A light-headed dive
TOKYO--Some misgivings about the facts of life related
in part 1 notwithstanding,
I recently decided to test the auxiliary on a somewhat
longer trip, hugging the coast and puttering down
from Kazusa to Ukishima, a rocky, uninhabited island of
about a kilometer's circumference, only a little way off
Katsuyama port. In Ui's old incarnation that would have been
a fairly short hop, but this time it took a bit over two
hours (still somewhat less than I had reckoned with, because
the outboard just kept on purring and the water was nice and
I love turning on the autopilot and perching on Ui's
bow, away from the noise of the motor and with my feet
almost touching the water rushing by. Of course, every
time another craft or any obstacle (such as one of
the numerous seaweed colonies, fixed fishing nets, or
other marine-life-threatening gear positioned at strategic
locations all around the bay) looms ahead, I have to
scramble back to the wheel or the tiller of the outboard,
but especially at four knots, that usually is doable
without any undue rise in adrenalin level.
Ukishima is one of my favorite spots in that area, because
it usually has amazingly clear water that is great for
snorkeling. On an earlier visit, friends and I were
delighted to see large schools of little fish often breaking
the surface simultaneously like a shower of silvery darts.
Other inhabitants of the waters around the island include
nekozame (heterodontus japonicus; small, entirely harmless
mottled brown sharks), moray eels, needlefish, puffer,
butterfly fishes, and many kinds of wrasse.
What's more, there are a few cozy mini-inlets at Ukishima,
and one of these even has two convenient mooring buoys of
uncertain purpose. Japan being the pleasure-boat-unfriendly
nation it is, these are most likely not put there for the
benefit of boaters such as myself, but they seem solid and
none of the fishermen in the area so far has remonstrated me
when I used them.
Too late for a swim?
So late on a Friday afternoon, I threaded a line through the
noose of one of these buoys, secured it to my bow cleat,
threw a small anchor from the stern for good measure, and
settled down to spend the night on the boat. The sky was
overcast and I thought it was too late to go for a swim
in the rapidly cooling waters of the Pacific (around 20
degrees centigrade at the end of October).
So I first munched on a pear and a rice ball and then
prepared myself a dinner of instant noodles (instantly
regretting not having brought the ingredients for at least a
slightly more decent meal). Then I climbed onto Ui's roof
(not a long climb) and watched as night fell and the lights
on the coast came on, along with various blinking buoys and
the illumination of the small, mostly fake Katsuyama castle
on a hill across a stretch of water.
While making my way down from Kazusa earlier in the
afternoon, I had from afar watched a seemingly endless
procession of warships passing the Uraga Channel--their
brownish gray forms enveloped in a vague sense of menace
modified by a certain utilitarian charm. On the marine
radio, I heard that it had been a convoy of no fewer than
45 SDF ships headed for Yokosuka naval base.
Because the spot where I was moored was sufficiently out of
the way of any passing traffic, I didn't see the need to
turn on the anchor light. Shortly after six, the sky was
wholly dark, with clouds giving only an occasional glimpse
of stars, but since this was not some uninhabited island
thousands of miles out in the ocean, the area still had
quite a bit of ambient light. However, the stern of the
boat, pointing towards a rock face of the island, was where
it was darkest, and that is where I first noticed them--
A thousand points of light
Tiny flickers of light in the black water! Initially I took
them to be some kind of reflection, but they clearly came
from slightly beneath the surface. Looking closer, I
observed that any wave or slight eddy produced a glittering
at various depths such as I had never seen before. And
suddenly I understood--I had after all often enough read
about the "phosphorous wake" of ships in tropical
waters, or heard swimmers tell of a glow in the nightly sea.
This was luminous plankton! The correct name for the
phenomenon is bioluminescence, and it has actually nothing
to with phosphor. It is produced by many kinds of marine
organisms when water turbulence (shear force) incites them
to emit light by various chemical reactions. It occurs in
seas around the world, by no means rare, but I had never
been exposed to its wonder, much less able to reach out
and touch it.
I ran my hand through the water, and it created a tiny milky
way! Did it again, and again. The relative warmth of the
water against the slightly chilly night air then convinced
me that the only logical next step was full immersion. I
had to go in. This I did, but not without first putting on a
thin diving suit that I carry on the boat but had never used
this year so far. My first idea was to go in naked, but in
the end, I was glad of the suit, because putting a hand in
warm-seeming water at night is one thing while diving in
bodily is quite another.
