rats), puts it on the back cover of an inflight magazine and, voila, an atoll, the archetypal vacation paradise, is born.

But knowing this hardly makes first impressions less strange.

For as far as my eye could see to the north, east and west was nothing but a gentle, curving, continuous ribbon of palms interrupted occasionally by scrub or bare beach all so low that when the rare summer hurricanes do arrive, villagers on other atolls are forced to strap themselves to trees in order to survive the overset of waves. And I was on the inside of this ribbon. Murre and I were anchored upon a lake inside an ocean. How could this be? And if this part of the atoll was deserted, why could I hear the burping of a nearby diesel generator?

The scene began to take on a different aspect as Coot and I rowed ashore next day. Shallow, turquoise water with great heads of coral and scattering fish. The beach as white close up as far away, soft and warm and shell lined. In places palms right down to the water rattling in the wind. Here was a broad-leafed shrub. A pair of fruit doves winged past me into the next copse. The sun blazed. Was there anything else? Could any place really be this simple?

I walked toward the atoll’s ocean side. In the forest of palms the sandy beach immediately gave way to years of frond build-up a yard thick and thousands of fallen coconuts, each with a perfect hole to the inside and empty of meat. But there seemed to be no inhabitants. The holed coconuts indicated rats were prolific, but I saw none. No birds sounded. No mosquitos attacked me like cannibals. In fact, there seemed to be no insects at all. Lacking a trail, the going was rough and slow as I waded up to my knees in dead foliage. Sometimes a downed palm allowed a sprint along its trunk, but even with that aid, it took ten minutes to achieve the forest’s Pacific side, a distance of only 300 feet, and there all hell broke loose.

What was calm and “swimming pool clear” inside the lagoon was the unmollified ocean outside. Deep black-blue waves crested in a chaos of white and slammed the reef, fuming with a heavy mist visible for miles in either direction. It roared such that I covered my ears for a time, realizing with a flash that this perpetual roar, muffled by trees, was the diesel generator I heard on the boat. Between waves and forest stretched a long, broad bank piled up as perfectly as a levy and constructed entirely of cobble-sized, ankle-breaking coral bits bleached by sun into an ugly, charcoal grey.  I could feel its teeth through my rubber shoes. And at the top of this levy, plastic trash of all sorts. It was too desolate. I returned to the forest, to the beach and the boat almost immediately.

Next day, I tried a different tack. Weeks before I’d entertained the idea of hiking around the perimeter of Makemo, an idea that now struck me as silly because the atoll was some hundred miles in circumference and its southeastern edge was largely submerged. Of course, the books and charts had told me this, but it took arriving to realize the scope of the place. Still, I wanted to stretch my legs so when I beached Coot, I set off to the right, which seemed as good as any option, the only other being left. I had walked just a few moments, hugging the edge of the palm forest for its shade, when I saw something move out of the corner of my eye, but when I looked it was only a large snail shell near a coconut husk. I went on and soon saw another small movement, a snail shell again, but this time it had fallen off a low sand ledge and was rolling towards me like a lumpy tennis ball. I stopped. It stopped. I stared. The shell was tipped over with entrance up and after a time bright orange legs protruded followed by two knobs of eyes staring out at me. Something else moved just beyond it. Another large snail shell atop a bright orange hermit crab had been walking along the stem of a downed palm frond before turning to look my way. And then another walking along the sand toward the lagoon stopped, eyes craning over the top of the shell in my direction. And there was another yards away, and several I could now see crawling in the forest. Within moments I had counted twenty five hermit crabs, all looking at me. We all stared. No one said a word.

