Day 123 10/26/13: Shark on a Bus & Other Stories of Creative Conservation

images-5This eccentric Australian diver/environmentalist travels the countryside in a bus filled with marine artifacts including a 5 meter white shark to educate the public about “killer” sharks. Admission fees collected for his “mobile museum” are donated to ocean pollution campaigns.

And on the subject of unusual forms of advocacy, check out this interview with Debbie Salamone of Shark Attack Survivors for Shark Conservation….I also just discovered Operation Blue Pride, a group injured war veterans that have come together to dive with sharks and promote awareness about ocean conservation.

Day 103 10/6/13: Certified and Certifiable

David Foster Wallace gave a reading for Booksm...

David Foster Wallace  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“That’s great! That’s just great! You’re certifiable! Do you know that, Quint?” Brody (Roy Scheider) hollers after Quint (Robert Shaw) smashes the boat’s radio (no more calling in for a bigger one) with a baseball bat.

I replayed that “Jaws” scene endlessly in my head on the way back from Catalina as my dive teacher filled out my diver certification card. I am by no means “good” at diving, but I am no longer afraid of bleeding ears or the large sharks attracted by the ribbons of blood pulsing from my exploding lungs.

The ocean is beautiful—heart-rendingly so. But I don’t want to disturb its inhabitants. I don’t want to shine flashlights in crevices to see lobster, or play with sea cucumbers. Even as I thrilled at the glimpse of a retiring purple octopus curled up in a rock hole, I felt a rush of feeling for the little guy. I know that octopus LIKE to be left alone. And lobsters seem to value their privacy as well.

I felt glad that I would be  teaching David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster” in the morning.

The essential question is this:

How do I commune with animals, while not interfering with their nature, their ways of being? 

It’s not that animal rights guilt precludes my enjoyment of the natural world, but thoughts about animal consciousness increasingly shape my experiences.

I grew up riding horses and still love doing it (as a way of seeing the countryside), but even that activity is fraught with complications: bits, and crops and heels into ribs. I recently discovered this observation (given in sign language) from the always candid Koko the Gorilla:

Koko looks at a picture of a horse with a bit in his mouth:

K: horse sad.

CD: Why?


(Check out more of Koko’s insights in this fascinating argument for the personhood of gorillas).

More on this idea of displacement & communion soon. The sea hath ignited in my mind the power and glory of language while it seemed to have sapped the very marrow from my bones.

Day 96: 9/29/13: Between Breaths

Back to the pool today to review some safety procedures after last week’s debacle at sea.

Thoughts I had while trying to achieve neutral buoyancy at the bottom:

1. Tried to remember the name of the guru who said, “My religion is breath.”

2. Yoko and John’s fabled first encounter at the Indica Gallery in 1966: She handed him a card that said “Breathe.”

3. What my brother told me about coming home from a recent road trip to Vermont with a bushel of sweet “wild apples.” The beauty of those two words together healed something in me.

4. How the peace one feels underwater is a kind of addictive silence, like the silence of meditation. So many kinds of silences, far more than there are kinds of apples.

5. What a strange honor it is to be with someone while they take their last breath, their last taste of the world.

6. My father and I used to race our horses through an apple orchard. The horses had white apple foam on their lips. At a certain point, I crossed some invisible, unspoken line and he stopped letting me win each race.

7. The fundamental law of diving and of life: don’t hold your breath.

8. The curved forms of the free divers that swim with sharks. They know how to move so as not to appear threatening. Their bodies are lithe, beautiful. They are seeking, it seems to me, some impossible form of communion.

9. Manannan mac Lir is an Irish sea deity. He is a clown, a beggar, and a psychopomp who guides souls to the underworld.  He’s associated with the Isles of Apple Trees in the next world.  In a painting I saw once Manannan mac Lir took the form of a breaking wave of horses. I remember the fury of the foam.

10.  My dive teacher takes the regulator out of his mouth. He lies on the bottom of the pool and blows these crazy rings of air to the surface–huge and perfect. They shiver and break apart. I immediately think of my father smoking cigars while he watched 60 Minutes–the hazy rings, not weird and futuristic silver water rings, but earthly like the rings of a tree. What good does it do to remember so much? My teacher gives me the signal: Are you ready to ascend? I have almost forgotten where I am. I nod. Yes. I am ready. I look to the surface.  I breathe.

