By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com (originally published in 2004)

The weather report said the sun would go down today at 7:49 pm. And it did.

Now it is dark.

In the street there is a sporadic, somber procession. It is a black and white picture. There is no color, no pageantry, and no grandeur. The grace is gone and now and it is down to gritty reality.

It is the time of The Strugglers. 11:18 pm, Taupo, New Zealand- the 20th, 2004 Anniversary Bonita Banana Ironman Triathlon.

The Pros are asleep. Their stomachs are full, their muscles are massaged. Their performances are a matter of record now. They are done. Have been for quite some time. They finished in the sunlight in the front of cameras and microphones racing for paychecks and trophies.

It’s easy to understand why they race. They should race. They look like they should. Lithe and toned and buff and tan and serious, the Pros and the other talented athletes reap the generous gift of genetic athletic abundance, meticulous preparation and clear-cut motivation. They are here to kick ass. It doesn’t take a psychologist to decode their motives. They’re athletes, and this is the big show. It’s what they do.

The pros’ time is over. Now it is time for The Strugglers.

There are no levels of performance for The Strugglers. You either are or you aren’t one. If you haven’t finished by now and you’re still out under the lights you are a member of this vaunted fraternity, The Strugglers. Just as the stark street lights leave either harsh illumination or black despair for The Strugglers this is a matter of finish or not finish, victory or defeat, do or die, pride or humiliation, success or failure. It is all the chips on one square, all the cards face up on the table, and all the aces have already been dealt today. The Strugglers play high stakes with a bad hand.

It may never have been pretty for The Strugglers. Most of them may not be athletes in the sense that they spend hours and hours every week training, but they line up nonetheless to do this race. The downtrodden, the meek, the ones with something to prove or something to defeat. Whatever it is they bring it here and beat it into ugly submission over 140.6 miles, each one a full 5,280 feet. The Strugglers earn every inch of every foot of every mile.

In a day so daunting and fearful they line up on the beach as if bravely facing the gallows. A cannon sounds the beginning of their trial and there is little known at the onset about how matters will be resolved, except to say it will be hard and uncomfortable and then downright painful. That may be the most frightening part: The not knowing. Some will find absolution, some will teeter and wobble and fall. There will be polite acknowledgement of their ambition, but ultimately, for The Strugglers the only thing that matters is Finishing. It’s what they’re here for.

So for The Strugglers, this is a huge gamble. Hero or failure. No in between.

And struggle they might, against awful odds and distance and poor conditioning and genetic poverty, but in bravery they are absolutely peerless. Without equal.

The Strugglers know it will not be pretty. They know it is not a sure thing. They do not have the luxury of prediction or past performances or experience. This is not their aptitude. But this is their choice and their bold dream.

Imagine being sent to do something, something beastly difficult. You know in your heart of hearts you are not prepared, maybe not even suited for this. You know the stares of others less brave and more envious fall heavily on your effort. They want The Strugglers to fail. For every Struggler who crosses the finish line it is a failure for those who never dared try. For every Struggler who sadly and reluctantly succumbs to the distance before the finish line and is carried off the course it is a victory for those who never started. They take sick pleasure in that. Shame on them.

Those who never had the courage to try have no right to cast judgment on The Strugglers.

The Pros are comfortable and resting. But the Strugglers have not left their sacred vigil. They soldier on, unswerving in their oath to finish, No Matter What. People marvel at the Pros performance, but I say The Strugglers are the real athletes. Explorers on the terrible frontier of self-doubt, fear and potential embarrassment on a grand scale. They bring less to the start line and they do more. Longer, harder, more painful: It is a different race for The Strugglers.

It is a parade really. A parade of people so brave and tough and fearless that they don’t care if it might not work. They bank on the fact that it could. They don’t back away from the possibility of failure. Imagine their performance as set against the backdrop of the very best in the world and they are not self-conscious about their version of the very same dance. Ask yourself, would you take the stage at the Kennedy Center after Barishnikov or Pavoratti? Are you that brave?

The Strugglers are.

