Crystal Cove and the USO

More Pacific Ocean beaching, this time in Crystal Cove. Two things stand out from our time on this specific beach: the Unidentified Swimming Object (USO) and another come-to-Jesus meeting with Keeper about homeschooling, which will be a separate post.

Before I delve into what our beach day looked like from my perspective, I should share a little about my relationship with the ocean. Like many, I am in awe of the ocean. The life she sustains, the treachery she can unleash, the beauty she can exhibit, the mystery she hides, all of it is awesome in the truest sense of the word. My undergraduate work in ocean engineering focused on evaluating how the ocean moves, the forces she wields, and how to build structures to withstand her fury. While I have developed a healthy (wary?) respect for her and her inhabitants, I really do love to be on the water be it sailing, kayaking, stand-up paddle boarding, or cruising (on our former Sea Ray, not haze grey and underway) – and I always prefer to celebrate these water sports where there is great visibility. I’d like to say it’s because I really enjoy seeing all the various forms of sea life and delight in their observation while I explore their home environment, but that would be an outright lie. In truth, sea life creeps me out, especially when I can’t see who might be circling me and sizing me up for lunch.

Taking a moment to reflect I can probably identify several key instances that have directly contributed to this mild (healthy, I maintain) phobia that does not appear to be improving with age. Permit me a sea story or three…

While on my first deployment to the Western Pacific, my P-3C aircrew was tasked with flying our boss’s boss (the Commodore) from Japan, to Diego Garcia, BIOT. We were to remain there for five days while a crew from our sister squadron flew the Commodore on to tour operations in the desert, after which we flew him back to Japan. Our transit required a couple stops along the way in Bangkok and Singapore (one does what one must for Uncle Sam) before we got to the tropical paradise of Diego Garcia, which is a 17 mi2 coral atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean housing a military base. This southernmost island of the Chagos Archipelago, is sometimes only a reef, sometimes actual land that separates the center lagoon from the ocean.

U.S. Navy Photo – Aerial view of Diego Garcia

Upon landing in Diego Garcia our crew was required to sit through an hour-long in-chop brief mandatory for all arriving personnel. While overviews of the base and locations of amenities were identified, critical safety rules were also covered, the most notable of which was “Don’t wade in past your knees ocean-side because of the sharks. Swimming in the lagoon is fine, but, seriously, you need to stay out of the ocean.” I’m a reasonably decent swimmer and thought skeptically, “Um, okay.”

During one of our days off the flight schedule, my crew wanted to go deep-sea fishing. We all meandered over to the sign-up shack and there I perused the pictures of some of the recent trophy catches proudly on display while the others engaged in an information-gathering mission. Nearly twenty years later I still remember the grisly details of these images.

What caught my attention first was a picture of a marlin head suspended between confounded fishermen, no marlin body, just the carcass head. As our squadron was known as the Fighting Marlins, I didn’t think that was especially kind (or impressive) until I read the caption listed below. The marlin head alone had weighed in around 150 lbs and that was all that was left of the mighty fish by the time the crew had hauled it in. Apparently sharks, lots of them, made quick work of the majestic creature as it was fighting to evade capture.

As I digested this information, I immediately recognized two certainties: 1) I had no future as a deep-sea fisherwoman and begged out of the trip and 2) as briefed, the lagoon was a much better swimming hole.

That is until I got to the next photo of interest where, between two fishermen sporting self-congratulatory grins, hung an intact 55 lb barracuda. I had no idea that deadly cousin to the piranha (in my head) grew to that proportion. My eyes widened further when I read the location of its capture – this underwater beast of prey made its home in the lagoon. Lovely. I’m sorry, where again is the pool?

Having logged many hours in and out of chlorinated water as a competitive diver, I have always appreciated being able to see directly to the bottom of the pool, meaning you can always see what might be keeping you company as you swim about minding your own business. Perhaps my phobia has effloresced over the years because my imagination is so vibrant that, especially when I can’t see what’s swimming around me, I can visualize the most spectacularly deadly creatures, none of which have yet been scientifically identified and all of whom are very, very hungry. Frankly, I still have some aquatic animal-trust issues even when I can see who’s who in the marine zoo.

When we were newly married and well before we were blessed with kids, Flight and I took a Windjammer cruise among the Tahitian Islands. It was glorious. One of the activities we opted for was to go scuba diving with sharks. Sounds cool, right? It was, initially, especially for my first scuba experience.

As soon as we got to the dive-site, with as much bravado as I could muster, I dropped into the water and descended to the ocean floor some thirty-odd feet below the surface. As I was looking around, taking in all the sea creatures and being very conscious of where I might find our dive master in the event something unexpected happened, I belatedly wondered why exactly we were not in cages to view these savage creatures.

