Over the blue lagoon, in the warm golden light of dawn, a trio of pelicans glide in perfect formation. Wing tip to wing tip, they soar in from the west. As they cross the barrier reef, their white breast feathers glow with turquoise light reflected from the lagoon. As one, they lift up, buoyed by the trades bulging over Nothing Atoll.
"Wow!" Freddy gasps as they lift, "beautiful." We watch them perform a series of rolls and dives - all in formation - as if they, too, revel in the splendor of Nothing Atoll at dawn. Then they are gone.
Over the island, two large frigate birds hang suspended on the air, circling slowly above a small flurry of noddy turns. They have just got up and are getting psyched to go fishing.
We finish breakfast. Nothing to do today. Rest and Relaxation. Leo takes his little boat through the pass and off to do some fishing. I sit in the cockpit, looking at the reef and the clear lagoon water. "Hey, Freddy, I"m going for a swim." I put on mask, snorkel and fins and leap over the side.
The tiny cloud of bubbles from my entry clears, revealing the contoured white sand and rugged reefs pocketing Moira. I swim towards the reef to see what is happening in coral city this morning. The lagoon patch reef lifts straight up from 10 meters to the surface. Brilliantly colored corals of every possible shape festoon its sides. Thousands of fish swarm amid the corals, some tiny - there a glowing iridescent blue - there a gaudy color pattern of sharp black, orange and white. A few of the larger fish, well camouflaged, watch me with obvious curiousity.
I flipper along the edge of the reef, diving every so often to glide down and look at some fish or coral and then floating back to the calm, silver surface. With each passing moment I become more alive. Happy. I dive deep, right to the bottom of the reef, turn, swim hard for the surface, broach out of Sea. Moira gleams in the morning sun then is hidden in a wreath of silver bubbles.
A small shark glides over the sand at the base of the reef, summoned by my antics. I swoop down at it and it panics - vanishes with quick thrusts of its tail. I barrel roll and float to the surface upside down, spread-eagled and limp, seeing the blue sky through the small ripples. A half-seen movement draws my attention to the deeper grey-blue of the pass between the coral. Another shark?
I submerge, look into the pass, alert. I hear an almost inaudible high-pitched chirping sound and a grey shape swiftly appears from the gloom. A dolphin.
We both stop, hover in mid-water watching each other head-on. The moment lasts for only a fraction of a second. The dolphin turns and is gone in one smooth, effortless burst of speed. I surface and lie quietly, waiting, listening. I hear dolphin chirps, a squealing whistle. I see nothing underwater. I put my head up and look out across Sea. There they are, just through the pass. I swim quietly, close to the reef, and enter the pass. The current carries me rapidly outside the lagoon reef.
Just outside, three dolphins await me. Further out, I can see other fins breaking the water. These appear to be three male scouts of the school. They are shy and hesitant but very curious. I decide to talk to them and begin to make whistling, and I hope, friendly, sounds towards them. I hover quietly thinking "You are very handsome, very graceful, I appreciate your beauty. I am friendly, come, play with me."
The dolphins begin to move quickly just within vision range. A very small one, just over a meter long, maybe smaller, bursts into view from behind me, very close, skids to a turning stop. I don't move and the baby and I look each other over. One of the adults zips in and guides the small one away. It circles down and around the adult and flips back in front of me, this time only an arm's length away. The scouts are nervous but stay back.
"Oh, you are sooo beautiful," I whistle softly through my snorkel. The young dolphin lets out a stream of bubbles, trills a series of clicks, gives a cute little squeal and darts away. I can't believe how they move so quickly with so little movement of their fins. The current is carrying me further from the reef. I look up. Moira is now small in the anchorage and is very far away. I am closer to the main school. They circle around one of the outer reefs. As the current carries me near, I see many dolphins on the very edge of visibility. One of the males leaps clear of the water and comes down with a resounding smack. Underwater, it sounds like a rifle shot. The whole school responds as one and moves away, out to sea. I get the message, too. Time to go. I turn and begin the long swim back to the lagoon and Moira, filled with an uncanny, delightful sense of....of being.
Is it my imagination? Are they somehow able to communicate with me? On some level I don't understand? Why do I feel so awed and friendly towards them? Dolphins make me feel something very special. How? Why?
I have to swim hard, staying near the reef, to make it in through the pass against the current. Great exercise. A medium sized Gray shark comes drifting out of the pass as I work my way in. Sharks also are interesting to look at underwater but in a sinister, boneless way. Their eyes are empty and vacant. A dolphin could kill me as quickly as a big shark yet their eyes sparkle with joy and friendship. I chant the word friendship as I stroke, left..right, into the lagoon and out of the current.
