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Oh, These Shifts in Context


US VIRGIN ISLANDS | Friday, 23 May 2014 | Views [325]

The ocean, an overwhelming sight by day, is an unnerving abyss by night. With only our flashlights, Michelle and I swim together into the darkness while the others, already finished, shiver on the beach.


Though the reefs have been massacred over the past decade, they seem to be busy underwater cities when we snorkel each day; now, though, there is nothing to see but sand... and nothing to the sea but sand. This makes the darkness more ominous: would we rather be alone in the water or unaware of company? After thirty minutes of nervously dancing our lights through the water, we spot a sleeping Southern Stingray, a huge kite with eyes, camouflaged almost perfectly on the sea floor below us. When we stick our heads out of the water to swap ooh’s and ah’s, we hear mumbling in the distance, which we trace to another snorkeler calling us over.


Her hand points underwater to a large, C-shaped rock. In the curve of the C floats a resting Lionfish. Its glorious full-body mane of striped pectoral fins and spiky fin rays moves gently, up and down, in the water, like locks of loose hair. Though it does nothing, we float above it at a safe distance, moving only our hands to resist drifting away, until the insulation of our wetsuits ceases to keep us warm in the water.


We return to shore, grateful for the things we have seen but weighed down by the sight of a nearly empty ocean. We fear we have glimpsed the future of this world.


Some days as I swim I imagine being yelled at underwater. A fish pops its head out of a nest of half-bleached coral, shakes a balled-up fin in my face, and opens its mouth to let out a perfect, Moe Howard-esque, “Why I Oughta!”


A deserved sentiment.


I think: this week I am a delegate of Humankind’s crusade against mystery. Fearful love of the unknown leads to rabid exploration, forced submission, then deadly acquisition. Our need to discover conceals a powerful disregard for the things we have deemed worth discovering. The idea: let’s “appreciate” a thing until it no longer exists. This is called The Right of Man to Know About Things.


We were drawn here by a fascination with the reefs, a love of them. On the shore, on a beach of smooth gray pebbles, facing the infiniteness of the ocean and the night sky, I must ask myself how I came to be here. I am caught between the cynicism of a Leave No Trace advocate who believes that nearly everything leaves a trace and the passion of a person whose happiness lies in travel.


Any open-eyed adventurer can see that the world is quickly changing. The degradation of the environment is certainly a call to action. Now, we consider ourselves experts, having visited this island for ten days; we consider ourselves ambassadors, at least for as long as our tans will last. As we leave, I can hear the islands demand that we not let the memory of their plight be washed out of our clothing with the salt and sand.

As I watch St. John disappear from the window of the plane, I think that perhaps The Right of Man to Know About Things can be balanced by The Duty of Explorer to Defend What is Explored... Perhaps, this is why we write. 

Tags: cora reefs, island, ocean, snorkeling

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