A short while later, our dive master got our attention and pointed up to the surface where one of the deck hands started throwing chum into the water. We then watched as dozens of lemon (or maybe they were of the tiger variety – I don’t remember) sharks homed in on the floating buffet, circling the boat and thrashing against each other as they jockeyed for bloody morsels. I sat mesmerized, trying to remember to breathe normally (underwater, really?) as I witnessed this churning deadly mass above me, idly wondering if I had the wherewithal to punch a shark in the nose to stop its attack. I thought I’d read that recommendation in some survival manual, or maybe it was suggested during Shark Week. Regardless of the information source, I didn’t even want to contemplate what might happen if said sucker-punched shark hollered for backup.

I have no clue as to how long into our dive the dive master indicated we should make for the surface, and do so with haste. Okay, I guess we’re coming to the end of our bottom time. I don’t recall exactly what they did so we could climb aboard again without surfacing amidst this writhing mass of shark bodies, but it was not until all hands were back on deck and accounted for did the tour guides say they’d never seen these typically docile (HA!) sharks act so aggressively.

 

As if to prove their point, they dumped the remainder of the chum bucket amidst their churning bodies, whose turmoil immediately ramped up to feeding frenzy. My comfortable-separation-from-sea-creature-distance grew by a factor of ten, which was tested years later with yet another seemingly mellow species.

Every year, Flight and I take turns planning an anniversary trip that is a complete surprise to the other.   We have ventured to many places and for one of our recent trips I took Flight to Grand Cayman where we swam with stingrays. Yep, my call too – I refuse try not to cower before my apprehension. While we sailed out to the reef where generations of fishermen used to clean their daily catch (meaning the rays associate boat engine noise with food and expectantly congregate to meet any vessels), I wondered how I would enjoy the experience.

As we approached the few other tour boats already anchored, I could see these beautiful creatures gracefully circling our catamaran as the brilliant blue water was no more than three feet deep. I remember taking a deep breath before climbing down the swim ladder to put my feet on the ocean floor, praying I wouldn’t be the one to step on any of them. I had to work very hard to overcome my rising panic when the first of the rays swam by me, gently caressing my leg as it passed.  Although I managed to woman-up and solidly held a stingray passed over to me after she was caught by our tour guide (that’s an art, by the way, one that Flight managed with only once accidentally sticking his finger in a ray’s nose – impressive!), I came away from the experience appreciating the beauty of these ocean dwellers yet keen to maintain our separation at a healthy distance.

GAC and ray in Grand Cayman.jpg

Fast-forward a few years to our beautiful day at Crystal Cove. Savvy enough now to know I shouldn’t wear my backup Oakley shades while playing in the surf, I left them to keep my phone (and Firebolt) company on our towels before I approached the water’s edge. Clearly still a newbie when it comes to interacting with the actual ocean, I was closer to shore than Flight and WoodSprite and went through the briny rinse cycle once or twice before I made my way out to them. Keeper was out just past them, enjoying the relative safety of bobbing in the swells before they crested.

In a short 15 minutes of playing in the surf, the waves steadily grew to exceed our collective comfort level, especially with WoodSprite hovering in her life jacket and pinging back and forth between Flight and me. She was having a glorious time in the water, giddy as could be and with the utmost (and perhaps misplaced) trust in us both. After a quick conference with Flight on the increasing wave action, we agreed that it was time to extract ourselves from the growing danger.

Flight moved with WoodSprite to the shore. I watched their progress for a wave or two and turned around to encourage Keeper to make his way in as well. As I located him between crests, I saw, just beyond him, no more than five yards farther off shore, the pseudo-serpentine motion of a sizable rounded triangular black fin riding the water’s surface. Initially curious and trying to process what it was I was seeing, I watched its undulating motion for a moment until my mama bear instincts kicked in and I shouted to Keeper as calmly as I could muster, “Keeper, get out of the water. Keeper, now. Get out. Swim, Keeper. Now. GET OUT, KEEPER, SWIM. NOW.” As soon as he was closer to shore than I, I too hightailed it to dry land.

A little breathless from the adrenaline rush, my eyes immediately sought out Flight’s and nonverbally invited him to pull away from the kids to debrief. My brain had been running through all the possible explanations as to what it was I had seen (it had submerged and reappeared a couple of times), so I hoped for corroboration or disavowal of my observations. After acknowledging we had seen the same something, we agreed that whatever it was certainly wasn’t porpoising, so cetaceans were likely off the table. So that left what exactly?

Exactly.

I was just happy to rejoin oblivious Firebolt perched near our towels, giving thanks in accounting for all 100 fingers and toes of our flight.

IMG_6812

Thankfully, it was months later when I did the research on the various possibilities and have come to the conclusion that, based on the apex and coloring defining the fin, it was likely a juvenile Shortfin Mako Shark or an adult shark of the Blue or Bigeye Thresher variety, none of which are docile or genteel creatures.   Hmm… It was that or one of the voracious beasts fabricated and continuously revised by my equally insatiable imagination…

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