We slept peacefully as our boat gently rocked in a harbor as quiet as a graveyard. I slept in a berth tucked into the end of one of the catamaran’s narrow hulls. The ceiling was a foot above my head, and as I tried to get to sleep, I kept opening my eyes and looking at the blank white ceiling, a mere ruler-length from my eyeballs. I felt the ceiling closing in.
Although feelings of claustrophobia had never been a problem for me historically, over the last few years, I have had several occasions, when I am in a tight space, where a seizing panic grips me. That night, it took just about all I had to fight the urge to freak the fuck out. But I somehow brushed the irrationality aside and got to sleep.
When I woke in my cozy cocoon, I opened up the tiny latched waterproof window in the hull. Peeking out, I could just see brushed pink clouds and an orange sun rising over a perfectly calm ocean. My inflatable board was leashed to the boat, and floated lazily on the water next to my window, occasionally bumping up against the hull.
I scooched out of my sleeping bag and made myself a chai tea latte by heating up some milk in a pan on the stove. Then I walked out onto the deck to take in this rare opportunity to see a perfect sunrise over these quiet waters.
Almost immediately after I walked out onto the deck, 200 yards away, a humpback whale launched its massive body out of the water, straight up, paused at the zenith, turned onto its side, and flopped back into the water in a massive explosion. Even at 200 yards, the splash was surprisingly huge.
The Captain was up on the boat’s deck, sitting up in his sleeping bag soaked with dew, and he saw it too. As we were gesticulating and wondering aloud at how awesome that was, the whale breached again, like a perfect televised sports replay.
The Captain said, “This place is unreal.”
I agreed. “Have we ever seen so much killer wildlife?”
Ian shook his head and said again, “It’s unbelievable.”
I said, “I’m getting back out there.”
Abandoning my chai, I started gathering my gear. I put on my camelbak, grabbed my paddle and waistbelt lifevest. I stepped down on the swimstep, and tugged on my board’s leash to bring it back to the stern. I unleashed the board, hopped on, and started paddling toward the location of the last whale’s breach.
The spot of the whale’s last appearance was out to sea, away from the bay, and when I got there, I could see nothing. The whale was nowhere to be found. I waited a bit, but never saw it surface. So I headed back toward our boat in the harbor, and when I reached it, I turned west to cruise along Santa Cruz Island’s coast.
After about fifteen minutes of mid-tempo paddling about 25 yards from shore, I saw a strange object in the corner of my eye. It looked like a long translucent string of plastic bags, each of which had its own small salmon colored fleshy ball in it. The string of bags was approximately fifteen feet long and floating on the surface in a near circle.
I paddled up to it to get a closer look, fully expecting to pick it up and stow it on the back of my board as trash to throw away. But as I pulled up, I thought this thing could be biological. I sat down on the board, turned my paddle around and put the handle in the water to pick it up. I did not want to touch it with my bare hands, thinking it might be a stinging jellyfish of some kind. I lifted one of the gelatinous sacks gently out of the water and sniffed it, and it smelled like fish.
This was definitely alive, but what the hell is it?
I gently placed it back in the water, took a video, and a few pictures, and paddled away, figuring I would have to remain in suspense until I could beseech the Google wizard to find out what it was. I later did just that, and discovered that I had stumbled upon what is called a siphonophore. Siphonophores are a sort of colonial jellyfish that bind together and work together to move and find food. Some can grow as long as 100 feet in length, meaning this colonial organism could actually rival in length that blue whale we saw the day before.
When I returned to the boat, the rest of the guys were up and eating breakfast and joking around. I showed them the video of my mysterious find and we all wondered what it was.
Eventually, as the Captain fired up the boat to find the Painted Cave, on the far west side of the island, Amir and I settled into the bow of the boat. We sat at the edge of the boat, and hung our legs over the water. Periodically, our feet would dunk under the surface as we slowly slid along under the morning sun.
I asked Amir how he was doing.
He shrugged. “Things are good.”
Amir was always even keel. Never too high, and never too low.
As I was about to ask my next question, a splash caught my eye along the shore to my left. The dolphins were back. Another pod of dolphins surrounded our boat, and a dozen or so common dolphins quietly pirouetted around the bow of the boat for about ten minutes as we motored westward. We left our feet dangling directly above them, nearly tickling their backs as they darted here and there.
When the dolphins suddenly vanished, so did the sun. The fog reappeared and then the wind picked up and the swells increased. It appeared we had left the protection of some bend in the island and we had now entered into a part of the island which was more vulnerable to the open ocean swells and weather heading south and west from Point Conception. In no time, the catamaran was laboring over heavy swells and slowing down considerably. The shoreline became more and more difficult to see as the fog thickened.
The Captain and I looked at each other, but did not say anything, each of us knowing our dream of paddling into the Painted Cave was now in serious danger. I thought to myself. Why would I expect the weather to be good around the second largest sea cave in the world? I mean, how else are sea caves created? They are created when water turns rock into sand.
I said to the Captain, “Shit. We’re not going to be able to paddle into the cave in this weather.”
The Captain shot me a mischievous grin. “We’ll see.”
(END OF PART FOUR)