On the Strangest Sea in the USA


Otters, half-covered in kelp and half-asleep, are floating in the briny seawater to our left. There are also brown, glistening sea lions basking on the brown, glistening rocks nearby, braying at biscuit-munching tourists and at each-other. And sea birds, squawking loudly, thrashing their wings overhead and underfoot. The ocean itself is wailing like a fiend all around us, slapping at the white, sturdy sides of our boat. It’s no wonder all sea-dwellers seem to shriek with abandon. They’d never be heard otherwise.

We’re landsmen, the lot of us. The vacillating of the boat has got a few of us looking green already. We’re cold, too — the wind’s whipping our noses reindeer red — and it’s early enough that the last dregs of sleep are still haunting our eyes. Beyond the chill and the torpor, though, there’s something else thundering under our skin like the boat’s engines roaring under the water. It’s writhing in our very blood, this feeling; it’s swelling like the frenzied water all around us. Childlike delight. We’re feverish with it, all of us out here on the Monterey Bay.

There are a lot of other boats in the marina, bobbing like harbour seals, but they seem to melt into the morning fog as our own moves out, away from the promenade and the brightly painted kiosks advertising fish hooks and crab meat. It’s just us and the ocean, then. Its waters stretch in every direction, pushing a muted California behind a veil of mist and vapour. We are puny and insignificant, settled atop the belly of this great colossus, but how wonderful we are at the same time — our pale fingers interlocked, our glasses stippled with sea-spray, our lips curving, curving, curving.

The tour guide’s voice is punctuated by the sputtering of static and waves, but it hardly matters. She’s talking about the ocean like it’s a cantata and she’s got the libretti stamped across her heart. Believing in magic is no Herculean task, here in this moment. Look! Even the grey whorls of the waves are starting to look like porpoises. In fact, it is almost as if we have found ourselves on the canvas of a great artist’s watercolour masterpiece: the entire world looks pale and ethereal and lovely.

The younger ones are tearing into crisp packets with stubby fingers. We’re lobbing coke bottles at each other and laughing, our teeth bared at the grey sky. We’re coming undone under the canopy of that same sky, over the mattress of the same ocean. We’re so much more awake than we have ever been before. It’s terrifying and it’s thrilling and —

It’s all stifled by a staccato intake of breath crackling over the intercom.

The sea lions have returned. Like us, they seem to have left their old selves behind, back by those rocks they built their kingdom on. They’re quiet, circling a stretch of water a hundred feet off the port side of the boat. Oh: it’s all so quiet. The surf is still, the sea birds are sombre, and even the children look sober. The sea lions are waiting. Contemplating.

And, then: they are barking like mad angels heralding the advent of something incredible. (Our own hearts have turned into cyclones raging inside white bone prisons.)

They surface, one after the other. Four, eight, twelve. Sixteen. A hush has fallen over the boat. We watch as: they breathe out, they pirouette, they arch sleek tails. They leave our very bones clamouring; if the boat’s railings petered out of existence, half of us would leap into the gaping mouth of the ocean ourselves. We are — perhaps — an especially excitable audience, almost barking ourselves. They’re just so big and so beautiful. Prophets of a genus of wonder we thought we outgrew. We are wide-eyed, tongue-tied, and so very alive in front of these primordial giants.

 We’re so small, out here on the water. We know it in our typhoon hearts, we do — but we’re feeling so much and feeling it so hard, that we can’t help but think we must be pretty vast and pretty beautiful, too.

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