A new Beach Clean Up Station has been added in Baja California thanks to Margo! Margaret “Margo” Lambert (far right) poses with the station that she funded and installed at a local beach in San Luis Gonzaga Bay, a little beach paradise frequented by John Wayne in bygone days. She is joined by the employees of a neighboring restaurant at Alfonsina’s resort, which strives to reduce the human impact on the local environment through sustainable tourism. Alfonsina’s is currently the only hotel around the Bay but that may change as the work continues on the highway connecting San Felipe with San Luis Gonzaga Bay. Right now, however, the area remains a calm, quiet oasis from big cities with a loyal base of tourists that return again and again. Margo wanted to preserve the natural beauty of the bay which is home to many tropical fish and is visited by the endangered Whale Shark. With the possibility of the Bay being frequented by more tourists, Margo plans on installing another Beach Clean Up Station soon to help keep the beach clean.
If you want to learn more about Alfonsina's, check out their website here.
My mother was a mermaid. Still is, I suppose. She left when she found her red cap, which gave her back her tail, so she could return to the sea. Everyone else says she skipped town. But I know the truth.
I go to the beach once a week, on Saturday, like we used to when I was small. I hated it as a kid. Just walking along the sand, having the grains squirm their way into my shoes and socks. There was grit between my toes within 10 minutes on the beach. She would pull me along and shush any complaints I had. Then, she would get tired of that and tell me to sit and wait for her, before continuing on her own.
I once collected seashells and empty crab husks while I waited for her. When she came back, I presented my finds to her, my cupped hands filled to the brim. I asked if we could put them in a jar at home. Her face curdled like the sourest of milk. She grabbed my wrist and yanked me back to the sidewalk to march on home. Her grip hurt my wrist. I lost the shells to the sand.
She and Dad argued that night when our house was usually quiet with unspoken thoughts. She came in to tuck me in that night and to, I assume, apologize. She looked down at me with tired eyes, “Don’t take the Ocean home with you, son. That’s stealing.”
I wanted to protest that no one was using any of the sea shells or crab parts but I was worried she would still have the energy to yell at me. I let out a tiny “Okay.”
Today, it’s the usual Humboldt County forecast: cloudy, windy, with a chance of rain. The ocean is a few shades darker than the sky, rolling out breakers that create a fine mist. I taste the sea salt when I lick my lips.
The surfers aren’t out today, the waves are fierce but not large enough to ride. So, the beach is mostly clear, except for some oceanography students from the local college. And then there’s the guy who is drawing in the sand up ahead. As I get closer, I notice it’s Dennis, the new guy at school. I only notice because it’s a small school, where the middle school and high school are combined, and no one moves to this town this late in high school.
I walk over.
“Careful!” Dennis yells. I jump back. He points to the sand in front of me: there’s a line of disturbed sand from a stick carving through it.
“I don’t want to have to start over,” Dennis says absently. He has a long wooden staff that he’s using to create the lines of whatever he’s drawing. Behind him he has something that looks like a push broom except the horizontal bar has no bristles, just a slanted, flat piece of wood.
“Hello to you, too,” I said. I walk around the lines to stand behind him. The arches and shapes didn’t look like anything from this angle either.
“Why do you draw these every weekend? This is the third Saturday I’ve seen you here.”
“I do this every day,” Dennis clarifies. He stands and grabs the bristle-less rake to smooth the sand where he kneeled.
This dude was weird. If anyone in class caught wind of this, he’d become the social pariah of the entire school. It would be one thing if this was art, but it most certainly was not. Just arching lines of shapes and squiggles. Dennis looks over his shoulder at me. He checks left, then right as if the beach has a significant number of people on it who might overhear whatever he says next.
He cups a hand around his mouth and stage whispers, “I notice you walking around every Saturday. Are you looking for something?”
So weird. His thick-framed glasses (which looked fake and just for show) highlight the large whites of his eyes. The pale gray irises make the whites unsettlingly large, as well. His short, black hair hangs with moisture like he stepped out of his house fresh from the shower without blow-drying it. In fact, his skin always has not so much the appearance but the suggestion that it was damp.
“No,” I replied harshly.
He hums, as if considering the validity of my answer, “Funny, you look out toward the water when you walk here. I thought you were looking for seals or something.”
“Or something,” I mutter, moving away to walk on and hopefully forget this conversation.
“Are you looking for mermaids?”
I stop. Turning slowly, I look back at Dennis. He’s busy writing in the sand.
He continues, “By your silence—that is, if you’re still there—I’ll take a guess that means I hit the nail on the head. Or you think I’m a loon. Either is possible.”
After a few moments, I find my words again. “Yeah. Could be either.”
I told him about my mom. He told me about his sand writing—as it was, in fact, writing. It was a relief to talk to someone about my mom, particularly because he sounded crazier than I did.
It was a week later that we spoke again.
I sit facing the ocean and Dennis writes behind me.
“My foster mom works at HSU with the Fisheries Biology department,” he babbles on. “We moved here for her job. Plus, she thinks I’ll make more friends with a smaller community. At the very least, I’m glad I’ve found a first-person witness to cryptid existence.”
“Do mermaids count as cryptids?” I ask. It seemed a bit demeaning to call my mom a cryptid.
“’Cryptid.’ Referring to the term cryptozoology. From the Greek ‘Krypto’, meaning ‘hide’. Making cryptozoology the study of ‘hidden animals’. The suffix ‘-id’ denotes a singular being with—”
“Never mind,” I pipe up. I’m glad he didn’t try to talk to me during the school week, otherwise he’d be info-dumping on me six days a week. I could handle one day a week, especially if no one saw us talking together.
“Was your mother white or Persian?” Dennis enquires after a few minutes of quiet.
“My dad’s white, she’s Persian. Why?” I pull my knees up to my chest and hug them.
Dennis is sitting next to me now. He hands me his writing staff, “Draw the hat you found.”
“I’m a terrible artist.”
“An approximation, then.” He is looking at me now and the whites of his eyes are creeping me out. I grab the stick, so he can look at my drawing instead. He inspects the drawing.
“You’re right, you are terrible.”
“Shut up. I told you so,” I grumble. I shove the staff into his hands.
“What was the material like?”
“I don’t know. Wool? Felt?”
“Felt is wool.”
“Okay! It was wool!”
Dennis hums, a sign I recognized as his mental motor working, tapping his staff against his head gently. The hum tapers off.
The water is calmer today with barely any wind. The area feels heavy with moisture.
If it was warmer, the humidity would be unbearable and I would jump in to the water. Would I instantly regret it once I was enveloped in the unforgiving chill? Probably. But a lot of things in life are unforgiving or regrettable, and we just have to accept them.
Dennis speaks up, “The longest recorded brooding period of any animal was an octopus who spent 4.5 years protecting her eggs. It is believed that she did not eat during the entire time she did this. Over the years of observation, she lost her vibrant purple coloring, her eyes became cloudy, and her skin turned slack.”
“Okay…?” I trail the questioning tone. He glances at me as if he expected a different response.
“Anyway,” he says, changing the subject, “It’s interesting that your mother has the typical mermaid/selkie narrative of Gaelic or Scandinavian origin but your mother was Persian. There were mermaid depictions in the area around Mesopotamia but I’d have to look into it further.”
I shrug. He rattles on about Mesopotamia and its iconography.
