"Fish!" Doug screams. He and I race aft and I grab the hand line. It's a big one. It pulls like the devil as I heave it in. Doug bounces around getting in the way, tangling the line.
"Here Doug, take it, it's too big for me, you pull it in," I back off from the melee. He grabs the line and starts heaving. I go get the gaff.
A swordfish comes alongside, an impossible iridescent blue. Normally we would let it go, but as we are heading in to the Hermit Islands, it might come in very handy. I reach down and gaff it. Doug takes the gaff and heaves the fish, quivering onto the deck. Freddy tosses a towel over its big dish-shaped eyes to keep it from flopping around. Not that it could flop much with Doug on top of it already. Freddy hands me a long, thin knife and I shove it into the Fish's brain through the eye socket.
I slice the big fillets into two kilo hunks and Freddy bags them.
Ten days after Palau vanished astern, we sail through a wide pass in the circular reef of the Hermit Islands. Three small peaked islands stand in the center of the big circular lagoon. A school of dolphins appears at our bows and leads us is. A good omen.
We anchor off a small wood jetty on the largest island. We are completely out of fuel and, since there has been no wind, we desperately need at least a little diesel to get us to Manus Island where we can refuel.
A white man surrounded by three black dwarfs lopes down the glittering white beach to greet us. John is the manager of a plantation they are trying to get going here. He's young and, with shattered T-shirt and beard, looks a bit spacey. He leads us over to the steps in front of the house where, without much foreplay, he reveals his major aim in life is surfing. He's here because in the Northeast Season there will be huge breakers coming in on the reef.
"On the reef?" I stare at him, unbelieving, "You surf onto a coral reef?"
"Sure. I mean you've got to be careful and all." he shrugs. His dwarfs are from the highlands of Papua New Guinea. There are seven of them (Doug and Freddy snicker) helping to do the work. John is not amused by their snickers. "They may be small (they are a little over 4 feet tall) but these guys are incredibly strong. I've seen them carry a 100 pound sack of concrete on their shoulder, straight up a hill you'd have trouble climbing empty-handed. I mean they walk up the hill."
We are all suitably impressed by this. John, encouraged by our rapt expressions, gets a kind of glassy look in his eye and we are inundated with a flood-tide of words. People get like that without anyone to talk to. He tells us about the plantation, the planned crops, the kinds of soils. He says there are deer on the island, a big species imported by the first owner of the islands for hunting.
He finally stops for a long overdue breath and I present him with about 10 kilos of fresh, cleaned Swordfish. That sets him off again, "Wow. You guys are lucky to get this. We haven't been able to catch any fish since last week when a big shark, one of those Great White Sharks, came into the lagoon. Right here into the lagoon. It's a deep pass, see. And that shark ate every fish in the lagoon. Man there were fish literally jumping out of the water. You should have seen that shark. I mean it was gigantic."
I start to say something about surfing onto the coral reefs with sharks like that around but he goes on and on, his words washing over us as the day lags on. Finally, I manage to ask, politely, if they could spare a drum of diesel for us. They can't but he agrees to let us have one anyway.
Two of the highlanders roll an old, rusty drum of diesel down the beach and out onto the wharf, John giving them a steady stream of verbal assistance. The fuel is black and guckky, but we siphon the whole drum into Moira's dry tanks. Waving a fond farewell to John, who chats us out of sight, we move off to anchor behind a small island on the outer barrier reef before heading off to Manus in the morning.
We go ashore on the little coral reef sand island. There is some bushy vegetation on the crest inhabited by about 1000 Sooty Turns. They are not interested in us at all. I am able to walk right up to them. The Hermit Isles must have been left in wildness for a long time for these birds to have no fear of man.
Freddy looks for sea shells on the broad white beach while Doug and I sit in the shade of a coconut tree and talk about science and religion.
"What do you think?" I ask Freddy as she plays with a little hermit crab.
"I think it's all bullshit. Let's go diving." She jumps up, brushes off some sand from her knees, and heads off towards the water. Such is the complexity of the French Feminine Mind that a tiny sea shell on a white sand beach inhabited by a minuscule land crab named Ajax is an object of fascination and love. While the noble mansions of mankind's greatest thoughts - science, philosophy, religion, morality, politics - are all bullshit, unworthy of a moment's consideration.
Doug and Freddy and I take our masks, fins, and snorkels and swim over the shallow reef top towards the drop off. I flipper across bright white sand and scattered yellow reef top corals until, ahead, I see the deep blue.
I am over the edge, hovering above a truly spectacular reef.
A cathedral of coral with prismatic shafts of sunlight tapering down into the cobalt depths, shift-dancing with each passing wave. Ramparts of coral of every description create a massive submarine cliff. Everything, the whole edifice, is alive. A living wall painted in hues of yellow, brown and green. I can almost see the corals growing.
This is so different from the pulverized reefs of the Philippines. It is a whole new breathtaking experience - as if I had never seen a coral reef before. I dive down, fly through the depths, look here and there at everything all at once. There are clouds of fish, big and small. Many of the larger groupers and wrasses are curious. They leisurely glide over to get a closer look at me. They show no trace of fear. Everything is untouched, virgin, alive.
I hang suspended in the gem clear water and bask in the glory and fullness of life. A two meter Maori Wrasse comes right up to me, inches from my face mask. He is greenish with a big bulging forehead and small, very mobile eyes. Turned sideways, the wrasse regards me with cool interest, his eye swivels back and forth scanning my body. There are lines of brilliant red radiating outward from his eyes like laugh wrinkles. He is exquisite. As he goes on his way, a sea turtle flaps by, passing directly above me.
I am unaware of anything but the coral reef. The whole spectacle of life and motion all around me. I swim in a trance, a point of awareness moving through the sea, soaking up the vision of life. As I float above the tangled corals and bright fishes, I see them in a new and strange way. It is hard to focus on the idea.
The separate fish and corals and echinoderms and mollusks are each part of the larger, complex ecosystem of the atoll. But this isn't right. Not exactly. What I mean is, there is a larger pattern of behavior which enables the reef ecosystem to function as an integral being. I've never felt this way about a reef before. There is something....something whole about so much life.
It's crazy, but just now, the ecosystem of the reef seems like a pattern of learning. Or rather, the way we learn about things. At first it is not there, you don't understand it. Then, suddenly, there it is, you've got it. Something about the reef works in the same way. The smaller pieces fit together and then, in a quantum leap, the pieces make something entirely different. It makes a new level of behavior that could not exist within the context of the smaller, individual parts.
As I swim back along the reef towards Freddy and Doug it occurs to me that these ideas are related to Bucky Fuller's Synergetics. But there is something else in there, something to do with Moirae and Evolution. I feel, out here over the reef, evolution might also work like that, with the same pattern. A gradual build-up of behavioral sub-parts that suddenly emerge as something new and completely different on a population level.... Just like new ideas. Not there. There. Like Moirae, not random, not chance, yet not planned. At least not exactly.
Freddy and I are wondering how to offload Doug.