A mussel shell descends through water, shimmering with iridescence as it wobbles toward the bottom 7 feet below. Two eyes follow its path. Then, with the exuberance of a puppy, a small boy dives in to retrieve the shell. No mask, no fins, just exuberance. After a couple of tries success. He emerges with his trophy. His father nods approval. This was the perfect place to become acquainted with the ocean – the outflow of warm water from a power plant in Seal Beach, California.
It was 1948, I was 6 years old, and my dad had driven us here so he could body surf and so I could learn to love rather than fear the ocean. Those days were happy. My mother had quit her job as a bank teller to be a housewife and take care of me. My father “settled down” as a truck driver after traveling the world working as a seaman on ships and eventually becoming a “hard hat” diver blowing up coral reefs to make passages for ships to enter harbors in the South Pacific before WWII. His adventures provided endless stories that captivated the imagination of my friends and me.
Today I would certainly be labeled as hyperactive. Fortunately, in the late 1940s, I was just a little kid full of energy doing what kids did. In the late afternoon when my father’s car pulled up I knew that it was time for us to go to the beach. I rushed out to greet him and then to release pent up excitement and energy I would run around the house two or three full cycles just to calm down. Panting and much calmer I collected towels and sandals for the beach.
We were off in the green hornet – a 1948 green, slope backed Nash. At Seal Beach the waves are bigger than in Long Beach so the destination was perfect for us both. My dad was an avid waterman and loved to bodysurf. While he was in the water I explored a rock jetty for creatures. A world of discoveries lay at my feet. Green animal flowers, called sea anemones, decorated the rocks. Sticky tentacles would withdraw when touched, particularly when I dropped a crab onto the anemone. I was enthralled to watch it struggle and slowly, very slowly, disappear as the anemone engulfed and consumed it. A treasure chest of debris waited among the rocks. Owl limpets, turban snails, pieces of scallop shells, moon snails, and crab molts were wonderful discoveries. I was most enamoured with the iridescence of mussel shells. The deep blue, green, silver and black intermingled, a magic interplay of color depending on the angle of the sunlight. How could something change color just by moving it? Six year old minds are quick to find mystery and magic in the most common of things, things that older minds are likely to ignore. Blase was years away and I happily collected my treasures for my little museum of nature’s wonders at home.
Back in the car I had a responsibility. I was in charge of “chasers.” While my dad reminisced about faraway places and a more simple life, I was to have a bottle of Squirt open and ready to “chase” his snort of 4 Roses whiskey. His bottle was kept in the “whisky locker” which I never knew was also called a glove compartment until some years later. Once, when we had company, I was asked to get a flashlight from the car and after returning I announced, to my mother’s horror, that I had found it in the whisky locker. She had to explain to the others that I meant the glove compartment.
As my father drank and I chased, I was captivated by stories of sharks, coral reefs, life aboard ship, jungles, native peoples, exotic cities, and strange foods. He swam the Golden Gate channel and body surfed Ocean Beach, long before wet suits were invented. He worked and dived on islands in the Pacific (Midway, Wake, Guam), traveled with botanists in the Panamanian jungle, and in Shanghai was attacked by a rickshaw driver who tried to rob him. We both escaped our daily lives and shared in the exploration of the planet. Reality to him and fantasy to me. His was of the past and mine was a dream of the future. I was filled with a thirst for adventure, fearless of the unknown, and oblivious to discomfort as I wanted to taste the world in its fullest. I wanted to be just like my dad – at least in the beginning. His stories were often punctuated with messages: “Never turn your back on the sea; Remember when you travel you are in someone else’s back yard. It not your country, you are a visitor, and you had better respect the rules of the culture. Pay attention, listen, and keep your mouth shut. That’s the way to get along in someone else’s country!”
Back home dinner was waiting. After dinner my mom, dad, and I would walk to the local fishing pier and look at the harbor and whatever fish had been caught. More stories of far off adventures. After the walk I would play with toys or read a book while my parents would sit and listen to classical music. My favorite was the William Tell Overture. Our house was filled with love – my parents were affectionate, I was adored, everything was perfect.
My dad loved sea food and we went fishing on weekends. As he fished I would snorkel in tidepools, harassing crabs, sticking my finger in sea anemones, and collecting shells. When he was cleaning the fish I always wanted to see what they had eaten so opening the stomach was a high point for me. I also liked the lens of the fish’s eyes, a perfectly spherical, transparent jewel. I would hold it and see how it focused light – very cool. The best was going for abalone. In those days, one could get a limit of green abalones at low tide without even diving. My dad taught me how to slice, pound, and fry these delicacies. The perpetual teacher, he said if you catch it you clean it. So I soon became good at slicing abalone or filleting fish. Through some of his frineds I eventually got a job as a deck hand on a sportfishing boat. The job was nothing special but the big wow was looking over the bow at night when we were in transit to the Channel Islands. It was one of the most mind blowing experiences of my life in those days. Greenish blue streaks of light from mystery animals scattered away from the boat. Some were thin, some large, sometimes a round blobish thing would burst into light. There was amazing diversity and never could I really see what was making the light. I knew most of this light was caused by fish, scared by the boat, racing through the water and causing bioluminescent plankton to glow. But the shapes and streaks and sheer beauty of this underwater fireworks blew my mind. Instead of sleeping I would watch this spectacle and then end up totally exhausted by the next afternoon when we got back to port. Based on that I would go to the beach when we had a red tide, fill a couple of bottles of water, put them in my closet, and wait till dark. I would then have friends over to watch the fireworks as I shook the bottle, causing the plankton to give off their light.
My mom was not as much of an outdoor person as my dad but she was super patient and encouraged me to follow whatever seemed interesting to me. Together we created a shell collection through the local library. We would go into the local bay and along the coast at low tide and collect shells. Most were alive so we would boil them and then with a pin pull the animal out of the shell. Our kitchen reeked of dead mollusks and it was not a pleasant smell at all. The collection was a sort of competition and she helped me name and label each shell in my box. We got books and looked up information about the animals. I was also fascinated with fish and she got books that I could use to make my notebook of fish. The colors, shapes, and diversity of fishes was astonishing. I still have those notebooks full of my little kid drawings. I was quite busy!
The ocean was my life, my dad was my companion and teacher, and my mom was loving and nurturing. To this day I have never felt as secure and happy as I did in those early days.
I calmly walk into the bathroom where my dad is in a drunken rage, yelling at my mother. I yell at the top of my lungs, “I hate your guts.” The response is predictable and my plan is working. He abandons my mom and goes after me. I run and slam a door behind me. He runs into it, giving me a bit of distance. I run to my bedroom, slam the door, and jump out of the window, where I had removed the screen. He is now further behind and is unlikely in his state, to make it out the window. He is out the front door yelling that he won’t take any crap from a snot nosed kid and that he is going to whip my ass. I’m laughing and challenging him to catch me if he can. My mother is at the door, horrified, pleading with us to calm down.. think of the neighbors.
One day my mother picked me up from school and said there had been an accident. While measuring the level of oil in a large petroleum tank, the ladder my dad was perched on slipped and he fell. It was probably a story or two high and he shattered his leg. A few days later he was released from the hospital and came home to be strung up in a hospital bed with a trapeze like system that elevated his leg. Recovery was slow and my mom had to go to work to support the family as we had no insurance of any kind. The best option was to be an Avon Lady so she could have flexible hours to take care of us. Eventually my dad recovered but had a limp he called his “flat wheel.” He returned to driving a truck in construction but things had changed.
After my dad had mobility we returned to the after work beach ritual . But now, after a few weeks of no income while he was recovering he was different. The hospital bills, payments on the new car, and an obvious limp seemed to turn this omnipotent and charismatic adventurer into a damaged man leading a mundane life and hating it. Adventures of somewhere else dissolved into the pitiful reality of a man ill-suited for the relatively sedentary life of a truck driver and construction worker. Rationalizing his plight as a victim of forces beyond his control he became a fallen hero humiliated by his own inability to adapt and succeed in an artificial world called civilization. He had been able to survive and succeed in the natural world, the real world as he called it, and in other cultures where people lived close to nature. He was a good survivor, hunting, fishing, and working with local people. But city life where one needed an “education” was not something he had prepared himself for.
Drink offered escape into the past where he was a hero who had met challenges and thrived. He was smart and tough. He took advantage of those qualities to explore the ocean and far off lands. Now in a city, his skills and experiences were not marketable. Here his options were limited and he would be reduced to reliving past adventures. The first few times I heard a story I was captivated but after many reiterations, I grew sick of what seemed to be excuses for the present life.
In those days we still went to the beach to body surf but now as we returned home from the beach the atmosphere was dark and one had to be extremely careful. The smallest misstatement was likely to set off an onslaught of abuse. This was a time for caution. My mother could see it in his eyes and we both knew that a difficult night was about to begin.
He had a “short temper” and was explosive in his reaction to just about anything that did not meet his approval. Yelling, insults, slammed doors, and exaggeration became almost common. In later years I remember coming home from school, seeing his car, and getting the feeling in my stomach one has when one goes into a final knowing one is going to fail. I felt sick. The next morning after one of his vitriolic outbursts he was cheerful and apparently apologetic, even though he never apologized. If it was a weekend he would be happy to drive my buddies and me to a surf spot from Huntington Beach all the way down to Tressles at Camp Pendleton. He would bring his bottle of hard cider and a fishing pole. If eyebrows were raised by my buddies, he calmed their fears by saying, “Its ok this is only hard cider.” They thought this was very funny. By the time we finished surfing he was happily intoxicated and entertained us, at least them, with stories of his past. For me, they were the same old stories I had heard far too many times before.
In spite of the negative side of his drinking, there was a funny and creative side. He loved words, as did my mom, and he always had something to contribute. If it was taking another swig, he might make a toast but instead of salut, to your health, or here’s mud in your eye, it was “Salud a patuse, a viva la pupula fache. Atostu gotsa.” I once asked him what does this really mean and he said he did not know. Another interesting one liner was, “Bosco, the dog faced boy, eats ‘em alive.” I asked who was Bosco and what did he eat. He did not know. One of his favorite poems was, “The boy stood on the burning deck, his feet were full of blisters. He climbed aloft, his pants fell off and now he wears his sisters.” Another was, “Captain Fadink of the Horse Marines, fed his wife on pork and beans. She pooped all night. She pooped all day. And she finally pooped herself away.”
All of this was fun in the beginning then sort of fun with my friends but by the end I hated all of this BS. But he was the only parent willing to drive us surfing so it was all tolerable and I took advantage of his generosity. In fact, he loved me and he loved being there to take us off to enjoy the ocean. My friends were polite and appreciative and they were a good audience. At least during those times, we all were winners.
Back home it was a totally unpredictable roller coaster. Would this be a happy evening or a war zone? We never knew. When I was young my mother was a Cub Scout den mother, she helped me work on my Scout merit badges, and took our den to local industries for an educational experience. She never complained and many times explained to me that my father was stressed and that he did not mean the hurtful things he said. That was certainly logical but totally irrelevant to a little kid who has had a big bully of a father go off on him.