The following Saturday, I talk about my mom some more. I figure if I have to listen to him drone on inanely, he should listen to me muse about my mom.
I tell him about her mood swings, how she could be smiling and affectionate one moment and in the next, cold and indifferent about everything. How she would lay on the couch for hours gazing out the window at the sky, her eyes unfocused, like an open-eyed comatose.
Her love of seafood made her the most animated. She would prepare it early in the day, so she and I could have dinner right after I came home from class, leaving dad the cold remains.
With two spoons she would crack open the top of purple sea urchins with gusto, revealing the yellow flesh within. The spines would undulate from muscle spasms with the invasion but she paid no mind as she scrapped out the flesh to wash in ice water. I ate it with soy sauce and a fork, she would eat it plain and by hand. The first one was always eaten in haste, like it was her last chance to eat it before someone snatched it from her. Then, she would look up at me like I had caught her in the act, instead of sitting across from her the whole time. Her face would break into a smile, like she was holding back a laugh, before letting out a chuckle. I laughed, too, because she was laughing and I didn’t get to hear it often.
She never ate cooked seafood. Only raw. Sea urchins, oysters, roe, salmon, tuna; all raw.
She had had a lot of strange habits. Things she did or normal things she did in her own way.
“But she wouldn’t go in the water, despite the fact she loved the ocean,” I say to Dennis. I watch the waves. He sits beside me.
“That follows,” Dennis notes.
“Mermaids and selkies that have their magical items taken from them can’t go back in the water. Without their item, whether it’s a pelt or comb or a hat, they lose their ability to swim. They drown if they try to go back,” he explains as he cracks open a baggie of dried seaweed. He pulls out a square sheet and examines it.
“Do you think this would taste any better if I dunked this in the water?” he asks.
I bark a laugh in surprise, “Are you seriously going to run down to wet that stuff in the ocean?”
“Rehydrated seaweed, extra salty,” he says in a way that can only be deadpanned humor.
I press a hand over my mouth to stop my laughter, but my shoulders still shake with mirth.
“First time I’ve seen you smile,” he says. I can hear the smile in his own voice.
Of course, it’s next week that it all breaks apart.
“Orcas have been recorded to stay with their mothers for the entirety of their lifespans. Sons do not join their mate’s pods, they go back to their mother’s pod. There has even been documentation that orca mothers will feed their sons into adulthood, despite the expense of—”
“Look, Dennis, this is interesting, sure, but I’ve been listening to animal mother facts for the past half hour. What is that about? Are you trying to say something? Or is this just info-dumping?”
Dennis stops his writing in the sand. He straightens up and looks across the arcs of words to where I stand. He leans against his staff.
“Animal mothers are extraordinary,” he says then pauses. After a sigh, he continues, “Beyond belief. Beyond reason. In our view, it’s extreme.”
I bring up my hands in a shrug, a silent so what?
He focuses his strange eyes right at me, “Are you expecting your mother to come back?”
A lump forms in my throat. I try to swallow the hurt. I glare at Dennis, instead.
“So, what if I am?!” I yell. “You’re doing the same thing!”
“I’m writing for anyone of relation to find me,” his voice is level. “Why would you think your mother would come back to a place she hated?”
“Maybe she didn’t hate it here,” I call over to him. “Maybe she was happy here!” This feels like a lie the moment it’s out of my mouth.
“Then, why did she leave so quickly? Why did she leave at all?”
“I don’t know!” I scream, my voice cracks in middle of it. “I don’t know. Maybe I wasn’t good enough.”
I still feel the raw hurt in my throat and in a rash moment of thought, I think it will be better if I hurt him, too.
“But guess what? You’re not too great, either!” I kick sand over the words, I stomp on them, sweep them away. “You honestly think someone’s going to come looking for you? Did you ever think that maybe they abandoned you on purpose? Maybe the reason why no one wants to adopt you is because you are TOO WEIRD?” I enunciate this with a kick. I swivel to look back at him, almost hoping to see a look of devastation on his face. It’s worse than that.
Still leaning on his staff, Dennis just looks tired and disappointed. He surveys the sand, all the words swept away. He sighs and picks up his things.
“I’m going home,” he states.
I’m breathing hard from my exertion. From—and I’ll be honest—my tantrum. I look over the sand where Dennis’ message used to be, the message in four different languages with different script, all saying: I am here.
“Hey,” I say to him. He turns his back to me. “Hey,” I call out to his back, “Hey, I—I didn’t mean that. Hey, wait!”
I move to follow him, “Hey, man. Dennis. I can help you re-write it.”
“Don’t talk to me,” says firmly. He never turns around. I stop and watch him leave.
We had never talked in class, even after our Saturdays together. But the following week, he didn’t raise his eyes off his desk, often just laying his head on his crossed arms with his hood up. He looked like a sad, damp pile of laundry.
I wake up on Friday earlier than usual since sleep has been hard for me after seeing how Dennis has been looking for the past week. Dressing warmly, I bike to the beach to speak to Dennis alone, it can’t wait until Saturday.
The sky is pale with sun just below the east horizon. Spring is finally coming after an extended winter. There are glimpses of the sky from the breaks in the clouds. I reach the beach, but it’s deserted. No one, not even the dedicated surfers, are there. Without thinking, I head to our usual stretch of sand.
I could tell him that I was sorry. Sorry, because it was stupid to yell at the one person who I could talk to about my mom. The one person who was in the same boat as me. I think about how to word this when—if—I run into him. I’m so deep in thought I don’t notice her until she’s a hundred or so yards in front of me.
I see a woman in a sopping wet dress. Her soaking black hair is a dark, heavy thing on her back. I lose my breath. Then, I start running toward her.
She’s facing away, the hair is longer, but then again, it’s been six years.
She edges toward the water and I break into a sprint so hard it hurts my lungs.
I lunge to grab her shoulder.
She turns and her grey eyes widen, making the unsettling whites of them even larger. Her skin is as pale as milk and so damp it looks almost slimy.
I’m panting, still clutching her shoulder. There is no red cap. No tanned skin. No hazel eyes. And as I stand next to her, her hair is too dark: black, not deep brown.
She speaks first, “You are the one who looks at the water.”
“What?” I breathe out.
“When the two of you are at the beach together, you are the one that watches the ocean.” She glances to my hand on her shoulder. I pull it away.
“You. . . You watch us. From the water,” I manage to say.
The woman nods. She utters quietly, “It’s the only time I can see him.”
“You’re his mom,” I say.
She looks me in the eye with such poignancy that it confirms it.
“And,” I continue, “you’re a mermaid.”
She nods. She searches the sands with her eyes.
“I come out to look at what he draws in the sand. But I haven’t seen him or his drawings for a few days.”
“You’ve been out of the water? As in, you could have come up and talked with him?” I find my voice again, my volume raising with disbelief.
She keeps her gaze towards the sand, “I don’t know whether or not he wants anything to do with me.”
“Of course, he does!” I yell. “He writes messages in the sand for you. Every. Single. Day. He wants you to find him. He wants to find you. He wants you to come back for him.” My voice begins to crack near the end.
She turns back to me, “Really? Truly?” She looks back ashore, further inland, a kind of desperate hope showing on her face. She begins to walk purposely up the beach. I grab her wrist. She stops and looks at me, shocked and confused. “Let go. I need to—”
“Do you know a mermaid named Rosana?” I blurt out.
