Harry Potter and the Pistol of Shrimps

Guest blog by Bill Updike, El Capitan of the SV Maggie May.

Krista and I have witnessed many examples of magic out here on the seas of our little blue planet. We spent our nights at anchor in Warderick Wells (Bahamas) marveling at the bioluminescent laser light show of hundreds of Bermuda fireworms floating, dancing, glowing and mating along the current rip flowing by our boat. Seriously, google these littleguys—it’s a crazy wildlife spectacle. And seeing other bioluminescent creatures, like the microscopic dinoflagellates that sparkle along the hulls of boats and sometimes dangling-feet in Atlantic and Caribbean waters.

We paddled a kayak through crystal clear mangrove “creeks” abounding in baby and juvenile sea turtles—it turns out that, unlike their massive parents, the little ones move like lightning. When diving, we’ve seen myriads of underwater marvels—giant sea worms, silkily moving sharks, the bird-like motions of mantas and spotted eagle rays, a “cleaning station” set up by a small shrimp where a fish would come to have their scales and gills cleaned by the shrimp, only to depart and let the next fish have their turn. Imagine paying for a car wash with nothing but bacteria.

These moments with nature’s magic have led me to think a lot about the idea of human-made mediated magic, and of its presence, or rather omnipresence, in our modern world. Krista and I recently finished listening to the Harry Potter series on audiobook. It brought us a lot of joy to listen to the entertaining books while floating around in the sea. There’s nothing quite like hearing Dumbledore and Harry amidst breaking waves outside Voldemort’s evil horcrux-holding cave, while sailing on a boat hearing the crashing of real ocean waves on rocks.

But I have also been pondering the crazy popularity of the series, and how it speaks greatly to our modern need for magic. A part of me sees beauty in that longing, but another worries about what it portends. Beautiful because it reveals our human capacity for imagination, for thinking outside of the curse of endless explainability, from our info-transfused Wikipedia-ified world. What happens to imagination when you can get an immediate answer to basically any question you ever have? Our longing for magic may also reveal our ability for stepping outside of ourselves, and hopefully for a potential to accept otherness, something we desperately need in this historical moment.

But our current obsession with magic has I think, like many things, a shadow side. It seems like we are moving towards a culture, at least in the United States, where the only movies made by Hollywood are those full of Marvel or DC superheroes. We have drifted to a culture where our basic (base?) humanness is no longer enough to satisfy the big screen. Perhaps, the mundanity of our conspicuous consumer-ness has left us with a void that demands filling from the outside, from outrageously superheroic acts of heroism impossible for us clumsy humans to achieve. It has left me feeling that we need to relearn how to marvel at our humanness and our natural world, rather than marvel only at our Marvel superheroes.

We’ve been filling that void left by our conspicuous consumption (at least those of us with the means to be conspicuous in our consumption in the world) by consuming more and more narratives of magic, but I think it may ultimately be a negative, and not just a zero sum game. Our insatiable consumption creates an arms race against ourselves, and has left much of the U.S., and other places in the world, in a self-inflicted war of indebtedness and buried in piles of plastics.

Beyond just regular folks fighting debt and consuming things we don’t need sold by companies that don’t care about us, there’s an even larger and environmentally damaging arms race of consumption happening among the elites. Nowhere is it more apparent than in the multitude of megayachts we have witnessed along our travels, in particular along the coasts of the small islands in the Bahamas. These sea giants, sometimes 300-400 feet long, rivaling cruise ships and costing 100s of millions of dollars, show up at a previously quiet anchorage towing another 50-foot-long powerboat (their “play boat”), and then quickly disgorge even more small boats, jet skis, and other machinery from their stern garages. They tie the offal behind the behemoths in a row so that it looks like a mother goose with her goslings, except with polluting and noisy machines, so not as cute. These 300-400 foot long yachts generally have more serving staff on them than passengers, similar to those 20,000 square foot McMansions with only two residents and rooms never used or seen.

The passengers then proceed to tear around the anchorages as if they owned the world, which I guess in a sense they do (in fact, some whole islands in the Bahamas are owned by one person). These “dei in machinas” create massive amounts of noise, pollution and waves, all the while missing the (formerly) quiet beauty of the magical and multihued Bahamian islands. After blazing around the anchorage, they then quickly leave to find a “better” beach even though pretty much all beaches in the Bahamas are the very definition of perfection. I even heard one of the megayachties complain on one beach that the sand was not “fine” enough—oh nooooooo, what will happen to one’s perfectly pedicured and silky soft feet! The horror!