Then I noticed what appeared to be a sharp, flat stone in a sandy clearing just further on. As I approached it resolved into a coral tombstone accompanied by others, some in the shape of crosses, some simple slabs no larger than a large book, all inscriptions worn off by time. A small crypt stood to one side. Again, a subtle movement caught my eye coming from under a slab that had toppled against a tree forming a shelter beneath. Inside hermit crabs were stacked one on top of the other. Now a pattern was emerging. The sand in this small graveyard was criss-crossed with tracks that often resolved into a single path leading toward another shelter, crevices formed by other toppled stones or the shade of a large tree root scraped out to create more space below, and each time it was jammed three deep with hermit crabs. Back at the beach I bent down beneath a tree to snap a photo of just such a collection, and when I stood, the eyes of yet another hermit crab met mine, but at my eye level. I blinked; the crab did not, but instead remained in meditation upon the lagoon from its high perch on a limb as if to say that climbing trees to six and eight feet was perfectly normal for its kind. And such must be for the tree held several other hermits, each wedged into a notch at various heights and looking placidly out upon its private domain.

I spent the rest of the day counting hermit crabs, marveling at their numbers, their uniformity of size and color, the tracks they left in the sandy beach that often converged from all directions upon the nearest high object, like the mecca of a single coconut; I pondered the misnomer (they aren’t hermits!), the habit some had of hiding so quickly as I approached that their shell would often topple from whereever it was perched, while others would examine me from distance with such reciprocal curiosity I half expected them to initiate a conversation. Then, at crab number six thousand two hundred and seven, it occurred to me that Makemo was less science fiction than children’s book. I would not have been at all shocked to find around the next bend of dune a pink walrus having tea with a rabbit.

It was in this frame of mind that I set out next day to find the famous White Squille. A fantastic animal, the Squille (pseudosquilla ciliata) is a crustacean whose back half looks like a shrimp and whose front half has the triangular head and long, claw arms of a praying mantis. It grows to about sixteen inches, is called Varo by the Polynesians, and is reported to be delicious. That, in combination with a color photograph of a Squille being held aloft by a dark man standing on the edge of a lagoon constituted the entirety of my Squille knowledge. I spent the day wading the shallow, sandy shoreline for sign of Squille without knowing what that would be, and so was not surprised when all I encountered were baby reef sharks gnawing at my ankles and shells. All kinds of shells from Marlin Spikes to Money Cowry to Conch and everything in between. But in the afternoon it occurred to me that I found very few, undamaged, unoccupied hermit crab shells. Given the vast number of crabs, the paucity of domiciles must mean Makemo was suffering from a severe hermit crab housing shortage, and in fact, I had seen crabs carrying less than perfect homes on their backs. So I took the few perfect shells I had found, lined them neatly at the head of the beach, open side down, and left.

Next day the computer died, and I remained aboard all day.

When I returned to my shell collection on the following morning, five of the nine shells had been turned over and examined and two had been exchanged. So there was ample interest, hermit crab home owners were shopping around, but only a few found my product to be of suitable quality. This meant the housing crisis was not at the peak I has supposed. There was either another source of adequate housing I had yet to find or the crab population was ridiculously stable.

In the afternoon I returned to the windward side of the atoll and spent several hours inventorying its trash, a line of plastic and glass perched just atop the levey that appeared to stretch for miles in either direction. There were Coke bottles and engine oil bottles and detergent bottles from the US; salt containers from Australia and England; transmission oil from Peru, scotch from Japan, scads of water bottles from Malaysia; fishnet floats from China. There were toothbrushes and shoes and broken hair combs and frayed broom heads and flip flops and orange plastic fencing and gnarled lumps of rope of all sizes; there were plastic buckets, plastic crates, plastic toys, fishing nets, clothes hangers, felt pens, a whole car bumper, a hard hat, and broken rafts constructed of bamboo bound together with plastic line … the list went on and on. It was as if the atoll was a giant net collecting whatever flotsam the ocean could not stomach.

Much of what I found was unusable. Bottles were cracked, lids missing. Toothbrush bristles had been pulverized by sun and waves. Rope was frayed and tangled to an extent King Gordia could not have replicated. Shoes never came in pairs and never had laces. Without thinking I had begun to pile the few useful items together. Here was a whole five gallon bucket with handle still intact. And there a fish float without any cracks. I found a bent but apparently new flip flop in my size. This broken comb was still perfectly serviceable. Then I remembered I was not marooned. I had a home on the other side of the forest that contained several pairs of flip flops and new toothbrushes. Not to mention cold beer. So I left. But I took the bucket.