Their performance is tedious and grinding. It is utterly relentless in its duration. The distance, the time, the struggle cannot be compromised. The Strugglers know this, they accept it- embrace it even. And they never succumb. Under the street lights, through the cool air, in filthy clothes streaked with their own discharge of minerals and fluids and sometimes even tears and blood.

The Strugglers do a different kind of race. A harder one. And they are Elite. It takes longer. It is less practiced. It seems to never end, and it does more damage.

Decode their motives if you will. But I decode yours as trying to explain more why you didn’t try than why they are. Instead, I respectfully suggest, salute them. Unless you have walked with The Strugglers until midnight on the Ironman course they stand above you in the athletic arena. Struggle as they may, they mustered the courage to try.

 

 

Tom Demerly has been doing triathlons since 1984, still does them (but slower and fatter now) and just completed the Detroit, Michigan GORUCK Light event. He worked in the triathlon industry since it began, and the bicycle industry from the age of 15, over 40 years. Today he is a correspondent for TheAviationist.com in Rome, Italy.

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

After the shortened course and prolific drafting at this year’s first U.S. Ironman in Texas, it’s worth asking: has the gold standard of endurance sports become a diluted accomplishment-for-purchase?

The answer is an unfortunate, undeniable “Yes”.

The sooner Ironman’s new parent company, Chinese conglomerate The Dalian Wanda Group, acknowledges the decline in event quality, the sooner it can be restored. But the problem is real, and it didn’t happen overnight.

Ironman is entirely different today than it was when the race began on the beach in Waikiki in 1978. In the early 1980’s Ironman struggled for legitimacy. By the end of the decade, in 1989, Dave Scott and Mark Allen’s “Ironwar” two-up race duel vaulted the event into something even more significant than athletic competition. In 2004 I wrote “The Strugglers”, an homage to the everyman finisher at Ironman you can read by clicking here.

Ironman became legend. It was revered as somehow tougher than mere athleticism. Scott and Allen’s high noon, mano a mano slugfest defined a gritty toughness that transcended other endurance events. Marathon running, once the high bar of the everyman endurance world, took a back seat to completing an Ironman triathlon. In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, Ironman became modern gladiatorial combat for the masses in a new electronic coliseum.

Emmy winning television production spotlighted the transformation of the everyman to hero status. With spectacle like the Julie Moss crawl to second place, Ironman was depicted as the one-day filter through which a mortal person could pass to achieve super-athlete status. Everyday people arrived at the Ironman start line as caterpillars, left as colorful M-Dot butterflies decked out in officially licensed “Finisher” apparel.

Ironman became big. Then came the internet. And Ironman became enormous.

The defining Dave Scott/Mark Allen “Ironwar” race of 1989.

As internet and social media exploded a universal virtual podium made Ironman status visible around the world instantly. It became normal for Ironman participants to chronical every step of their journey to Ironman in social media, triathlon forums and blogs. They would top it off with wordy, indulgent “race reports” for all to (presumably) read.

All that was missing from Ironman was the mass production of this new event-product. It was so well recognized that one trademark defined our impression of a person the instant we saw their t-shirt, bumper sticker or tattoo. That status was bestowed when you crossed the finish line and the verbal Excalibur, “YOU! Are an IRONMAN!!!” touched your shoulder.

A person could earn a college degree, raise a family, beat a terminal disease, overcome a disability or serve in the military. But until they dragged their life story across the finish line at Ironman to earn the M-Dot stamp of significance, it was just average. Just life. At Ironman, it became significant. It became a story. A filter through which we must pass to achieve exceptional status.

Ironman sold. And sold. And sold. Events a year away sold out in minutes. Entry fees went up, travel and lodging costs climbed. You had to earn an Ironman finish, and by the turn of the century in 2000 it took not only a deep aerobic base but also deep pockets to finish an Ironman.

Ironman gave the well-heeled everyman the opportunity to be exceptional. And while the majority of the participants in Ironman did have an intrinsically challenging experience preparing for and completing an Ironman, the heavy-handed branding of the event created a brand more conspicuous than structural.