Friend..ship...friend..ship....friend..ship...friend..ship. And I'm in.
Camera at the ready, Freddy and I plunge into the lagoon hoping to get some photos of the dolphins. I manage to get one shot, and then they simply vanish. I have the thought that maybe they don't like my camera case - a bubble of air in a plastic housing must make a hell of a big sonar reflection. Who knows what they think it is, but they know it is not "natural."
While waiting for them to return, I decide to photograph corals and fish. I dive and focus on a massive coral with large polyps. My mind tracks off into the confusion of the one versus the collective. Corals are good for this. All those little polyps look alike - are alike. Together they make up one coral colony. One skin raised as many mouths. A good phrase. It keeps circling in my head as I focus on the brown and yellow polyps of the Goniopora coral, turgid with water, waving tiny tentacles into the currents. In the viewfinder, I can see each polyp has a mouth, a ring of tentacles, a slender retractable stalk. One skin raised as many mouths. I shoot.
When coral begins life on the sea floor it is only one polyp. Then it divides into two, four, eight, sixteen, and on and until it becomes a massive colony, like this one, with thousands of polyps. Each polyp is an individual. I poke one and it reacts as an individual, expelling water and shrinking back into its protective coral cup. I poke it again, several times, and many other polyps around the one I touch also react, notified by the danger signals traveling along the nerve net extending through the colony's common skin. One skin, many mouths. Soon all the polyps retract and the colony becomes a brown colored rock pock-marked with calcium carbonate cups.
One acting as many. Many acting as one. I focus on the idea of one, the I AM. It could apply to one cell within the polyp, one polyp, one colony of coral or one coral reef or the whole area of reefs comprising Nothing Atoll and its structures.
Freddy motions me over to a small pink cluster of Seriatopora coral. Dozens of tiny black and white striped damsel fish, Dascyllus aruanus, hang above it. The fish dart back into the coral as I approach. Freddy and I watch quietly and they slowly re-emerge, rise above the branches, and resume feeding on tiny planktonic animals.
The fish are also part of the coral, part of the association. They are a plankton-catching net extending above the coral into the water. They capture nutrients from water far beyond the reach of the coral polyps. The fish excrete small pellets of waste, high in phosphates and nitrates, and the coral polyps catch these in their tiny tentacles and eat them. I can see one pellet in the tentacles of two polyps - they fight for the phosphates. The coral uses the nutrients as fertilizers for the zooxanthellae plants within their tissues.
I look around at the reef and see hoards of fish hovering over the reef, thousands of them rising like extensions of the coral branches, feeding from the gentle currents of the lagoon, trapping nutrients into the coral system, helping the reef grow.
We are cold. I'm out of film. No more dolphins. I really think they don't like the camera case. We swim back to Moira and climb aboard. Leo has returned from fishing and joins us for a delicious lunch of smoked fish. I talk with him for awhile about the reef. He does not have enough command of English for our conversation to go far, but I get the distinct idea his knowledge of reef creatures is not very extensive and that he has no conception at all of the complex associations between the reef creatures.
In the afternoon Freddy and I go to the island, zooming over the shallow sand flats to the white sand beach. We amble down the beach looking for tiny pea urchin shells. These are the smallest species of sea urchin in the world. The hard, oval test of an adult is only about 5 millimeters in length. They are perfect for kaleidoscopes, but very difficult to find. I've never found one alive, only the dead tests washed up on the beach. After awhile, I come upon the big driftwood tree and sit down on it while Freddy continues to search for tiny shells.
I need to think about my talks. Each evening I get together with the Earthwatch team members and talk about coral reefs and island ecology. It's a wonderful testing ground for my ideas. The team members come from all walks of life and are all ages from 16 to 75. Most of them are middle aged professional people. What better group of minds to sharpen my thoughts on? By and large my talks have been a miserable failure. I don't know what's wrong. My presentation? The ideas are too far out?
Really, I don't even know if the talks have been failures or not because most of the time everyone just sits there listening. They do listen well. Afterwards nobody says much of anything. I get the standard couple of responses. Nothing At All, or some variation on mysticism. "You ought to start a new religion." "Do you believe in God?" "You should have been an evangelist." That sort of stuff.
On Team IV there were two younger participants - Cecille from Sydney and Drew from Victoria. They, and Colin Shelley from the University of PNG who listened to the whole series of talks twice, understood what I was saying. Cecille wrote in Moira's guest book, "It's truth!! And I can feel it ringing inside of me, still. I understand. I understand." That's what she wrote, but she said, one night at the end of her stay with us, "I really and truly understand what you have been saying. But I don't know what to do with the ideas. Does that make sense?"
I suppose, Cecille, it does.