My mother always reminds me how I used to cry at every little thing growing up especially if it was tangentially related to water. Seeing a water fountain. Crossing a bridge. Getting into and out of a pool. So it’s no wonder my first memory I can recall is throwing a fit at the beach. It was my first time seeing the ocean. I didn’t even make it to the water to start crying. I remember feeling the sand in between my toes and already starting to lose it because I was scared of the feeling of wet sand so you can imagine how I must have reacted when I first felt the ocean’s stinging waves.
A general motif in my life I’ve discovered, however, is my fear of water is often quickly replaced with obsession. Being afraid of falling into a fountain turned into being mesmerized by how the droplets sparkled in the sun. Tip-toeing across a bridge turned into jumping off them. And running away from the waves turned into surfing them.
But my love for the water didn’t make me stop crying. Instead, it made me cry even harder every time I had to leave it. Apparently, I cried so hard the day I visited the ocean, I threw up and eventually cried myself to sleep, only to cry again when I was upset to find myself awake at my driveaway an hour away from the beach, I cried even more. Why my mom kept putting up with me I’m still not sure.
When I found myself having the freedom to intellectually pursue whatever I wanted, I was determined to make marine studies a big part of my education despite being a human biology major. Every day, my heart called me to the ocean and I was not going to deny it any further. I studied abroad in Australia learning about the intracices behind subtropical and tropical coral reefs as I traveled up along the Great Barrier Reef. Part of the program included staying at the University of Queensland research station on Heron Island. To truly experience Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, you need to stay on an island miles offshore the mainland like Heron Island.
Heron is a truly special place. While it only takes 30 minutes to walk around its circumference, it’s consistently rated as one of the best Great Barrier Reef islands for its diversity and was recently featured in a coral reef documentary by BBC. The snorkeling there is world class.Schools of stingrays and sharks are common sights and it’s also a popular turtle breeding ground.
Besides accidentally ingesting plastic waste, loggerhead and green turtles are endangered because it’s incredibly difficult for them to lay eggs. They prefer to lay their eggs at the same place they were born, but if they even see one faint light, they get frightened and retreat back into the water. Even without any bright lights, getting out of the water alone is hard enough for them. Imagine lugging 350 pounds of body weight with 2 tiny flippers. I stayed in Heron Island in the middle of turtle breeding season and one night, I saw a mother loggerhead turtle walk up shore and attempt to lay her eggs. She rested there for around 20 minutes, thinking about laying her eggs. I flashed no lights, stayed extremely quiet, and stood more than 50 feet away. She ended up not laying any eggs and went back into the ocean. So in addition to being scared of lights and struggling to walk up the sand, sometimes, they just don’t feel like laying eggs. To say procreation is difficult for these turtles is a huge understatement and consideration for this should be taken into account whenever development on coral atolls like Heron Island occur.
The magic of Heron doesn’t stop at turtles. There is a purposely half-sunken ship close to shore that attracts sizable balls of bait fish. Bait fish attract sharks. And sharks attract me. Sharks spend hours swimming inside these bait balls patiently waiting for the bait fish to get comfortable. Then, as if they somehow communicated to each other, the sharks would decisively conduct a coordinated lunge at the fish, confusing them. The fish that ran away from one shark would fall into the mouths of another waiting for it. Some of the fish think they’re clever and jump out of the water to try and avoid the sharks. Little do they know, seagulls are patiently waiting on the ship to eat them. Out of three weeks of snorkeling every day for hours every dawn and dusk, I saw this magical experience only once and while the attack only lasted a couple of seconds, I vividly remember so many details from it, it seemed like an eternity.
Of course, the diving at Heron is magnificent as well. There are many dive sites accessible by a short boat ride from the island and they are some of the best dives I have done. Heron’s snorkeling though will always seem unparalleled to me. It really is an experience I can never get anywhere else. I had a lot of free time on the island so whenever I wanted, I went snorkeling. Above the water, the island stayed the same: my friends and I were still studying in paradise, playing volleyball during off time, or sleeping on the beach after a long star gazing session. Underwater though, the island looked completely different in just three weeks. The school of stingrays and guitar rays that always resided on one side of the island disappeared, moving to another part-perhaps chasing the crustaceans. A school of trevallies I didn’t notice before came in full force. Fortunately, the sharks were always there. I didn’t realize it before, but even on a tropical island where the seasons rarely change, there were micro-migrations occurring all the time. Most people never get a chance to visit Heron of course, but even those that stay for a couple of days or even a week only experience a snapshot of it. You truly have to live on one of these islands to fully embrace their beauty.
So there I am, sipping on some juice under the shade of a palm tree. I had just lost fifty pounds from snorkeling every day (and night). I added a few life-changing dives under my belt as well. Life couldn’t get any better than this I thought. But my friend, Zack, started talking to me about how last year, he had done the Stanford@Sea program where you sail on what’s basically a 134 foot wooden pirate ship conducting marine research. I hadn’t even heard about this program since it wasn’t a standard study abroad trip. It was only offered every other year at my school. Admiration and a little bit of jealousy fueled me to apply and get accepted next year.
