Aboard the Research Vessell Llyr, crossing the Pacific to study coral reefs and local cultures, we stopped briefly in Bora Bora en route to the holy grail of this expedition, Suwarrow Atoll, which we are told is one of the last, best places to see a healthy coral reef, a tiny spot in the middle of the vast Pacific.
Approaching Bora Bora from Moorea, we could see its dramatic cutaway volcanic cone rising sharply above the sea from 25 miles out, bringing to mind the South Pacific song, “Bali Hai.” Of course, we had all seen those dramatic travel mag pictures of the “Most Beautiful Island in the World” the compact mountain island encircled in a turquoise lagoon.
As we approached the Bora Bora entrance channel, a pod of pilot whales greeted us as well as several dolphins and even a humpback whale. A good omen?
We made a quick stop there, just one night, in order to provision, shower, and sleep, because the sailing weather gurus were telling us, to leave for Suwarrow immediately, or wait another week. They predicted strong but manageable winds (25 to 35 knots, or 30 to 40 miles per hour) and building seas from our stern for our six day/ five night sail.
It’s easy to think cosmic thoughts on a geologic time scale after several nights on watch on the sea. There’s nothing to see but moon, stars, and an occasional meteorite, and no man made objects except our boat, although a booby tried to roost on our weather vane, and a Fin Whale surfaced near the boat.
The relentless wind-driven waves, some 15 feet from crest to trough, look the same to me as they did to Magellan, or the native island navigators of thousands of years ago. North and South of our boat, there is no land mass for a least 5000 miles. It is possible, in this cleanest air on the planet, to see clearly the Andromeda Galaxy, some 2.9 million light years away, even without binoculars. The wind picked up and held at 25 to thirty knots and stayed there after the second night out, and the waves built up to about 12 to 15 feet, making it a challenge to move about without getting slammed against a bulkhead.
Sitting on deck, the almost full moon lighting up the white foam on the breaking waves in this seemingly changeless, but always changing, setting, I thought (of course) about change. Bora Bora was truly paradise in the days of Cook’s voyages, and later became a world famous tourist destination. Walking down its main road in order to check out of French Polynesia at the Gendarmerie, we dodged the heavy traffic now, bought hamburgers and French fries at a stand and crossed over the sewage canals that have carried human waste into the lagoon for so long that all the coral reefs have been choked out by the algae.
The yards of the waterfront houses are about one foot above the sea level, and doomed to flood in several decades. Tourist still come, dive operators still take them out to see sharks and fish, and the lagoons are still turquoise, but the faint smell of sewage as I walked along reminded me that for this place, an era is ending.
Bora Bora became for me a metaphor for what is happening to the planet as a whole when you think in a long-term time scale. Are we who now walk the earth also living in the end of an era? We have known for a long time that our planet is changing as the climate is disrupted by our fossil fuel emissions, but I had never felt it so viscerally, and understood that we are the people who are seeing the end of a stage in the earth’s history. Presumably some new equilibrium will occur over tens of thousands of years, but this brief shining moment that is our lifetime and a little time thereafter is near the end of the environmental conditions that have prevailed since the last ice age.
Geologic change comes slowly on a human time scale, (even with the acceleration of human induced change) so next year, even the next decade may not be that different but slowly, slowly the conditions that led to the rise of our civilization through agriculture are changing. A hundred or two hundred years from now, in the early stages of the new era, things will be different, and not better, in ways that can’t even be predicted now. If we pay attention we can catch a faint whiff of something rotting, even now.
Aldo Leopold eloquently described the dilemma: “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen. An ecologist must either harden his shell and make believe that the consequences of science are none of his business, or he must be the doctor who sees the marks of death in a community that believes itself well and does not want to be told otherwise.”
Coming into Suwarrow was difficult. We arrived at the unmarked pass before daybreak and spent hours outside the pass in 15 foot seas. Then, finally we had reached the place we had been dreaming about, Suwarrow Atoll, which cruisers had said is “like the reefs used to be, 30 years ago, and lots of fish.” Well, to our dismay, it isn’t. There is some nice coral, but a surprising amount of it is dead, and there are not a lot of fish. This is strange in a place with no commercial fishing, and very few human beings. The local human impact is not the cause. We don’t know yet why the coral here is so damaged, but we suspect climate is at least a part of the cause.
So, does this feeling of the end of an era mean that I’m planning to spend the rest of my life being depressed about climate change, and our inability, so far, to force much meaningful action to slow it? Nope, I’m 74. I’m not going to see the end of this issue, but one of my grandsons is politically inclined and active and the battle for earth will go on. When I was a young lawyer working for MPIRG in the early seventies, Ralph Nader said to a group of staff, memorably, “Despair is the luxury of an intellectual dilettante.”
One of the things I learned from the long illness of my first wife, Kathy, who died of cancer 14 years ago, is that it is possible to live peacefully and have a life that includes joy and pleasure, despite uncertainty. I expect to keep trying to change things for the better, and to maintain hope, in the face of flagging optimism. William Sloan Coffin offers a critical distinction for those of us who cannot give up: “Optimism is the belief that things will get better. Hope is the ability to hold in one’s heart the possibility of change.”
I’m still hopeful.