Before I let go of the swimming ladder, I slid on my mask
and even strapped a waterproof flashlight to my head, but I
did not turn it on just yet. Swam a few strokes across the
smooth dark water surface, and marveled at the glittery
flashes that followed every one of my movements. When I lay
still, the glowing flakes slowly grew dimmer and sank, until
the water became ink black again.
Ever so often, there was a deep flash, a blink from some
stray particle further below. When I tentatively turned on
the flashlight, the planktonic light show instantly
vanished, and in the clear water I could make out no sign of
what had produced the glitter, except for some slithers of
almost transparent flotsam. But in the beam of the
flashlight I now could see down to the sea bed some three or
four meters below which had its own fascination.
I went exploring for a bit around the rocky edges of the
inlet, but felt not brave enough to really swim any great
distance from the security of the boat bobbing on the
surface. My flashlight disturbed a few fishes, and a
baby cat shark swam away indignantly.
Reset the anchor?
I also saw that the casually thrown out anchor had not set
very well on the bottom and would not be a great help in
holding the boat. But frankly, my dear PandAs, I did not
have the nerve to dive down and try to set it properly
(something that is easily enough done during the day).
What if this el cheapo flashlight, which is not really
fit for diving, gives out, and I am left in utter darkness
(forgetting about the plankton for a moment)? Nah, after
all, the boat is secure enough on the mooring buoy and I do
not need to risk life and limb, much less an encounter with
the unspoken dread that lurks in the darkness, where up may
become down, right become wrong, and now become never.
Rather play a bit more at the surface, with the fireflies of
the sea ...
When I finally climbed aboard Ui again, I was shivering for
a variety of reasons, and I was properly glad to have
brought along a small propane gas stove as well that warmed
me while I was drying myself and putting on my clothes.
Later on, there was still plenty of time to read,
occasionally check on the plankton, sip the single can of
beer brought up from the ship's hold, and then rearrange the
gear and unroll my sleeping bag in the cabin. I do like the
motion of the boat and the very idea of sleeping on it
(although seasickness is not unbeknown to me), but in fact,
on the few occasions I have actually overnighted on Ui,
I've never slept well.
Part of the reason for this is the chines, which I shall
refrain here from calling the chines of midnight. Unlike a
yacht with a smooth rounded hull, Ui like many motorboats
has several flanges along its hull just above and below the
waterline. These help to keep the vessel stable when
planing, but when the boat is stationary, the water
incessantly plays against these chines and produces an
irregular slapping sound that can be a bit unnerving. Worse,
this happens just a few centimeters from where I am trying
to sleep on the bunk inside. Add to this a certain
uncertainty about what is at any given moment happening
to the universe in general and this tiny nutshell in
particular, and you find me usually lying awake for very
long even if I crept into the sleeping bag quite tired.
Still safely moored
By the next morning, a bit of a wind from the land side had
sprung up, creating a slight chop, and the sun showed only
occasionally, making the air far colder than I had hoped
for. But Ui was still safely moored, and thanks to the
diving suit I managed to spend another half hour or so in
the water, now entirely devoid of visibly flashy plankton
but nonetheless interesting.
I even discovered a kind of small underwater cave that had
a nice assortment of corals growing on its walls. Back
on the boat, I brewed myself a nice hot cup of coffee (using
prepackaged filter contraptions from Doutor, forsaking the
instant route at least for that particular part of the menu)
and enjoyed the rest of a rich home-baked chocolate-coated
cake. The bacon and eggs I had to forego, since Ui is used
too rarely for this kind of thing to make it worthwhile to
really stock its galley.
Under ever more graying skies, I first explored one more
bay south of Ukishima, then threw the helm around and
headed back for my Kazusa mooring spot, a leisurely three
hours away. The little Yamaha on the stern did its duty
flawlessly, except for hiccuping once, when I had neglected
to refill the small tank from a bigger canister.
The timing of the return voyage was right, too. I approached
the river mouth half an hour before high tide, glided under
my customary three bridges in the precarious temporary
deep water channel, and just as I grabbed the lines at the
mooring spot, the first rain drops began to fall. Because
some of Ui's cabin windows tend to leak if not protected
by polytarp, I hurried to put the boat cover on, then tidied
up the cabin a bit, and headed for the station to catch
a train home.