At 3:00 in the afternoon on New Year’s Day, my FitBit tracker read a measly 785 steps.
After a couple weeks of morning walks with my college roommate Linda, who was visiting and encouraged me with texts that went, What amazing place will we walk to today, I was close to failing to rack up 10,000 steps on the first day of the New Year, the first day of so many exercise resolutions, my first day of solo walking.
So, I summoned the determination to drive a couple miles down the road to Kealia Beach where I hopped on Kauai’s East Side Path—and where, I discovered, sunny skies, non-existent winds, and a gentle swell from the north-northeast, a blend of ingredients that drew not only first-of-the-year, resolute runners and walkers and bicyclists and skateboarders but surfers by the truckload to a wave that breaks epic only a few times a year.
In other words, it was an amazing place and an amazing kind of day.
And I almost missed it.
I was thinking this while surfers and light danced on the surface of the turquoise-blue Pacific Ocean. My steps followed a trail that once skirted a pineapple plantation. A crumbling structure from those days remained—the concrete pier to which ships tied for loading its fruity cargo.
It was only appropriate that I also thought about resolutions as my FitBit clicked along. All day, I had witnessed friends post New Year’s resolutions to various social media sites. The usual exercise and weight loss ones made appearances. As well, goals to write more, read more, and do more. More. More. More. I also noticed friends getting creative with their resolutions, listing words as themes for the year, including “heart” and “wilderness,” two words with which I could wrap my arms. Then, there were, “The Year of [Blank]” resolutions, with words like “Me” and “Dating” and “Surrender” filling in the blank.
At 51–nearly 52–years of age, I’ve made all those resolutions and more at one time or another. But would I make one for 2015? And, if so, what would it be?
Honestly, my mind kept detouring from the topic of resolutions to recalling a scene I’d witnessed the day before on New Year’s Eve. I replayed it in my head again and again.
As my friend Linda and I had readied her three kids to head to the beach for their final afternoon on Kauai before catching a flight back to the frigid Midwest, my phone pinged. Someone had reported a Hawaiian monk seal at a beach just a few miles from my home. Would I go investigate?
I let the kids make the decision whether to respond to the monk seal call or continue to our first choice of a beach a little closer to home. In a unanimous vote, they chose the monk seal and, in doing so, cemented a return visit invitation from me. I like kids who like wildlife.
She turned out to be K13, a female monk seal with quite a history. Less than a year ago, K13 tangoed with a giant fishhook and, thankfully, slipped out of the hook’s embrace but not before she had a crew of us volunteers and a few scientists preparing to intervene. Prior to the hooking incident, in 2012, K13 gave birth to a monk seal pup just a few short months after a near-fatal encounter with a large shark that left a readily identifiable scar near a pectoral fin. At some time in this girl’s life, she had also damaged her left eye—perhaps in an encounter with a toothy eel. The shark scar. The eye. These are two good ways to identify her and exactly how I did last week.
I was heartened, at first, when I arrived to see no one within a couple hundred feet of K13. But as I made what would feel like a painstakingly slow way to the sleeping seal on the far side of the beach, I watched a scene play out—the scene that would haunt my next day’s walk along Kauai’s East Side during which I would re-enact different ways I could have responded. I should have taken his photo, I thought. I should have gotten his name and contact information. I should have videoed the encounter. I should have, I should have, I should have.
What I remember of the man is he sported a broad mid-section covered by a colorful Aloha shirt that clashed with surf trunks. As stereotypical as it sounds, it’s true. When I finally got face to face with him, I saw sand encrusted in the corners of thick glasses that distorted the shape of his eyes.
Sand. The very tool he was using to wake K13 so he could get a photograph with his cell phone. I’m beginning to dislike mobile phones for their ready cameras and the growing need to capture National Geographic-style photographs that require the disturbance of the very thing we’re interested in photographing. Sadly, it seems like, the photograph itself is the thing to excite and not its subject.
“I wasn’t throwing sand at her face,” the man said.
Twice, K13 had reared her head and vocalized at the man. I admit to hoping his heart seized a little, as he sat 10 feet away from her, and she barked at him. She was intimidating then, her powerful jaws opened wide, exposing teeth that can crush the shells of lobster and nab leggy octopus from their coral hiding places. “Is she pregnant?” someone later asked me. “She could very well be,” I said, noting her healthy size, that would, no doubt, spin the dial on a scale some four of five times around the century mark. And in that moment when K13 reared, I’d hoped the man forgot to press the shutter on his camera.