In my less kind moments (after a wave from a jet ski has nearly swamped us rowing our little kayak), I would say that the size of the megayachts are inversely proportional to the depths of owners’ souls. But really I think that the size of the megayachts, and the total number of spewing toys, is more directly proportional to their fear of the void.

Which leads me back to magic. The megayachties magic is in money and machines. And in their conjurations of machines from the bellies of their beasts, I think they miss out on the greatest opportunity that life on the world’s oceans has to offer—the time to live outside of what most would call a “normal life,” the immense gift that silence has to offer for free and with no debt attached, and the opportunity to use that silence to explore deep inside ourselves and wrestle with the void and try to come to peace with it. Essentially to create our own magic out of mundanity.

In our obsession with mediated magic, and its offer of a temporary break from thoughts of the void and of our fear of silence, I think we miss perhaps the greatest gift that our little blue planet offers us. Not food and water (though those are pretty damn important too), but the magic that is literally all around us, and the unmediated awe that descends gratis when we slow down, step into the silence, and look again like children do at the fantasy world in which we live.

One ubiquitous example of nature’s magic comes in one of its smallest packages—the diminutive but powerful pistol shrimp. Only around 1.5 inches in length and less than an ounce in weight, the pistol shrimp moves its claws at more than 60 miles/hour. For this small creature in a small space, the speed is so fast that it creates a vacuum bubble that has such a low pressure that a water pulse emerges with a noise of almost 220 decibels—louder than a bullet, hence the shrimp’s name.

Perhaps more astoundingly, the snap creates a resultant temperature of around 4800 degrees Celcius (around 8600 degrees Fahrenheit)—similar to the surface temp of the sun! It’s all just crazy times infinity. The enormous pressure also creates a visible plasma arc which causes another compression and a flash of light from the sound itself—in a process known by the weighty word sonoluminescence (similar to how lightning and thunder interact). We humans think we have a monopoly on magic in all our Harry Potters and Marvels, but the teeny tiny pistol shrimp begs to differ, or really doesn’t care I guess. It’s just down there in the sea making its magic every day without a care in the world (except for getting eaten).

When we are silent, Krista and I hear the snapping sounds of the shrimp under our boat every night and are chock full with wonder. Hollywood has nothing to do with it. And although I love a good superhero movie as much as the next nerd, for me I will take the humble pistol shrimp over the $300 million Marvel movie any night of the week. And when I struggle with stepping into the void, I try to think of the little pistol shrimp snapping away as a constant reminder of the magic all around us all the damn time. And it helps.

The Grace of Sharks

I woke one recent morning to bright sun streaming through the hatch a few feet above my pillow. Through the open deck I could see morning shining on the face of our life raft’s grand title: Fortune Favors the Bold. (The jury is still out on this idea. If we ever end up needing this raft, we’ll know for sure.)

Bill snoozed beside me and, feeling quite content, I could have stayed, forever. But I climbed over Bill as gently as possible, lowered myself out of the berth and made my way onto the port side deck where I looked over the water, interested to find out how the morning sun hit the land of Warderick Wells Cay, what shadows it cast, what illumination it brought.

Mostly I saw glare that stung my eyes, but in that glare two flippered hands and a bald little head crested the bright shimmer of water beside the boat. Baby turtle.

We saw this young turtle another time, on a dinghy ride in Hawksbill Cay.

Heart soaring I turned to the starboard side of the boat where Maggie May and the water were still well shaded from the rising sun. In the cool blue below I saw a mass of legs floating by about a foot beneath the surface.

“Bill! Come up here!” I could hear he was up and rustling about in the galley, getting a bowl of granola. As he rushed on deck I began to doubt myself. The squid I thought I’d seen was starting to resemble something less interesting.

Bill, looking into the water, said “Palm frond! Nice!”

“It might have been a squid,” I said, over-loud, as he was already descending the companionway stairs toward his granola. I then saw another dark thing floating toward us on the ebb current. Uncertain, I didn’t call out to Bill, but he was headed up to have his breakfast on deck.

