Freddy silvers a cloud of bubbles into the shaft of sunlight illuminating the crevice. She rises slowly, turns and glides into another of the labyrinth of tunnels in the leeward reef of Ouvea Atoll. The reef opens and closes above her as she swims, roofed over at intervals by the vibrant coral growth.
Her sleek, black and white zebra skinned leotard stripes her trim, shapely form into a weird network of movement and design: she is a bizarre sea monster prowling the dark, shadowy caverns. The moving patterns of stripes absorb the attention of prospective predators or prey the way the caves and crevices of the reef absorb the energy of the sea waves - deflecting and diverting and reversing the flow of power.
Fifteen meters deep, near the bottom of the cave, I swim belly up, taking pictures of Freddy as she phantoms through the body of Ouvea Atoll.
Ouvea, a great and ancient megabeast, is the northernmost Loyalty Island just east of New Caledonia.
Freddy stops to examine something on the wall of the cavern. I hold my breath so my bubbles will not obscure the photograph and in the sudden quiet my convoluted brain illuminates the caves with the phrase: The Caverns of Seas Remembering.
The words transform the caverns from shadowy sea-filled rocks into an elaborate network of the recorded behavior of the whole coral community as it interacted with the movements of Sea day by day, year by year, over thousands of years. The shape, size, design, textures, around Freddy, around me, are solidified behavioral intersections - engrams - thought traces through a giant brain.
I reach out and touch the coral wall with my fingertips. It is hard and rough, filled with holes of all sizes. Given time and plenty of hard work, we could unravel the threads of thought in these walls and recall the history entangled here. We could bring back memories of the ancient behavior web as it wove each crystal layer of calcium carbonate. Life's record is revealed in the position and form of each crystal, locked in place when mind secreted it.
Above Freddy, the glowing, colorful edge of living corals are laying down more skeletal crystals, placing each with atomic perfection in patterns determined by genetic memories and the ambient environmental events of this day, this hour, this now.
I swim through the fissures of the giant mind of Megabeast Ouvea, down deep in its stony cold memory banks, down below the bright, convoluted gesturing of silken coral tissues as diaphanous as Sea itself. I glide through The Caverns of Sea's remembering.
Rising through a vertical shaft to the surface, I peer out over the tangled web of color and motion of the living coral reef. The ascent into the light and the busy carnival of the reef is uncannily like awakening from a deep unconsciousness.
On top of the reef, in the shallow water, the multitude of colorful corals intertwine in a cortex of Sea-patterned ideas as effervescent as the ripples of sunlight on the glittering white sand. Each moment of life and every movement of the corals and all the other creatures of the reef are being recorded right now, laid down in the crystal array of the reef itself. Layered in daily growth rings in corals, giant clams, sea urchin tests, fish bones, and the settling bodies of tiny planktonic creatures.
Megabeast Ouvea is a mountain of memories created by eons of living.
Freddy is now below me, tracing her way into one of the caves. Descending past the legend of dreams, thousands of years long, recorded in the walls around her. Yet oddly, the oldest dreams of all are not down there with her, at the bottom. The oldest dreams are here, with me, in the dazzling sunlight, in the now, within the living tissues of the corals. In each cell of every coral, in every living organism of the reef, there are dreams older than the entire atoll. Immortal dreams, never ending dreams, entwined in the molecules of DNA that has lived and learned, undying, for more than 3.5 billion years. Dreams of how to convert sunshine and seawater into tentacles and mouths and desires.
Right behind Freddy is a big ledge of coral. Once, it grew out over this surge channel in the reef. The ledge broke off and flopped to the bottom. It is only inches deep at my left elbow where fast growing acroporid corals spin their dreams into broad plate-like skeletons at 50 to 100 mm per year. Freddy, who is about six meters below me looking at a small, shy, electric blue fish, is well below the level of brilliant sunlight. Slower growing corals, round and solid, festoon the broken ledge there, slowly adding to the bulk of the reef. In places, on the reef top, I see other areas where the whole reef structure has collapsed in on itself. In some of these depressions, there are huge rounded boulders of Porites. Some of these coral heads are 3 meters in diameter and perhaps 300 years old.
Lazily, I submerge and drift down to Freddy. Together, we soar through a big cave and emerge outside the reef in 20 meters of water. Carl, John and Chris are clumped together at the foot of the wall of coral. They look at us and gesture franticly the sign for shark and point all around themselves. Freddy and I roll, exchanging positions so she is between me and the coral wall. We scan the deep as we roll, but don't see anything.