“She has tan skin,” I add. My voice is wavering. “She has hazel eyes and deep brown hair. She loves cloudy days. Her favorite food is sea urchin, the fresher the better,” I’m rambling.
“She can crack clams open better than anyone. She’s a terrible dancer but she’ll do it anyway if there’s music on. She can be sad for days at a time but when she smiles it’s the most beautiful thing. She has a red wool cap. . .”
Dennis’ mother now looks sympathetically at me. “Is that why you watch the ocean? You’re waiting for her?” She lays her other hand on top of mine.
“She—she’s not coming back is she? I’m not worth it, am I? I wasn’t worth staying for and I’m not worth coming back to?”
“Oh, honey,” she whispers. The hand on mine moves to my face, she tries to thumb away a trail of tears but only spreads moisture on my cheek. “Don’t say that. Don’t say that.”
“Why else would she leave me? Why would a mother leave her son?” I’m sounding hysterical now. “How could she be so cruel?”
“Hey,” she barks before wrenching her arm out of my loose hold on her wrist and cupping my face between her hands. “Don’t just go saying things when you don’t know the whole story. There might be something you’re missing from the story. Like with me, I—”
She closes her eyes and takes a shaky breath, “I couldn’t keep my baby because he wasn’t safe with me. So, I had to give him up. People think he was just abandoned on a beach, but I left him there knowing how quickly he would be found. I waited and watched as he was found and was taken away from me,” she takes another breath to steady herself. “But I knew it was for the best.”
“But,” I croak. “I wasn’t in danger. She just left me.”
She rubs by cheekbones with her thumbs, contemplating her next words before speaking, “Being a mother is quite a feat, it’s a job with so many expectations attached to it. And we try our hardest to live up to these expectations. Even when they become all-consuming and others forget that we are people behind the name ‘mother.’ People may say we don’t do enough, we don’t do something correctly, or that we right out fail but don’t let it ever be said that we don’t love our children.
“You may think it cruel that she left but outside of being with you was she really happy here?” she implores.
I think about the hours laying on the couch, I think about how she rarely left the house, I think about how she never looked at dad in the face, I think about the yelling between the two of them. I think about the red cap I found underneath a loose floorboard when I was 10 and how when I brought it to show my mom, it was the most shocked and happiest I had ever seen her. I think about her taking the hat, running her fingers over it, and the kiss she placed on my forehead that lingered. I think about her last words to me, Thank you.
“No,” I say. “No, she wasn’t happy here. The happiest I ever saw her was when I found her cap.”
“It must have seemed like permission to leave when you found that for her. Young man—”
“Caspian. My name is Caspian.”
“Caspian, I’m sure your mother loved you very much. You are so loving and kind. I’ve always seen my son wander the sands by himself but you kept him company. And for that I’m so grateful.” She kisses my forehead and embraces me. Her hair feels wet and coarse against my cheek. She smells of brine and warmth despite the coolness of her skin.
I sniff and say, “I can take you to where your son lives.”
She pulled back, “You can?”
“Yeah, come on.” I take her hand and lead her up the beach. I glance back and she’s gently smiling, anxious, hopeful. “You know, he thinks he’s the child of some ancient sea god. That’s why he writes in those ancient languages.”
She looks flummoxed, “That was writing?”
I laugh and nod.
She giggles along with me, “Oh my. Do you think he’ll be okay with being the son of a simple mermaid?”
And so, the new kid became the talk of the school but not for being a social pariah. Instead, he was the center of the heart-warming story of his birth mother coming to town to meet him and falling in love with his foster mom along the way. All the girls in our class cooed and gushed over the story to each other, congratulating Dennis on his luck. He thanked them and started talking to them, breaking his status as the quiet loner.
Dennis stopped writing in the sand but he and his moms take walks along the beach together now. It only hurts a little bit to see Dennis with them but, last week, I decided to stop my Saturday walks.
So, I take a short walk around my neighborhood and make it back in time to meet the mailman.
He gives me the mail: mostly junk mail. I’m dropping it in the recycling when something of stiffer cardstock slips out into view. I pull it out of the pile.
It’s a postcard with the image of a white sand beach with water the color of lapis lazuli. It says “Seychelles” in block letters in the bottom right corner. I flip it over and stare at the handwriting. I feel like a statue, immune and indifferent to everything around me as I read,
I realized we never ate octopus together.
They cook it here, which you might like, but I think it tastes better raw.
Here’s hoping this one message out of many reaches you.
Author: Cheyenne Maier
This is Hanna Morris, a Maine-native who has traveled to see many of the world’s oceans and now manages the Hostelling International (HI) Point Reyes Hostel near Limantour. During the past eleven years there, she has walked, done yoga, surfed and swam at Point Reyes National Seashore. Her daughter Ocean (in the background) often joins her in family beach cleanups whenever they head down to the shore. (The family has amassed quite a buoy collection from those washed-up on shore, which make for great fence decoration according to her!) Cleaning the beach has always been a no-brainer for Hanna, often bringing a bag to stow found trash with her when she goes down to Limantour or any other beach. When she heard about our Beach Clean Up Stations (BCUS) she jumped at the chance for the hostel to host one. HI Point Reyes Hostel has hosted its BCUS for five years now, where it also holds periodic cleanups open to guests. She hopes to host larger cleanups in the future that will involve the public more. “Many hands make light work,” after all!
It’s a classic image: a rolled-up piece of paper, perhaps a letter, placed inside a glass bottle with a cork in the mouth set to sea. Eventually, someone finds it and becomes the letter’s recipient.
Originally, these “drift bottles”, as they’re sometimes called, weren’t meant to be one-way correspondences, they served a scientific purpose. They were used as tools to study ocean currents. The earliest reference to drift bottles was in 310 B.C.E. when the Greek philosopher Theophrastus, a pupil of Aristotle, used drift bottles to test his hypothesis that the Atlantic Ocean current fed into the Mediterranean Sea.
In the 1800s, plenty of countries sent out their own drift bottles to study ocean current paths. Each bottle contained the ship’s name, the drop location coordinates, and the date it was released. Instructions were included so the finder could contact the proper authorities to report the data. Thousands of these bottles were released from vessels of American, German, Scottish and other nationalities in the name of science.
Nowadays, we use more high-tech equipment than a piece of paper and a glass bottle. NOAA frequently deploys buoys with radio or satellite equipment to signal its location to ships or land bases. There are also devices like the Acoustic Doppler Current Profiler that can be attached to the bottom of ships or sent to the seafloor to calculate the speed and direction of ocean currents. Radio waves can be used to measure surface ocean currents from land as well.
Despite our advancements in oceanography research, people are still chucking objects into the Ocean in the name of ocean current studies when we really don’t need to intentionally throw something overboard to find out where it will wash-up and how long it will take.
We already have an accidental ocean current experiment that has had greater attention and feedback than those drift bottle experiments over a century ago. In 1992, a container on a cargo ship sailing from Hong Kong went overboard with 28,000 bath toys inside. Called the “Friendly Floatees”, rubber ducks have been washing ashore from the Pacific and Atlantic for the past 26 years from this same shipment. In case you’ve wondered how long it takes for an object to complete a circuit around the Northern Pacific Gyre, it’s 3 years. There are entire websites where people post pictures of the rubber ducks they’ve found, and where they’ve been found. The incident has been good (in a making the best of a bad situation kind of way) for providing information about ocean currents and the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, in which there are still around 2,000 of the little Floatees.