“That may be something,” I said from the side deck.

“Plant,” said Bill, mouth full, standing momentarily, then sitting back down in the cockpit.

“Oh shit! Get out here!.” I countered, because this is what I saw: He was right about the plant, another palm frond, but nosing up to investigate the frond (possibly also mistaking it for a squid) was an 8-foot long shark, and then another larger shark following close behind. Ten minutes earlier the three-year-old boy on the sailboat next to us had yelled in his baby voice “Lemon Shawwwk! Lemon shawwwk!” I don’t know my sharks yet, so I took his word for it. His father had said he’d seen a bull shark the day before. So this family knows their sharks or they are damn good liars who know their shark names.

The smaller of the sharks nosed up to the palm frond, lifted it lightly out of the water, so that a beam of morning sun kissed the sharks smooth head, and then sunk back into the water. It swam a few feet away then circled back, nosed the frond up again, then moved on to follow the larger shark.

Nurse sharks at Staniel Cay, Exumas

Such wild beauty, curiosity and grace I have rarely witnessed so closely, some 40 feet away. And this was just one of the unforgettable sights of the Exuma Land and Sea Park in the Bahamas.

Bill at the beginning of a four hour hike that turned into an 8 hour hike. A gorgeous trek over Warderick Wells where we saw endangered hutia, narrowly managed to avoid getting a poisonwood rash and learned that the word “trail” has a different meaning in the Bahamas.

It’s hard to convey what this means to me personally. Some who are reading this know me well, so they know that the past decade has been one of profound grief for me as I’ve watched the US-Mexico borderlands being decimated by border wall construction through three presidential administrations. Having dedicated my life to fighting that destruction of rare wildlife habitat and migration corridors as well as human lives and communities, I left for this sailing voyage broken. Often I feel beyond repair. In the end, when I stepped on the SV Maggie May, I had lost hope.

I won’t say I’ve regained it. I continue to follow the news in the borderlands. The Biden administration has already begun seizing land through eminent domain and talk is ongoing of finishing wall construction started under the Trump administration.

And it isn’t as if there are no wounds here. There is trash in the wildest places, plastic carried from the ocean to the windward side of every island. There are obscene mega yachts, each one a climate disaster. There are people who care not at all when they anchor in coral beds.

I wish I could train myself not to see these things, but I know that once open to ecological degradation the eye cannot close to it. What I want more than anything is to be able to open my eyes wider to awe and beauty and resilience and wonder. At least as wide as they have been opened to wound and scar and loss. To let the grace of sharks and the guileless vulnerability of baby sea turtles and the mind-boggling diversity of coral fill every available space in my psyche.

The Bahamas are vast, and the people are relatively few and the tourists are concentrated in places they can buy diesel and get internet and see pigs on beaches and swim in the cave where James Bond Thunderball was filmed. Fewer people means fewer wounds and more space for wildlife and healthier water and air. Where beauty can breathe and maybe thrive without the crush of human hands there is life, there is grace.

I have been working on strategies for letting go of what I wish we humans were. Trying to accept us for what we are. Trying to believe in what we might be someday. Trying to just do my best to be a good human.

I recently read a book that was very helpful in this regard. It is called Deep, and in a way it is about freediving, but the author also presents a story of the ocean at various depths, from the surface to the deepest trenches we call the Hadal Zone-named after hell. These deeps, where humans haven’t even really begun to explore, were once thought to be wastelands, empty spaces devoid of life, but we’ve been learning over the past decades that in fact they are filled with strange and wondrous life and may even be where life on this planet began.

This gives me such great solace, knowing that there is this reserve of life on Earth, that whether or not we humans can cure ourselves of our hubris and solipsism— the Earth has creatures beyond count and description waiting in the wings to begin again.

I so hope we figure it out. I’m rooting for us. I’ll be working toward that all my life. If everyone could see the curious shark and the squid-palm-frond, the silly baby sea turtle, the stingray, the poisonwood the saguaro cactus, desert turtle and jaguar, and how all of them are counting on us to figure our shit out, I believe we could do it. I do believe.

Reading the Water

My computer still refuses to turn on so in lieu of a normal blog, while we have WiFi, I’ll post some thoughts/mini-blogs to try and catch up the SV Maggie May story.