Often in his fits of rage he would start yelling at me and make me cry. That would escalate things and he would tell me to quit my sniveling or he would really give me something to cry about. At other times he would say that if I kept crying he would dress me up in girls’ clothes with a slip, dress, and pink ribbons. As a little kid, before the teenage years, I really thought he might do this, which, of course, made me cry more. After a particularly mean and hurtful session, the next day he was happy and nice, apparently as an apology or to get me back as his ‘chum.” But after a few years of this, I had enough. I remember saying to my mother that I would not let him back in as my pal. The roller coaster was too much – I just switched off. I could not trust him to stay nice and his gestures of driving us surfing and such were totally inadequate to compensate for the hurt. After that I hated him and vowed never to give in to his post outrage offers of friendship. My decision was final – it was over!
Financially things were not good. I still don’t know why two people with jobs could not manage their finances. They took out loans, and then loans to consolidate the other loans. The worst was one evening when the doorbell rang and a guy from some collection company asked if Mr. Murphy was home. My dad said yes and asked what was up. The guy said the loans were long past due and as a result he had been hired to take away our furniture. This really freaked me out, to think that our furniture was going away, and we were to live in a house with no furniture. An unthinkable future played out in my mind – I couldn’t have friends over, I would have to sleep on the floor, I wouldn’t have a desk to do my homework on, no dinners at a table.. and on and on. Although this dramatic scenario never took place, the event shook my foundation and made me think very hard about who these people were and what I needed to do to avoid being like them. I thought they were stupid and vowed never to let myself fall into such a situation. I still can feel the fear, insecurity, and anger. I made a decision, a decision in concrete, – I was going to get an education, earn a good living, and have economic security. I wanted to have adventures but after I had taken care of my future. I would never allow myself to fall into the economic pit my parents descended into.
As I got older his going off on me had less of an impact because I had a life outside of home. By the age of 11 I had a paper route and earned enough money over a few years to buy a boat. This was my exit strategy to get out on the ocean to water ski, dive for fish, and just hang out with others my age who also had boats. Since I could not look to my parents for spending money, I realized that the more I could earn the more freedom I had. This was a major motivation to work, particularly as things got worse at home. I ended up having to get a lock on my paper route collection box because my dad would steal my money to buy booze. I could not believe that a father would steal from his son. What a jerk!
By the time I was in my mid-teens, my dad had quit working. He went fishing every day and drank a lot. This really pissed me off because it meant my mom was working to support us all. What kind of a lazy bastard was he, to do absolutely nothing while my mother worked her ass off to support us? When I was 16 and got a car, I got other jobs and ended up supporting myself except for a place to live and eat. I paid for all of my clothes, gas, insurance, and other stuff. Things were getting worse and worse.
His abuse continued to escalate and one night when he was on a tirade, yelling at my mom, I had enough. I was still intimated by him physically so trying to take him down was not an option I considered. But I felt the need to get him to stop yelling at my mom. I made a plan. First I drove my car a block away and parked it. Then I took the screen off my bedroom window. Then I went in to the room where he was having a melt down and yelled at the top of my lungs that I hated his guts. Predictably this diverted his anger from my mom to me. Perfect, I succeeded! As he went to grab me and “whip my ass” I ran to another room slamming the door behind me. He, being drunk, ran into the door. Once open, he followed me into my bedroom with that door slammed in his face. He opened that but by then I was out the window. Chasing me out the window was a real challenge for a drunk so he ran out the front door to catch me. By then I was running down the street yelling to him to “come get me if you can get your ass in motion.” My mother was at the front door pleading with us both to be quiet, think of the neighbors. What a pitiful circus. I slept in my car and the next evening everything was calm. Neither my dad nor I gave a shit about the neighbors but my poor mom was totally humiliated. She did not deserve this crap particularly since she was the one who earned the money he spent to buy booze and keep a roof over our heads.
I watched my mom become more and more stressed both from real work and from the situation at home. She was the nicest and most generous person I have ever met. She never complained, she had compassion for my poor alcoholic father, she loved him, and she did what was necessary for us all to survive. On the other hand, by that time I had zero compassion, infinite anger and resentment, and did everything I could to make my dad as miserable as my mother and I were. I shunned him and made critical comments whenever the occasion arose. As he would launch into one of his stories, that I had heard far too many times, I would point out a flaw in his logic or explain that he was incorrect on some fact about the ocean. He did not like being corrected and often retaliated, yelling, “Listen, smart ass, I have forgotten more about the ocean than you will ever know!” I made no verbal response but my face and body language clearly communicated disdain and contempt. I was generally as obnoxious as a teenager could be (which can be pretty obnoxious).
After a few more dramatic episodes I made a decision. I told my mother that either he was out or I was out BUT I would not live in this sick environment. I said, “He is killing you but I will not let him kill me. I won’t live like this! Either divorce him and kick him out of the house, or I’ll move out and live on my own. I have a job and will survive just fine.” Predictably, my mother was horrified and hurt. But she could see I was very very serious. What a terrible position I put her in – to have to choose between your son or the husband you still love. I did not want to hurt her but I felt I was doing this as much for her as me. I had a life outside of home, she did not. She was trapped with no alternatives that I could see. I was certain I was doing the right thing for her. I’ll never forget the day she told him. He was devastated and so was she. I felt sick – sick with empathy for them both because they did love each other and sick that he was such a pitiful vestige of the real man he used to be. There were no winners, we all lost.
I saw him once after that. I came home from college and found him in my mother’s apartment. I had a complete melt down and told him to get the hell out and never come back. By then I was physically comfortable taking him on so my anger had no limits. He raised some objection and I got in his face and said, “leave now or get your alcoholic ass kicked all the way down the stairs. Do it now!” As he moved toward the door, I grabbed a carving knife and followed. Part way down he stopped to give me some more of the old shit I had heard all my life and I put the knife to his face. Very very calmly I said, “I’m a college boy and you are an old drunk. I’m just about ready to stick this in your gut. As you get carted off to the hospital who do you think the police will believe caused this you or me? Now get your drunken ass out of here and never come back!” I felt not one iota of remorse! That was the last time I spoke to my father but not the last time I thought about him.
I am at the end of a 150’ ski line behind a boat that is going 30 mph. Next to me on both sides are 7 other boats all capable of going 75 – 80 mph. The flag goes down and all 8 boats are at top speed within seconds. I hear the sound of dragster engines, my face is stinging from the boat’s spray, and I know I’m going 70 mph plus by the flapping of my cheeks. All this along with the acceleration was beyond any experience of my life, then or even now. This was my life! It was beyond exhilarating and I was addicted. Let me back up.
In junior high water skiing and skin diving were my passions. My 12 ‘ boat was perfect as it could take me the breakwater of Long Beach where I could always spear enough fish for dinner. Or it could take me to the marine stadium and connecting channels to water ski.
I had a few buddies who also skied and they had boats faster than mine. I discovered that I loved speed, the faster the better! I was a good skier and eventually would walk along the shore of the marine stadium, where adults with really fast boats came, and I would “bum rides.” I had a state of the art ski and I got a school buddy who was an artist to create a wonderful creation on it – a hand sporting a spider web between the digits with claws instead of finger nails that dripped blood. I would walk along the shore and ask some guy with a hot boat how fast it would go. He would brag about it going 60, 65, or 70 and I would say I’ll bet I can take it wide open or full throttle. Sometimes, on a good day, the guy would say to his buddies, “Hey this kid thinks he can take all this boat has to give. Let’s go out and dump his ass.” This was great. Sometimes the guy would look at me and give me a flat no. And one time a guy said, “You have the gall of a government mule.” Obviously I did not get a ride from him. Rejection did not bother me because the good times were really great. After a really good ride these men thought I was a cool kid and sometimes we would plan to meet and ski again. I did this for a few years and eventually got connected to people with fast boats who were into racing. This was a dream come true. My first race was the Catalina race that went from the Long Beach harbor to Catalina and back. It was open ocean, rough, and long – 52 miles if one went in a straight line, which was seldom the case. I got 12th place out of 42 skiers, so for my first race and I felt pretty good. For the next two years I lived and breathed skiing, improving with every race.
Back to being in a race. The best part of the race was the first straight away. The water was calm and it was really a boat race. We skiers could easily handle speed on flat water. The fastest boats took the lead. Then we came to the first turn. This was scary as we, the skiers, had to stay on the inside part of the wake of the boat because there was likely another boat or even a skier very close on the outside of the turn. If I failed to keep the turn tight I could go outside and be in front of the boat or skier to my right. If I were to fall, it could be the end. I remember the time a boat on the inside of the turn was between my boat and me. The ski line between my boat and me is a straight line even though I have to take an arc around the turn. I realized my line might hit the exhaust “stacks” of the boat on the inside and if that happened it would melt my line and I would be detached from my boat. In addition to really paying attention to making this critical first turn I had to hold up my handles to make sure the line was not going to get melted by the other boat. In another race I remember the line of another skier, whose boat was on the outside, rubbing across my side I thought if I fall that skier is certain to run over me. All of this is taking place while we were going above 50 mph. After that first lap the water would get rough and then it was a race based on skiers abilities not the speed of the boat. The ski, thanks to friction of the water, wants to slow down, pulling one’s lower body back. The ski line, attached to the boat, wants to pull the upper body forward. Thus, one is constantly fighting these opposing forces by having knees bent and body leaning back with most of the tension on the lower back. The crew member in the boat is always watching the skier and how he is doing. His job was to tell driver to speed up or slow down. Thumbs up means faster, thumbs down means slower but the reality is when you are at your limit of not falling it is almost impossible to communicate such directions. So, for the observer, knowing the skier well, is really critical. By the end of my 2nd year of racing I was improving and ready to be a serious competitor for placing in races. At that point I had accumulated 16 trophys. During those first two years I skied at a number of places: Salton Sea, Lake Havasu on the Colorado River, Clear Lake, and a 75 mile race in Lake Mead, among others.
The first race of my 3d year was in Mission Bay in San Diego. My driver had done a lot of work on his boat so we were positioned to do well. As always I was super nervous just before the race…major butterflies to the point of almost barfing. I was confident though and ready. All the boats were off, the skiers up, and the flag went down. After the first turn I was maybe in 2nd or 3d place and then the engine blew. The boat was dead in the water and I was just floating there behind the boat, full of adrenalin, and sooo frustrated. We eventually got towed to shore and the race ended. I needed to ski. I had so much energy that just had to be released. So back to the ski bum days. I walked the beach and found a drag boat, not really set up to pull skiers, but obviously fast. I explained to the owner that I really needed to get out on the water and experience some speed. He agreed to pull me between other races taking place that day. Wonderful at least the day would not be a complete waste.
We went out into the bay, I dropped in the water, got up, and we were off. At about 50 mph I gave him thumbs up and up and up. I just wanted speed. As the boat accelerated it was leaping out of the water. The only problem for me was that each time it landed it created a divot or depression in the surface. I just bent my knees more and took the shocks. But as we went faster and faster I lost it. The jerking of the line and the holes in the water started pulling me forward. I was tough and not ready to give in. I should have let go but I did not. I fell, at what the people in the boat, said was 80 + mph. What I experienced was just tumbling, like being in a washing machine. Then nothing, absolutely nothing. I thought well this is interesting. I see nothing, I feel nothing, I hear nothing. I must be dead. Ok I guess that’s ok as I feel no discomfort. Then vision came back and I thought wow I’m alive, this is good too. Then I saw my arm in the water and freaked out. OMG my arm has been cut off. I reached over and pulled on it and realized it was attached. I thought, great, everything was fine. By then the boat came to pick me up and the driver and his observer were gushing about how long I bounced over the water and they worried if I was ok. I said I’m fine but a bit dazed. We went back to shore and I thanked them and apologized for falling. In an hour or so I began to feel really weird. No words to describe the feeling but just not right. I lay down and my left arm began to tingle. By the end of the day I was disoriented and feeling really strange. Pain was minimal but the weirdness was such that I did not feel comfortable driving.