Look, I understand the urge. It’s the romance of it all. Either in literature or in the news, we receive all these wonderful stories about messages in a bottle. I enjoy them, too.
During WWI, Pvt Thomas Hughes wrote a message in a bottle to wife and threw it into the English Channel two days before his death. It finally appeared in the River Thames 86 years later, too late for his wife but not too late to send to his daughter who was one year old at the time of his death.
In one miraculous incident during this century, a group of Costa Rican migrants were saved by a message in a bottle. Left stranded on a boat that was smuggling them out of the country, the passengers—mostly teenagers—were left without means of radio communication and sent out a message for help the old-fashioned way, a drift bottle which was quickly discovered by a fisherman who contacted the workers of a nearby World Heritage site to rescue them.
The latter story is truly exceptional, just by the sheer statistic of it working. From a Canadian project, it’s averaged that one out of 25 drift bottles sent out are found—and that’s not mentioning how long they usually spend at sea. This Canadian project is called the Drift Bottle Project, founded in 2000. The project encourages citizens to send out their own “drop bottles” to contribute to the project. The project is still active 18 years later.
Objectively, I see the appeal to this, too. It’s like a country-wide science project that anyone who’s in reach of the Ocean can participate in. Plus, the thrill that must be had if someone responds to the found drift bottles from the other side of the Ocean or the world!
But I ask, all of you, would you throw a bottle overboard without a message inside? Probably not, you think, then it’s just littering. Then, why does a piece of paper make a difference? Remember, only one in 25 are found. The rest stay in the Ocean or wind up buried in sand on a beach somewhere. Plastic or glass, it will break open, leaking water inside. Paper breaks down in 2.5 months, even faster when it’s wet. But the bottle won’t decompose so quickly. It will break and become part of the soupy mess in the garbage patch of whatever ocean or sea you threw it into.
Look, I’m disappointed, too. I swear I don’t usually look for the negative in everything, but this is important. I’m not saying all the magic is gone. It isn’t!
All I’m asking is that we don’t throw anymore bottles overboard. The best part about drift bottles isn’t sending them out, it’s finding them. The romance is alive, the magical feeling of discovery is still there. Drift bottles from the 1800s are still being found today! In January, an Australian woman was picking up trash on a local beach when she discovered a bottle with a message from 1886. It’s the oldest drift bottle message found to date.
So, I suggest that the next time you head to a beach, do a little cleanup. You may find a message that was once lost to time and the waves.
Want to know more about the Friendly Floatees? Check here.
The Drift Bottle Project site. (Notice they don't mention anything about Garbage Patches in the world's oceans.)
The world below the brine,
Forests at the bottom of the sea, the branches and leaves,
Sea-lettuce, vast lichens, strange flowers and seeds, the thick tangle, openings, and pink turf,
Different colors, pale gray and green, purple, white, and gold, the play of light through the water,
Dumb swimmers there among the rocks, coral, gluten, grass, rushes, and the aliment of the swimmers,
Sluggish existences grazing there suspended, or slowly crawling close to the bottom,
The sperm-whale at the surface blowing air and spray, or disporting with his flukes,
The leaden-eyed shark, the walrus, the turtle, the hairy sea-leopard, and the sting-ray,
Passions there, wars, pursuits, tribes, sight in those ocean-depths, breathing that thick-breathing air, as so many do,
The change thence to the sight here, and to the subtle air breathed by beings like us who walk this sphere,
The change onward from ours to that of beings who walk other spheres. (Whitman)
2017’s Earth Day theme was Environmental and Climate Literacy. This meant educating the masses about the dangers currently presented to the environment and how they can take action to defend it for both the present and future. It was to bring Environmental Literacy of our next generation that we began our Ocean Warriors program.
A year ago, we set out to educate several third-grade classes in the Bay Area about environmental advocacy and how even the smallest action in the everyday can go a long way. If you’re a follower of our Facebook page, then you’ve seen the extent to which our program has succeeded.
This year’s Earth Day theme is End Plastic Pollution. This includes reducing our use of single-use plastics and cleaning them off our beaches. Say no to plastic straws. Use a reusable bag for grocery shopping. Visit one of our Beach Clean Up Stations. Attend one of our cleanups! If we work together, treating every day like Earth Day with simple actions like these, we will be ready for the 50th Earth Day anniversary in 2020.
On the beach at night alone,
As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song,
As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef
of the universes and of the future.
A vast similitude interlocks all,
All spheres, grown, ungrown, small, large, suns, moons, planets,
All distances of place however wide,
All distances of time, all inanimate forms,
All souls, all living bodies though they be ever so different, or in
All gaseous, watery, vegetable, mineral processes, the fishes, the
All nations, colors, barbarisms, civilizations, languages,
All identities that have existed or may exist on this globe, or any
All lives and deaths, all of the past, present, future,
This vast similitude spans them, and always has spann'd,
And shall forever span them and compactly hold and enclose them. (Whitman)
Whitman, W. Walt Leaves of Grass. The First (1855) Edition, New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
In 2015, an estimated 8.6 million people visited the state of Hawaii. In comparison, 1.4 million people call Hawaii “home.”
I won’t argue that it’s a wonderful place to visit; the clearness of the water, the white sand beaches, the beautiful flora, the awe-inspiring volcanoes…
You get my point.
But I feel like many people relax a bit too much. They forget to be conscientious of their environment. We’re on vacation, they think. The staff will pick it up for me.
Besides treating the indigenous population like their own personal servants (which is a whole other discussion, in and of itself), they’re endangering the environment. Who’s to say the wind or water won’t grab your plastic cup first?
It may be your paradise vacation, but it’s their home.
And it used to be my dad’s home.
I have visited Hawaii before, but I’ve never lived there. Yet I have a second-hand respect for it and its residents thanks to my dad. Of his many stories, there are plenty about his childhood on Maui.
Oh, how I squirmed in delightful repulsion of his description of the insects that crawled his bedroom floor freely at night. When he needed to get up to use the bathroom, he would turn a flashlight beam to the floor and like convicts evading the spotlight of a police helicopter the vermin would flee, the sounds of tiny legs scuttling away audible.
Some house vermin were less repulsive. Green geckos were common visitors but also quite courteous. If a family member walked anywhere, the geckos were gracious enough to get out of their way. They saw themselves in and would see themselves out. Unless, of course, they found their way to the freezer. As any grade schooler could tell you, geckos are reptiles, which means they are cold-blooded. Meaning as soon as they squirmed their way through the crack in the broken seal of the freezer and took a few steps in, they were as good as frozen. And so, if my dad or any of his five siblings opened the freezer for a popsicle, they would inevitably find a frozen gecko. Then, they would grab their popsicle and pluck the little guy from the freezer shelf and diligently carry him out the door to the front porch. My dad related how he enjoyed watching them thaw out into consciousness in the sun’s rays before racing away, especially when only their front half was thawed and would try to hurry along with its hind legs and tail still frozen stiff.