Day 89 9/22/13: First Ocean Dive/Santa Cruz Island

When my dive group arrived at Ventura Harbor, ambling down the ramp to the docked boat, we noticed this slumbering, adorable, blubberous sea lion stretched out on the edge of the dock, his eyes glittering in the dark.

We headed out in the morning, the ocean impossibly blue, but so rough I spent most of the ride out in the bunk down below deck, escaping the rollicking Pacific by reading an old copy of the Atlantic Monthly which luckily for me had both an article on Sylvia Plath and one on The Beatles. I tried earnestly not to throw up and succeeded.  When I did return to the deck, I learned I’d missed a pod of dolphins frolicking near the boat, but sea birds were flying close, reminding me of a  trip to Channel Islands many years before, with my friend Dan and his father Richard. An expert birder, Richard had switched his obsession to butterflies and had come to the Islands to try and spot one. As Tim O’Brien once said, “odd fragments stick to memory” and I recall that Richard told me there was technically no such thing as a seagull.

Dan and I lost our fathers months apart last year.  Before I’d come to the dive boat, I’d had a difficult afternoon.  As a writer, your material is your own life and every word I wrote, summoned my father and confirm his absence. But I tried to exert some control on the flood of memories as I stepped on the dive boat. I didn’t want to be distracted by some melancholy image of a birch tree or a pasture and end up dead, tangled in a kelp forest.   Continue reading

Day 88 9/21/13: Wetsuits, White Sharks, & Whiskey

The smell of wet neoprene has already joined the ranks of dusty hay, lilacs, and library bindings in my sense memory hall of fame. Evocative of pools–and soon the ocean. It’s been a week since I last used the wetsuit and it still isn’t dry. I suppose it doesn’t really matter since I am about to walk off the side of the boat into the ocean, but I find myself worrying about all sorts of things as I prepare to leave. My mouth feels slightly dry.  A byproduct of caffeine or Mild Terror?  I’ve packed ginger pills for nausea and a flannel sheet for the sheet-less bunk on board the boat which will sail from the quaint port of Oxnard, but I wish I had a little flask for whiskey.  Last week we read “Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor” in class and I’m not thinking of  sharks so much as the endlessness of the ocean, how border-less it is, how impossible it seems to me that people can actually create boundaries between national and international waters.

But I’d better can the poetry for now, and get on to more practical concerns like packing….and signing this petition to place covers on boat engines to protect great whites who follow cage diving boats in South Africa.

Day 82 8/15/13: Out of the Kiddie Pool

In diving class today, I fumbled with my fin straps far too long,  continually adjusted and cleared an ill-fitting, constantly flooding mask, struggled to re-attach my weight belt and continued to totter and lurch Frankenstein style while trying to swim with my tank. In other words I assumed I would definitely be setting up some additional pool sessions.

Imagine my surprise when my dive teacher Greg said, “You did well today. We just get you a new mask and you’ll be ready for the boat trip next weekend.”

The shark is my friend“You think I’m ready?”

I removed my mask, hoping my face wasn’t smeared with snot.


Leaden anxiety rooted me to the spot.

I looked at the faded portrait that hung over the pool: a gaping, tooth-ringed mouth of a great white  framed by a porthole.

I uttered a silent prayer to the great fish: You’ll protect me, right? 

Day 81 9/14/13: The Eternal Gift of the Michelin Man

More diving lessons today. Better. I didn’t feel like a helpless tumbling astronaut as much, though I was eternally vexed by the task of detaching  the connector hose to my BC underwater. And putting on a wetsuit still feels like skull-fucking the Michelin man. But I felt so peaceful snorkeling across the pool,  watching the glittering light patterns on the bottom, broad wavering bands of light like David Hockney’s swimming pool paintings.

Why is art so often my first way into nature?

I felt happy that I’d grown a little closer to becoming a better swimmer.  Crossing the pool wearing my lovely blue split fins it hardly felt like swimming at all.  And how strange that a deep-seated fear of sharks should lead me to something so pleasurable.