There’s a heartening part to this story for me. It’s the reaction of two other people on the beach who beat me to the sandy man. One was still chewing him out when I finally stepped up. She dropped F-bombs left and right. “Don’t disrespect our wildlife,” she said again and again. Plus some other things I won’t repeat here. I smiled behind the impassive face I wore. Here was a local standing up for our monk seals. Give it to him, I said silently. Go.
It may seem like I write often about this topic–people behaving badly around Hawaii’s endangered monk seals. And I suppose I do. Let me assure you I witness more respectful encounters with monk seals than these disturbing ones. But the nice ones don’t hover in my mind like a hawk over its prey the way these fewer but more disturbing ones do.
This essay has sat open on my laptop for 11 days now. I peck at it every now and then. Add a sentence, a paragraph. Tighten some phrases. But I didn’t know where to go from here. What had I learned from the sand-throwing experience? How would I circle back to the start of the piece—walking, New Year’s resolutions, and all that? The essay was getting long. Should I break it into two? And was it too late to write about New Year’s resolutions, anyway?
Earlier this week, I attended a presentation by Chris Jordan, photographer and filmmaker. We share another love of mine: Laysan albatross. I knew the focus of Chris’ work was how plastic was killing Laysan albatross chicks. And, so, I was expecting a sobering experience. Like those commercials of abused dogs, their matted fur, bones outlined under their taut skin. And those of starving children, bellies protruding, flies landing in the corners of their eyes. The kind of images that make you turn away or turn the channel. But I figured it was my responsibility to own what my actions had contributed to, because, yes, I’ve purchased single-serving plastic bottles at one time or another in my life. I use a plastic toothbrush. I played with dolls made of plastic as a child. Just a few examples of the bits of plastic I’ve found in the regurgitated bolus of albatross chicks.
The focus of Chris’ body of work looks at the ways in which our individual consumption of small things wreck havoc on our world in magnificent ways. Basically, he’s waking us up, educating us, and, in effect, asking us to make more conscious choices in life.
In his soon-to-be-released film Midway, Chris presents the consequences of humanity’s inexhaustible use of plastic in our world—as the bullet that is slowly killing Laysan albatross chicks by the tens of thousands. The plastic drew Chris to Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Once there, though, Chris fell in love with albatrosses, and everything changed in his film and in his life. Now, along with the horror of Laysan albatross chicks dying from plastic—mistaken for food—fed to them by their parents, there is the beauty of life that is a Laysan albatross—dynamic soaring, graceful courtship dancing, tender preening of their mates.
I left Chris’ presentation feeling oddly elated—and more in love with Laysan albatrosses than ever before. It was the birds themselves that did it, of course. But it was Chris’ unique photography that helped me see them differently. And it was Chris’ story of how he was transformed in the making of his film that helped me in responding to situations on the beach with people disrespecting wildlife.
And here’s where I come back to the man on the beach. Something positive attracted him to K13. He saw something in her that he thought would make a good picture. My guess, however, is that when he recalls his experience with K13, it’s not a pleasant one. And that’s my fault, because while I didn’t get in his face and cuss him out the way my comrade did, I did let him know that waking up a monk seal from a nap was wrong, illegal, even. Because Hawaiian monk seals are endangered, with fewer than 1,100 in the world, and federally protected by the Endangered Species Act.
What I didn’t do was marry the horror of his actions with the beauty of Hawaiian monk seals. I didn’t sit him down and talk story. I didn’t share how K13 is nearly blind in one eye and that may have made her vulnerable to the shark attack that almost ended her life. I didn’t share how millions of years ago Hawaiian monk seals made their way from the Caribbean through a watery passage that once existed between North and South America. I didn’t share how one Hawaiian monk seal was spotted diving to depths of 1,800 feet. How another spends a couple weeks at sea foraging for food hundreds of miles offshore. How they can slow down their heart rate to a near stop while diving in order to conserve oxygen. How graceful they are swimming in the water. How dedicated mothers only wean their pups because after some six weeks of nursing on the beach and no foraging for themselves, they are starving. How. How. How.
Here’s what I pledge to do in the future: To hold truth and beauty in the same moment. To not be afraid to face disturbing facts but always remember the truer majesty of nature at the same time. Because awe and esteem and wonder and amazement? When it comes to Laysan albatrosses and Hawaiian monk seals, I can dish that up all day long.