Fortunately, I had friends there and got someone to drive me home in my car. By the time I got home I was feeling that something was seriously wrong and I got my mom to take me to the hospital. Emergency room doctors could not find anything wrong. But the next morning when I awoke I could not speak a full sentence. Words came out garbled. My mom was at work and I got a friend of the family to take me back to the hospital to be admitted. For the first 2 days I could not talk nor keep a meal down. By day 3 I had lost all sensation in my arm and it was totally paralyzed. After a number of tests, it was determined that I had damaged the nerves coming out of my neck and going down my arm. After a week or so I could see that my arm was starting to wither, to atrophy! Here I was a teen ager at the peak of fitness, full of testosterone, and all that goes with it, particularly an appreciation for the opposite sex, with a gimp arm. A floppy, withered limb was not a real girl getter. I was majoring in biology and knew enough to understand that paralysis and atrophy could be permanent. This was starting to get serious and I was not happy at all.
Three weeks after being admitted the neurologist said there was nothing more that could be done. When I asked about a prognosis, he said, “Nerves are a lot like women, you never know what they are going to do.” By that time, I had just begun to get mobility in a couple of fingers so I felt there was hope and my spirits lifted a bit. I then asked the doctor about when he thought I could get back to skiing. He responded with an emphatic NEVER! He explained that the nerve canal in my spine was abnormally small and thus I was prone to spinal damage and paralysis. He said this time I was lucky, I only paralyzed an arm. He said next time it could be my legs or torso or entire body. This was a bomb shell. I asked what about surfing, he said I could hit the bottom or have my board hit me. No deal. What about snow skiing. He said I could take a hard fall or hit a tree. That was out. My life was my sports. All of my friends were pals through my sports. My identity was water skier, surfer, and snow skier. That was who I was. I was devastated. Who would I be, who would I have as friends, and what girl would ever want to hang out with a floppy armed guy like me? I was definitely suicidal. I could only think, what good was living if I could not enjoy life. This was definitely the worst day of my life.
I was to be released the next day. The following morning as I was getting ready to go home, I discovered I could not move my fingers. I could move them yesterday and the next day I could not. In one way this was a catastrophe but in another way it showed me how much one’s psychology and attitude affects one’s physical situation. I thought if my depression and self-pity could make me regress in my healing then a positive attitude could facilitate my healing. This helped a bit but self-pity and suicidal thoughts were still dominating my consciousness.
At home I began my therapy. I wrapped a towel around my dead wrist, draped the towel over the shower curtain and held on with my good hand. I then pulled the towel down, which pulled the bad arm up. I was young and healthy and began to see progress within a few weeks. Obviously I had to rethink who I was and who I was going to be as my life, totally consumed with sports, was over.
In many ways this was the best thing that could have happened to me. There was not much of a future in water skiing. Now that all of my favorite sports had been downgraded, I realized I had better take academics and a real career a lot more seriously. Marine biology was my first choice, which ended up being a good choice.
First Travel Adventure
Its midnight in Cartago, Costa Rica and my buddy, Steve, and I are being led to jail. There are no guns and there is no resistance. The cell door is opened, we each get a bunk, and the door is locked. We have been drinking so we had no problem getting to sleep. An hour or so later a really drunk local joins us in our cell. He was objecting and making quite a fuss. But in no time the three of us are all sleeping. The next morning a girl I had been dancing with the night before comes to say hello. I am so surprised and she is so cute. She gives me her picture, it says Liliana on the back. She goes off to school and that is the last I see of her. A bit later the mayor comes and releases us. We pick up our packs, thank him, walk out to the Pan-American Highway, and continue our adventure hitchhiking south.
This adventure began thanks to pivotal events. First was my water ski accident. My mother’s brother, Uncle Walter, was in the oil business in Long Beach. He was very successful and had two boys, older than I, who also were snow skiers, surfed a bit, and water skied. So, he understood how important such sports were to us all. He also understood how valuable a good education was. At the time of my water skiing crash, I was going to a local junior college with plans to go to a state college and get a degree in marine biology. My grades were ok but finances were an issue so living at home was the best option.
Once out of the hospital my uncle said, “I want you to get a good education from a good university not some local college.” He offered to pay for my college tuition and books if I went to UCLA. Wow! I had never even considered a university like UCLA as the cost was far beyond my means. With good grades getting accepted was not a problem. By the time I got this news and applied, all dorm rooms were filled so my only option, at a school where I knew no one, was to go through rush and join a fraternity. I became a “frat boy” and was launched into academia. I loved science and enjoyed most of my classes. Others learned faster but I retained what I learned very well so I survived.
I had sold my car because college parking was too expensive and moving my car every day or so to avoid getting a ticket was far too complicated in Westwood. I bought a used Honda 250 Scrambler and that was both transportation and therapy. The latter involved my having an outlet for those times when I was ready to explode from sitting for hours studying. I would hop on the bike and race through the beautiful winding roads of Bel Aire. There was one vacant lot with a view of the entire city below and terraced land that was perfect for jumping. My excursions kept me sane or as close to it as I could get during those days.
By the end of my first year, I had figured out how to survive without my generous uncle’s help. As a “hasher” I served meals in a sorority and eventually lived in a basement room, intended for the cook who lived off campus. So, I ended up living in a sorority with free room and board, not to mention fringe benefits of female proximity.
Life in a sorority was quite different from living in a fraternity. Much of our fraternity fees went to beer busts on Fridays and more elaborate parties on Saturdays. Sororities were dry and their fees went to good food, far better than frat food. Being dry was a problem for some of the girls but with two guys living downstairs there were alternatives. From time to time I would hear a tapping on my door. It was a can opener, hung on a string from one of the girl’s windows above. I would look out and see a happy face asking if I had beer. I would say yes and then tie a tennis shoe to the string. Down would come money and up would go beer. The profits from this little enterprise kept us in beer so everyone won. Of course, from time to time there would be pranks and one scenario became quite involved. It began with my roommate and me discovering that our tooth paste tubes had been punctured with lots of pin holes. A couple of nights later the cook prepared spaghetti. For the girls who most likely sabotaged us we put band aids on the plate and then heaped spaghetti on top. Watching their faces when they discovered what was beneath their dinner was wonderful. But that was not the end. Some days later there was a tap tap on our door. I looked up to find a shower of liquid descending toward my head. I was not quick enough to avoid being doused with perfume. Apparently the girls pooled their perfume into one full glass and then emptied it on me. The mixture of many aromas was beyond horrible. Our front door reeked for days. There is so much to experience at college.
Now for the 2nd pivotal event. One day back at the fraternity house an agent came asking if anyone was a good motorcycle rider. The word got to me since I was the most experienced rider of the group. I responded to the agent and got hired to be a model for new small Honda motorcycles. In the mid 1960s Honda was trying to change the image of motorcycle riders from that of leather clad Hells Angels to middle class Americans. An ad agent determined that in addition to being able to ride a motorcycle and I had the “right look.” I was elated because in addition to getting easy money I had just learned that I had the “right look.”
We met in Griffith Park near the center of Los Angeles the following week and I spent an afternoon riding back and forth for the camera. It was uneventful except for the fact that to my astonishment, I received $300 for the session! This was a gigantic sum of money, more than ten times that amount in today’s economy. In fact, it was large enough to alter the course of my life.
Prior to this “modeling session” my life experience had given me the impression that I was not a hunk but obviously I had missed something. As we all know looks have considerable impact on one’s social life and with above average levels of testosterone my “look” could have significant implications on my personal life. So, feeling extremely good about myself, I inquired what exactly was this “right look” with which I had been blessed. The response was matter of fact and short, “Oh the look we were seeking was something that anyone could identify with and you look very average.” So, I happily took the money, put my deflated ego aside, and went back to class. I did eventually get one additional perk, the photo of our Honda ride was on the inside back cover of both Time and Life magazines. My career in modeling was short.
The $300 could cover all of my next year’s survival needs at UCLA, thanks to living in a sorority. This meant I did not have to work that summer. This was the first summer I did not work since Jr. High – what a gift!
My childhood pal, Steve Richardson, and I had dreamed of going to San Blas, Mexico since Jr High. According to the article in the Sunset Guide to Mexico, it was the most northern place on Mexico’s west coast where there were coconut palms on the beach. He agreed to take the summer off and we made a plan to hitch hike to San Blas and then on to the Yucatan Peninsula to explore the Mayan ruins.
Steve and I had been friends since grade school, first playing baseball and then as surfers. We also discovered that we both had a passion for knowledge, the ocean, physics, literature, and more. This became clear to us when we would walk from our home to the Friday night “canteen” (teen center) where there was dancing. Our evening would begin with each of us, separately, entering a local market where they put champagne just above the ice cream freezer. With our large Pendleton shirts and baggy pants, we put a bottle of champagne in our pants, got an ice cream cone, paid for the ice cream and exited. Then we had about a mile of walking through alleys to the canteen, enjoying our bubbly treat. It was during these long walks that we discussed Darwin and evolution, Einstein’s E=mc2, how Shakespeare could know and write his plays, and on and on. Our bible was John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. We could identify with both Mack and the boys who had stepped outside of their materialistic culture and Doc the marine biologist who loved women and beer.
Obviously ours was not the typical teen discussion and each of us felt lucky to have a kindred spirit with whom to ponder such things. Of course, by the time we got to the dance we were back to being typical teens with unlimited energy and enthusiasm for dancing and girls. A full bottle of champagne was far too much for our young bodies so we stashed what was left in the bushes. It’s great that champagne has a cork that can be reinserted to keep out bugs and leaves. Then when the dance was over our party continued. We walked to the local golf course where we finished off the bottle and then at the top of the hill where golfers would tee off, we ran downhill as fast as we could. Between the night dew on the grass and the steepness of the hill we slipped, tumbled, and laughed all the way down. Walking home through the park and neighborhoods our bodies often rejected all of that alcohol so we barfed what had not been metabolized. This was not particularly unpleasant partly because we knew such purging would reduce the hang over as we generally went surfing on Saturday mornings. The result was lifetime bonding that continues today, particularly after the hitchhiking adventure that I’ll describe next.
Mid-June 1965, my mom dropped Steve and me off on Pacific Coast Highway in Seal Beach. We each had $300, passport, mask/snorkel/fins, sleeping bag, and some clothes. We made it to San Blas but on the way to Yucatan we met two guys in two pickups who were on their way to Nicaragua and needed some help driving. We thought why not and the adventure took on a new dimension. In Nicaragua we realized we were relatively close to Panama. We figured that in Panama we could catch a banana boat, as described by Harry Belafonte in the Banana Boat Song, and island hop up to Florida. Then we could easily hitch hike back to California.
Hitchhiking offered amazing insights to another culture that one could never get at a higher level of tourism. Getting rides was not difficult and the conversations, even in our limited Spanish, were always illuminating. Sometimes people would stop and ask if we were alright. When we explained we were happily hitch hiking to San Blas or Panama, they could not understand. Americans were rich so why didn’t we have a car? We said we were students and we were poor but wanted to see their country. They were still incredulous.
