Of Otters, Kayaks and Mortality

When I go sea kayaking with my dad, I spend a good amount of time thinking I am going to die. Never mind that he refuses to take me anywhere except protected bays.

Dad once told me a story of some unfortunate couple in a small craft getting creamed by a tanker. I translated this to all boats with motors simultaneously will not notice and are gunning for all small, oar or paddle-driven boats. If you think those psychos in their outboard-powered death machines cannot both ignore and aim for something at the same time, you are not using your imagination (see post on fretting).

sea otterThis time, however, another threat presented itself. We were heading out toward the breakwater, that is, more than 100 yards from shore. Though still protected, it appeared that we would come close enough to the open ocean that it would insist on pulling me out to a watery grave.

A boat did, of course, try to run me over on the way out, by which I mean, I paddled in front of it while it was close enough to be visible. After this near-death encounter, Dad instructed me to stay away from the towering, foot-high breakers with the apparently clear-to-him instructions, “Don’t go where they are.” Breakers tend to separate me from my kayak.

Then the day improved dramatically. Aside from my not dying, I saw a sea otter floating nearby. As I approached, he flipped off his back and stuck just his head out of the water, watching until I reached some invisible line at which point he dove underwater and resurfaced a short distance away.

Sea otters are the Spinal Tap of cuteness—eleven on a scale of one to ten. Bobbing on the water only a few dozen yards from the poster animal for adorable, I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment. Braving the boats and the tides suddenly felt completely worthwhile. Doing things that frighten us doesn’t always pay off this well, but it often does. It’s helpful to remember that after the unpleasant, scary part, the universe might throw in some otters.

Communing with Crabs

Nature often saves me. The trees outside my office building catch infinite shades of light; hummingbirds zip by improbably close; hawks redefine effortless. The non-human-created gets me out of myself in a way nothing else does.

Last weekend I found a new-to-me park with a trail that led past the “Hazard: Unsafe Bluffs” sign down to the collection of rocks that served as a beach. It was one of those glassy ocean days when it looks as if you could skim sunlight off the water’s surface. The sea was receding, leaving tide pools in its wake.

sea anemoneI squatted down to look at one of the pools, little more than a puddle really, and was initially unimpressed: some wavy pink plant, a lot of snail shells, a few closed up anemones. I stayed, though, and after a time previously inanimate objects began to move, first only a few and eventually most of what had been stationary.

Crabs ranging from small to borderline microscopic stood up underneath those supposed snail shells and started scuttling about with them. What I’d thought were pebbles encrusted on the outside of the anemones sprouted tiny legs and joined them. Some sort of mini lizard-fish made short, intermittent darts here and there. A many-legged creepy-crawly that resembled those you don’t enjoy finding in your bathtub appeared and moved in random, short bursts, miraculously never running into the lizard-fish. And finally some creature who resembled nothing more than a few grains of sand stuck together began bobbing about.

The tide pool couldn’t have held more than a few gallons of water, and yet it supported this exquisite and astonishing abundance of life. As I’ve said before, I sometimes worry we’re going to wipe out ourselves and the rest of the world through various forms of stupidity or inattention. I understand the scientific delicacy of ecosystems. But the sheer amount of life in this splash the ocean left behind gave me hope that creation is bigger than our stupidity and inattention and not likely, however improbable it seems, to be overcome by the likes of us.