If you’ve read my story Our Blue Marble, you may remember a recollection the protagonist has about her mother picking up fresh seaweed at low tide. I will admit that was blatantly lifted from my dad’s stories. Whenever my dad would head to the beach early, with friends or his siblings, he said it was a common sight to see these Japanese housewives bending over to pick up the sea-water-slicked vegetation into their colanders. The seaweed ranged from deep green to brown and all together had a powerful briny stench. By the end of that day, the same seaweed would be on someone’s dinner table.
As a kama’aina kid there was no more humbling experience given by the ocean than going out to surf. Plenty of kids had surfmats—a 4’ long rubber inflatable that was popular in the ‘60s with kids learning to surf. If you practiced enough, you could catch a nice wave. North shore on Maui was the best place for big waves, according to my dad. But it was terrible to get caught in the “washing machine” there. This was the part of the breaker wave where the crest overturns onto the body of the wave, creating a spiraling motion inside. If you got caught in one, it was like--
Well, like being inside a washing machine. Hence, the name.
Inevitably, my dad would paddle out, enter the wrong part of the wave, and end up in the “washing machine.” After the dizzying affair and the momentary terror of wondering which way was up, he would surface to cough and spit and gasp for air. Then, he’d paddle back to shore thinking, There’s no way I’m doing that again.
And after about ten minutes of sulking onshore, he’d head back out to try again.
Whether it’s the all-encompassing ocean or creatures that scuttle underfoot, it’s hard to escape the fact that no matter much development occurs on Hawaii you’re still surrounded by nature. Scorpions may try to sting you, coconuts or papayas may try to conk you on the head, or the Ocean itself will beat you in a rough-and-tumble, but, hey, it’s home.
Luckily, my dad left before the Pacific Garbage Patch started flinging large chunks of industrial fishing refuse at the islands. With the way the islands are separated, they act as a sieve, collecting the debris that doesn’t pass between the islands. Becoming a major problem in the 1980s, literal tons of waste have to be collected and burned from beaches. As recently as March, a beach in Ka’u on the Big Island had be cleaned of over 11 tons of waste. In a few months, this will have to be repeated as the ocean currents bring a new round of waste to the shores.
And so, all I ask is that when you vacation at Hawaii, don’t be lazy, don’t be arrogant. Pick up your trash, the islands aren’t that large and trash accumulates so easily. I don’t want my dad to return to the beaches of his childhood and only notice the garbage, instead of the sand, instead of the water, instead of his home.
Helpful Tips If You’re Headed to Hawaii
Abomination In My Generation
All these thoughts got my mind at shake,
Why do we focus on what’s fake?
Kardashian-run materialistic society,
Going by a false propriety.
The other day someone asked me my biggest fear,
I said the future.
Nobody listens, they only hear.
See what they want, focus on desire..
Ignoring the fact that our Earth is on fire.
Shouting our names, screaming for help.
“Our waters are poisoned w plastic, don’t eat the kelp!”
How long is it going to take to realize?-
Must we reach the point of our own demise?
When we’re all buried in our trash,
Or our homes burn down in a flash-
Losing everything you ever thought was yours,
Is that when you understand home is at the shore.
Home is in the mountains,
On the grass~
Earth’s natural fountains.
Home is in the heart,
Home is what you had at the very start--
The day you came outta your mama,
No sense or comprehension of drama~
All you knew was light, and all you felt was love.
Cares as free as a soaring dove~~
Since when did life become a race?
Rather, a chase— to get to the top,
Clearing all out of your way like a mop.
Why do we think we’re better than one another?
We’re all birds who flutter
Back-n-forth-same way, in the same sky~
We all like to get high.
Everyone loves, everyone lies.
Don’t have to trust everyone, but allow them your compassion at the least,
We’re all eating from the same feast.
The feast of time, the way the universe aligns,
Fate they say, is the greatest star that shines.
Sami Koss, poet and 3rd-year psychology major. She currently attends Dominican University.
If you live anywhere near the Bay Area, chances are that you’ve visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium. If you live anywhere in California, it’s probably on your list of places to visit or a highlight of a past tour of Northern California. Speaking with a former college roommate of mine, a native of Monterey, she claimed, “Besides the Aquarium and the otters, there’s nothing exciting there. I can’t tell you how much I hate Steinbeck.”
I have a personal bias, myself. It’s one of my favorite places to visit with my father when he returns from his nomadic wanderings. We have a routine path and script. We’ll start at the Kelp Forest tank where my father will point out, “I’ve swam with him,” at various sea creatures swimming behind the glass. Being a well-seasoned diver, I have no doubt he has. We’ll wind our way through the aquarium with my dad cooing over the bat rays in the touch pools or making fish-faces at me, cheeks sucked in, eyes bugged out, hands out flat by the sides of his face moving to imitate gills. The aquarium is a nostalgic place, I’m biased.
But I was able to bring a fresh set off eyes with me recently as I toured my English friend around Northern California. JC (not his real name) and I had just driven from Yosemite the day before where it had been snowing and the partly cloudy, windy forecast typical for Monterey was “down right balmy”, according to him.
As we step up to purchase our tickets, he asks, “Is this going to ruin every aquarium I visit from now on?”
“Most likely,” I answer truthfully.
We start with the kelp forest. He takes a picture of the tall, concave glass and we move on. JC is not one for dawdling. He does not read every informative plaque to learn every miniscule detail. There were also a gaggle of shrieking toddlers nearby, so I could understand his trepidation on lingering there.
We go upstairs to the touch pools. A volunteer with a Jamaican accent labels every living creature in the shallow water. JC and he continue talking while I stroke a Decorator Crab, a mix of seaweed, bits of sea sponge, and other organic matter adorning its shell. The volunteer is so enthusiastic, its amusing. He insinuates that JC and I are a couple, we both laugh in order to avoid any awkwardness and politely (but hastily) retreat.
Next is the penguins. JC coos over them as a trainer inside trades out the toys in their exhibit. One of the interactive displays about penguin communication is broken but JC just shrugs over it. You can definitely smell the penguins here.
Or perhaps it’s the children’s area next to the penguin exhibit. We pass through as I think back to when I was a small kid running through here. I see a crawl tunnel where there’s a display of clown fish inside. I miss ducking in there as a kid, which I mention to JC.
“You can probably still fit,” he quips. I’m only 5’3. He could be right. But I don’t attempt it.
“Do you want to see the otters?” I deflect.
His face lights up, “Do I!”
I shepherd him downstairs and across the lobby to the other large exhibit display: two whole stories of otter watching. They have a devoted fan club. We head to the second landing for a better look. I can’t see much through the crowd but JC is rewarded with a view due to his 6’0 stature. We back off as the crowd moves closer to the glass. It’s ten minutes until feeding time. I ask if he wants to stay.
“No, it will only get worse from here, I’ll bet.”
He’s right. We head towards the Jellyfish exhibit but become distracted by a display for the aquarium’s Seafood Watch. Videos cycle through several screens on the wall about ongoing conservation and marine biology projects run by the aquarium. Slots in the wall are filled with their folded consumer guides, separate slots are labeled by different U.S. regions. I see “Midwest”, “Northeast”, “Southeast”, and so on, there’s even a guide devoted solely for Hawaii. JC and I scan the rows for one labeled “English” or perhaps “Northern European”.
There isn’t one. We ask an Aquarium volunteer standing by the display.
