awestruck in the Apataki aquarium

We left Fatu Hiva and headed for Apataki, an atoll in the Tuamotu islands. Lucio heard there was going to be good surf in a few days there and his whole trip was geared toward finding that wave.

As we left the Marquesas, an almost full coconut white moon dripped coconut cream moonbeams onto tuna jumping through indigo black waves.

The passage slowly rolled along. We entered daily routines of eating pamplemousse together, where everyone took a slice then turned outwards to eat the extra juicy fruit over the side of the boat. In silence, content. We caught a bonito, Alex and I played chess. We journaled, I colored. The guys baked bread on the stovetop. We broke down fresh coconuts to make coconut rice.

Only once we experienced a squall. Lucio was at the helm and I yelled at him to turn so we would take the wind on our stern quarter instead of the beam. What I couldn’t understand is that he was trying to do that but the boat was overpowered and he couldn’t steer that way. I apologized later for yelling. I realized I didn’t trust him yet, we hadn’t sailed together much and I didn’t know his background.

We arrived at Apataki’s north pass in the morning on our sixth day sailing. There was a strong current but the wind was calm. It was surreal to see her, flat white coral beaches surrounding a massive inner sea, the land just a thin spit full of palm trees in the middle of the ocean, like a mirage. We approached the pass once then turned around, then on the second approach we made it through the pass, intensely looking out for coral heads.

We followed the chart to the anchorage a few miles to the left of the passage. It was perfect, we were the only boat in this idyllic tropical scene. Clear turquoise waters, sea birds, a calm anchorage, no buildings or cars.

The next day we snorkeled from our boat to exposed coral heads a few hundred meters away. The crystal clear water was full of life: reef sharks, violet coral, fluorescent fish, showy parrot fish, velvet black angel fish, spotted shrimp-like hermit crabs, glowing speckled aqua purple wavy lipped clams, trumpet fish, frilly spiral tube creatures, perturbed groupers, transparenf dna chain shaped tiny organisms floating thick together like a soup, snow covered orchard tree coral, coral arches and faces and mounds.

I was giddy. In all my life adventuring in the sea I’d never seen so much colorful, ornate, diverse, excited beauty. I felt fully alive, in awe, content.

We brought the dinghy ashore to explore and started to make our way through coconut groves, then thicker underbrush. I followed behind Alex who was whacking a path with a machete, but he led us in a circle after 15 mosquitoy minutes of tromping. So I decided to go my own way and find an easier route to the exterior side of the atoll.

I followed the inner beach and came to a lagoon with a coconut grove free from undergrowth. It was easy to walk through. Hundreds of land crabs sidestepped away from me in the grove, they ducked into their holes below fallen palm fronds.

A four foot tall rock cairn beside the lagoon greeted me and I felt reassured to be on a known path. I picked my way through razor sharp blackened coral, clinking like porcelain under my feet. A green parrot flew by and landed on a tufted menorah shaped tree ahead, beckoning me to go that way. I heard ocean waves crashing and over the slight ridge was the open sea. Sun glinted through plastic trash strewn along the endless coral beach. It was beautiful to be there alone, with the setting sun, a place I’d found with my own instinct, I felt whole.

The following day I waited with anticipation for the sun to get high so I could snorkel again in our private aquarium. I headed straight for the exposed coral heads where two black tip reef sharks approached me, eyeing me, trying to figure out what I was. Clouds of fish chomped on single cell organisms that were thick in the water. One reef shark had a cleaner fish attached to its belly. I focused on a small fish that was painted so intricately, very 1980s glam rock, like the purple and turquoise Dixie cups plus glowing Tron circuit board lines. A violet spotted headband arched over its eyebrows.

Adolescent striped fish were covered with bright blue spots that would dull as they aged. The whole scene felt like Finding Nemo, a happy riot, a city of different fish, corals, colors, movements, flashes, shapes—a marketplace, bustling with activity and some freeze frame fish who weren’t moving at all. A school of fat silver fish, each a foot long, chomped hungrily at the organisms in the water. All of a sudden the school dove en masse to the reef floor, chomping and spewing coral sand. They didn’t care that I was there, and swam super close to my face in their feast fervor.

Sea cucumbers, mounds of undulating cauliflower coral, violet carpets of a fuzzy coral spreading over mustard colored mossy coral brains. Layered coral fans with a yellow core and grey purple exterior hosting a bevy of fish, elegantly tucked between the folds. The misty blue deep water swallowed the fish hanging out beyond the reef, large and taciturn wrasse, ruffled triggerfish. I looked out into the abyss once in a while, over my shoulder, for the giant shark sneaking up on me but never saw one.

Fluorescent blue and yellow schools of small fish moved in and out of branched coral bushes, like a breathing lung. They were scared together then content together in a never ending loop.

Many of the fish dashed in a hurry like city people during rush hour. The homebody fish guarded their shadowed nooks, opening and closing their mouths at me, undulating their pectoral fins in never ending figure eight patterns.

Brown spotted and yellow highlighted camouflaged fish clung with their pectoral fins to the coral, with morose faces, as if they were in a constant game of freeze tag.

Triangular shaped black and white striped fish schools hung above the reef face, glinting silver in the afternoon sun. Long trumpet fishes punctuated the scene like horizontal exclamation points among their rounded brothers.

For hours I was constantly surprised no matter where I looked—a yellow trumpet fish! A blue and yellow striped fish with purple highlights! A small fluorescent parrot fish that looked like Tiffany stained glass gone Miami night club! The scene took me back to my orthodontist’s office which had floor to ceiling tropical fish decor. I spent hours in that chair, studying the wild looking creatures, as I got painful braces applied, adjusted, removed. It was a treat to see the fish in their vastly more intricate natural glory, with beautiful, magical details, like they’d been adorned to please an aesthete queen.

The water was so clear, the coral so ornate. I breathed slowly and fell into a trance, broken every few minutes by an adrenaline surge when a shark cruised by. I began to lose feeling in my fingers and toes, a sign I was getting too cold. But I didn’t want to leave this incredible, rich, alive, dynamic place that had no relation to human life.

My land body couldn’t stay longer so I swam to shore, sat on the beach made from broken down coral with my back to the warm sun and coconut palms. Slowly I warmed again, content, relaxed, coming out of the trance. I collected notable shells and coral bits from within an arms’ length and arranged them on my sunburnt knee. Violet, white, cream miniature sculptures. Striped, spotted and ridged. Turquoise blue then indigo sea stretching beyond to Teresia in the near distance played the perfect background to the shells.

After a time I got up to walk the prickly beach back. Along the way I remembered the commitment I’ve made to transformation, to think positive thoughts, and in that instant I saw a white and black banded snake eel burrowing into the pink coral sand. It wiggled vigorously, perhaps it was chasing subterranean prey. I saw this tropical sign of transformation as confirmation, celebration of my path. Rare, beautiful, perhaps dangerous, I was grateful to see her.

Back on the boat I felt an aliveness after a day in nature around potentially harmful creatures—my senses were always on, at full power. When the sun left us with the stars, I felt I’d used my body, my energy, my mind as they wanted to be used.

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