Stanford@Sea was a totally different beast than my study abroad program in Australia. The program was five weeks at Monterey’s Hopkins Marine Station learning how to sail and developing our research projects and five weeks of sailing from Tahiti to Honolulu, conducting our research. Australia was very relaxed. We were immersed in marine biology classes and our projects, but we also had a lot of free time to party, snorkel, and sleep on the beach. After all, getting acclimated in Australian culture was part of the program so when in Rome… Stanford@Sea, on the other hand, was 24/7 serious business-at least when we finally got on the ship. There were definitely still fun and games when we were in Monterey, but when your ship is in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, your actions as a crew member can jeopardize everyone’s lives.
Steering a few degrees off could strand us on a deserted island. Not doing a proper boat check could make you miss an overheated engine. Taking longer than your one minute allotted fresh water showers could over stress the desalinator. Even when we were anchored close to an island, we still had dawn and anchor watches all night long to make sure we didn’t drift away (which did happen several times), making sleep deprivation unavoidable. And when we weren’t on watch, we still needed to be on their A game as an incoming storm could require all hands on deck to quickly reef sails and change course.
We stepped on the Robert C. Seamans brigantine as polly-wags and greenhorns, but left as as tried and true, salty shellback sailors who sailed more than 2000 nautical miles, crossing the equator. A polly-wag is a sailor who hasn’t sailed across the equator while a shellback is one who has by the way. I went through Neptune’s trials (figuratively and literally-google Neptune’s trial if you’re interested in sailing tradition) and got a really good pair of sea legs. I ended up only being nauseous when we stepped on land for the first time after many days out at sea. My hair grew long and blonde, bleached from the hot tropical sun and my skin was covered in layers of grime, sweat, and ocean mist that could only be removed after 45 minutes of showering once in Honolulu. There was no denying the grind of this program. If you weren’t serious, Stanford@Sea would kick your ass and even then, all of us got our asses kicked at some point.
Our lives depended on us being serious and attentive crew members and students, but there was another reason that mobilized and energized us. A lot changed to our oceans within the year I was in Australia and then Stanford@Sea. Australia’s reef had been dying slowly in the past decade, but 2015, the year I went on Stanford@Sea saw accelerated bleaching. For some parts of the Great Barrier Reef, 90% of it was now bleached. The area near Cairns was hit especially hard. Corals get bleached when zooxanthellae (similar to chlorophyll cells you would find on plants for photosynthesis) evacuate from the coral’s calcium carbonate skeleton. It’s eerie snorkeling a bleached reef. What is supposed to be abundant with color and life is replaced with a literal graveyard of the lifeless white coral skeletons. The grazing fish have no algae to eat off the dead corals and the bigger fish have no grazing fish to feed on. The loud, constant snap-crackle-and-pops you hear from shrimps and crustaceans are replaced with deafening silence. Whether it’s coral reefs damaged by ships or a reef’s habitat thrown out of balance due to an island population’s over-fishing or even the eerie emptiness of a reef that had been used for nuclear testing, we saw first-hand how climate change and human influence had ravaged mother nature’s reefs. Even the most pristine ree we visited, which is currently completely uninhabited and thought to have only harbored 10,000 humans ever, had traces of coral bleaching. Our influence could now be seen in places we didn’t even touch. We couldn’t help but take our work seriously. We all felt like we were the last guardians of the planet.
But despite my many heart breaks, the ocean was still very much a beautiful place to me. I foolishly thought Stanford@Sea and sailing for five weeks straight could somehow fully satisfy my love for the ocean. After all, I was about to enter dental school so this could be my last hurrah. No more frolicking in coral reefs. No more swimming with sharks. Just looking at teeth and cavities all day.
Instead, I fell in love with the ocean even more. I’ll never forget every sunrise and sunset I saw on that ship. The mystical green flash (I saw three of them!). The odd comfort I felt when I could feel my guts move up my throat in twenty foot swells. How far a flying fish could jump. Waking up to a pod of hundreds of dolphins leaping out of the water at sunrise. The ocean shantys we’d sing. The taste of yellow-fin tuna when you catch it with your own hands. And that one night on bow watch, how our ship looked like it was coming out of a rainbow of stars while dolphins surfed the wake we created, disrupting the water and creating a trail of bioluminescence. Life of Pi had nothing on this.
For two years, I felt empty always trying to chase what I felt on the boat. It’s hard to describe what I felt, but a joy to be alive is probably my best attempt. Further, I felt left behind as my friends pursued careers in ocean science and conservation that could immediately make an impact on the ocean today. And knowing that the ocean I know could disappear in my lifetime I was desperate to get back in the water and show my family what I had seen during my voyage. I’ve always believed that the biggest reason why our oceans are in the sad state they are today is because unlike our National Parks and our backyards, it’s not easy for us to visualize what’s going on. It took me a study abroad program in Australia and a 5 week voyage across the equator to get even a basic understanding. If I could just show people-even if it’s just one at a time-the world they had been missing, perhaps that could be my contribution to the oceans and so I planned a live-aboard scuba trip for my mom and little sister in Komodo National Park in Flores, Indonesia. ( Bryant Irawan / IM )