“Oh, sorry,” she says. “We only have American guides right now.” I see JC’s shoulders sag in disappointment out of the corner of my eye. “But we’re working with our European partners to make an International Atlantic one.” Later, I find that an English group, the Marine Conservation Society, that is partnered with the Aquarium has their own “Good Fish Guide.”
I take a West Coast guide for myself. JC grumbles by my side.
He quickly forgets his disappointment once we enter the Jellyfish exhibit. I’ve always enjoyed the darkness in the exhibit that allows the jellyfish to take the spotlight. The reflected blue light from their tanks lends a meditative feel to the room. Their calm, repetitive pulsing movements paired with the soft Douglas Morton music arrangement played on a continuous loop makes me want to pull up an armchair to watch them all. However, JC, despite his apparent awe of the jellies and his photo-taking, doesn’t slow his pace on their account. Knowing I had only few moments, I go ahead further into the exhibit—JC is left by the Sea Nettles—to see their newest addition: the spotted comb jelly.
Mostly translucent, the jelly is almost rugby ball-shaped with several vertical rows of cilia, called “combs” for which they are named, and sporting a set of connected tentacles that resembles a bridal veil or a soggy tissue. The cilia would be unperceptively moving were it not for the rainbow shimmer effect as the cilia reflect the light. I try to capture a photo, which is only mildly successful. The still doesn’t capture the rainbow effect but it appears when I play the “Live capture” shot that presents it as a 4 second GIF.
JC catches up and we proceed to the Open Sea exhibit, where we take seats in the upper gallery and enjoy the view of these large sea creatures like tuna and pelagic swim about on display. The interactive screen downstairs wasn’t as interactive as we hoped since the touch screen seemed to be broken with the page open on the Sunfish stats.
“I wish they still had a great white,” I muse.
“It’d probably eat everything else in the tank,” JC notes.
“With any luck, it’d eat that thing,” I say, pointing at the sunfish that’s skirting the curved wall of the enormous tank.
“Why do you sound like that fish personally murdered your family?”
I enlighten him. The sunfish, or Mola Mola, is a fish found around the world’s oceans (mouth gaping, movable eyes bulging) that can grow up to 10 feet in diameter. The Monterey Bay Aquarium only allows their resident Mola Molas to grow up to 6.5 feet in diameter before tagging them and releasing them back to the Ocean. A fish that big ought to be on a lot of animals’ menus, right? No. Because the adult Mola Mola consumes jellyfish which are nutrient-poor, making the fish a slow swimmer and about a fulfilling of a meal as a rye cracker. Creatures take a bite of this fish and then leave it alone because it is so dense and unappealing that they find it not worth eating. This is, essentially, how it has survived: by being so useless nothing wants to eat it. It has circumvented evolution because of this.
“I cannot respect a fish like that,” I conclude to JC. “It’s just—look! Look at it! It’s trying to swim into the wall! Useless sea cracker!”
We move onto better animals with the “Tentacles!” exhibit. The nocturnal cephalopods are sleeping but the exhibit is interactive—with actual functioning pieces—and colorful so it’s not a huge loss. In a blur, I follow JC as we go through “¡Viva Baja!”, “Vanishing Wildlife”, “Mission to the Deep”, the aviary, before we finally seem to slow down at the Bat Ray touch pool.
Backpack tossed to the ground, jacket off, JC reaches into the water, “I’ve never touched a ray.” The excitement and anticipation shines on his face and rings through his words. This, besides the jellies, seems to be the highlight of his visit.
One swims by the edge, allowing JC to stroke its dorsal fin, and he shrieks with a quick recoil of his hand. The ray swims away from the wall in quick retreat.
“It’s slimy!” This doesn’t deter him, however; he just moves to another side of the touch pool. His fingers touch the surface of the water and two rays make their way over in a few moments, one even breaching the water with its nose. This one presses against the wall, slapping its fins against it in a similar way that a dog may wag its tail. JC strokes both their backs. A gaggle of children head over to pet these sociable rays themselves.
While I had never sped through the aquarium at such a pace—we finished it all in two hours—it still had its enchanting moments. Some displays or levers weren’t working but I suppose that’s what happens when you cater to children of all ages. But the staff, both employees and volunteers, were knowledgeable and informative. I’m sure the presentations or feedings would also have been entertaining but we didn’t have time to stop for either of those things. I didn’t get to eat at the café or restaurant, so I can’t review the food. If I had to give it a grade, I’d say this aquarium visit was a B+. This is mostly on us. We were pressed for time, we had to beat the 680 Northbound traffic returning to the East Bay(which we didn’t, in the end).
But the conclusion of our visit at the Bat Ray touch pool was worthwhile. As I guarded JC’s things, a ray approached. I reached into the water as it swam along the wall of the touch pool, the tips of my fingers brushing a dorsal fin. I recoiled at the touch.
Its skin had been smooth, graceful as it undulated under my touch.
But, man, was it slimy.
“Nothing like starting the day with a stroll, ey, Powell?”
“We’re still on Baikonur time, Davis. It’s lunchtime for us. Also, please take this installation seriously.”
“We’re increasing our Wi-Fi range, Powell. Lighten up. Look at that view! Wow,” Davis whispered the last word in awe.
“Go back into the station if you’re going to fool around.” Powell pulled herself across the JEM Exposed Facility with her relay line carabiner following behind, hooked onto the rails. Behind her, the sun was setting on the East Coast back on Earth. The illuminated green of springtime in the North hemisphere and the blue of the oceans were reflecting on the front of Davis’ helmet as he watched.
“You sure you can handle this on your own?” he asked distractedly.
“Like you said, I’m just expanding our Wi-Fi range. Go back inside. I’ll only be a few minutes.”
“Well, if you say so,” Davis replied, pulling himself back towards the airlock. Soon he was around the corner, speaking to Jones over the radio on the inside.
“Oh, hey, Powell. One more thing before I go in.”
“Happy Earth Day.”
Powell stilled her hands. Oh, yeah. It was Earth Day. She turned, pushing off the station with one hand, the other gripping the rail, and looked at the Earth.
“Same to you,” she replied. Admittedly, it was quite the view. She understood that not many would be able to look at the Earth through a visor on the International Space Station instead of through a video feed. But she was outside to do a task, not be distracted by the continents waking up with the first light of day. She continued working on the wires.
She was unsure how much time passed as she worked; no more than an hour, surely. The radio feed began to crackle.
“Hello? ISS? Do you read me?”
The feed turned to static.
“Hello?” she tried again. “Houston, Houston, do you read?” If Davis was hearing her, he’d get a kick out of her attempt at humor. But the static continued, which didn’t signify that the crew inside were hearing her either.
She knew the drill: get back inside, the task could be finished later. The radio crackled again.
A click, then a voice responded, “Hello!”
Powell blinked. That voice didn’t sound like anyone inside. She’d spent three weeks with them so far and she was sure she’d recognize any of their voices, even through a radio feed. “Hi?”
Was she on a different feed? Did she somehow connect to someone’s radio back on Earth?
“I’m American astronaut Jenny Powell on the International Space Station. Who am I talking to? Where are you speaking from?”
“Look to your left.”
Powell pivoted to look. A person was clutching a railing a few feet from her. In a spacesuit she had never seen the likes of before. The person waved with their free hand.
