Meanderings of a Marine Biologist turning Mermaid near the Marianas Islands
The thermometer reads 92 degrees and sleep evades me. Utterly awake, I sense the sea spells creeping into my soul.
My body rolls methodically left, right and left again in this small bunk as I search for the last cool place to lay my cheek on the pillow. I know the chug and rhythmic pulses are pistons turning two decks below, but this deep in the night, it is a heartbeat, the life force of the ship.
Everyone is asleep, save the mate on watch and cheerless crew working the boilers in the depths of the engine room. The vessel shudders, the pulse beats on.
I am a Marine Biologist on a research vessel in the Northern Marianas Islands.
The SS Thorfinn was built in 1952, a whaling vessel destined for the icy waters of Antarctica to search for whales. In a twist of fate, 60 years later, she steams the Tropical Pacific in search of marine life, this time for science. The creaks and groans, like distant memories, seep through the walls and decks, begging to be heard by the few who will take notice.
Who else is listening at this time of the night? Who has lain awake in this bunk before? What ghosts roam the narrow halls and decks?
I peel my sticky body off the damp sheets and with an audible sigh, peer out the small window above the bunk. The dark silhouette of a volcano is dreamily discernible, smoke billowing from its crater, ghost-like in the night sky. The half-cup moon, in an almost devious way, offers a tantalizing reflection on the water. My gaze lingers on the only light in this sweaty darkness and I lose myself in thoughts of a faraway, more Northern home.
Loneliness is palpable on a vessel surrounded by black water. I mindlessly scratch my thigh, raking nails across a patch raised hives, the remnants of a jellyfish sting now fully inflamed on the second day—a small fee for the freedom of a sunset swim.
The tightness in my shoulders whispers another reminder.
My eyes focus again on the sparkling surface and I imagine the familiar caress, the satiation of aquatic engulfment. I long to be in there, to feel the water rush across my body, the sovereignty of weightlessness. I masochistically crave the ache in lungs, the mellow terror of what could be lingering behind or below.
What is more luxurious, more sensual than every inch of skin embraced by warm water? All too often we hear that the human body is made of that same mixture.
Is that why being in the ocean feels like being home?
“From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to the earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free.”
~ Jacques Yves Cousteau
The roll of the ship, the creak of metal draws me back. How do I find myself in such places? Why do I maroon myself for months at sea, forsaking all that is reality … my lover, my family, my friends, my garden, my puppy SitaRam? I look again to the volcano as if it might provide answers. Mt. Pagan stares back, silently mocking me and this insomnia. In the daylight it rumbles theatrically with plumes of yellow smoke rising into the sky.
Layers of vog—volcanic fog—blanket the leeward side, sending infinitesimal drops of sulphuric mist to burn the eyes and skin. The mood that accompanies an active volcano rising from the middle of the ocean is something eerie and fantasial.
Out here, reality and fantasy tango, science and magic trade secrets. Riddles rule reason and reason is rare. I find myself lost in daydreams, stealing glances at Mt. Pagan in search of the sleeping dragon assuredly dwelling below the crater. I wait for his cameo flight, believing any moment he will appear, swoop down over the coast and circle our floating home anchored in his cove.
Flying fish become fairies gliding in short bursts above water, spreading their mica wings to soar before plummeting back to their underwater realm. Reef flats become labyrinths of neon and algae covered rubble. No matter how many hours are devoted to navigating the mazes one cannot find the coral palace hidden somewhere in the center. Billions of tiny fish are really elves, synchronously dancing their waltz to a cadence unknown to our world.
Anemones hypnotically sway, fingers motioning, inviting, all guarded by a clownfish turned jester. Giant clams, electric blue and purple, snap shut with the slightest notion of nearby movement, confining their treasure chests of enigmas and secrets.
Sharks with menacing grins lurk in deeper waters waiting for a scent of blood or flesh. What was first a rock, now a sea turtle, is a wizard camouflaged in a brown cape. His piercing gaze is a reminder of knowledge carried beyond my human comprehension. Dolphin, Pegasus of the sea, resting in inlets and coves at dawn, grace us with a display of acrobatics in the morning sun.
We pass the northern headlands and I search for sirens, listening for their songs on the shifting wind. When will they call me to join them?
“The sea, once it casts it spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever” ~ Jacques Yves Cousteau
Our small scientific team lives aboard this antiquated steamer, at times anchored in the cove below Mt. Pagan, at times steaming around the palm-lined islands. We venture out with survey equipment, clipboards, cameras and gadgets. We search with our determinate minds to quantify, calculate, measure, photograph, sample and discover. Research.
Field work. Methodology.
As the monotony of each day passes and we return to our ship of memories salty, sun kissed and utterly exhausted, we analyze our data, draw conclusions, define. We desperately attempt to put order to chaos and find answers to the mysteries.
Yet in my heart, this great magic prevails. The ocean.
“What is a scientist after all? It is a curious man looking through a keyhole, the keyhole of nature, trying to know what is going on.”~ Jacques Yves Cousteau
I have learned from my years in science that our tables and reports can define the intricacies, relationships and beauty of the natural world no better than a poet can define the feeling of love. Some things are beyond our numbers and words.
I am a curious woman, looking through the keyhole, wanting to know what is going on.
The stifling air in my berth is nearing unbearable and a trickle of sweat drips in the small of my back. I look to the silvery water and feel a shudder of desire run down my spine. Leaving my room, I navigate the dark, narrow halls and hatches, to the stern.
Above the rhythmic pulsing of the ship, I believe I hear the faint whisper of a song. Standing at the stern rail, bathed by breeze and salty air, I look towards the Northern headlands. There it is again, the voices calling. I wiggle my ten human toes and imagine leaping into the dark water to join them.
I believe in science, but I also believe in magic. The sea has cast its spell on me and I will remain in its net of wonder forever.
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Assistant Editor: Bruce Casteel/Ed: Bryonie Wise