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Ravaged by Garibaldi

by Linda Thomas

In my quest to experience the wonders of the ocean, I have sailed, kayaked, and cruised, I have swum across bays in sunshine and starlight, I have let the hard surf of the Pacific pound my shoulders, and I have felt my toes turn to ice in the cold shoals of the North Sea. It was not until the summer of 1998, however, that I began to look beneath the ocean's surface.

In the crystal waters of Kealekekua Bay on the Kona side of Hawaii, I discovered a way to see the beauty that lives underwater: I learned to snorkel. The procedure is simple, really. I just tugged a rented diving mask over my head, adjusted the strap so that the mask fit securely onto my face, and inhaled through my nose to seal the pliable edges to my face. Then, I clasped the tube's mouthpiece between my teeth, wrapped my lips around the intake valve, and voila!--I was ready to breath through the protruding intake and exhaust tube called the "snorkel." I could float on the surface of the water for long periods, my arms at my sides, and let powerful swim fins do the work of propelling me along while I watched the amazing scene beneath the surface.

So delighted was I with the colors of coral and fish that at Christmas, I asked Santa for a mask and snorkel. And now I own a U.S. Divers Impulse 2 mask and snorkel. It is lovely and quite serious looking. The mask is clear plexi and rubber, outlined in a bright purple that reminds me of repainted 1965 Mustangs. The snorkel is also purple, with black gaskets and a clear rubber mouthpiece. The head strap is wide and comfortable, black, and printed with a dolphin and the name of the dive shop where Santa found my snorkel: Liburdi's, a word I like because it sounds like the word "liberty" spoken underwater.

By summer, I was ready to travel the twenty-plus miles from Long Beach, California, to Santa Catalina Island. Catalina is the third largest of the eight California Channel Islands. It is twenty-one miles long, seven and a half miles at its widest point, and made up of fifty-four miles of rugged coastline. The Native Americans who once inhabited the island called it "mountain ranges that rise from the sea" because most of the island is composed of volcanic mountains and valleys. The island is rimmed with a deep undersea ledge where canyons of kelp grow in forests, and the marine life is rich and colorful.

It was this marine life that I came to Catalina to see--in particular, a damselfish called the garibaldi. Brilliantly orange, the garibaldi is a protected species in California waters, where they live along the coasts near rocky reefs and in kelp beds. An adult can grow to fourteen inches, and a juvenile is particularly stunning with its iridescent blue spots that stand out like jewels against the orange. Damselfish are notoriously territorial and turn combative when they feel threatened, and the garibaldi make an audible thumping sound when they are aggressive. I learned about this aggressive behavior firsthand when I snorkeled the waters around Catalina.

I selected two areas for snorkeling, both easily accessible from the shore. The first, Descanso Beach, is a kelp bed, a swaying forest of giant kelp that grows up fifty feet from the sea floor along rich brown rubbery stems and vines, buoyed by gas-filled bulbs. Interwoven among the giant kelp are beds of feather boa kelp--as lacy as its name describes--and elk kelp that produces rubbery leaf pads as large as antlers. Equipped with my mask, snorkel, and swim fins, I turned my back to the bright sunlight and floated on the surface as I looked down into the blue canyons created by the kelp forests.

Such a view is intoxicating. I forgot the activity above the water--the sunlight, the rocky shore, the palm trees--and felt myself become a visitor to the soft, watery scene below. The hollow swoosh of tidal wash filled my ears. Light fell in long slants among the columns of kelp. And in and out from among the giant leaves cruised the bright orange garibaldi, their pugnacious blunt noses leading, their elegant tails and fins propelling like oriental fans.

I could not get enough of looking at these fish. When I learned of a small preserve south of the town of Avalon where it was possible to feed the garibaldi, I slipped a t-shirt over my bathing suit, packed a towel, my drugstore underwater camera, and my mask and snorkel, and walked the half-mile to Lovers Cove. I found the narrow rocky beach and a trailer set up for rentals of equipment and fish food. I purchased the fish food--a foot-long sausage of biodegradable wrapper filled with the sort of fish food one sprinkles into a aquarium tank.

Once in the water, however, I found that I was over-equipped. With my underwater camera fastened to one wrist and my sausage of fish food in the other hand, I could not adjust my mask, take photos, and feed, too. So, there in the water, bobbing with the swell of tide in the glare of sun on the sea water, I devised an arrangement: I stuffed the long sausage of food down the front of my bathing suit so that all I had to do was to reach in, pinch out a handful of food, disperse it into the water, then float along and take photos of the feeding garibaldi and the numerous calico bass that accompanied them.

For a while, this system worked quite well. When I fed the fish, I let my arm move in a long underwater arc so that I could propel backwards with my fins and watch as the fish swirled in a rush of orange to snag the bits of fishfood. I snapped photos eagerly. Then . . .

. . . suddenly, I realized that I had attracted more than my share of fish. I could feel their fishy bodies bump into mine in their mad rush to devour the food. I could hear the resonant thump-thump as the garibaldi recognized me as not a benign visitor to their underwater world, but as a trough! I felt the bumps turn from soft nudges to nips along the edges of my bathing suit and down into my cleavage where the opening of the sausage floated loose and fishfood had begun to escape and drift with the rush and thumping clamor of feeding garibaldi.

I retreated to the shore in an unbecoming flurry of splashing, my body pitched forward, my heart thumping, and a trail of fishfood behind me, imagining garibaldi calling my name, imagining sharks like limos cruising in on my heels. And I can tell you one thing: the next day, I nursed my shocked senses and went back to the sea, to the kelp beds, to the garibaldi.

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Linda Thomas has been writing poems, stories, and essays for over twenty-five years, and her work has appeared in numerous print journals and magazines. She is a native of southern California, and though she travels frequently, she finds the Pacific seashore, inland deserts, and local mountains of her home territory endlessly fascinating. When she is not traveling, teaching writing, or writing, you can find her online as Lou. All photographs accompanyingRambles are taken by Linda herself.

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