As we waited for a ride we had time to explore the local vegetation on the side of the road for cool bugs or to test each other’s knowledge of Cannery Row. One of us would open the book at random and start reading. The challenge was to see how long it took for the other to identify the story unfolding in that section. We were also a curiosity to local kids who clustered around us trying to figure out who we were and what we were doing. Our cultural contribution to those kids was teaching them the technique of flipping bottle caps, which in those days all California surfers had mastered. We hoped that in some future date another Californian would pass through one of these areas and be astonished to see kids flipping bottle caps. Our vehicle of choice was being picked up by an empty flat-bed truck. Standing behind the cab of one of these trucks offered built in air conditioning and a fantastic view of the landscape. The only danger we considered was, not falling off the truck, but instead it was flying scarab beetles. At 50 mph being hit by one of these beautiful iridescent figeater beetles could be serious.
A few times people invited us into their houses to spend the night. One time a farmer saw us standing on the side of the road and offered us a place to sleep, along with dinner. Since there was no town nearby this was great news. We slept on the ground in his barn. The dogs running around and goats making noise were tolerable but the roosters crowing before dawn were obnoxious. Of course, they were everywhere in Latin America and we never got used to them. Next morning, our host walked with us to the road where we were to wait for a ride. There were few cars and after a bit a taxi came by and our host hailed him down. We explained that we did not have money for taxis and that was why we were hitchhiking. We preferred to wait. The host went into his house, went up to the taxi driver, and handed him some money, and he said we could proceed on our way. Here this poor farmer gave his limited cash to help total strangers continue their adventure. We hastily said we would pay the taxi and the farmer got his money back. As soon as we were over a hill, where the farmer could not see us, we got out, paid the taxi, and went back to our preferred means of transportation. Things like that happened often. In fact, the less money people had the more generous they seemed to be. In addition, country people were far nicer that city people. We quickly resolved to do everything possible to avoid spending any time in cities.
Cartago, Costa Rica was an exception. Each night around dinner time we had a big decision to make. Would we go to a restaurant for “la comida,” which meant whatever they were serving as the cheap special of the day. Or would we go to a bar for a beer, schmooze the bartender, and dine on whatever munchies they had to offer. This night we decided to hit the bar. We always explained to the bartender that we had been hitch hiking for over a month, coming from California and going to Panama. This always got a great response and soon we were the subject of interest in the bar. Politely we commented on how good the munchies were and of course were offered more. This night someone said there was to be a dance in town and a nice gentleman asked if we would like to go. With a good foundation of beer and munchies we were ready for anything, particularly if there were girls involved. As it turned out he was the Mayor. He offered to put our bags in a closet and ushered us into the dance. It was a typical teen age dance and we felt quite comfortable. Eventually we were noticed and then challenged as males of many species do when newcomers invade their territory. We were surrounded and we either had to leave or find a way to establish ourselves. A real fight was out of the question, partly because the mayor invited us and he had our bags. Plus, we are not fighters anyway. Steve suggested a contest. His choice was where competitors stand with one foot against the opponents and then each tries to push the other off balance. I offered to arm wrestle my opponent. We each engaged in our respective contests and won. This was great as we were then accepted and free to enjoy dancing with girls, which as was our priority anyway. Eventually the dance ended and the mayor asked where we were staying. We said we would just walk out of town and find somewhere to sleep. He asked if we would like to sleep in jail and of course we said yes. So, we ended up with a free and safe place to stay and next morning I ended up with a photo of Liliana.
Beyond Cartago the Pan-American Highway was not yet paved but at least it was passable. At the edge of town, we were picked up by two guys, maybe in their 50s. They seemed friendly enough and we were off. They offered us a swig of rum and we happily accepted. Maybe an hour later we were up in the mountains bathed in mist – it was magical. Then one of the guys said we needed to pay them and he pulled out a pistol. We were amazed as Costa Rica was the most friendly of all the countries we had passed through. In other potentially scary places, we never had a problem but here we were facing a guy with a gun demanding money. We calmly explained that if we had money we would have taken a bus or taxi. We had no money. We were hitchhiking which means we get a ride for free. Again, the guy waved his gun and said we needed to give him money. We repeated that we had no money and if they did not want to give us a ride then we would get out but we had no money. They guy and the driver seemed exasperated. Abruptly the car pulled over and we were told to get out. We were more than happy to get out and found ourselves standing on the side of a dirt highway, with no traffic, late in the afternoon, with not a clue as to where the next town might be. So, we walked till we found a bridge, went under, and had a good night’s sleep. No beer, no munchies, no water, but happy to be alone in a beautiful rainforest under a bridge.
The next day was even more bizarre. After a couple of rides, we were standing on the side of the road and a large Cadillac passed, then screeched to a stop, and backed up. The car was almost full of people but the driver told his passengers/family to make room for us. We were off and he asked, in good English, if we are Americans. He seemed pleased and when we told him what we were doing he was beyond pleased. It turned out he was a wealthy businessman, living in Panama City, and one of his sons was in Michigan going to college. He almost demanded that we come to his home and stay as long as we liked. After 2 months of living on the road this was a dream come true. When we got to his home it was paradise – our own room and bath, a maid to do our laundry who cooked whatever we wanted for breakfast, and a wife, son, daughter happy to show us around the city…. all at their expense. At dinner we were the celebrity guests and he even threw a party with lots of friends so he could show us off. Eventually this was too cushy and we needed to get back to our adventure. We thanked all for such a wonderful taste of culture and generosity and were off.
After taking a train, parallel to the Panama Canal, we arrived in Colon. We got a room in the local YMCA and were off to Chiquita Banana. At their corporate offices we explained that we wanted to book space on one of their banana boats going north. They thought we were joking and said they had no such banana boats and asked where we got the idea. We explained that Harry Belafonte had sung about banana boats, which gave them quite a laugh. We needed to do some serious rethinking about how to get home. Hitchhiking all the way back up through Central America to California was almost unthinkable. Too far, too slow, and not enough money for such an extended period of time.
A look at a map made the solution obvious. Panama is really not very far from Florida so maybe we could get a cheap flight to Miami. This was not only possible but a wonderful alternative because we learned that we could make a short stay on Grand Cayman Island at no extra cost. For $45.00 this was a perfect solution. Next day we were off and as we walked out of the airport on Grand Cayman we were assaulted by a barrage of taxi drivers. They asked where we were staying. We said we would sleep on the beach – which way was it? They responded that was impossible. We asked was it illegal. They said no one sleeps on the beach. After at least 5 cycles of this conversation with no good information, we just started walking. Later we learned this was a high end destination for Canadians and everyone who came stayed in nice hotels. As we walked out of the airport one taxi driver said get in, “I think I can get a place for you.” We explained we had hitchhiked from California to Panama and could not afford fancy hotel rooms. He understood and took us to a house with a small dormitory where Christian students and missionaries where housed. The owner was happy to offer us each a bed in the dorm and our normal budget of $2-3/night was below his rate he said we could do work on the property to make up the difference. Again, local people had been incredibly generous and taken care of us. Every morning we found our host and asked what we could do. His response was, “Boys you haven’t had a chance to see our island, go off and have some fun. See me tomorrow.” This went on for almost 2 weeks. We rented bikes and pedaled around the island, snorkeling in crystal clear water, exploring healthy coral reefs, raiding mango and coconut trees for our lunch, getting lots of mosquito bites, and frying our skin in the sun. Finally, we were given some work, to clean out bat droppings from the attic. It was terrible but certainly fair and we were happy to have had such a great stay.
Getting from Miami to Long Beach was far more difficult than traveling in Central America. We got kicked out of Lafayette, Louisiana. As we stood on the side of the road, barefoot because of the infections in our feet from mosquito bites on Grand Cayman, a police car drove up to us and stopped. He asked what we were doing there. It seemed obvious to us since we had our thumbs out. But we said we were hitch hiking. He said we were not welcome there. We said that was fine and asked if he had been called about us since he drove directly to us and stopped. He said, “we don’t like outsiders here and if you don’t get out of here I will put you in jail.” I asked on what charges, he said vagrancy. I said I am not a vagrant because I have money. He said get in the car. He then drove us about ½ mile off the main road and said, “Get out. When you get to the main road go west away from town.” We were happy to get out of town and made sure to wear our shoes from then on.
Freeways were difficult and people just did not see us as savory. Eventually we arrived home. I had $0.50 and Steve had $5.00!
College was certainly educational and we, of course, benefitted from a real education. But that trip was equally valuable as it taught us things one can never learn in from books or lectures. We learned the world is a generous place as long one is polite and respectful. We observed that “poor people” living on simple farms outside of cities had a relatively good quality of life and that these people were often far more generous than city people. Of course, our host in Panama was an exception. This trip was a transformative experience – it gave us confidence in our ability to adapt and survive in otherwise difficult and unpredictable circumstances.
After this adventure, I returned to school, graduated, and the following summer got a job working with the California Department of Fish and Game. I was offered an interesting proposition. If I would pursue a masters degree at Cal State Long Beach, the Fish and Game would pay me to go to school on the condition that I do my research on a special part of the brain of tuna. I had intended to pursue a PhD but this was a fascinating proposition because the project would involve the electron microscope, which was new and interesting, and one of the most sophisticated of all fast swimming fish – bluefin tuna. It, and all fish of the tuna family, have a really weird anatomical feature – a translucent “window” on the head of the fish directly above the brain. One would assume this allowed light to penetrate into the brain but there was no real evidence for this. My challenge was to look at the cells and the interior of those cells to see what might be going on. That first summer I would go to the local fish cannery, pick up a 20 to 40 lb. tuna, and use it to practice identifying and dissecting out the section of the brain of interest. The brain was a couple of inches long and after dissecting it out I was then left with a perfectly edible tuna. I would get the tuna on a Friday, take out and preserve the brain, then put the carcass in my trunk, and call ahead to my friends that a tuna was on the way. We would first enjoy sashimi (ginger, garlic, lemon juice, soy sauce), then have a great BBQ, and end up with a lot of tuna to put in my smoker. Those were major fringe bennies of studying tuna brains.
Some months later, when I was ready to stop practicing on dead tuna, I went out on a tuna boat to get healthy living bluefin tuna for fresh tissue. I spent 2 weeks on the boat, was sea sick the entire time, and then spent 2 years in a dark room looking at a little screen with images of tuna brain tissue. I was very happy to discover that tissue connecting the brain to that translucent window had retinal-like cells and other characteristics that gave insight to how real eyes in higher organisms functioned. Intellectually this was quite satisfying but at the same time the process of living in a dark room was about as far from what I enjoyed as anything could be. I finished my research, published a paper that was well received, and was ready to move on. I knew exactly what I did not want to do. I did not want to be involved with electron microscopy in a lab studying anything even if was a wonderfully edible subject like a bluefin tuna. But what I did want to do was a complete mystery.
The Cousteau Adventure Begins
I am in a tiny metal chamber with a number of port holes looking out into the underwater world. This chamber is attached to the bow of Calypso, Jacques Cousteau’s ship. The ship is proceeding across a shallow reef and I am beyond dazzled with the scenery passing only feet in front of my eyes. Sting rays fly away from the ship, sea fans wave in the current, colorful reef fish descend into their coral homes. This is a diver’s dream come true, to witness so much underwater scenery without any effort at all. What an adventure! I feel so lucky.