The men's bodies reflect their fear. The sea is clear but sharks are hard to see when they are in mid-water. Their bodies are two-toned grayish blue, the lighter belly color is in the shadow of the shark's own body and thus appears to be the same hue as the top of the shark - deep ocean water color. This is called obliterative countershading. On the seaward side of the reef the bottom drops off rapidly. The sharks, if they are still around, could be lurking close in the vast gray cavern and we would never see them. But I feel they have gone, and both Freddy and I are relaxed as we turn to face the men. It isn't actually a lack of respect for sharks. It's a kind of acceptance of them.
The three men continue their signs of agitation, backed against the coral wall, blasting out clouds of air. I give them the OK sign and they hastily retreat back towards the boat. Freddy and I follow along, holding hands.
"Jesus CHRIST!" John explodes as soon as we clamber back aboard Moira, "There were these three BIG sharks down there. They were getting aggressive, darting in at us and it was bloody scary."
"Yes, it was interesting the way they took off when the two of you arrived in those zebra striped suits." Carl smiles as he dries off and puts on his thick glasses. "They may look funny, but they do seem to work. I must look into getting one of those. Of course Walter Starck has been saying they work for some time but it's the first practical demonstration I've seen."
"You're right," John's long face looks surprised. "They left just before Rick and Freddy showed up. All three of them turned and swam away fast. I'll be damned." He watches appreciatively as Freddy peels off the skin-tight leotard under the shower on the after deck.
Carl (center in the photo), Chris, John, Bart and Cam are a group of doctors who have come out from Sydney to explore Ouvea Atoll with us. They are a delightful crew, full of funny stories and laughter. John is an enthusiastic fisherman. He's lost damn near all of our fishing lures and only caught two fish during their stay. He fishes all the way back to the hotel with our remaining lure. The rest of us sit in the cockpit talking and munching brownies Freddy made last night.
I tell Carl Edmonds about the megabeast brain and its stratified memories. In addition to being Australia's foremost physician on diving medicine, Carl is a psychiatrist. He listens to my ideas on how an atoll is a big, integrated, ancient creature and the layering of behavior as fossilized engrams in the caverns of sea's remembering. After I finish he looks serious and says, "Did you hear about the Atoll Megabeast who went to see his psychiatrist?"
"No, what was wrong with it?" I chuckle.
"Nothing Atoll." He shrugs. Everyone groans.
"Where are you off to next?" he sips an ice cold fruit punch.
"I don't know, Carl. Back to Noumea before the hurricane season arrives. We'll hang around here for awhile after you leave. I really don't know what to do. Too many things that need doing, none of them really seem worth doing."
"Have you ever read The Dice Man?" Carl peers at me in the intent, charming, friendly way he has. The sort of look psychiatrists must practice in the mirror every morning to make people trust them. I shake my head no. "It's a very interesting book, you should read it some time. It's a story about a psychiatrist who lives in Scarsdale, New York."
"Really? For real? Hey, that is interesting. My parents were both psychiatrists and we lived in Scarsdale, New York when I was a kid."
"Actually, I don't think it's for real. I think it's fiction, but with psychiatrists, you never know. Anyway, the Dice man comes up with a novel therapy for his patients who can't decide what to do. Make a list of six things to do, starting with something wild and crazy which would just be fun. The list ends with some chore which needs to be done but keeps getting postponed." Carl smiles. "Like all good psychiatrists, he decides to give the system a try himself before attempting it on his patients."
"In the book, for example, his list finishes with number 6: writing checks for his overdue bills. It starts with going down to the flat below and raping his beautiful neighbor. He rolls a single die and whatever number comes up, one to six, that's what he does. Promptly and without hesitation. The first time he tries, he rolls a snake eye, takes a deep breath and storms down the stairs and knocks at his neighbor's door. She opens the door and he rushes in and grabs her. Fortunately, she has been harboring similar fantasies so it turns out marvelously."
"You think I should give it a try?" I start thinking of things to put on my list.
"Why not? I thought it was such a good idea I started doing it." Carl says matter of factly. "Oh, not with patients, but with our little group at the Diving Clinic. Every Thursday night. In fact, we sat down and made up just such a list last month and coming here to Ouvea to go diving with you was the item which won."