Previous Ocean Watch columnOcean WatchNext Ocean Watch column

Friday, January 14, 2005

Starry night holds wonder

Today marks one month since arriving in Palmyra, and although it took a while, I finally feel relaxed.

This happens to most of us on vacation, but this isn't your standard vacation. I work hard on the ant study every day, chip away continually at boat repairs, write and take pictures every chance I get, read textbooks and exercise.

That makes my life here about as busy as it is at home. Why then, I wondered, do I feel so laid-back?

Of course, tropical atolls, particularly this lush, palm-covered one, tend to foster that feeling in people. But for me it also has something to do with boats.

Each evening, after a pleasant dinner ashore, I get in my rubber dinghy and row out to my sailboat to read, write and sleep. This trip usually takes about 10 minutes, but when it's cloudy, rainy or moonless, which is most of the time, it takes longer. And when I forget my headlamp, which is also most of the time, it takes longer still.


*Click on image to enlarge

Some nights are so dark I can't even see the outline of the boat. Then I aim in its general direction until I either run into it or row past it.

When I think that my sailboat and dinghy have become ships passing in the night, I turn around. The few lights on shore reveal the hulking silhouette I'm looking for, and I set a new course.

But even aiming at Honu's wide transom doesn't mean I'm home free. When it's windy, the breeze sometimes catches the Zodiac sideways, sending me right past the boarding ladder.

Then I'm back to ramming the hull.

Last Tuesday, the weather was unusually clear and calm, but it still took me a long time to get inside.

The still air had made the lagoon so glassy I didn't have to look up to see the stars, or strain to see the boat.

Orion, Taurus, Pleiades and billions of other stars illuminated my vessel from both above and below, the stars' mirror images marred only by the ripples from my oars.

So I stopped rowing. While sitting motionless among those celestial lights, I noticed a circular glow in the southern sky, like a stray ball from the Milky Way. Could it be?

Yes. Back on the boat, I got out the binoculars and lay on the deck staring at the Magellanic Cloud, two galaxies named after the great Portuguese sailor Magellan. (They look like one from here, hence the singular name.)

The Magellanic Cloud might not mean much to residents of the Southern Hemisphere, but for this Northern sailor, gazing at these galaxies from the deck of my own boat was almost as thrilling as sailing it into Palmyra's lagoon.

That's because you can't see this chalky spot in the sky from Hawaii. You must be at latitude 15 degrees North (Hawaii is in the 20s) to see it just above the horizon. Here at 5 degrees, 53 minutes North, it hangs at a comfortable viewing angle, the "Starry Night" of the cosmos.

Each day this month in this wildlife refuge has been jam packed with work, people and activity. But how could I not feel relaxed? I live on a boat in Palmyra.


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, "Ocean Watch",
for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin,