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Friday, June 16, 2006

Sea life takes center
stage just in time

Just when I'm complaining that I'm hardly seeing any marine animals on my South Pacific voyage, the little darlings show up.

The three of us were feeling down because we'd just made the difficult decision to skip our long-planned stop at Nuie, a one-island nation of only 100 square miles. We had to do this because I'd committed two cardinal sins of cruising: 1) arriving at an unknown port at night, and 2) possessing no good chart of the place. (Previously unknown to me, my GPS map excluded Nuie.)

It was too dangerous to go in, I decided. We would have to either stand off in big wind and rolling swells for an excruciating 10 hours or keep going.

We kept going. Our next stop would be Tonga's Vava'u Islands, 280 miles away.

Glum was the mood on the boat the next day. We missed something we'd wanted to do and added three wearying days to our passage from Rarotonga.

Then a flock of angels appeared.

I'd never seen more than two white-tailed tropicbirds together at one time, and the sight of dozens of these long-tailed beauties fishing behind the boat made me shout, "Hello! Thank you!"

We watched rapt as the graceful white birds rose high, tucked their wings close to their bodies and dived head first into the water. Fish splashed at the water's surface, and a few boobies and noddies showed up to partake in the feast. But the party belonged to those long-tailed, plunge-diving tropicbirds, and it made our day.

The next day, Scott called out that some fish were swimming next to the boat, and soon we were staring at dozens of tunas, flashing their iridescent pinks and blues in the bright sunlight. The 2-foot-long fish were surfing the big south swells rolling toward the boat.

The tunas must have had some advantage to swimming near us because they stayed for hours. Frequently, those glowing torpedoes rose to the surface, and we snapped pictures. All we got were shots of water.

That evening, what we thought was a passing squall turned out to be a full-out gale. In the traditional measure of wind strength, 32-38 mph wind, which is what we experienced, is considered a moderate gale. We just considered it way, way too much wind.

You can imagine our relief 36 hours later when we entered the calm waters of Vava'u, an island group so enclosed boaters call it a hurricane hole. As we motored among these achingly beautiful islands, Steve saw a manta ray leap from the water. Scott and I saw only the splash.

As if sensing our disappointment, the ray once again cleared the water, giving us a warm welcome to Vava'u's renowned marine life.

Now we rest at anchor among millions of pulsing, plate-size moon jellies, the same harmless jellyfish that swim in the Ala Wai Boat Harbor.

This long-distance cruising can be grueling, but in the snap of a jib sheet, the finned and feathered creatures of the offshore ocean can lighten moods and give a hard passage some bright moments. They are also why I'm here.



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