The Lonely Pacific is Not So Lonely Anymore
Serious action on the ocean today. At breakfast, a German man who boarded in Honolulu and has been selling duty-free diamond jewelry down in the gift shop at, he tells us, quite a discount, pointed over the railing and said, "Look, there is a ship." (The German gem dealer, incidentally, is one of the best-dressed people on board.) No one stirred. No one, that is, except me, because I have been left dumbstruck and agog--flabbergasted, really--by the shocking lack of ships out here on the Pacific.
Sure enough, the German man was telling the truth--about the ship, at least. Way off in the distance you could make out the silhouette of a freighter. The body was long and low and at the very back was a tower. I downed my porridge and headed directly to the front of the ship, so as to put myself a few hundred feet closer to the alien vessel. Its course was perpendicular to our own, and for a while it looked like we were going to get close. We did not.
Ahoy there! How's the shuffleboard?
Bob showed up a few minutes later. Bob is the kind of inveterate world traveler you only ever meet while traveling the world. The last such character I bumped into was on an overnight train from Geneva to Barcelona in 1996. His name was Bill Braun and he was 90 years old. He spoke 11 languages--nine of them fluently--had crossed every continent save Antarctica several times and had a wooden leg, which he'd earned fighting the Germans in World War II. Bill left me with one piece of advice: "I'd rather be glib than be daft." At the time, I didn't know what "glib" meant.
Bob is a similar kind of person. He grew up in Seattle and when he was a young man, he and a buddy drove across Africa in a Land Rover for the simple reason that they could. Bob has crossed the world's oceans countless times and has a story for each journey. One time, when he was crossing on his own boat, Bob took the remainders of a leg of lamb that he and his family had enjoyed at dinner, wrapped it in steel cable and then threw the whole package overboard, just to see what would happen. The next morning, they awoke to find the cable frayed and only the barest nub of bone left. "You'd have to figure it was a Great White," Bob said. You'd have to figure Bob is right.
Bob's first ever cruise was on the original Queen Mary in 1937. His most striking memory is the food, which he says was a lot better on cruises back then than it is now. There is an important lesson, here. We assume there is constant and uninterrupted progress in the world, and that the arena of hospitality is included in this. Everything, after all, is vastly improved compared to 1937. Transportation is better, refrigeration technology has grown by leaps and bounds, farm yields have quadrupled, and we now know what mesclun and yuzu are. And yet, cruise liner food is worse now than it was almost 75 years ago.
Bob identified the alien ship as an oil tanker. "It's on its way from the Persian Gulf up into Asia. Probably Japan." We watched it pass, which took about an hour, distantly aware of the tanker's hulking significance.
Can anyone identify this bird?
When it was gone, we began watching the birds. The birds were white with black markings, like seagulls but with a much better sense of style. I'm not sure if they were gulls, terns, or some member of the albatross family-likely none of the above. They seemed to have joined us out of nowhere, though we did swing close to the Northern Mariana Islands on Sunday.
This is how the birds spent their day: The would fly to the front of the ship, then start to glide. When they would lose a little altitude, they would flap a few times and glide some more. It would go on and on like this for several minutes, and this was in itself entertaining.
Every now and again, however, something fantastic would happen. Scanning the ocean below, a bird would see a flying fish skip over the surface and would pull into an insane swoop, turning 90 degrees in a fraction of a second and accelerating towards the ocean's surface at an alarming rate. Sometimes, they would pull up just as they were about to hit and snatch the flying fish out of midair, which was exhilarating.
More often than not, however, something yet more exhilarating took place: The birds would tuck their wings behind them and bring their legs up landing-gear style and torpedo into the water at top speed. Even from several hundred feet away, you could see the arrow of bubbles shoot down into the water for several feet, and it was evident that the fishes' chances were dismally low. Seconds later, the birds would bob up to the surface, sitting there in the rubber-ducky position as though nothing special had happened, turning their heads left and right, perhaps enjoying an avian belch or two. A minute later, they would take off, assume their position at the front of the ship and it would all begin again.
I spent most of yesterday stringing together torpedo moment after torpedo moment. The birds, it occurred to me, possess so many of the skills wanting in people: patience, diligence, determination, focus, and, who can forget, the ability to fly. One of these birds, I thought, could do very well as a motivational speaker. By dinnertime, I had quite a sunburn.
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