Powell couldn’t think of a better response than to wave back and return the greeting. The stranger’s visor was reflective, making it impossible for her to see who (or what) was inside. It was a leaner designed spacesuit, white like past Earth spacesuits before they switched to the gray Z-2 models. It lacked the large life-support system that her own suit had attached to her back but it also had antennae, one on each side of the helmet, that gave it a retro look. There was no flag insignia on the front to indicate nationality.
The stranger’s free hand pointed to the Earth.
“You live there, right?”
“Yes,” she answered numbly. This couldn’t be happening.
“Looks nice. Haven’t been, myself. I like colder climates. No offense.”
“None taken,” she breathed a laugh. “Um, where… where are you from?”
“Nowhere, really. But you’re from there. That’s so much more interesting. What’s your favorite spot?”
“On your planet.”
“Well, I was raised on Hawaii—you can kind of see the Hawaiian islands over there—” she vaguely pointed with her hand, “so I suppose you could call it my favorite spot. I lived there until I was 18 and left for college. I think I’ll go back to visit once I return.”
“What is it like to live surrounded by water?”
“It’s great. The weather’s always mild because of the sea breeze. And you can go swim whenever you want—what’s funny?”
The stranger’s chuckle could be heard over the radio. “Sorry, sorry. It’s just so funny to me that you jump into a big body of water for fun. Continue.”
“As I was saying, it’s convenient. Having the water right there. And you can get fresh seaweed! My mom used to go down to the shore at low tide with the other Japanese housewives and pick up the seaweed that washed ashore. It’d be in our miso soup by dinnertime,” her voice trailed off. Powell turned to look at the archipelago, just barely visible. “Yeah, I’ll go back home and see mom when I land back on Earth.”
“It sounds perfect.”
“Not exactly. There’s so much garbage. I hated visiting my aunt on the South side of the island because the beaches there were swamped with it. There’s a current that surrounds the islands, it’s called the North Pacific Gyre, and it carries all this garbage from different shores. And then it’ll cough it back up every now and then on our beaches.” She huffed a breath in frustration. “The view’s better from up here, you can’t see all the debris. It just looks like a big, blue marble, the Earth.”
“You shouldn’t run out on your planet.”
Powell took a moment to absorb those words. Then she struggled to turn back to him in a fitting manner to show her indignation without looking awkward squirming in the way that zero-gravity created. It almost worked. She grabbed her rail and with one hand over the other moved closer to the stranger.
“I am not running away. I joined NASA because I want to help my planet.”
“You just said you preferred the view up here.”
“Because then I can see it without the trash. I don’t have to think about it for a moment.”
“I’m not avoiding it!” She was in front of the stranger. Even if she couldn’t see a face behind the visor, she could most definitely give the stranger her strongest glare through her own clear helmet visor. “I am studying glacial retreat. I see it from up here! We’re trying to get this information to everyone back home. I am not here to avoid the problems on Earth. I am here to confront them! I am here because I love my home!”
The stranger was silent. Powell almost felt their gazes connect. It was so quiet between them she could swear she heard the stranger’s breathing through the radio.
“I wish we had tried to be like that. Sooner. Than when we did. When we started to worry, it was too late. We ruined our home. We had to leave.”
Powell felt her glare break into something softer.
“I’m glad you care about your home,” the stranger continued. “There’s still something to be done, right? You can help your planet?”
“Yes,” Powell breathed. “Yes,” she repeated louder. “It will take all of us and—and a lot of work but we can still do something.”
“Will you? Will all of you step up to the task? We didn’t on my planet,” the stranger reached out a hand, pointer finger out. “How do you know—”
He tapped her visor. The edges of Powell’s vision began to cloud.
“—that you won’t end up like me?”
Everything went dark.
When Powell reopened her eyes, it was waking up to the sound of Davis’ voice in her ear. Her vision refocused: she was in her spacesuit, her tether was the only thing keeping her from drifting away from the ISS. She pulled herself closer to the station’s surface.
“I’m here,” she responded to the frantic voices from the station.
“The radio went out. Did anything happen out there to cause it?” Davis asked with forced calm.
“I think,” she paused to catch her breath, the air felt thin inside her helmet. “I think something is wrong with my suit. I’m coming back in.”
She moved slowly along the station towards the airlock where someone (probably Davis) was coming out to help her back inside. As she turned around the corner of the station, she took one last look at Earth’s surface. The sun was setting over the Midwest. It was midday in Hawaii.
Yes, she thought, we’ll all step up. We’ll do it. It’s our home.
She climbed away from the corner, letting the Big Blue Marble disappear from view.
It was the end of Angelina’s Spring Bonfire Party, one of the office’s top parties of the year. Despite the wind, the cold, the ocean spray, and the overall antics of Sheila’s coworkers, it was a great party. The sun had set an hour before and the fire was dowsed. Everyone was either summoning Ubers or being herded to cars by their designated drivers. Except Sheila.
She walked down the beach, flipping the hood of her jacket up, with the sound of Angelina orchestrating the party cleanup behind her. Angelina was pretty, smart, popular. Sheila almost wanted to hate her but wouldn’t allow herself to; Angelina was the one to invite her to the party, after all. The games and food were fantastic, plus the bonfire had colored everyone in such a warm, comforting light. Sheila thought she should be grateful for being invited but it was hard to ignore how awkward it had first felt to see the look of surprise in her coworkers’ eyes when they spotted her. Six months into the job and she still felt like the newbie.
Angelina’s voice grew fainter until the sound of the tide rolling in drowned her out completely. Sheila crossed her arms, hugging herself as the wind seemed to grow colder. She looked over her shoulder and realized how long she had walked since she could no longer see Angelina or the fire pit. As she pulled out her phone to call for an Uber, she heard a bark.
Then another. And then a slew of barks down by the water. They weren’t the barks of a dog, too whooping. She jogged down to the water’s edge whereupon she saw a dark mass writhing on the water-packed sand. She stopped as she tried to process what this thing was, squinting through the dark to see it clearer. It barked again. It was--
A seal. A seal wrapped in netting tangled with seaweed and stretches of rope that constricted the whole ensemble together. Another wave came in, Sheila backed away instinctively. The barking stopped as the water partially submerged the tangled mess. The water withdrew and a sound of snorting and coughing started before the whooping bark resumed.
Sheila never considered herself heroic. But heroics were for things that saved people. This was just blind sympathy for an animal in danger in response to that coughing that made something clench in her chest. She rushed over, even as a tiny part of her mind screamed how stupid she was being, clutched the netting and tugged. She pulled with all her weight, frequently losing her footing in the sand, huffing and struggling with the weight of the seal.
She released the netting with her next collapse into the sand. Sheila just breathed for a moment then sat up to review her progress. It was a few feet, barely progress but enough to escape the waves for a few minutes. Animal control could get the seal out but how long would they take to get there? Would they beat the tide?
She patted her pockets until she found her house keys. She pulled them out and flipped open her tiny Swiss army knife keychain. It was a pathetic excuse for a knife but away she went into cutting the net, kneeling next to the animal. She freed the end near its neck and head. With its gray head free, it looked at her with its large black eyes and stopped its barking. They held each other’s gaze, both panting with fear and adrenaline. Sheila blinked hard and went back to cutting.
The rope was the real problem. It was a thick polymer blend rope and her knife did next to nothing. It helped that the seal had settled down, though.
Until it didn’t. The creature stirred, moving the mess of rope and net as well.
