The first day of the Pacific Crossing (with fifteen to go).
A bleary stagger up to the bridge at 4.30 am to watch our departure from Tauranga, the pilot briefly on board (for it is a brief departure from Tauranga) before we made a beeline for Panama. After two ports (Napier and Tauranga) in as many days, now we would have sixteen days at sea on the crossing of the Pacific. The bridge would become a quiet zone at regular points of the day, to reflect, have a cup of tea, talk to the mate on duty, watch the sea …
Never the same, its interaction with the sky is a crucial part of what it is. With our eyes compensating for the lack of distinction between sea and sky, I would watch it move from pitch black to the first glow of dawn and then hiss at the end of the day as the sun set. Over the length of the voyage, the sea’s colour shifted from metallic blue under late cloud, to deep aqua on a sparkling morning as we slipped into Napier, to white capped black beneath the heavy clouds, to translucent light blue in the full glare of a winter sun, to light grey in a moment’s diffused light, to silver when the sun shone through a hole in the clouds directly in our path, to a deep clean glassy blue under a tropical sun, to what was perhaps the most disconcerting of all: the feel of the surf at home, for I felt on those days as if I would put on my board shorts, walk down the stairs and leap off the side of the ship for a swim on a stinking hot day.
Perhaps the greatest surprise was the animals. This time I knew what to expect, but I am still astonished at how much animal life there is out on the ocean. Of course, the kilometres of ocean depth beneath team with life, but I could see what goes on above the water, far, far from land. In the Tasman and the southern reaches of the Pacific we met the Mollymooks, smaller cousins of the albatross, spending like their larger relatives – the royal albatross – years at sea after they learn to fly, using the wind to bank, turn and fish, snoozing on the rolling swells of the south.
Later, in the tropical zones, we would meet the flying fish. I first spotted one skimming the top of a wave, disturbed by the ship’s passing. I had thought it was a small black bird like a swallow … but then realised: in the middle of the Pacific? And then those strange seabirds from the Galapagos Islands (which fascinated Darwin so), with their webbed feet, long beaks and big black and white craps. They joined our ship for a few days, sleeping on the foremast at night, or even resting there and drying out during the day. They joined us because they hunted the flying fish disturbed by the ship, wheeling and then pulling their wings for a drop dive to catch a fish.
Strange insects would join us in Panama or Georgia and then perish as we changed latitudes. Birds would announce the presence of land once we neared Europe, fish would swim out of sight beneath the ship, but the highlight for me was the brief sighting of a whale. Not a spout in the distance, visible with binoculars (the captain was good at spotting them), but right by the ship. I was minding my own business, walking up the outside stairs back to our cabin. As I turned for the next flight, there by the side of the ship a whale breached for a moment, rolled in the sea and dove again. It was less than ten metres from where I stood.