Ocean

Not Quite North Shore

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I am not a surfer, nor am I a surf photographer, but a few months ago I went along with my wife and some of her nieces and nephews to one of their favorite family surf spots.  This spot is just south of the more famous beaches of Oahu's famous North Shore.  The beach here is smaller, more intimate.  There aren't any sponsored surfers or Quicksilver tents, no pro photographers with $3,000 zoom lenses.  Just a few local people taking in the sun and the waves, and me with my trusty Canon.

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For one of my wife's nieces, this was her first time surfing and several of her cousins came along to surf with her and help her find her feet on the waves.  This was a different side of surf culture than what I had previously been exposed to.  This was the familial surf culture--the tradition of wave riding that is passed down through generations.  No one is aspiring to be professional here, at least not yet.  The motivation for getting into the water is more spiritual, more pure, more about getting in touch with the rhythm of the ocean and the traditions of their ancestors.

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Not to say that the pro surfers don't feel the same spiritual surge while in the water--much has been written about how they do--but at this beach on this afternoon, there was no pressure to perform.  There was only sun, surf, and family, which was what I tried to capture most in these photos.

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Torching at Heʻeia

IMG_2242 To live on the water at Heʻeia is to know the ocean differently.  The white sandy beaches and crashing blue surf typical of the rest of Oʻahu are not found here.  At Heʻeia the ocean is lapping bay water, sticky mudflats, and ancient fishponds.  This shore is the ancestral home of generations of fishermen.  They lay their nets off the reef and dive with the sharks at the drop off.  And some nights, at low tide, in the dark of the moon, they come out to go torching.  This is when Heʻeia becomes more than a shoreline; this is when Heʻeia is magic.

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Anciently, Hawaiians fished Kāneʻohe Bay with olonā nets, hard wood spears, white bone hooks, and (at night), with torches made from kukui nut.  On still nights they walked the reef with their torches and speared the sleeping fish in the firelight.  Today, locals have evolved from torches to propane lanterns and high-powered headlamps, but they still call it torching.

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The light in the midst of the black ocean is what makes torching feel magical.  As you walk in the dark water, the small circle of light at your feet reveals an alien world where little red crabs flit in and out of the coral heads, feeding on sea snails and limpets.  In the silt, tiny phosphorescent squid burrow down for protection, a trumpetfish brushes your ankle, and an eel broods nearby. The colorful reef fish are half-asleep and reluctant to flee from the light, making them easy prey for the fishermen.

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Nighttime at Heʻeia is the time of the scavenger.  When the tide retreats to slack water and the reef fills with the strange crackling noise of the skittish crustaceans, then the fisherman appears at the shoreline -- his lantern strapped to a harness on his chest and a three prong spear in his hands.  He steps onto the mudflats and becomes a part of that alien world, a participant in the great feeding frenzy of low tide.  He wanders the reef back and forth and the lantern bobs with him as he walks; until finally, from far off, he merges with the darkness and becomes another pale light on the horizon, a vague point of reference in the black, a final piece of the great cosmic tapestry reflected in the glassy water of the bay.

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In The Aquarium

IMG_9773 The tanks at the Monterey Bay Aquarium are not your average fish tanks.  There are no goldfish here, no guppies, no koi.  These million gallon tanks hold sharks and sea turtles and rays and five-foot-long bluefin tuna.  Schools of mackerel and sardine swim through the wide open spaces of the tanks in great shimmering clouds of speeding fish flesh.  They cut and swerve in beautiful unison.  And outside the glass, the masses gather and watch, smudging the giant window panes with their fingers and noses.

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Of course, there are regular-sized tanks as well.  These are the homes of the individual species: jellyfish and seahorses, octopi and crustaceans.  These were interesting, the jellyfish especially I could have watched for hours, but they lacked the grandeur and awe of the large-scale, open-ocean tanks.  I would have liked to sit and ponder the desultory movement of the jellyfish or the shy expressions of the seahorses--it was almost like watching a live action painting--but there were too many people rushing around, taking their turns at the glass, pointing and exclaiming, and then hurrying on.

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When I was there, the aquarium was very crowded and, as a result, very stressful.  It had the feeling of a bad rock concert as people pushed to get to the front of the glass to take a photo.  They wore tension in their faces and carried before them a mood of harried malaise.  I saw a grown woman snap at a six-year old boy because he tried to nudge past her leg to get a better view.  "Shoulda gotten here sooner," she said as she widened her stance and cut him off.

In the midst of the crowd I felt a bit like a fish being pummeled in the current, but this was no tidy school of mackerel; these people were sharks.  At the large tank, I peered into the blue depths and watched a sea turtle ease through the open water above me; he swam graceful and free.  He approached the glass for a moment and paused to stare out at the crowd while people around me shoved and cursed and jockeyed for position to get the perfect shot.

Fish must think we people are strange beasts.

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Still, despite the frenzied chaos, I admit that I was entranced by the aquarium.  I am not usually a lover of fish or of the sea, but in the darkness below the surface, I could feel the magic of the water.

Sea life

I took these last July while doing a little beach combing at Wages Creek Beach just north of Wesport, CA.

We found this dead shark washed up on shore.  It was pretty fresh although the seagulls had already picked out the eyeballs.  It was cool to touch though.  The skin was rough like sandpaper.

The colors of the ocean.  Different varieties of starfish, sea anemone, mussels, and seaweed.