This short piece, about a memorable dive
off Ecuador, won the 2012 ‘Ocean’
magazine short nonfiction prize.
(c) Cameron M. Smith / August 2009
On the Eastern Pacific equator I lay at night in a shaky bamboo cabin dumbfounded by the crash-upon-crash-upon-crash of breakers. I cannot see the swells approaching shore, but I sense their even rise-which has so often elevated and then lowered me-I sense their precise rise higher at the appointed line and then they topple forward and come down with unblievable sounds; the crashing of great swords; the faintest echo of colliding galaxies;the hiss of hurrying electrons; the sound of acres of metal sliding against acres of metal.
Some waves pound the sand like cannonballs, but these are just side-shows. The essence out there is in the rush, the slide, the sand-grinding of the ocean ashore; the billion-billion white noise of eternity. There is no code there, only particles in motion, but suddenly there is communicated to me the sense that I know nothing at all.
The moment passes: Not true: I know something now, I know that these crashes and hisses are important. They preceded all humanity and they will succeed all humanity. You may never understand them, I think, but if you don’t listen for messages in there you are a fool.
The next day, five fathoms alone under the dull surface of the Pacific, as I glance at my air pressure gauge, I am halted by another sound–a low whistle twisted by distance and water, a low whistle blending into a short, uprising moan. Whale! I breathe the word aloud through my mouthpiece in astonishment, the word roils upwards in silver bubbles. I kneel on the sandy sea floor and hold my breath.
Again, another low whistle, whorled by miles of current and salt and thermocline,but unmistakable. It trips my mind, putting me right back in the bamboo hut. Two whales,I think, dumbfounded, they preceded all humanity and they will succeed all humanity andthough it´s time to turn around and swim back in, you had damned well better committheir sounds to memory.
But back in the cabin I cannot reproduce the sounds in my mind. They have already been washed out by fish-trucks, barking dogs, the rumblings of the cat-food factory on the beach. It’s Ok,I think, you heard it. You can find recordings. It won´t be the same whales, I chuckle to myself, but so what? You don´t have to hear that twice.