As prices and participation climbed, the quality of race venues and officiating suffered. The event became increasingly “interpretive”, with swim cancellations, course shortenings, inadequate drafting enforcement and no effective athlete drug screening.

Ironman became pass/fail.

I worked and raced in the triathlon industry since the early 1980s and had a front row for the transformation of the sport. I saw it change from fringe endurance activity to apex life-defining event. Then into a credible athletic sport including Olympic competition. And today into a just-about-anything-goes social media stunt. Cutting courses, drafting and using performance enhancing drugs is more likely to be enforced in the kangaroo court of social media than by the people paid to administer the race.

As Ironman peaked in popularity, the races filled from the back of the pack. Race winning times did get marginally faster among top professionals. But the bigger expansion was at the back of the race. Despite a proliferation of “wind tunnel tested superbikes” triathletes were going slower and slower as a group at Ironman.

In the 1980’s and ‘90’s when I either raced or watched an Ironman event, the volume of finishers after 13 hours tapered off to a trickle. By the early 2000’s the floodgates opened at 13 hours with hordes of everyman Ironmen streaming across the finish line. That influx of participants created more demand for Ironman events. Individual athlete performance and overall event quality suffered. If you could drag yourself across the finish line at Ironman, whether you made the 17-hour cutoff time by a second or nine hours, whether the swim was shortened or cancelled, whether the bike course was long, short, flat, windy or mountainous, “YOU!” were still “An IRONMAN!” There was a distinct lack of standards for what had been a high bar of endurance sports.

The double edge sword of social media that helped immortalize and proliferate the sport has now become its undoing. The event organizers appear immune to criticism and largely unconcerned with maintaining event quality. Today brandishing an M-Dot logo on a calf tattoo, bumper sticker or officially licensed T-shirt doesn’t carry the clout it once did. Ironman has become a sketchy, “everyone’s a winner” attention grab that is low on event quality control and high on licensing fees, entry fees, and official merchandise prices. Until that changes the Ironman motto, “Anything is Possible” has become a decidedly cynical commentary of a once great event.

 

 

 

Author Tom Demerly has raced triathlons and worked in the triathlon industry since 1984, completing over 200 races including the Ironman World Triathlon Championships in Kona, Hawaii in 1986 and Ironman events in Canada, New Zealand and the U.S. He has participated in the Discovery Channel Eco-Challenge, The Raid Gauloises, The Marathon des Sables, The Antarctic Marathon and the Jordan Telecom Desert Cup. He raced bicycles as an elite amateur in Belgium for the Nike/VeloNews/Gatorade Cycling Team and is three-time Michigan USA Cycling State Champion. He is a former member of a U.S. Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Team (LRS) and now works as an aerospace and defense columnist for TheAviationist.com, the world’s foremost defense and aerospace blog published in Rome, Italy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

With Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testifying on Capitol Hill this week the question about what function social media actually performs in human society is relevant.

Like most new technologies, from the atom bomb to pesticides, cancer drugs, semi-automatic sporting firearms, and smart phones we tend to develop the technology before we develop the social rules to best employ them.

New technology often creates problems, especially in an increasing cultural scarcity of some individual, internal decision making framework to create good judgements that preside over our decisions. A new technology that forces previously distanced and opposing ideologies closer together is bound to create conflict.

That same technology also creates a new opportunity for unity and understanding by erasing distance and compressing time. Within that vast opportunity for unity and understanding the hope for a better future lies. Exactly like Thomas Edison with the light bulb, Mark Zuckerberg has illuminated a new opportunity for unity and understanding through social media- if it is used optimally.

Social media crosses borders with impunity at the speed of light. It does not recognize nationality, race, religion or orientation. In its most unregulated form, it is our individual voices amplified to be heard around the world. We can use those voices to magnify differences, or to recognize our universal needs as a human culture trying to coexist. By analogy, it is forcing the entire world into a small room where we can either learn to get along, or engage in circular arguments that become increasingly draining on our spirit.

A unique feature of social media is that the consumers and creators are the same group. And the ability to create media brings with it responsibility. Almost none of us using social media are trained in using media. All you need is an email address and a password and you are a citizen journalist. That responsibility is significant since, whether you are the BBC World News or Mary Smith from Dubuque, Iowa, you both wield the same 800 X 600 space on a computer screen. And, even though the number of screens you reach varies from billions in the case of the BBC World News to Mary Smith’s five hundred Facebook friends, that face time on a computer screen is still very relevant. From the Arab Spring to gender rights and the U.S. presidential campaign, social media has proven to have the inertia to change the world, one post at a time.

What is the best use of social media like Facebook, both for the individual using it and for those consuming it? Here are some suggestions:

  1. Share Knowledge.

In bringing the world together we create a communal database rich in new information. From exotic and unusual animals we’ve never heard of, to places we’ve never visited or seen, social media is a conduit to spread knowledge about things we’ve never learned about. This may be the best use of social media, posting a photo of an animal or a machine that not everyone has seen before and sharing that knowledge with your friends.

  1. Ask Questions. 

Social media is a great net for collecting ideas. Asking questions on social media delves into the great repository of collective knowledge that exists in our world. There are pitfalls to that since people can give incorrect or somehow disruptive answers to questions, but having the openness to listen to peoples’ replies and the judgement to interpret them adds value to the responses we can get from questions on social media.

  1. Listen to Ideas. 

The single most valuable thing about social media is the ability to listen in on a great global conversation. While the volume of that conversation is usually maddening, there is value buried in the rising din of posts. One great pitfall of social media, and this is a serious one, is that it can be technically calibrated or manipulated to reinforce our own opinions and beliefs without us realizing us. If you only “Friend” people who agree with you and think like you, your opportunity for learning is limited, but if you seek to challenge your existing beliefs with friends who think differently you are in for a stimulating experience of thought and introspection. Author George Orwell wrote, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” It also comes with the individual responsibility to listen.

Social media is at its best in a raw, unfettered, unregulated form. But with that mighty capability comes mighty responsibility. The United Nations created a manifesto for using social without realizing it, before social media was even invented:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

It’s up to us to use that right and these media constructively and with good judgement.

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

A new April 7/8 photo of a black cat very closely resembling Mr. Blackie has surfaced.

Based on a photo posted to the Nextdoor.com community bulletin board website on Monday, April 9, 2018, it is highly probable that the enigmatic feral cat known as “Mr. Blackie”, has been seen.

The photo was taken sometime over Easter weekend, April 7,8. When comparing high resolution photos of Mr. Blackie to the cat shown in this new photo, likely taken on a smartphone, the body proportions, eye color, ear shape, fur length and overall size seem very similar to Mr. Blackie. Analysts put the probability of the cat shown in the new April 7/8 photo as being Mr. Blackie at “Better than 70%”.

Analysis of the new photo of an unidentified cat sighted on April 7/8 and a known photo of Mr. Blackie from 2017: A, Ear shape is similar. B. Eye color is similar. C. Girth and aspect ratio of main torso is similar. D. Volume and length of tail is similar.

The location where the photo was taken is being kept private until it can be confirmed if this is Mr. Blackie, the feral cat. Reports suggest the cat shown in the new photo is spending time near a wood pile. This behavior may suggest Mr. Blackie is using the wood pile as a shelter.

Chronology of verified and possible sightings of Mr. Blackie.

Mr. Blackie the Feral Cat is neutered, immunized and has micro-chip #956 000 010 017 739 implanted just under his skin for identification.  There has been a neighborhood-wide 93 day search effort underway to locate him after he disappeared at the end of December last year. Feral cat houses, food and veterinary care were being provided to Mr. Blackie on a permanent basis until his disappearance over three months ago.

As a trap/immunized/neutered and released feral cat, Mr. Blackie helps control rodent and pest populations in the local neighborhood and removes injured birds during his normal behavioral patterns. His managed presence benefits the entire local ecosystem as the “alpha predator” of the suburban ecology.

As details about this photo emerge we will provide updates. If you have any information on sightings of this cat please phone, message or email me:

Tom Demerly (313) 400-0150

tomdemerly@yahoo.com

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

April 3, 2018. Tuesday. 

Winter hangs on like dampness caught in an old curtain. Under the tight, chilling grip of low cloud I walk the neighborhood in the early morning before sunrise while people wonder what it is I am looking for, stopping on the sidewalks to peer between houses and up driveways. Either one of them could be anywhere, and they are much better at hiding than I am at finding them. Their lives depend on that.

A man messages me. He has seen one of the cats at 5:36 AM. That next morning I am out searching. Batteries are charged, new memory cards are installed. The remotely triggered night vision cameras go out. Our yard is transformed into a feline version of a surveillance state. No cat, no animal, no leaf blowing can cross the yard without setting off the infra-red night vision cameras.

The two feral cats appeared last year and I found them interesting, then fascinating, then more remarkable than I had imagined possible. They created a secret society under our noses and re-ordered the local outdoor food chain, eliminating rodents, chasing pet cats back to their homes where they belong and policing the dark like a secret feline security force while setting order to an evolving suburban wilderness most people don’t realize exists.

There were two of them. One has disappeared.

“Mike Charlie 2” or “Mysterious Cat 2” went on to be formally named “Blackie”. He got his nom de guerre the way any shadow warrior does, against his will and under duress. I had enlisted the help of the local animal shelter’s trap and release program, captured Mike Charlie 2 with the intention of putting him through their trap and release program. But I made a huge mistake. I sat with him in silence, he in his cage, me outside in mine. As I looked at him, I realized, he could exist outside his cage, was born to live outside, had the courage and resourcefulness and cunning and stamina to live outside it. I only step out of my cage occasionally, and even that is more than most people.

The two brothers of the northern clan. The missing Mr. Blackie on the left, the more civil Darth Vader on the right.

Trap and release feral cats that are immunized and neutered have their ear tip clipped to signify they have been through the program. Mike Charlie 2 was perfect. I did not want his ear clipped. Instead I paid to have him micro-chipped, neutered, immunized and returned to me, where I would set him free again. In no uncertain terms Mike Charlie made it clear he would never be an inside cat. Nothing about him was domestic. Mike Charlie 2 left our house with an official name, “Blackie”, given to him at the animal shelter. He also had an implanted micro-chip, number 956 000 010 017 739. I even enrolled him in pet health insurance in case he needed another vet visit. It was as though, for a short time, he had entered “The Matrix”. But then, like a feline version of Neo, he took the red pill to return in the real world.

Blackie stayed around for a while after we did the trap and release. He ate outside with us, seemed to be getting more comfortable with us. Our indoor cats loved him, lined up at the windows to see him. Then one day he disappeared. That was in late December. We haven’t seen him since. We’ve been to shelter, posted notices, passed out flyers. I found a dead black cat on Ford Rd. north of here and sheepishly took it to the animal shelter to have its poor, broken body scanned for a micro-chip in case it was Blackie. No chip. We gave the unknown cat a decent burial in our backyard.

There have been three reports of a mysterious black cat south of the large park, Levagood, that separates our neighborhood. This week my early morning search will move south to that area. Maybe…

While the search for Blackie has been fruitless we have welcomed back his accomplice, Mike Charlie 1, who actually has a name and, as we learned this week, a home. Not just any home, Mike Charlie 1, whose real name is Darth Vader, lives in the most famous home in all of Dearborn, The Kingsbury Castle. It is a fitting home for such a regal animal.

Darth Vader lives with the Marusak family who has lived at the Kingsbury Castle for decades, since I was a kid. The house is a local landmark. The Marusaks have done an excellent job maintaining the property and keeping up the entire appearance of the neighborhood, along with property values. Following their lead, many new, larger houses are being built in the North Levagood neighborhood. When anyone asks where we live in Dearborn, all I have to say is, “One house away from The Castle”.

Darth Vader’s home, the Kingsbury Castle, one house east of our house.

I’ve had several conversations with Darth Vader. He is a dignified and reserved cat, gentle and calm. He visited our house in these surveillance videos when he noticed the buffet we had laid out in hopes of attracting Blackie back to the area. Darth is well fed at home though, and only picks at the food left for Blackie, leaving the lion’s share behind in hopes that Blackie returns. Darth Vader also searches for Blackie, sitting on high vantage points along our street and gazing to the south, where we believe Blackie vanished to.

In one of these videos Darth Vader marks our outdoor cat feeding house with the scent from the corner of his mouth, effectively leaving a note for Blackie if he returns, “Call me Sir. We all miss you greatly.”

If you see a cat you believe may be Blackie, phone me at (313) 400-0150, email tomdemerly@yahoo.com or message me here. 

The Missing Mr. Blackie, Micro Chip 956 000 010 017 739.

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Photos and Story By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Aqua Cat’s engines purr a low hum as she glides on blue-glass crystal seas casting a dark shadow on the white powder sugar sea floor. A squadron of flying fish flutter their skimming escort across low wave tops at our bow. The golden sun simmers the water in comforting warmth. Besides the gentle chortle of our engines at low throttle, there is a blissful, structural silence here in the eastern Caribbean.

We have left the earth as we know it, transcending turmoil and scarcity and fear. We skim across open ocean to a new world, a world so fantastic and exotic and improbable it can only be described with fictional analogies. Nothing on this earth is- in fact- this remarkable.

Fiction is full of this: The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland, Harry Potter, Star Wars. These made-up tales of unlikely journeys to unreal places with fantastic creatures. But this journey is real, and our gravity-enslaved earth is only separated by the thin surface tension of the sea to a place where we float and fly and glide like superheroes, where frightening beasts displace us down the food chain but become our companions, guides and guardians.

And amongst their opulent welcoming embrace, the sea and its beasts convey quiet worry.

We are tourists. I make no apology for that. We are aboard the dive ship “Aqua Cat”. She is a three-level, 102-foot live-aboard with a luxurious 35-foot wide beam. She draws only about 6 feet of water. As a broad, stable catamaran, she is fast, quiet and maneuverable. She transits rolling seas in comfort. Aqua Cat sails from Nassau, Bahamas east across an open Atlantic strait to the Exuma island chain. It’s about 100 miles of open ocean.

Three weeks ago, I knew little about the Exumas. Few people do, mostly only SCUBA divers, billionaires and cocaine traffickers. Lying as the first real landfall of substance along the latitude between the African Western Sahara and the Americas, the Exumas are the natural reef fence that separate the inner Caribbean with the vast ocean wilderness and abysmal plains of the deep Atlantic. Beyond the Exumas, there lies only the bottomless wild sea.

For the 32 divers aboard Aqua Cat, the gate to the wild, open sea and the deep Atlantic has been left open. We gaze beyond it and even swim through it.

Now I hover in silence 60 feet below the surface gazing into the true abyss, the blue-black transition to the open Atlantic. This is where the continental shelf plummets to depths measured not in feet or fathoms, but miles. I watch in silence, waiting. Perhaps something will emerge from down there. Something really big.

Michele, call her “Shell”, is our divemaster. When we reach the abrupt cliff at about 40-feet of depth plunging into the abysmal plain of the continental shelf, Shell gestures with both arms like an underwater ballerina taking a bow in front of the vast submarine theater. As Shell is a prima ballerina of the undersea world, her gesture seems appropriate. This is it, she indicates, the end of the continent. Shell is one of our instructors back in the U.S. where we got our NITROX diving certification. Shell’s goal on this trip is to complete every dive, five dives each day including a night dive. It’s a tough schedule with about 4 hours plus of underwater time per day. She has inherited us as human pilot fish during our dives. While I gawk around looking for creatures and adjusting my camera, she makes sure I don’t wander off underwater, run out of NITROX and forget to surface. It is so remarkable down here that’s not out of the question.

Terrestrial travel is encumbered by gravity and the hard platform of earth with its constant horizon. Not down here. Down here the rules are completely different. We don’t even breathe normal air. Each inhalation through my SCUBA regulator is enriched with more oxygen than we breathe in the atmosphere. The NITROX gas in my large capacity SCUBA tank allows me to stay down longer and recover faster on the surface so I can return to the edge of inner space more quickly. But should I descend too deeply or rise too quickly, that same benevolent gas mixture of oxygen and nitrogen could put me in a dangerous corner of the dive envelope. To avoid trouble floating in inner space I watch a bank of computers on my arm measure my depth, pressure, time and remaining NITROX gas. But it is hard to stay focused on the numbers down here. It is just too… fantastic. And this NITROX goes down pretty easy.

Billionaires’ superyachts transit the Exumas regularly.

Our undersea party skirts the drop-off to the Atlantic abyss at the edge of the Caribbean in a “wall dive”. It’s a dive along the edge of a deep drop-off that forms this underwater cliff between the coastal shelf and the deep sea. Some of our divers descend deeply along the wall past 100 feet. At that depth color and light are filtered by the water overhead to merge into a blue-grey monotone less sensational in appearance to the human eye than the moderate depths I favor. My party is contented with the middle-depths of 30-80 feet. There is more life here, more color. And less danger.

A placid nurse shark rests on the white sand bottom.

Our schedule aboard Aqua Cat this week has been brisk. Wake, eat, dive, dive, eat, dive, dive, eat, dive. Five dives per day are available to divers on Aqua Cat, although few divers will do every dive, except, of course, Shell. There is too much else to do.

During breaks from diving we laze on the upper deck in Caribbean sun, watch the rocky islands slide by, stay on the lookout for passing whale pods (we spotted rare pilot whales during dinner) and take excursions to shore on one of our two dinghies.

The barren islands are worth exploring. The weather here in May is calm and warm. One island harbors a shallow saltwater marsh with crystal clear water, home to exotic great hammerhead sharks. We take the dinghy to shore amidst a covey of weathered, practical sailing yachts and a pair of mammoth, billionaire luxury superyachts crewed by polo-shirted Ken dolls scrambling around the decks in hurried chores.

It would appear someone lives here, at least part time. An island caretaker who watches over the yachts moored in the lagoon and makes sure that the same number of people who land on the island each day actually leave it. Beyond that there are only scrub plants, palms, an assortment of reptiles ranging to quite large iguana, sea birds and the fish, sea animals and crustaceans that occupy the littoral environment.

On one expedition from Aqua Cat to a remote deserted island my girlfriend Jan Mack and I discover a hidden trail into a low mangrove thicket. A sign has fallen into the sand at the trail’s entrance. It offers only one word, “DANGER”. We follow the overgrown trail and discover it is, in fact, quite treacherous. Coral and rock outcroppings have been eroded to razor-sharp sinkholes easily large enough to swallow a person. Fetid pools draped by spider webs lurk at the bottom. The crusty terrain feels unstable under our amphibious sandals. After a half-mile push inland we retreat, satisfied that there is slim chance of finding anything remarkable in this low jungle mangrove. As it turns out, we are wrong. Four days later another person from Aqua Cat in the same region shoots a photo of a mammoth hammerhead cruising through the mangrove shallows. It would have been a spectacular sight.

A remarkable slipper crab seems excited to pose for a portrait.

Before we are barely able to savor our experience, Aqua Cat is crossing the open strait back to the Bahamas at the end of our expedition. There has been too much to digest, too much to take in, too much to experience. We’ve packed a month into a week aboard Aqua Cat. To try to take in the grandeur of the sea in a one-week trip is an absurdity, like trying to get a satisfying drink from a gushing firehose. There is simply too much to contemplate, too much to absorb, to many sensations to manifest.

A great barracuda guards our boarding ladder beneath the Aqua Cat.

But as remote and pristine as the Exumas felt we heard a quiet cry from her waters and her beasts. They are threatened, retreating, shrinking, dying. On the remote beach we found, Jan Mack and I spent the first thirty minutes picking up plastic waste and trash from a passing yacht crew who had made a bonfire on the empty beach and left their offal behind. In these waters plastics are dangerous to turtles, rays and sharks. They take years to decay, if at all, and can trap marine animals and strangle them or choke their digestive tracts. Some of the big sharks who guarded each of our dives showed signs of fin damage from boat propellers or had fishing hooks lodged in their mouths. On one dive, I swam after a cloud of drifting plastic bags to retrieve them before they drifted into the deep where they may wind up in a whale’s stomach.