In 1968 I met a lady who was well placed in the ocean community and she agreed to help find me a job. Eventually she said she thought she had a good fit but would not tell me what the job entailed. It was strange but I had nothing to lose by going for an interview. The interview was in Hollywood of all places and I thought this was really weird. To my astonishment I was interviewed by Jacques Cousteau, the ocean explorer and filmmaker. I had absolutely zero interest in making films for the public, but I loved to travel, dive, and explore and I needed a break from academics as I had just finished my masters degree on tuna brains. So, after another interview I was offered the job and took it. For some this might have been a dream come true but for me it was something that might be fun for a while before I went back to get a PhD.
As I worked with Captain Cousteau I realized there was a formidable intellect behind what the public saw. Yes, the public films were a bit light but the questions being asked and the other projects the Cousteau teams were involved in were quite impressive. Initially I was to work with the exhibit designers who were creating a public attraction on the Queen Mary in Long Beach. Captain Cousteau had already outlined the exhibit subjects and, after lengthy discussions with Cousteau, I was to add the meat to that skeleton to help the designers understand what we were trying to communicate. Jean-Michel Cousteau, Captain Cousteau’s eldest son and an architect by training, was leading the project and we soon became great friends. In addition, from time to time I was asked to visit the editing room where the films were being constructed. The film editors never went on expedition and the expedition team seldom visited the editors. So, having a marine biologist explain to the editors what they were looking at was helpful to them and really interesting to me.
With time my role expanded and I began to travel with the Cousteau teams. My first expedition, in 1973, was to the Blue Hole in what is now called Belize. This was an amazing place – a perfectly circular hole in the reef platform. In ages past when the sea level was much lower, maybe 400 ‘ lower, the ancient reef was exposed to the air. Rainwater, that had absorbed carbon dioxide and become acidic, percolated down into that ancient platform and dissolved away some of the calcium carbonate. This is the same process that has formed limestone caverns all over the world, including Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, the cenotes of Yucatan, and the magical landscapes of eastern China and Vietnam. Eventually the ceiling of the eroded space collapsed, leaving the symmetrical hole that is now filled with water and looks blue – the Blue Hole!
When I arrived, Calypso was inside the Blue Hole. Diving in this, seeming bottomless hole, was quite an adventure for me. From the surface to maybe 50’ down, the bottom was on an incline of approximately 45 degrees, then from 50 to 100 ‘ it was a vertical wall, and below that there were chambers with stalactites and columns. It was beautiful to look up and see the stalactites silhouetted against the blue of the water beyond and above. It was there where I saw my first hammerhead shark.
As the expedition ended Calypso made its way over the shallow reef platform on its way to the open sea. When Captain Cousteau acquired Calypso he created an observation chamber at the bow. One could climb down a small tube, connecting the deck with the chamber, and then look out into the water through a number of small portholes. When the ship was underway I climbed down into this tiny chamber and had the time of my life. It was somewhat like my experience on the sport fishing boat watching the bioluminescence years before. The water was clear and shallow. Here I was zipping across the reef flat witnessing all the wonders of a coral reef inside my little habitat. Green and brown corals of many shapes, meadows of sea grasses, and a bewildering variety of of fish passed only feet in front of me. It was a kaleidoscope of colors and shapes. For a brief moment I wondered what would happen to me if we hit a large coral head since I was at the absolute front of the ship. But the rush of witnessing such spectacular scenery made me think, “Who cares this is an experience of a lifetime so enjoy it while it lasts.” Eventually we got into open water and there the big wow was a couple of dolphins that surfed our bow wave, again inches from my face. I waved and they smiled back or so I thought.
Back in Long Beach, working on the Queen Mary project, I was tasked with finding experts in the field of each exhibit and getting them to write text for what we called our Science Wall. This was to be a back lit panel of scientific information about whatever subject was the focus of that exhibit. They included subjects like, light and vision in the sea, locomotion of various animals, sound and hearing, reproduction, diving physiology, coastal dynamics, aquaculture, and pollution. This was like taking a no pressure graduate level course with some of the most knowledgeable people in the field of marine science. I learned so much and it was fun. The public attraction, called the Living Sea Museum, opened and an executive from World Publishing visited and saw our science walls. He thought this level of information would be perfect for a series of books. An agreement was made and I found myself again working very closely with Captain Cousteau on the content of a series of 20 books we called The Ocean World of Jacques Cousteau. As production got underway I was designated as the science consultant and I flew to New York often for planning sessions with Cousteau. I would take a red eye from Los Angeles to New York and during the flight create outlines for what I thought the books should contain. Then Cousteau and I would discuss these, revise according to his thoughts, and submit the outlines to the publishes. The schedule was hectic as we had to produce one 120 page book, that was richly illustrated with photos, each month. In the early 1970s there were very few underwater photographers so finding the images was a real challenge. By the time we finished volume 10, the lady who was the managing editor succumbed to the pressure and quit. I was given the position and moved east. A Southern California diver and surfer was transformed into a suit and tie wearing, World Publishing editor, who had to work closely with, and partly oversee, a team of writers, graphic artists, and copy editors. Gawd what a transition and what an education. Just as hitchhiking through Central America gave me an appreciation of life out of cities; living in Midtown Manhattan give an appreciation of what one of the most sophisticated cities in the world had to offer. I loved the restaurants, museums, theater, and intensity and with the knowledge that I would eventually be returning to life on the beach in Southern California. I could never survive any extended length of time in a real city like NYC! As a balance to the intensity of work and city life, after work at least 3 days/week I would escape to Central Park and ice skate from 9:30 – 11PM.
The project ended and I happily returned to California. Back home I could enjoy family life with my wife, Judy (a nurse in the Long Beach Memorial Children’s Hospital who ended up as the Director of Nursing Administration for the hospital), and two kids Greg who was then 5 and Jeanne who was 3. We lived on the beach and upon arrival home after work I would romp in the water with the kids. Partly for exercise and partly just for fun, I would throw them as high into the air as I could and then stand back and let them fall into the breaking waves. They did not know any better and this treatment certainly contributed to their being total water babies. In the winter, when it got dark early and the weather was cold, we three would sit in a large bean bag in front of our large window looking out onto the beach and ocean, while I had my cocktail hour. I did not want them to grow up with the limited / myopic world view of many typical American kids and I had a plan. I had a book of the artwork of M. C. Escher, I had poems of Edgar Allen Poe, and I had classical music, particularly the William Tell Overture. We would sit and discuss the art, think about the poetry, and with the music imagine a storm passing then horses running on the beach. It was great therapy for me after a long day and commute, as the Cousteau offices were I west Hollywood a full hour drive from home. I have to believe it did open the minds of my kids to a broader reality than life in Southern California in the 70s. Those days of life on the beach evolved into weekend adventures where we would load up a trailer with my motorcycle and camping stuff and take off for the desert, nearby mountains, or Mexico.
Among my most memorable times were in Mexico, south of Ensenada, where we would camp on the beach, ride the motorcycle, surf, and dive for our dinner. I would tell the kids that we had enough food for lunches and dinner but that we needed to get in the ocean and catch our dinner. By then Greg was old enough to get some seafood. Jeanne would hold our catch in a bag. I would get the main part of the dinner, which included abalone, lobsters, scallops, and fish. Back at camp, Greg would either surf or ride the motorcycle and Jeanne would help me prepare the catch. She was interested in biology and we would, together dissect our catch, to see what the fish were eating and examine the lens of the fish eyes, or look at the radula scraping organ of abalone, or look at all the lobster appendages. I ended up calling her my “gut girl’ and it was this label she used, years later, in her application essay for med school. Those were among the most enjoyable and rewarding days of my life. And as my father-in-law used to say, “They grew up just fine in spite of all of my efforts.”
Greg is now an educator with two kids and Jeanne is a family physician also with two kids. They are successful, happy, and still among my best friends.
Lessons from the Natives – Papua New Guinea
I’m in the hold of what some might call a tramp steamer. It’s a small cargo ship and I’m lifting up cardboard boxes of food that will supply our group of students for the month. The problem is that our boat got lost and we are 3 days late and the veggies and fruit have begun to rot in the humidity, causing the cardboard to disintegrate. So, as my co instructor, Henry Genthe, and I would lift a box up to the crew on deck it would often fall apart showering us with degrading tomatoes, leafy veggies, papayas, and more. But the real excitement was from the residents of the hold who were happy consumers of our cargo. Those residents were cockroaches, lots of them. So, as we lifted the boxes, even ones that did not fall apart, we had tens to hundreds of cockroaches running down our shoulders, arms, and torso. Henry and I had traveled a lot but this was definitely a first and one of the worst experiences of our past adventures. When each shore boat was loaded, Henry and I would dive off the ship, wash ourselves in the warm tropical sea, then climb aboard and get ready for the next load. Quite a beginning to our experience in paradise – a tiny island called Wuvulu off the north coast of Papua New Guinea.
A few years earlier Jean-Michel Cousteau and I were on the second plane to land on this tiny island. It was 1972 and we were greeted by men who looked fierce, with red teeth from chewing betel nut but once introduced their smiles were infectious and disarming. The owner of the copra plantation had the vision of making this a tourist destination and wanted our ideas about how to proceed.
People from the two villages worked on the plantation and lived a very simple life with gardens, chickens and pigs, and a healthy reef that provided shellfish and fish for protein. They were incredibly friendly and welcoming. This experience reminded me of the best experiences I had in Central America years before. People with a simple life, living close to nature, and being very hospitable.
The resort never got built but Jean-Michel and I realized this could be one of the best places to bring students. It was isolated from the clutter and clatter of civilization. It had people who retained much of their traditional culture and who lived close to healthy natural ecosystems, which provided them with abundant resources. They were not materialistic and they were happy. It was a perfect alternative to city living, which most students saw as the only way to live. I could not have found a greater contrast to my time in New York, it was a welcome contrast.
With involvement from Pepperdine University in California, we offered an opportunity for high school and college students to experience a totally different culture, healthy coral reefs, and a taste of life without the amenities most of us feel are necessary for survival. It was a month long experience and important aspect of this “total immersion” experience was to explore the concept of quality of life where we were deprived of almost everything from our daily lives back home.
