The Pacific Ocean is our backyard. A mere hundred yards from our house, the ocean stretches out forever, its waters touching the shores of distant lands: Antarctica, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, Russia, Chile . . . the United States.
It’s been a new experience living next to the ocean here. Back in Colorado, the front range of the Rocky Mountains loomed to the west with majestic Pikes Peak, a mountain over 14,000 feet high dominating much of the horizon. For those who may not know, the words to “America the Beautiful”, one of the United States’ classic patriotic songs, were penned on top of the peak.
Here we live at sea level. Flat. Doesn’t get much lower than this except for Death Valley or if you go scuba diving.
The ocean and the beach have become part of our lives.
Driving home, we always drive the extra block to see what the ocean is up to that day, and hardly a day goes by that I don’t usually walk at least a short distance on the beach. It’s meditative. Thoughts come and go. It clears my head. The surf laps away my concerns and things sort themselves out. When I arrive home, I always feel better.
Even while sitting in our house, during the day and particularly at night, you can usually always hear the dull-hush, distant faint crashing of the waves.
The ocean’s moods become our moods too. Sometimes the sea is flat and placid and perhaps we are too. For the last few days, the sea, this giant majestic ocean, has been as calm as a tiny lake—a pond really. The surf breaks with barely a ripple onto the beach, slowly, almost tentatively slipping up onto the sand. And sometimes it is like this for days at a time.
Then things change. Who knows what has happened far distant from us to cause the alteration—high pressure systems, low pressure systems, swirling masses of wind and rain somewhere far out in the Pacific. The tranquil sea grows agitated. The sky grows sodden and heavy with rain and the surf rises. The sea surges against the offshore rocks crashing and sending spray up high into the dull sky. Huge swells, giant things alive and moving, form rows extending far out to the horizon and make their way toward shore. While still distant from the shore, they begin to form into giant waves and roil and break, the entire sea white and uncertain. I have been told sometimes I am much the same—agitated for I know not what reason, and my appearance disheveled and my movements chaotic.
But most of the time, the sea’s moods (and mine) are somewhere in between these two.
In the winter, much of the time the beach is deserted. In the summer, it will be filled— but not crowded—with gaggles of beachgoers: tourists and families from all over New Zealand since this is one of the country’s most popular beaches. But now in winter, you can walk for long distances and see only a few other stray individuals—sometimes no one.
After work, people walk their dogs on the beach. The dogs are giddy with excitement, racing up and down the sand, plunging into the surf chasing sticks and balls thrown by their owners, before emerging from the cold water, shaking their coats and chasing off in the opposite direction.
The tides are part of our lives too. The twice-daily low tides bare and expose huge swathes of beach. Then the tide comes in covering it all and the cycle repeats itself.
Despite all my learning, it’s still hard to imagine the moon, that far-distant glowing white orb, causing all this mischief on a twice-daily basis.
Several islands float offshore. Just off the beach here are Leisure Island (connected by a narrow spit of land) and Rabbit Island. Mayor Island, also called Tuhua, can be seen to the northwest, and Karewa Island farther to the west. Farther out to the south is larger, flat Motiti Island, the only nearby island that is inhabited. It has around thirty permanent residents. On clear days, you can see Motohora Island, also called Whale Island, far to the south, and often White Island, an uninhabited active volcanic island with a puff of smoke above it farther distant. Often it is only discernable by the puff of cloud above it, the constant venting a sign of its active volcanic status.
Things wash up on the beach. To be truthful, I expected to find more interesting things washed up, you know, perhaps gold coins or the remains of lost aircraft. On a Tokyo beach in 2013 an elderly resident found 80 kg of cocaine in backpacks (street value US$ 52 million).
In 1990, 80,000 pairs of Nike sneakers tumbled into the Pacific and many later washed up on shores. In 2006, thousands of bags of Doritos washed up on a beach in North Carolina. People collected the chips, which were apparently still fresh because of the airtight packaging.
In 1992 a cargo ship accidently dropped 28,000 toy rubber ducks from China into the Pacific. Apparently, the little ducks still show up on beaches on virtually every continent.
But here mostly it’s lots of shells. Driftwood. Seaweed. The remains of fish and once a dying seal pup after a giant storm. Another time, a dead penguin. Yet another time walking on a beach not too far from here, we saw a dark mass lying on the empty beach. As we approached we saw it twitch and move and, having seen the dying seal just a few weeks earlier, we feared it was yet another dying seal. This time, however, as we got closer, this seal, very much alive, jumped to its feet—rather, its fins—and stared at us for our impertinent interruption of its sleep before waddling into the surf.
We’ve occasionally seen other seals on the rocks nearby. Once, hundreds of years ago, there were vast colonies of seals and sea lions, their larger brethren, on all the coasts of New Zealand. A few weeks ago a whale swam near the shore, and after hanging around near the shoreline for a few days, it cruised away. Sometimes people see orcas, so called killer whales, swimming offshore. When you are out in the waves in summer, silver fish glide through the breaking portion of the waves, Last summer while lumbering out through the surf, I saw a giant stingray whisk itself away just beneath my feet. Sea gulls ply the sky, and work the beaches digging up food on the shore. The ocean is alive.
In fact, all life is said to have originated in the sea. Our bodies are primarily water and our blood approximates the salinity of seawater. Maybe that is the reason we are drawn to the sea. In any case, living here in New Zealand, the ocean has become part of our lives.
2) Photo by Donna Barnett / special to The Virginian-Pilot