“Can you hold still, you stupid seal?” she grumbled. She turned to see the seal whipping its head back and forth as though it was dislodging something. She focused back on cutting the net. The seal stilled. She huffed in relief, “Thank y—”
A man was looking at her from within the net.
She jumped back and screamed, “Who are you?”
“I’m the seal!” He yelled back in an Irish brogue. “Now, help with my arms so I can get out of this thing.”
The sensible part of Sheila said she should get up and run away. Unfortunately, Sensible Sheila had clocked-out for the evening. She obeyed him and cut the sides near his arms.
Between her (careful) cutting and his wriggling, the man was out of the mess. He took several deep breaths once he was free, and she realized how constricting the whole mess had been around him.
“What…” she gulped, her throat was dry. “What are you?”
The man, dressed in a wetsuit, reached into the net and withdrew a large, grey thing that looked like a rug or a floor mat or--
“Is that a fur coat?”
“It’s a skin. My seal skin,” the man said, folding the skin up neatly. She finally had a moment to really look at him: a narrow, pale face; crewcut brown hair; long, thin arms and legs. He looked up at her with dark near-black eyes, then gave a half-smile.
“Good thing I wasn’t heavier, or you couldn’t have budged me.”
Sheila looked apprehensively at him.
He coughed awkwardly, “So, uh, do you have a phone I can borrow?”
Twenty minutes later, Sheila found herself in an Irish Cultural Center. It had seemed to happen so fast. The seal-man called someone, a car pulled up on the road, she demanded answers, then she was invited into the car, and this is where they arrived.
“To my rescuer!”
A cheer resounded around the crowded space, which seemed to function as a restaurant as well. A plate of corned beef was placed before her. Others in the crowd wore seal skins of their own over their shoulders or around their waists like accessories.
“So, the skins…?” she left as an open question.
“We can turn into seals with them,” Seal-man piped in happily. “Oh, sorry, didn’t introduce myself. Name’s Douglas.”
Before she could respond, two men sat down at their table.
“What’d you get caught in?” the redheaded one asked. The bearded man next him leaned forward, arms crossed on the table before him.
“It was this great wad of netting. And rope! It’s in Ian’s truck if you want to see.”
“It’s fine. Saw one last month.”
“They’re that frequent?” Douglas responded, astonished. He took a drink from the pint in front of him, muttering something darkly under his breath.
“Does—” Sheila started now that she had found her voice, the two men looked at her inquisitively. “Does this happen often?”
“Not just to our folk. Sometimes, ‘cause we have a human brain, we can try to avoid it.”
Beardy spoke up, “But the animals, they can’t escape. Regular seals, birds, turtles; poor things get stuck in nets like that. And they don’t make it to shore like you, Douglas.”
It was silent around the table, though the activity of the room bustled around them, the subject had quickly sobered them.
“If it’s so dangerous,” Sheila ventured, “why do you go out to swim?”
The red-head responded, “’Cause we’re selkies. We’re called to the sea. Sure, we can poke around on land, own houses and what not, get jobs—have to in this economy, y’know—” he gave a half-grin at that, “but the water is our home.”
Beardy spoke behind his interlocked fingers, “Born in the sea, die in the sea, I suppose.”
“Not like that, though. Not that way,” Douglas muttered.
Sheila almost felt bad for taking a bite of the corned beef with the atmosphere at the table so tense. Then, again she felt worse when she moaned in delight at how delicious it was.
All three men broke out into laughter, it felt like a breath of relief.
“Now, if that’s not a guarantee of taste. Saoirse! Your food’s a hit!” Red-head yelled toward the kitchen. Three more orders were made for the table. As they dug in, their conversation returned to the topic but without the somber attitude.
“What we need to do is make fishermen more accountable,” Beardy—Declan, Sheila now knew—said around a mouthful of cabbage.
“Close your mouth when you eat, you animal. No, no, you’re making it sound like all of them lose their nets on purpose. Now, some do, I won’t argue there. But that’s only part of it. It’s weak equipment. What they need is better equipment—and gear marking, yes, I hear you, Declan,” Douglas argued back. “It’s the stuff that breaks away, that’s the whale portion of it.”
“Boys, what we really need is a better way for them to dispose of it. That’s the source. They keep using near-broken equipment because it costs so much to get rid of it,” Corey—the red-head—interrupted. “There’s a company that takes nets and makes it into yarn—”
“Yarn?” Douglas laughed, “Grandmas running short on knitting materials?”
“I’m serious. It’s used for carpets and tiles. Open your mind. You have to be creative with this stuff. In fact, some people use the old equipment for art.”
Declan snorted, then did an exaggerated shushing with a finger in front of his lips. “Not too loud! The artists of the city will hear you and flock to the waters.”
Douglas snickered, “Or out-right attack fishing boats for art supplies.”
“Bah, that’s the last time I tell you two anything. I’m just saying something like that is the best way—”
“How about awareness?”
They stopped and looked at Sheila. She felt a blush bloom on her cheeks at them staring at her but continued, “I mean, until today, I never thought about this. You could get more support for these ideas if more people knew about it.”
“She’s got a point, you know.”
And the conversation continued energetically in a new direction.
* * *
“You seem different, Sheila,” Angelina remarked a month after the bonfire party.
Sheila looked up from packing up her backpack, folders and her laptop lay on the table ready to be stashed away into it. Angelina had taken the empty seat next to her at the worktable, most of the tech people like Sheila were already gone.
“How so?” Sheila asked as she resumed her packing up.
“More at ease, I suppose,” Angelina said. “I know moving out to the city can be hard when you’re from a small town. You seemed so closed off when you were settling in. But ever since the party you’ve been more vocal. Did you make some new friends at the party?”
Sheila zipped up her backpack, “Actually, I met some people as I was leaving.”
“That late? At the beach?” Angelina tilted her head in curiosity.
She seemed worried. It was really hard to dislike Angelina when she genuinely cared about her coworkers. Sheila pulled out a business card for the Irish Cultural Center and handed it to her.
“Here, they have a band playing tomorrow at seven. I can introduce you to my new friends. Think of it as returning the favor for inviting me to the bonfire party.”
“Oh, Sheila. You don’t have to ‘return the favor’, I invited you because I wanted to. Not because I felt like I had to. But I will come, if only to meet these mystery friends who spend their dark evenings at beaches.”
Sheila smiled, “Sounds good.”
Douglas pulled up outside to pick her up that evening. He had his seal skin over his shoulder, his wet suit already on.
“Have you gotten any looks for wearing a wet suit while driving?”
“Oh,” he chuckled, “So many. But let me tell you about this new non-profit we’re looking at—” He continued on. Sheila looked to the seal skin, had a thought, and mulled it over before interrupting Douglas.
“Hey… Do mermaids exist, too?”
Douglas scoffed, “The Mean Girls of the Ocean, let me tell you.”
Douglas gave her a look, “After everything you’ve learned, that’s what surprises you?”
Sheila admitted it did.
If you find a stranded animal, please call Animal Control. They will give you instructions on how to help the animal until they can arrive.
SF Animal Care & Control
Temp Care instructions
If you want to know more about the impact of ghost fishing, read through NOAA's 2015 Impact of Ghost Fishing Report. You can read more about the efforts the Selkies mentioned on how the problem is being combatted. (Yes, the converted yarn is a thing.)