Few of us knew each other before we arrived on Wuvulu. We were a diverse group with participants ranging from high school students to college students to teachers. We the staff were equally diverse with Jean-Michel and myself as leaders along with Jean-Michel’s business partner, Francois Brenot, who organized all logistics for the program. We also had a couple of medical doctors, another marine biologist – Henry Genthe, and a cook. We divided into groups and each spent time with the medical team, the marine biologists, or the cook as we had to prepare meals for all 40+ of us. The biologists explored the fascinating karst/limestone geology and reefs around the island from the windward to leeward sides. We discussed fish form and function, how corals depend on algae living inside them for food and health, the paradox of how highly productive reef ecosystems can exist in oceanic waters that have such low productivity that some consider them to be a biological desert, gelatinous zooplankton, the importance of herbivores and large predators to reef health, and the strange adaptations that enable fish and invertebrates to thrive on reefs. The medical team worked in the villages, giving participants a real insight into the lives of the islanders. Another team was dedicated to helping the cook. Cooking was initially a predictable operation but when the supply boat did not show up life for the cooking team’s duties got interesting. They had to fish and forage for food as the village gardens were only designed to feed villagers. The three groups rotated so everyone got a chance to explore and discover all aspects of life on this tiny island. Eventually the cooking teams became very competitive with each working to create the best and most interesting meals of the trip. We fished from an outboard boat. The process was to search for a flock of sea birds (terns, boobies, frigate birds) that were diving on a school “bait fish” being harassed from below by tuna. We would drive through the school, hand holding lines with lures, then when we had a hook-up, hand over hand pull in the line with a 2’ tuna. Our other source of protein was small tridacna clams harvested from the reef flat. This turned out to be far more tasty than the food we would have gotten from the ship so it all turned out ok. Being environmentally conscious we “recycled” our kitchen waste with our pig, who everyone loved to feed at the end of each meal. We took one day off each week and just relaxed but this soon evolved into what we called our “crab derby.” Preparation for each derby was a very involved affair of collecting hermit crabs, feeding them, conducting “training” sessions, and guarding them from competing teams who might sabotage our prime contestants. We had referees to monitor all of the events and determining winners for such things as tug of war, cross country, high hurdles, etc. Many hermit crabs were decorated and beauty was another category in the derby. Although the TV show MASH did not yet exist, this entire event could have easily been one episode. The cooking part of our adventure ended with the final night having a pig roast – our pet pig! This ended up being a crisis as many in our group had fallen in love with our pig and eating it was unthinkable. Others of us, mostly the staff, felt this was the most appropriate way to recycle our garbage – in the form of a succulent pork dinner. The night of the roast some of us went hungry and some of us had a feast!
We brought a medical doctor and a dentist who spent every day in the villages. In addition, to tending medical needs they created a medical history on each of the villagers. One day when I participated in this activity the doctor asked one of the adults who the parents were for the kids that were being evaluated. For one kid the adults had an animated discussion about who the parents really were. I was horrified. How could these people not even know who the parent of a kid was. Eventually they came up with an answer. With time I came to a completely different perspective. In the village almost everyone was related. Everyone was family and everyone depended on others in the village for survival. Sometimes if a mother lost her child and if a close relative or even friend had a newborn, she might give her child to the grieving mother who lost her baby. With a bit more time there were more revelations. In these small communities everyone knows everyone else. Theft is not an option as if someone is seen with something new and someone else is missing something then the thief is soon discovered. If there is a fire or other catastrophe, everyone pitches in to help. Issues we wrestle with such as cost of babysitting, unemployment, homelessness, isolation, social security, care for the elderly are almost nonexistent as the extended families / communities are the social net that ensures everyone is cared for. On the other hand privacy as we know it, living in cities, is almost nonexistent. No one can be anonymous. Pretty much everyone knows what everyone else is doing. This was an interesting concept to ponder as none of us had ever experienced life in such a village environment.
For us as a group, this adventure was transformative. None of us returned home the same people who departed one month before. I realized such an experience could do far more than just teach marine biology and ecology. My insight related to how can one’s mind and world view be changed. We know two proven strategies. One is a religious experience where a person completely changes their belief system and behavior. The other is what has been called by some as “brain washing.” This involves a process of isolation from all things familiar, including living situation, amenities, friends. and family. It also can involve hardship, fatigue, and even life threatening situations. And once a person is beaten down by those conditions one is given a vision of a new reality – new beliefs and a different world view. I realized this latter situation was in many ways what we had just experienced. Almost all of our students did not know each other before coming to Wuvulu. We were living on a small, flat island in another culture where nothing was familiar. We were active, hot, tired, being bitten by insects, eating different food, having totally unique experiences, and as new divers being in life threatening situations. By the end of our month-long experience our discussions focused more on quality of life, environmental responsibility, sustainability than on parrotfish, corals, or giant clams. This was a different kind of brain washing but our brains certainly did get washed of old ways of thinking and then refilled with a lot of new ideas and ways of looking at our future. With distance we could see our lives back home from a different perspective and most importantly we could think about what kind of world we wanted to live in, and even make, when we returned home.
With time and more programs, we realized we could easily integrate what we were learning about nature with the issues we as a species and society are facing in the future. We focused on interesting species asking the question of how do they survive and what role do they play in the ecology of their community. We would discover that most species do important work that both meets their needs but also makes a worthwhile contribution to the health of the community. Corals create the buildings of their cities under the sea that provide home and habitat for many other species. The corals have partnerships with algae that live inside them. The algae provide corals with food and get a safe place to live and benefitting from the coral’s metabolic byproducts (nutrients/fertilizer). Cleaner fish act as “doctors” getting an easy meal as they clean parasites from their “patients.” Sea cucumbers and worms clean up the ecosystems waste. Sponges filter the water and digest what they catch. And the diversity of species, each doing its work, keeps the entire ecosystem functioning sustainably. This is a city that runs on solar energy, has buildings that are alive, recycles its waste, has public health, and depends on diversity to maintain the health of the community. Years later I published these stories in a book, Coral Reefs – Cities Under the Sea. Obviously this approach as lessons for those of us who care about our future. Instead of telling our students what to think, we explore nature, ask questions, and then provide an opportunity for them as individuals and as a group to think about how we can take the wisdom of nature and apply it in the human domain to search for sustainability.
Since those early days in Papua New Guinea, we expanded our programs to a wide variety of destinations. We have now conducted these programs on the west coast of the US (Catalina and Santa Cruz Islands), French Polynesia, the Caribbean (British Virgin Islands, Antigua, Roatan, Grand Cayman, Puerto Rico), Hawaii, Fiji, Mexico, the Maldive Islands, and the Mediterranean coasts of France and Greece. We continue to meet past students from time to time who say those experiences were life changing and that what they learned continues to affect the direction of their lives today.
Jean-Michel and I would reflect on the two agendas of the Cousteau organizations. Making documentary films certainly opened minds and exposed the public to new ideas but total immersion experiences like those we had on Wuvulu changed lives and inspired people for a lifetime.
The Amazon – The Source High in the Andes
I am in a tent in a sleeping bag with a man on each side so close that we are touching. Its about midnight, far below freezing outside, and the inside of our tent glistens with tiny ice crystals. These crystals are the condensed water vapor from our breath. Any movement that touches the tent results in a shower of ice. I sit up a bit and I squeeze a lukewarm packet of Salisbury steak into my mouth. These packets are supposedly the kind of food that went into space with astronauts and thus we call them astronaut food. This packet has been warming between my legs for a few hours. My movement showered my tent mates with crystals. They wake and demand what is that the horrible smell, asking if I’m sick. I explain that I’m eating my dinner since the kerosene cook stoves we brought would not light because of a lack of oxygen at this elevation. I am American and my tent mates are French. They are horrified that I would be doing such a thing, eating lukewarm food in bed is not the way civilized people should behave. I, thus, have confirmed in their minds the barbaric nature of Americans such as me. I laughed and reminded them that I am enjoying dinner and they are not. This is our last night before we reach the top of our mountain destination at 18,300 feet.
In 1982 The Cousteau Society launched a series of expeditions to explore the Amazon. The plan was to produce four one-hour documentaries. We ended up producing 7 shows because the Amazon was so rich, interesting, and important! With Calypso, Captain Cousteau was to go up the Amazon beginning in the Atlantic Ocean. Jean-Michel Cousteau was to lead a team starting at the headwaters of the Amazon on Mt. Mismi in Peru. I was the photographer and scientist with the Jean-Michel team. We began our journey in Lima Peru and then ascended the Andes Mountains toward the headwaters. We had a large truck with a flatbed on which was positioned a small cargo container and a jeep with our Peruvian guide.
After almost two weeks of filming in the altiplano we arrived in Cusco. During those days we never had a warm water shower and even liquid water was a impossible to find at times. So a real hotel in a real city was a big deal because we could enjoy hot water, good food, and a clean bed. In addition, there was an open market with, to my great pleasure, an entire aisle dedicated to ladies who made fruit smoothies. Since smoothies were my normal breakfast back home, I was in heaven. We took a day off and I explored the city with its amazing stonework. The Incas crafted, by hand, buildings and walls where there was no space between large carved stones, not even enough space for a knife blade to fit into. The feeling of history and craftsmanship was amazing. Although I’m not religious I do like to see the splendor of churches and set off to explore one not too far from the marketplace. We had been warned about getting robbed so I was prepared, my hand in my pocket tightly clutching my wallet. There was a dark area between the outer and inner door of the church. As I entered that space the hands of maybe 5 or 6 kids grabbed me – my legs, torso, and arms. My reflex was to smack these hands and get them to let go of me. It worked and the hands withdrew along with their owners along with my wallet. I was apparently not as ready for thievery as I thought. In addition to maybe $40 lost I eventually discovered my credit card had been charged with two pair of shoes and some other clothing, for a total of less than $100. Obviously these kids needed clothes and in retrospect I concluded that maybe this was my contribution to the local culture that had greater needs than mine. Considering all of the places I’ve traveled, this “donation” seemed quite appropriate.
Two days later it was time to leave Cusco, ascend through the Altiplano to the mountain that was the source of the Amazon, and then descend into the Amazon basin. We all were ready for warmth and green surroundings once we completed the trek to the Amazon’s beginning.
The Altiplano was treeless and somewhat desolate but as we approached the high mountains we saw a large flock of pink flamingos in the distance. This would be a great visual for our film and we diverted our course to document the birds. As we approached we found ourselves in a wetland just as our heavy truck descended into mud. The more we dug and struggled the deeper the truck became stuck. Our driver left in the Jeep for Cailloma, a small town we passed a day ago that had a silver mine nearby. It was late in the afternoon and we decided to make camp and eat dinner before it got too dark and too cold. The night was beautiful with clear skies and amazing stars. Next morning, to our great frustration, we discovered the tires completely encased in cement-hard ice. Obviously this problem would not be solved by our small team armed with a couple of shovels The jeep arrived the next day with a crew from the mine and a larger truck. Their efforts were fruitless and we realized we had better modify our plans.
We were on the land of a local llama herder who was not at all happy with us but he agreed to load some of our material on his two llamas and a donkey to help us get closer the base of Mt. Mismi. Just as we got everything packed onto the animals, a military helicopter flew over to check in with us. It, with one of our cinematographers, was to visit us at the top of Mt. Mismi a couple of days later. To our horror the plane spooked the animals, loaded with our materials, and they took off, running down into a valley. We watched as the guy ran after them and then, way off in the distance, we watched him unload our material and go on his way – away from us! This meant our small team could only carry the absolute minimal amount of material – food, tents, kerosene stoves for cooking, cameras, and crampons (spikes to be attached to our boots to prevent slipping on ice). Oxygen, first aid material, and other things we had previously considered essential had to be left behind.
Most of us suffered from altitude sickness. The morning of our departure I felt terrible – nausea, splitting headache, and diarrhea. I had bought some coca leaves and a bit of charcoal in the market some days before as I wanted to see if they had any effect on me. The leaves were dry and the charcoal were totally unappealing BUT I figured I couldn’t feel much worse so I had little to lose. I got the call that we were departing in ½ hr and it was time to get our packs ready. I chewed on the leaves and gnawed at the charcoal then lay down to see what would happen. By the time I rose to depart all of my symptoms had totally disappeared. I felt as great as a sea level dwelling creature could feel at 14,000 feet. As our team of five ascended the lack of oxygen became more and more of a limitation. We would climb for 10 minutes and then sit, gasping for 5 minutes. The dryness was another issue that increased with time. By the time this trek ended most of my knuckles were cracked and bleeding. There was another dimension of the oxygen issue. The kerosene stoves we brought to make coffee and cook our food would not light!! We, being ocean guys, had never thought that our burners would not work. With the exertion and cold we really needed warmth for our food and drinks. As an American I could deal with the challenge but our French team was a bit different. They loved their coffee and would only eat properly cooked food. That final night on the mountain, with my Salisbury steak dinner between my legs, I was the only one who enjoyed a warm dinner, the others went without. They laughed at me with their hunger and horror and I laughed at them with my full stomach and rolled eyes.
