“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.)
The topic of San Francisco bonfires got some extra press a few years ago when the city considered banning them due to reckless partiers and the air pollution of the nearby neighborhoods. But bad press is good press, I suppose.
To strike a balance between saving a San Francisco tradition and being kinder to our environment, the Ocean Beach Fire Program was created. The Program establishes new rules and regulation with more outreach and education by the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department. Like a gift to SF residents, curfew has been raised to 9:30 p.m. and there are now 16 fire pits between stairwells 15 and 20 on Ocean Beach. The Program also establishes the months of March through October as Burn Season.
And as we enter our 2018 Burn Season, I’d like to reacquaint everyone with some bonfire rules:
As for what you should do:
If you follow these simple rules, there’s no reason you can’t have a fun bonfire party while being mindful of the environment.
To learn more about the Ocean Beach Fire Program, read here.
To see if your planned bonfire is on a Spare the Air Day, check here.