Letting the place know you

Observing oystercatchers and remembering a life aquatic.

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It was a classic New Zealand scene: a white-sand beach backed by dunes; clumps of pale spinifex and green and gold pingao; an offshore wind whipped the tops off breaking waves and sent sheets of spray whirling into the sky, like an irrigator run amok.

On the wet sand near the sea were six black oystercatchers, each standing on one leg. Some had their heads tucked under a wing. As I watched, one of the birds started preening—a precarious procedure for a bird on one leg. Its bright-red bill was like the end of a chopstick. It splayed a wing sideways to work on it, but never put down that second leg. I watched it for five minutes through binoculars, waiting for the second leg to drop.

On dark, I went back for another look. Each bird was now barely visible, a charcoal smudge against the dark sand. But still standing on one leg.

I am 57, I thought. How is it that I have never noticed this quirk of oystercatchers before?

I often feel this way—ignorant, surprised, blessed—when I am near the sea, or on it, or under it, and that is where I have been for a good part of my life.

Early on, there were family holidays at Auckland’s Whangaparaoa Peninsula, staying in a fibrolite bach near Stanmore Bay. It’s all suburbia now, but I recognised the location when I went back there the other day, and found the track to the beach. I can picture my father carrying the red wooden dinghy down that track. He carried it on his back, turtle-fashion, and that is how I have carried dinghies ever since I was strong enough to lift them.

As a child I collected shells. Two of my uncles were conchologists, and one gave me several treasures, including a whale’s eardrum. It is the size of a large potato, weighs half a kilogram, and is hollow. If I hold it to my ear I can hear the sea.

In my teenage years, I built a Starling-class yacht with my father and raced it at French Bay, on the Manukau Harbour. On one occasion the race was disrupted by a swarm of flying ants. I saw the skippers ahead of me, one by one, abandon their boats and dive into the sea. I couldn’t understand what they were doing. Allowing me to win for a change? Then the swarm hit, a legion of biting mandibles that produced instant, astounding pain, and over the side I went into the cool balm of the sea.

I have loved the undersea world ever since I began snorkelling in the kelp forests of Takatu Peninsula, north of Kawau Island, finning through a labyrinth of golden trunks. I have had the good fortune to have dived in the tropical waters of New Zealand’s northernmost territory—Atafu, in Tokelau—and taken a dip (an extremely short dip) among icebergs in Antarctica. I have snorkelled in the Kermadecs with caramel drummers—fishes as golden yellow as slices of papaya—and watched crested penguins streak past me in the subantarctic. I shared a moment with a seven-gilled shark in the bottle-green depths of Fiordland and saluted a squadron of eagle rays on dusk at the Three Kings Islands.

When I think about the sea, I mostly don’t think of adventure but of discovery and wonder and the privilege of being a saltwater person.

Patricia Grace has a beautiful short story called ‘Fishing’, about a woman who spends what she knows will be the last good day of summer casting a line from the rocks. As the sun sets, she puts her line away because there is something else she has to do—“because how could you be really sure of coming there again next summer? And why should you come if you didn’t let the place know you? It wasn’t enough just to hold at the end of a line.” So she walks into the sea and floats on her back and watches the sky redden and lets the tide move her as it wills.

It is a tender moment of affection and belonging—of cherishing the ocean for what it is, not what it gives.

The scholar Epeli Hau’ofa, a lifelong ambassador for Oceania, wrote: “There are no more suitable people on earth to be the custodians of the oceans than those for whom the sea is home.” Then he added wistfully, “We seem to have forgotten that we are such a people.”

Fortunately, there’s a cure for that memory loss. It lies within 120 kilometres of every person in New Zealand.

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