The next morning we ascended to the top of Mt. Mismi and waited for the plane. Eventually it arrived and we officially began our part of the Amazon adventure. We waved national flags in honor of the team members and their home countries – France, Brazil, Italy, Canada, Peru, Argentina, and America. Jean-Michel threw a snow ball east, the water would eventually end up 4000 miles downstream in the Atlantic Ocean. I, being far lower in the pecking order, threw my snowball west with that water ending up over 100 miles away in the Pacific Ocean. The entire team released water, not filmed, that would end up in the Atlantic so we all got a chance to mark our territories and make our contributions.
We eventually got back to the truck and learned that had there not been a mine with heavy equipment in the region we may never have gotten unstuck. Apparently both teams had a challenging time, I was happy to have been on the mountain team rather than the mud and ice team. Now, liberated from the mud, we began our descent following the “river” from its beginning down toward the Amazon basin. First we walked along just a trickle of a stream, that eventually would be called the Apurimac, one of the many, many tributaries that would converge to become the Amazon River. When there was enough water we kayaked and after that with even more water we were in inflatable rafts.
For the next week or so we followed the river and filmed the team traveling downstream. In addition to photography I was collecting water samples that would document water biota (microscopic plants and animals) and chemistry from the headwaters all the way to the Atlantic. I was certain that no one had ever taken samples at these upper regions of the river and it was exciting to think that we would likely make lots of discoveries. I was totally wrong on the discovery part even though we were probably the first people to sample here. More on that later. ** Eventually we had to stop the rafting as the steep eastern side of the Andes had rapids that were far too dangerous for us and our equipment in small inflatables.
The only road down the eastern side of the Andes in this region was a one way affair, with alternating days for traffic going up and traffic going down. The switching time was midnight. We left Cusco about 10 PM. At the top of the mountain, just before the one-way section there was a tunnel. We drove to the entrance and discovered our truck container was too big. Even letting air out of the tires was insufficient. No one had told us about a tunnel and now we were stuck. There was no way to turn around on this narrow road so Jean-Paul Cornu, lead camera man, had to get out and guide the truck as it backed down the road. It was agonizingly slow and frustrating because we needed to get over that pass on that day when the one-way traffic could go downhill!! I was in the jeep and was surprised to see Jean-Paul bending down, and what appeared to be, smelling the flowers. I was wrong, he was sick. We had eaten the same food for dinner and soon I was also sick. We all returned to the hotel and Jean-Paul and I went to our room to purge at both ends. We were sick all night. The next morning the entire team worked furiously to condense, repack, and load a smaller container. We had to get up and over the mountain before midnight.
Late afternoon we were off with Jean-Paul, our local guide, and me in the jeep. I agreed to drive. We made it through the tunnel and began our descent as the sun set. I turned on the headlights but there was no light and no time to mess around with fuses and wires. The guide jumped into the truck, leaving Jean-Paul and me to follow in the jeep with no headlights on a narrow road that we had never been on before after a night of barfing and very little sleep. This was going to be quite an adventure. Dominique Sumian, expedition leader, was driving the truck and seemed to have zero concern for us in the jeep. He was in a hurry and it was our problem to keep up. If the two tail lights were very close together then I was too far back. If they were far apart, I was too close. That was my only guide. The mountain road was quite windy so I could not let the truck get too far ahead because if it went around a turn and I lost visual contact then I could easily drive off the mountain road. It was by far the most scary and dangerous experience at that point of my life. The other challenge was just staying awake. Initially adrenalin was more than enough to keep me alert but I knew that with time I might lose my focus. I made a proposal to Jean-Paul, he would tell me one of his best stories and then I would share one of mine and we would keep this up until we got down the mountain. As the night progressed the stories got richer and more personal. There were no issues with ego and in many of our stories we did not come out as winners. We shared stories of our childhoods, loves, successes, failures, dreams, and philosophies of life. It was one of the most fascinating psychological experience of my life and one that bonded us for years to come.
Another scary part of this descent was when we would hear our tires going over a wooden bridge that, of course, we could not see. Based on other roads in this part of the world, often a wooden bridge consisted of two planks to support the tires. Sometimes we could hear water rushing under the bridge. I so hoped my tires would be on the planks instead of empty space. Each bridge brought a shiver of apprehension. Dominique never slowed and we never ran off the road. The final challenge of this descent was when we got out of the mountains and onto the flat ground of the Amazon Basin. The headlights of the truck would warn people, sitting on the road, that we were coming. But as soon as the truck passed people would jump back onto the road to get the breeze from the truck. They would not see us because we had no headlights and we almost hit a couple of kids. I had to lean on the horn and hope people paid attention. That was one of the most nerve wracking nights of my life, but a great rite of passage and introduction into the Amazon.
The best part was that we were warm. Eventually we would miss the cold of the Andes but for now this was paradise! We were in the Amazon – land of mystery, biodiversity, and liquid water!
The Amazon – The River Dolphin
I am lying on the bottom in 10 feet of water. It is the Amazon and nearby is a dolphin, Inia, that has just risen to the surface for a breath of air. As it descends I reach out and stroke the side of the dolphin. It does not withdraw. Rather it shivers and comes to rest on the bottom nearby. I rise, get a breath, and return to the bottom. In a few minutes the dolphin rises and again, on its way down, I stroke it. It hovers and I scratch it. I rise for air and return to the bottom. The dolphin rises and then to my astonishment the dolphin comes back down and lays on top of me. I roll over and scratch its underside. It arches its back, presenting a wrinkled underside, and the scratching continues. This is a wild dolphin!!! This is an even wilder experience for me!
A self portrait with the dolphin for my kids. Dolphin is voluntarily upside down because it wants to be scratched.
This event took place on our Cousteau Society Amazon Expedition in 1983. A couple of days earlier our helicopter pilot discovered a dolphin in a semi-enclosed bay in a mall tributary of the Amazon River. He radioed Calypso that dispatched a small team, in an inflatable Zodiac boat, that put a net across the bay. We then called scientists studying this species of dolphin who were located in Manaus, Brazil a few hundred miles north of our location near Santarem, Brazil. Our sea plane then brought the scientists so they could conduct their research. Our film team documented this and when they were finished it was my turn. As the still photographer I wanted to get some photos and also spend an extended amount of time in the water with this totally wild dolphin to observe and explore its response to a human in a tranquil setting. I had about 36 hours before the ship was supposed to move on.
This Amazon River Dolphin (Inia geoffrensis) was a little bigger than 6 feet (1.8 meters), white and pink, with very small eyes. She rested on the bottom and came up to breathe every few minutes. I entered the water with a weight belt on so I could sink to the bottom and just observe the dolphin. At regular intervals, out of synch, we would each come to the surface to breathe and then go back to our resting spots on the bottom. Since I did not impose myself on her, I was soon ignored, and the dolphin closed her eyes, presumably taking a nap. I continued to just hang out for more than an hour. Then I came to shore and got my camera. Back with the dolphin I started taking pictures. The click of the shutter surprised the dolphin and she awoke with a start. After a while she got used to the sound of my taking pictures and went back to napping. I spent the last remaining hours of daylight in the water with the dolphin. The crew brought me some food, my sleeping mat, sleeping bag, bug spray, and a walkie talkie. I was set for the night. I wanted to stay with the dolphin to continue the process of our “getting to know each other.” It was beautiful being alone on a beach in a very remote part of the Amazon with a totally wild dolphin nearby. The light from the stars and the sound of bugs and frogs were magical. After midnight I began to hear an eerie rumbling sound off in the distance. A deep sound like thunder but sort of like moans that would get more and then less loud. It was really spooky and I wondered if this little adventure was a good idea. Eventually I realized the sounds were from a troop of howler monkeys far off in the distance. Of course, for thousands of native people who live in these forests such things are commonplace but for me as a complete outsider it was still weird and sort of scary, particularly since I was alone. But if those same people were to be plopped down in one of our large cities, they would certainly be even more overcome by sights and sounds even weirder than this was to me.
The next morning, I was back in the water with the dolphin. It had no interest in me so we just lay on the bottom each coming to the surface to breathe on our own cycle. I realized the dolphin had not eaten and radioed the ship to catch some fish and bring them to me. Sometime later the Zodiac arrived with three fish. Great, now the dolphin could have breakfast. I killed one fish, held it in my fingers and swam out to the dolphin. I whapped the dolphin on the rostrum (nose) with the fish and let go. Nothing – the fish drifted to the bottom and lay there. The dolphin was not interested. I thought, “well it does not like dead fish, so I’ll bring another one alive.” I did this and when I let go of the fish it swam away. Immediately the dolphin rose up from the bottom and grabbed it. I had one more fish left and returned with it in my hand. As soon as the dolphin saw me it lunged toward me and grabbed the fish. I freaked out as I was still holding the fish with my finger in its mouth. But to my relief the dolphin only took the fish and once out of my hand I then heard the crunching of bones. It apparently knew not to bite the hand that was feeding it. But adventure was not over! The dolphin wanted more and it had just learned that at the end of my hand was food. But there was no more food, I only had 3 fish. The dolphin went for my other hand. I put that hand behind me but the dolphin was persistent and kept going after whichever hand was closest. She put her rostrum near my chest, under my arm, and once directly on my face mask. This was scary so I started swimming toward shore. Then all of a sudden I was slammed on my thigh by the dolphin. I was hit hard by an aquatic creature that was bigger than I and far more powerful, who also had teeth! She was obviously not happy that I had no more fish. I, as a terrestrial creature, went back to my environment and waited for over half an hour before returning to the water.
I entered the water cautiously but the dolphin ignored me so all was well. We went back to lying on the bottom and coming to the surface to breathe whenever we felt the need. As described above, I had an experience of a lifetime when I put out my arm to scratch and eventually scrub the dolphin. After a few more cycles of breathing and scrubbing I thought this might be a good photo. I went to shore and returned with my camera. The dolphin was quite receptive and eventually lay on its back so I could scrub its tummy. This was totally amazing and I got the photo of the dolphin, on its back, with my arm around it that you see above. What an experience to have a wild dolphin become so comfortable with me that it would allow and even invite me to touch and then rub it.
Later that day the Calypso team returned and we opened the enclosure to give the dolphin her freedom. I was in the water as the boat pulled the net away. I expected the dolphin to charge for the opening and disappear. But she didn’t! Surely the dolphin was aware of the net being removed as these dolphins rely far more on sonar than vision in the murky waters of the Amazon. But she did not immediately swim off. Eventually she did leave and I was left with a sense of wonder for the opportunity I was given. In a short period of time this animal came to trust me, allow me to touch it, and even invite my scratching. It was a powerful lesson that if we are gentle and patient, nature will offer wonderful opportunities to connect with other species and leave us profoundly enriched from the experience.
