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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Bumping into the Holy Grail off the Maui shore

The Spotted Eagle Ray


The sun was just cresting Haleakala to the east as I hefted my snorkel bag and Big Agnes collapsible camp chair and headed for Kama'ole 2 Beach Park.  With the trade winds revving up early each day here on southeastern Maui, I wanted to be in the water when the first light filtered down onto the reef, before the wind and waves roiled up the water (as had happened yesterday).  It felt great to be walking down South Kihei Drive, with hardly any traffic, the tourists and homeless campers not yet up, and perhaps the most scenic (and snorkeling blessed) stretch of beaches in Hawaii on my left the whole way from our rented condo.  

I dropped my shoes and chair against a dune at the north end of Kama'ole 2, and continued along the high ground of beach access across the point where I'd be snorkeling, a relatively recent lava flow from the aforesaid volcanic mountain several thousand years ago, the frozen rocks creating an incredibly varied and "friendly" reef habitat for creatures swarming the waters there.  A minute later I walked down into the south end of Kama'ole 1 Beach Park, left my snorkel bag amonst the black lava rocks there, and walked into the water with my mask and snorkel atop my head and fins in hand.  When the water deepened, I put my fins on, pulled my mask and snorkel down, and turned to swim out to skirt the shoreline rocks against which the surf was lapping.  

Not 60 seconds into my swim, with more sand than rocky reef below me, there it was:  a Spotted Eagle Ray pulsating slowly beside me, its undulating "wings" propelling it effortlessly through the water.  The holy grail of my underwater career, a creature unsurpassed for beauty of appearance and movement.  While my Scuba-experienced high school buddy Jim has seen plenty, I've avoided Scuba (yes, I'm at heart a Luddite) and seen only one Eagle Ray in my water-surface-snorkeling experience of half a century.  (See my blog for August 2019.)   And this morning:  my second Eagle Ray, flowing past me as gracefully and beautifully as the first time.  I broke my wonted rule and followed her for maybe a minute, until she showed some signs of being annoyed, then broke off with a benediction to her.  

It figured I'd see another Eagle Ray in the sandy-rich area; these rays are not filter feeders, like their more well-known (and larger) cousins Manta Rays.  Instead, the Eagle Rays search through the sand for buried molluscs, and upon finding one simply crush the (substantial!) shells with their fused teeth of each jaw (powered by sturdy jaw muscles, analogous to our masseter muscle).  Spit the shell fragments out and feast on the mollusc flesh! 

While a bit anticlimactic, the rest of the 45-minute snorkel was also good.  This area had been turtle-rich last year, and I wasn't disappointed.  Most of the dozen Green Sea Turtles I swam amongst had just awakened and risen from the sandy bottom when the sun's rays brightened their habitat, and cleaner fish were clustered around them thickly, scouring the shells of the algae encrusting it.  The smaller turtles looked almost like balloons, so thick were the feeding fish around them.  The big guys, though, sailed serenely through the early morning waters in their calm, unhurried way, ignoring the fish clustered about them.  I sensed something big beside me, and twisted about to see a large adult turtle, maybe four feet long, had glided up within a foot of me.  After my adrenaline rush had subsided, I swam along enjoying his company, visions of a St. Francis of the Sea glimmering in my head. Soon he veered down toward a tempting clutch of red algae, and I was just Ray again, rather than a soggy St. Francis. 

Eagle rays thrill me.  Sea turtles reassure me; they radiate an aura of certainty of their place in the scheme of things, going unhurried about their daily business with not a care in the world.  Sea water becoming acidified due to global warming?  It'll pass, give or take a thousand years.  Pollutants washing down from growth of coastal farms and businesses?  It'll pass too, in a millennium or two.  I'm doing my thing, they seem to say; and my kind will be here doing their thing long after you foolish humans are gone.  And you know what?  I think they may very likely be right.  

Lots of fish in the Butterflyfish family pass below me amongst the rock reefs, usually in pairs, all brimming with yellows, oranges, and black: the raccoon, four-spot, teardrop, threadfin and more.  Many sex-changing wrasses too, especially a breathtaking swarm of the red/green/blue ringed Christmas wrasse.  Lots of the blue and black, spotted trunkfish, with their boxy shape.  And large schools of the Yellowfin goatfish, their yellow stripes glinting from the white bodies massed together.  

Then, of course, my favorite, perhaps, the reef triggerfish, sporting whites and golds framed in black, with a touch of red, whose Hawaian name (humu-humu nuku-nuku apua'a) I required my Pacific Basin Natural History students to memorize.  (This was often the only thing the students remembered from the course a decade on, according to many I'd meet long after the course.)  

I was tiring; 77-year-old guys don't have the energy for long snorkels that they used to.  Swimming back to the shore, I noticed a moray eel poking his head out a hole in the rocky reef.  Then, my gear stuffed into the bag, I paused atop the beach access trail at the point between Kam 1 and Kam 2,  enjoying the feel of the sun on my skin as I gazed out at the waves surging over the emergent rocks of the point.  Yes, I think the sea turtles are right.  Everything is doing fine out there, and because the ocean is so huge with so much inertia, the creatures out there will take all the perturbations of climate change in stride and come out fine on the other side in a couple of thousand years.  Even if in our foolishness we stumble into a nuclear war and poison the air and water with radioactivity, that too will get absorbed, maybe even sparking some mutations that help creatures get through the tough period.  

But it will be alright, as it is now.  I take no pleasure in being persuaded to the conclusion--based on research for my last two books, and the scientific articles I've consulted--that our inadequate response to the various phenomena associated with climate change will very likely destroy human civilization, and very possibly extinguish the human species on our planet.  Here I join others similarly persuaded.  Certainly, whether our kind will be here after the thousand years or more of recovery from climate changes' catastrophes is an open question.  My hunch is probably not; we're very dependent upon the hugely intricate mechanical/electrical/computerized system that we've woven around ourselves.  But perhaps, just perhaps, some few of us in sheltered, out-of-the-way places will survive, and remember how to grow our own food and tend the soil, even how to fold the raising of chickens (and their manure!) into the system as my buddy Al does on his farm, to create a balanced, sustaining, self-enclosed practice.  Any survivors will have reverted to the hunting/gathering/gardening mode that modern archaeological research shows characterized our kind's first 10,000 years as settled villagers, before the momentous events of about 2,500 BCE (leading to urbanization, patriarchy, misogyny, extraction and production of luxury goods, and warfare) changed it all and led us directly and inexorably to where we are today.   

Perhaps.  But either way, the oceans and their creatures will remain, tho perhaps a bit changed genetically to cope with the new conditions.  Life will continue to pulse and flow serenely onward amongst the sun rising over Haleakala and the tides pushing in and pulling out.  Eagle Rays will glide effortlessly along the sandy bottoms, and fish will clean sea turtle shells, and all will be well.  I grin in the sunlight overlooking the wave-splashed point, adjust my snorkel bag on my shoulder, and stroll toward Kama'ole 2 and an hour lolling in the morning sun on my Big Agnes chair until my good wife passes by on her morning beach stroll.  All is well.  


(For an account of the momentous events clustered around 2,500 BCE, see Raymond Barnett's Forgotten World, available from Amazon.)


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