March 22nd, 2010

Papaya, Not Popeye

To paraphrase myself paraphrasing George Carlin: What do editors do on their day off? They can't just lay around...

Oh, you bet they can. In fact, Carol and I had the wisdom to declare at least one day of our impromptu Hawaii vacation a "lay around" day when there would be no scheduled activity whatsoever. None! Nada! Zilch! Eat when we want, get wet when (and where) we want, and leave the car keys in the hotel room safe.

And we made it work. We ran around in the surf, sat in the hot tub, read Thomas Cahill books, and probably ate a little too much, though I can't imagine (at this point) eating too much papaya.

The weekend just past was another matter entirely. We got up at 5:30 Saturday morning to catch a two-hour whale-watch cruise. As I mentioned in my last entry, the whales were evident from our ocean-view window. The cruise was to see them up close, and we certainly got closer than we did from the hotel balcony. We got to see something else up close, too: big waves and a stinging wind that were (we heard) the remnants of a storm that had scoured the north part of New Zealand ten days ago. I took one look at those wine-dark seas (for wine colored blue-green with streaks of sandy brown, at least) and popped a Bonine nervously. I have warm feelings toward the Navy: As I related here some years ago, when I was 17 the Navy believed in me (and pestered me for weeks to accept a full college NROTC scholarship) for personal enthusiasms that my first two girlfriends considered deranged. (My third girlfriend sat patiently while I explained the fourth dimension to her, and that's when I knew I wanted to marry her.) All that said, Popeye I'm not, and I gripped the stanchions tightly while watching the bounding main for breaching whales.

We saw a few, and I considered the day a success, even though the berserk surf got bad enough to wash away significant portions of Polo Beach and cause the rest of the day's cruises to be canceled. I was hours trying to get the wine-dark wobble out of my gait, and I haven't had any wine for two weeks.

Sunday we got up at 4:30 AM for a snorkel cruise to the collapsed caldera island of Molokini, where the visibility underwater can reach 150 feet. We were smart enough to rent wetsuit tops from the cruise operators and glad of it, as the water was a chilly 72 degrees and the air none too warm either at 8 AM. Temps were the least of it, however: The reduced but still formidable swells had us bobbing like corks and struggling to stay steady enough to watch the fish, who had the sense (and the gills) to remain well beneath all the action. The fish were great to see, but after fighting the rolling water for twenty minutes, people started to bail and climb back onto the 36-foot catamaran. I lasted a little longer (maybe 45 minutes) but Carol stuck it out for over two hours. No surprise there: She's the daughter of an imperturbable Navy marine engine mechanic; I'm the son of a excitable Army radio operator who was sick the entire trip across the Atlantic on his way to Italy in 1942.

Like I said: Papayas, yes, Popeye, no way.

On the trip back to Maui, the cruise people did an interesting thing: They dropped a hydrophone into the water on 50 feet of cable, and patched the mic into the boat's PA system. And for fifteen minutes we listened to the whales. It was eerie, and perhaps beyond eerie. We're not used to thinking of animals as volitional the same way we are, but those guys were clearly doing something down there. Whale songs change a little every year, but generally only one phrase at a time. And thinking about a pattern in which only one element changes at a predictable interval, I can't help but speculate that they're counting something: years, generations, intervals until the saucers come back; who knows? There's a story in there somewhere, though I'm not the guy to do it.

There is a permanent hydrophone in the water near Kihei, less than a mile from where we were at the time, and you can listen to it live. The whales will be around until they begin to migrate back to their feeding grounds in Alaska at the end of March, and will be gone by the end of April.

The boat's naturalist said that the whales were very close, and almost in answer, two of them surfaced just to one side of the boat. It was a cow humpback and its calf, followed shortly after by an "escort" male. They were less than 100 feet from the catamaran, and the captain killed the engine instantly, as required by law. We watched them play around for another fifteen minutes until they got bored and left.

The remainder of the trip back was like a second (and more successful) whale watch cruise. The water between Maui and Molokini was lousy with whales, and we saw two dozen or more in the hour's passage. In the shallower water near shore we spotted ten or twelve green sea turtles, which eyed us apprehensively as we cruised slowly past.

So it was a busy and bobbly weekend, followed by a lazy day that I consider entirely successful. What do editors do on their day off? They lay around--so that, when they get back home, they can stand to be editors again. Mission accomplished. (Now I have to research how to build my own hydrophone for our next trip...)

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