Writing about struggling with the wetsuit-as-Michelin-Man made me think of my sister Janet. I can’t really think of a single thing that Janet feared.  Truthfully, she often had a bit of contempt for those who let fear paralyze them.  Janet was pure fire,  such a force of nature, that it was inconceivable to me that she would ever die. Continue reading

Day 78: 9/11/13: On Shark Dreams & Shark Cages

Today  in the darkness of the classroom, I remembered how pop culture is often a kind of vehicle for the spiritual, the sacred. It is easy to remember this truth in the realm of music, but easier to forget during things like movies involving killer sharks.

In the last fifteen or so minutes of “Jaws,” Hooper submerged in his steel cage, tries to escape the gaping, strangely feminine mouth and  battering ram of a body of the pursuing shark.  Students groaned as Hooper’s spear gun glided hopelessly away to the sea floor.  As the shark parted the bars of the cage and Hooper escaped into the sanctuary of a nearby reef, I said rather morosely, “I hope that doesn’t happen to me.” The class cracked up. I felt good not only because I’ll do anything for a cheap laugh, but because I sometimes remember: “Oh yeah, this whole project is culminating in my descent into the waters of South Africa in a shark cage!”

Often this truth flat-out horrifies me.

But today I started remembering my over twenty-year catalogue of shark dreams. I have been confronting sharks for years. Underwater, at the surface, sometimes flying through the air. But never consumed, never bitten or  tugged at, never even bumped or inspected.  I’ve watched for them at night, my binoculars trained on the dark water. I’ve lived in empty trailers on desolate beaches just to be near the seas where they swim unseen. So this descent into the cage, though foreign and terrifying in a physical sense, feels in some deeper, intuitive way, inevitable– the conscious version of the descent I’ve made for years in sleep, in dreams.

Day 62: 8/26/13: Yum-Yum Yellow

Swimfin Art Installation 99

Swimfin Art Installation 99 (Photo credit: Blue Genie Art)

If  I’m ever going to do something useful like count sharks for Project Aware, I’m going to have to get advanced diver certification.

Considering my innate spazziness with all things sport, this could take a while. But I invested in my future today by purchasing a pair of amazing swim fins from my dive teacher Greg Tash, at Aqua Adventures.

They’re split fins which means you can swim super fast without a lot of effort.

“What color do you want?” my dive teacher asked.

“Not pink,”  I said. “Not–”

“No yum-yum yellow?” he quipped.

Greg had read my mind as easily as he’d measured my foot.

I hadn’t heard “yum-yum yellow” since the 70s, when a popular theory proposed that sharks like brightly colored bathing suits, rafts, etc. This color-coded wisdom burned itself into my consciousness as did the following commandments:

Don’t swim at dusk or dawn

Don’t swim when menstruating

Don’t urinate in the water

Don’t swim near a sewage run-off (that one was pretty easy to manage)

Don’t swim alone

And if you do swim with a friend remember: You don’t have to swim faster than the shark, just faster than your buddy.

Check out Greg’s white shark cage diving video here.

Day 61 8/25/13: Scuba & Swinburne

Sketched portrait of 23-year-old Algernon Char...

Sketched portrait of 23-year-old Algernon Charles Swinburne, poet and author. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am a slow learner in nearly every thing. I am a fan of multiple examples, slow demonstrations and repetitive gestures.  For most of my life, this caused me a great deal of frustration and shame.  Now I don’t really give a shit. I’m happy to be taking extra diving lessons while the rest of the crew heads out to sea next Sunday.

I used to explain my general ineptitude at sports,crafts, handiwork, cooking, to the fact that I spent more time reading about things than actually doing them.

As a moody teenager, I  stayed on the sand with a book, using Swinburne’s ocean to deepen and transform the cold, black  waves of Plum Island, Massachusetts into something primal, maternal:

No wind is rough with the rank rare flowers;
The sweet sea, mother of loves and hours,
Shudders and shines as the grey winds gleam,
Turning her smile to a fugitive pain.

Mother of loves that are swift to fade,

  Mother of mutable winds and hours.
A barren mother, a mother-maid,
Cold and clean as her faint salt flowers.
(From “The Triumph of Time” by  Algernon Charles Swinburne)