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Ship Logs

French Frigate Shoals
Written By Carlos Eyles
Underwater Photography by Jim Watt
October 5, 2002

Once again the southern and western quadrants of the sky are blanketed with gunboat-gray storm clouds as if winter itself lay snarling just beyond the horizon. The jade green seas of French Frigate Shoals showing white cap and annoyance from a determined wind blowing out of the ESE. Too early in the morning for my liking, we could be plowing into steep seas before the day is over. The sun doesn't show its wind-burned face until well above the horizon, no doubt fearful of the surrounding billows that loom like a disturbing dream, that I suspect will haunt us through the day.

Baby Honu making their way to sea.We stayed anchored up at French Frigate Shoals for the night. The plan was to pick up the Documentation Team that spent the night on Tern Island. (Feeling a bit under the weather, I chose the familiar quarters of my bunk so missed out on hatchling turtles making their way to sea.) This morning we were to all have a dive on what was the most prolific and beautiful reef we had seen on the expedition and what had come to be called Rapture Reef. All the teams were looking forward to it.

Plans, however, change. The seas and wind continue to build, and when we arrive at the site, it is declared unfit to dive, too dangerous, too much sea and too much current. We turn and high-tail it towards Nihoa, our last stop before heading for Honolulu. The seas continue to build, and we plow into the best the trades can offer. It is a time for reflection, at least for the atolls that are now well behind us and I shall not see again in Hawaiian waters for some time, if ever. Winter closes out this part of the world, and it is chasing us home. No one in their right mind, fisherman, extreme water skiers, no one, wants to be anywhere near these atolls in heavy seas. They are so low to the horizon that they are all but invisible, which of course is why so many shipwrecks can be found around them. However in mild summer weather, they are true gems of the sea, like jeweled emeralds set in rough hewn rings laid upon a blue velvet sea. Perhaps it is the ancientness of atolls that so appeals, they were once islands (one day in the not to distant geological future all of Honolulu will be a lagoon) that having seen too much of the world (as most assuredly Honolulu will have) will collapse into themselves. Atolls are very much like humans in that regard, we have all, from time to time, particularly when we have seen too much of the world, collapsed on ourselves. And we are left, like atolls with only the edge of the volcano exposed to the world and, if we are fortunate our psyche center will be that of a smooth lagoon. Or not.

Three spinner dolphins.That miserable day in rough seas and rain at Kure when we went into the lagoon and met up with that pod of dolphins was for me one of the highlights of this journey. I love dolphins and have encountered them all over the world. These spinners were as playful as any I have found and quite accommodating, allowing me to enter their world for a short time. Generally dolphin will sleep in lagoons, for there they are safe from the sharks. One hemisphere of their brain keeps watch while the other hemisphere dozes, and in that state they do not play or interact. However, those of Kure were wide-eyed with curiosity, they probably had not seen many humans and continually swam by my side making direct eye contact, and in general sincere attempts to connect with the humanoid. On my part I tried to mimic their body language; we communicated, we played, we swam, we dove. Above all else the dolphin's message to humans is to play. Work is way overrated, and until that fine day comes when you get to play with a dolphin, you'll have to take my word for it.

French Frigate Shoals from space.There is uniqueness to atolls that transcends them to the realm of extraordinary; this is where many of the one-of-a-kind invertebrates are found. The lagoon is like an incubator, a bathtub of protection from the rages of sea and wind. That which is delicate, and frail, can survive in an atoll's lagoon where they can survive nowhere else. They are oxygenated and cleansed due to the timely tides which empty a portion of their water and refill it twice in a twenty-four hour period. There is magic in atolls you can feel, and if you can't feel it, then all you have to do is look up and see the magic. For the clouds that pass over every lagoon change from white to emerald green, in an incomparable metamorphosis of beauty, and a faultless display of the Earth's capacity for beauty on full parade. Oddly, whenever I see the emerald clouds from a distance, I think of the ancient Polynesian navigators who, when they must have spied those green clouds long before they could see the atoll, knew they were close to land. They also knew they were probably close to a chain of atolls which could quite possibly lead them to islands. They took bearings, they knew where they were on this vast sea, perhaps felt they were close to new land. Land that would someday become home, become the Islands of Hawai‘i.

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