Not all of my interactions with animals in the Amazon were as “friendly.” In another part of the Amazon basin we were filming along the shore. Suddenly one of our guides said there was an anaconda some distance away. We rushed to get our in-water equipment material organized – underwater cameras, masks, etc. Being the biologist / photographer, I was to help with the filming. This was always the deal as our goal was to make a movie and still photos were merely peripheral to the larger agenda. In fact, photographers were generally a pain in the derrière as they often got in the way of filming and were, certainly, not welcome being seen in the film as it made us look more like tourists than real expedition people. I had learned early on with these expeditions that I should stay out of the camera’s view and preferably not even be there at all. The photographer was definitely at the bottom of the expedition team pecking order. So I tried to help in other ways and then have a better chance of getting a few photos while staying out of trouble.
We moved toward the snake that was in a foot or so of water. The anaconda was about 12’ long and really thick, like that of a large man’s thigh. The cameraman approached and began filming. Predictably the anaconda began to move into deeper water. It moved slowly and we got some footage but definitely needed more to make the story viable. There was only one option. Someone needed to grab the snake and drag it back into the shallows. That someone was me. I waded into water a bit deeper than my waist and grabbed the anaconda just behind its head. It did not do anything in particular – no dramatic thrashing we have so often seen in movies. It was heavy and it was a slow slog to drag it toward shore. In a minute or so I could feel the snake pulling its body forward and trying to wrap itself around me. Being a constrictor and being super strong, there was no way I could allow it to succeed in getting a grip on me. I yelled to the cameraman, I had to let go in a few seconds, before it got a loop around my arms. I released the snake and jumped back, leaving the cameraman to begin filming again. The snake slowly began swimming into deeper water and the filming ceased. Again, I said I would grab the snake and repeat the process. As before, the snake slowly began pulling itself forward to wrap around me. We made it to the shallows and filming resumed. This time I said it was my turn as I needed to get some still photos. My camera was brought to me. I waded back out into deeper water, dragged the anaconda into the shallows and got ready to shoot some photos. No one wants images of the tail of a snake moving away. What we needed was an image of the snake swimming toward the camera. So, I got in front of the anaconda and with the camera facing the snake began swimming backward. I got a few great photos and then, all of a sudden, things changed. I remember looking through the viewfinder and then seeing nothing but I heard and felt something dramatic. It was the teeth of the anaconda grating on the dome port of my camera and the camera being shoved into my face! Twelve feet of anaconda had lunged forward, mouth open, attacking me!
I was so lucky to have had the camera between the anaconda and my face. We went our separate ways and I was left with a new perspective on anacondas. This relatively large snake was remarkably docile, enduring considerable harassment from us, and only after 3 cycles of being dragged toward shore did it react in earnest. No drama, no thrashing, no man against beast struggle. Just a very beautiful and impressive animal doing its best to get away from being bothered by a relatively insignificant irritation – me!
Spider Webs, Space Stations, and Crystal Chandeliers – Gelatinous Zooplankton
I am weightless in total darkness – black above, below, and all around. I only know up from down by the direction of my exhaled air, my bubbles rise. My head lamp illuminates strange things, their size ranges from tiny dots to things maybe a couple of feet long. They are alive and mostly transparent. They are as alien as anything I have ever experienced. Some look like spider webs, some tiny space stations, and some even look like crystal chandeliers. This is what I have come to see in the open ocean 1 mile from land and above the bottom over 10,000 feet below. This is the world of gelatinous zooplankton – semitransparent, jelly-like animals that drift in the open sea. The experience is both exhilarating and scary.
Let me back up. A few minutes earlier I am standing on the deck of Alcyone (the Cousteau windship) at 9 PM, ready for the dive.. Tonight, there is no moon and I am near Nauru Island east of Papua New Guinea, almost on the equator. Once I hit the water I swim down to maybe 30 feet. As my light illuminates those semitransparent things the challenge is to figure out if something big is really something small close up or something truly big. I swim closer and identify a barrel shaped thing pulsing with jet propulsion to move forward. It’s a salp (one of the lowest members of our phylum but without a back bone). Then I see something that looks like a spider web but pulls itself together to become a few little blobs that also pulse away. Ah yes a siphonophore (a relative of jellyfish that can really sting). I swim down a bit toward something the size of my thumb that looks like dumbo flapping its “ears” to move. Yup a pteropod (swimming snail – ptero-wing, pod-foot). Then my light reveals something truly spectacular with bands of shimmering rainbows. I move my camera to it and the motion rips the delicate membranes apart, destroying this amazing organism. Sadly, I have killed a comb jelly or ctenophore, which is definitely among the most delicate organisms in the ocean and one of the most beautiful. Ctenophores are one phylum more advanced than corals and jellyfish. What I am experiencing is as other worldly as anything a human can enjoy on this planet. (there will be photos of each of these critters)
The spectacle continues and I think I had better check my depth and air. Whoa, I’m at 80 feet and the lights of the team are a bit too far away. I ascend to a safer depth and continue the exploration. To get the best photographic angle in this three-dimensional world without gravity I turn and twist. Every now and then I stop and think, “pay attention, this is potentially dangerous!” I’m weightless and in total darkness. Since there is nothing I can orient to I sometimes have to look at my exhaled air bubbles to see which way is up. It is sort of scary yet exhilarating to be in such a state of almost complete disorientation and detachment from all experiences I’ve had anywhere else.
My fascination with this alien world began in the mid 1970s when Jean-Michel and I led a group of students from America to Wuvulu Island, Papua New Guinea to experience coral reefs, rainforests, and a totally different culture. One morning one of our staff, Henry Genthe, came to breakfast gushing about the amazing plankton he saw on an early morning dive. He too was a marine biologist so he knew what he was talking about. Next morning, I joined him and saw creatures I had only known through books with black and white drawings. Henry and I were dazzled to see for the first time in our lives these amazing creatures alive and in their natural glory. I took a lot of photos and eventually shared them with a couple of plankton experts at Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. These well respected scientists and world experts were not divers and had never seen the organisms they had dedicated their lives to in the natural environment. It was refreshing to see them as dazzled as we were and I felt so lucky to have been among the few, in those days, to have seen this world first hand.
Then in the 1980s we had our expedition to Nauru Island. This tiny island isolated in the Pacific was a site rich in phosphate, the accumulation of bird droppings deposited for over hundreds of years. At that time the per capita income of a Nauru citizen was the highest in the world, based on the sale of that bird guano. Everyone was rich but that wealth was derived from the actual phosphate-rich land of the island on which they lived. What we observed was bizarre. The single road around the tiny island of 8 square miles was populated with Mercedes, BMWs and other expensive cars. The grocery store shelves were almost barren. Eighty percent of the island was totally uninhabitable and unsuitable for farming because the phosphate removal left pinnacles of underlying limestone barren. There was no topsoil in which to grow anything. Without the natural vegetation, erosion of what topsoil remained and effects of mining had polluted the local waters and killed the reefs. So, fishing as an option for protein was lost. People lived on the perimeter of the island next to the sea where there were coconut palms and a few gardens. The people were almost totally dependent on the outside world for food.
The reason we were here in Nauru was because it seemed to be a very good example of what was beginning to happen at a planetary level. These people had lived on this little oasis in the middle of the ocean for almost 3000 years. They grew their own food, they fished, they had their traditions/culture, and they lived sustainably. Then they turned their natural resources into money and got rich. But people can’t eat money. When the money either ran out or was lost through bad investments, the people suffered. Sadly, this story was not unique but it was in the late 1980s and then one of the most dramatic examples of how not to manage a landscape and one’s natural resources.
Nauru had no port or at that time even docking facilities for our boat so we had to stay offshore and make sure not to drift onto the island. Jean-Michel and I remembered our plankton dives on Wuvulu and thought there might be equally interesting planktonic populations here. So, he commanded the team to suit up and dive after dinner to see what might be filmed. This was not met with enthusiasm after everyone had been trudging about this landscape of pinnacles and desolation in the hot tropical sun. But once in the water we were all amazed at the contrast and wonders. Here was an island of mostly barren rock surrounded by what most would call the empty open sea of the tropics where productivity was comparable to the Sahara Desert. Yet taking a closer look at these waters we discovered a wonderland of mystery and dazzling beauty.
Generally, the open sea of the tropics is not rich in nutrients and as a result productivity is low, thus food is not particularly abundant. Yet in this “biological desert” there is richness, not abundance but richness in diversity. The animals we were observing were mostly water, some maybe 98 % water – they are truly water alive. With organic material at a premium, residents of this world must be clever to survive at any level. The life strategy of these gelatinous life forms was to be invisible or almost transparent to avoid being a meal for something else. Seeing them in the daytime is very difficult because light simply passes through them but at night with artificial lights illuminating at an angle one can see the animals. Many cannot be observed by divers in the day because they are gone. They are hundreds of feet to more than one-thousand feet below the surface “hiding” in the twilight zone of the ocean where there is very little light. Since phytoplankton make their food from the sun, they are largely limited to the surface waters. So many of the planktonic animals we were seeing swim up to the surface where there is more food at dusk and then descend at dawn. If one considers the biomass and size of these little animals and the distances they travel on a daily basis, they are part of the largest and longest (per body size) migration of any group of animals on our planet.
Their strategies for survival are varied. The barrel shaped salps filter smaller plankton from the water as they use jet propulsion to move forward. The siphonophores use the strategy of a spider, extending delicate stinging tentacles out into a web to ensnare and paralyze what they can catch for food. This is quite efficient, using very little biomass and energy to cover a relatively large area of water for feeding. The diversity of feeding and life cycle strategies is as strange as any science fiction humans could think up.
We continued the nightly dives for a number of days and got spectacular footage. One additional thing that amazed me was how each night was different. One night we would see a world dominated by barrel shaped salps in long chains, another night it might be siphonophores with their spider web tentacle arrays, other nights it might be bioluminescent worms and a variety of winged snails – the pteropods. When one looks across the open sea one sees a monotonous blue stretch of water extending to the horizon. Even looking into the water presents a blue expanse of seemingly empty water. BUT this monotony is an illusion. We observed that there was incredible patchiness as indicated by what was hiding in the currents that passed by Nauru each night.
Years later I was on Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles in California and I wanted to explore that region for gelatinous zooplankton. We have an educational program, Ambassadors of the Environment, there and I enlisted one of the naturalists to be my dive buddy as venturing into the open ocean at night can be a dangerous enterprise, particularly if one is alone. We had a boat driver and another person whose job was to hold the lights – one light on the boat so others could see us and another underwater so we divers could see where the boat was. My buddy and I swam down to 30 feet and saw nothing of particular interest so we descended further. We went up and down and eventually found one of the most magnificent of all the creatures of this world. It was a 9 inch long, pink/purple cone shaped colony of salps. Each individual is tiny but collectively they make up the body of this thing, with each helping to propel the whole and in the process feeding on smaller creatures from the water they pump. But the most exciting aspect of this thing called pyrosoma (fire body) was its bioluminescence. When touched the individuals gave off a twinkle of blueish light, making the entire colony glow. I was ecstatic and trusted my buddy was as well. I got a number of great photos and we ended the dive. Once in the boat I described the spectacle to the other guys but my buddy was relatively subdued. Back on land I asked him what he thought. After a pause he said, “That was the most “blanking” scary experience of my life!” I guess such adventures are not for everyone but no one can dismiss the beauty of those bits of water alive.