This photo was taken as we neared Highborne Cay, after the waves on Exuma Bank had calmed.

We left Great Harbour in the Berry Islands on March 28 hoping to get to the Exumas over a couple of days, in advance of a cold front that was sure to bring some unpleasantness.

Great Harbour to Soldier Cay

The first day’s sail was a perfect downwind run up to the northern tip of the Berries, where we headed east on a gorgeous reach to the east side of the island chain, along Great Stirrup Cay, which cruise lines have made into a ridiculous amusement park—the paradise of the Bahamas just isn’t quite enough.

Blue-good, aqua-pretty good, white-nogood

Sailing anchorage to anchorage in the Bahamas requires a keen eye toward reading the water. It is inadvisable to travel on cloudy days, with the sun in your eyes or too low on any horizon, because glare obscures the various colors of the water. These waters are much better charted than they ever were, but still there are rocks and coral heads and shoals that you can only avoid by knowing what color the water around them looks like. In general, blue and blue-green are good, black, white and yellow are bad, but also some browns are bad and some are good. The nuances escape a newbie and for Bill and I, having known a good deal of bad luck aboard the Maggie May, anxiety follows us from anchorage to anchorage.

When we arrived at Soldier Cay, a nurse shark swam a couple laps around the boat as we were setting the anchor. We marveled, watched the sun set and moon rise and slapped together some dinner before hitting the bed. We rose at dawn, prepped the boat and followed our GPS track out as soon as we could see reasonably well, because we needed to get from Soldier to the west side of Nassau in time to read the water into our next anchorage. That day the wind was ever on our nose and the waves and wind were building more than expected. The sea, seeming in a big hurry to get somewhere, piled upon itself. The waves were only about 2-4 feet but steep and close together and battling us every step toward Nassau. We arrived in plenty of light to see the few rocks that were sprinkled about Charlotte Bay, a beautiful harbor of green glass water encircled by mansions so we felt compelled to grumble just a bit about the gross excesses of the rich.

When the anchor was good and set we made dinner and downloaded the weather forecast on our Iridium Go. Then we spent dinner discussing our options. The cold front would be blowing from the north/northeast. There were only a few places within a days sail where we could find a protected anchorage. The forecasted wind direction wasn’t really good for any of the options, we would be heading into the wind wherever we went. From the list of uncertainties and mediocre options we chose to get up before dawn and go to Highborne Cay in the Exumas.

With a near full moon we followed our route back out to deep water in the pre-dawn hours the following day. For the first hour it was as quiet and pleasant a moonlight sail as we’ve had. And then the wind picked up and shifted to come from precisely our heading to Highborne. We could no longer sail with the wind dead ahead and were ever mindful of timing our entrance to Highborne for daylight. What followed is a long unpleasant story about one of the worst days we’ve had traveling across the Exuma Bank. I’ll spare you the details but here are the lowlights…Every dozen minutes we asked ourselves if we should turn back as the waves got bigger and steeper with the wind at 20-25 knots. We alternated who would steer every 30-45 minutes because it was so exhausting and stressful trying to maneuver safely through the constant 6-8 foot+ waves at 2-3 second intervals. This requires a different kind of water reading. More of a feeling your way through the path of least resistance. Where the waters surprisingly steely violence will do the least harm to boat and crew. Often getting it wrong if your attention strays just a little. And then Poseidon pounds against the sides of the bow with a thick wooden plank, hurling the sea over the bow, dodger and bimini.

Nassau to Highborne Cay, Exuma

There was a moment we almost turned back, then we realized we were halfway there. The waves slowed our forward motion so much that our speed wavered from 2-6 knots. It was a misery. And seeming without end. 10 hours on constant alert, getting thrashed up! Down! Side! Side!

Highborne Haven with rainbow beacon

But when we got within a few miles of Highborne the waves began to calm and as the island came into full view a rainbow appeared over Highborne and remained all through our entrance to the anchorage. A squall that could have made things even worse passed mercifully around us.

When the anchor hit the sand and held, relief washed over us both like a giddiness.

We would worry about the cold front tomorrow and never, ever, plan to sail at an angle less than 60 degrees off the bow, unless in an emergency. Ever. Every day we learn a little something new. The next lesson: How to emotionally confront daily life in the most beautiful place you have ever seen.