Before I knew it Murre and I had spent a week at Makemo with little sense of the passage of time. On the 21st I wrote in the log, “The last two days have been ‘atoll’ interesting, which is to say that in a land without an interior, with now mountains to climb or valley streams to follow, and whose sameness stretches out of sight, one explores each day a smaller and smaller area sifting minutia.” In fact, I’d gathered hundreds of small shells of all sorts, had harvested coconuts from trees at the near beach, had swum multiple times the several coral heads adjacent to Murre, but I hadn’t got more than a mile in either direction. There seemed little point.

That said, the place was seductive beyond warrant, and the longer I stayed, the more detail emerged. I had begun to see the rats, dainty, dull creatures with oversized ears, staring down at me from the trees. Of birds there were the fruit doves, of course, but also a brown Tuamotu warbler with a song like that of a thrush; crested terns gathered on the beach in the evening and allowed a close approach. Boobies dove in the lagoon. Occasionally a Frigate swung overhead. Melon sized ghost crabs inhabited a salt water swamp to the east. Isaw more plant types with each visit ashore, and lacking a guide, I began to name them as best I could. The broad leafed, white flowered tree became Naupaka; another looked like Iron Wood; that pointy leafed bush, Ceanothus (no flowers), a tall fire weed sprang up in the forest, and under the palms there were ferns.  Here and there, tufts of grass.

And there were insects: flies and spiders and wasps. One evening I stayed ashore to experience the grandeur of sunset from the beach, but as evening came on and the wind softened, I began to feel a stinging on my legs. Soon my arms and neck also stung, and I pounded back to the dingy as fast as I could, slapping and grunting as I ran. The atoll was infested with No-no flies after all. From that point forward I always departed the atoll well before dark.

By July 23rd I had finally resolved to move on. The sail covers were off, I’d brought Murre up to short anchor, and had donned the wet-suit for one last swim (the water of the lagoon was oddly cold), when a large, smart-looking catamaran made the point and approached closely. Two adults and two children on a boat named Pacific Bliss. We waved and yelled greetings. “How’s the fishing?” asked the man, pointing to the spear gun along Murre’s rail. I had no idea, I yelled back–didn’t know which fish were poison, which not–hadn’t taken the gun into the water. “There’s no Ciguatera in this lagoon!” yelled the man.

Ciguatera is a toxin found in reef fishes that consume coral, or the algae that forms on coral. The toxin has no effect on the fish but can cause nausea and vomiting, muscle and joint aches, and flashes of hot and cold in the humans that consume them. It can also cause death when consumed in quantity, say, by eating fishes like Barracuda or Jack that themselves live off reef fishes. The disease pervades the tropics, but is unevenly distributed, and the rule of thumb is “if unsure, ask a local”. I’d seen no one since arriving at Makemo, so had avoided all.

I put Murre back on regular anchor scope and hunted in earnest all afternoon, managing to spear only one fish, a Blue Fin Trevally, and only because he swung from the reef towards me to extend a greeting. I fired point blank. The spear passed through him with an audible thunk; he beat wildly, wide-eyed, wide-mouthed, bleeding profusely. I rushed him back to the dingy before the scent of death found the sharks, and that night I feasted, feeling more a man than I had in days.

Having neighbors was welcome, especially since they spoke English and were so interestingly named. They were Colin and Liz of Southampton on a two year cruise with their children, Zinnia and Cosmo. We had a long dinner aboard Pacific Bliss the following night, and Colin and I “shot” the deep reef the next day, but took only one cod, which made ceviche for three (not counting the kids) but barely.

I stayed two more days, departing on July 25th, after having spent so much time aboard Pacific Bliss that I fear Liz thought I’d ask to move aboard.  It must have been with some relief that she saw Murre’s jib unfurl and her bow point toward the atoll of Kauehi.

*One theory has it that the famous white sand beach is produced entirely by coral-eating fish.

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