Divers Phyllis Indianer, Divemaster Shell Robinson and diver Jan Mack surface after a drift dive.

I knew we would see the impact of man even in the remote Exumas. Part of the reason we wanted to be here was a looming sense that the clock ticking toward environmental calamity has passed the point of no return. That we are losing the Exumas and all places like her at an irreversible pace. I hope that is not true, and I’ve made an internal effort to manage my life at home in Michigan so I use less plastic, recycle more trash, drink from reusable water bottles and give to the organizations that protect the sea and her creatures.

Sailing on the Aqua Cat gave us a look into the wild sea and her massive expanse, exotic wilderness and remaining pristine beauty in a way no other experience could. That is priceless and ephemeral. It is something to be treasured and protected for as long as we can.

 

 

 

 

 

Author and photographer Tom Demerly has to be kept from petting things underwater around the world.

 

 

 

 

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By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

 

  1. We each create our own reality. (Arthur C. Clarke)

I recall first reading this, and contemplating it for at least three decades. It took that much time holding this template against real life to verify its truth. I can say with absolute certainty that Arthur C. Clarke’s omniscient observation is irrevocably true. In fact, it is one of life’s few absolutes.

Whether you believe in God, karma, or are an atheist your beliefs shape your reality with enormous might and inertia. What you believe in the abstract manifests in the physical through your decisions.

One person sees lights in the sky at night. They believe it is a star, and go on to study astronomy. Another person sees the same light, believes it is a UFO and latter attends a convention for UFO witnesses. A third believes the light is a communications satellite and goes on to study space exploration. A fourth person sees the light and believes this is the Star of Bethlehem and becomes a devout religious follower.

Each person saw the same light. But each person created a different reality from it, because based on our interpretation of the stimulus around us we each create our own reality.

Understanding this key concept helps us make sense of a world that often seems mad and chaotic. Everyone is exposed to like stimulus, but against the template of their beliefs, fears and aspirations, they craft an often wildly different reality. When these realities fail to coincide, or threaten each other, there is conflict.

If you can value and respect the realities that others create, then we can live in harmony and tolerance. The key thing is that these realities are not imagined or conjured, they are solid and material, people behave around them, and they are often unmalleable. Hence the need to accommodate each other’s reality to the degree necessary to coexist.

There is a dark side to this fact though. The reality of an ISIL terrorist, for example, is that anyone with beliefs other than theirs must be eliminated. There is no room for any other set of ideas, and their own ideas are the only ones that are real. When a set of ideas or realities leaves a person’s own sphere of influence and harms or limits another person’s reality it’s important to moderate that reality. That is how realities collide in conflict. History has shown us realities, even conflicting ones, can be moderated to coexist constructively, but the process has often resulted in massive tragedy. This reality is one we collectively continue to create and re-create.

 

  1. Seek first to understand, then to be understood. (Steven Covey) 

As our earth becomes more crowded, resources become scarcer. Communication has become faster and more accessible. The volume of human interaction has gone up. It is a planet increasingly engaged in a conversation with more and more voices getting collectively louder and louder. The only way to be heard above the din of shouting is to begin in the silence of listening.

One of mans’ greatest desires is to be heard. By listening, we fulfill that need. But there is a vast difference between listening and waiting to be heard. Listening is a deeply personal experience that challenges us to hold new ideas against what we believe in the risk of learning that we must change ourselves. Real listening is a deeply humbling experience.

While listening and then thinking takes an enormous amount of cognitive energy it is also deeply exhilarating. Our lives take on new colors, new dimensions, and hurtle forward into an infinite realm of possibilities when we listen.

Listening with the sincere motive of understanding is the gateway to all of life’s experiences. Once you truly attempt to understand something before you wish to be understood the volume of your character and wisdom increases. Listening is like water flowing into an ocean, it is ever expanding, ever renewing and all powerful.

  1. Between stimulus and response is our greatest freedom, choice. (Viktor Frankl)

Sometimes you believe you have no choice. The liberty of choice is always present between an event and an outcome. In that space is our greatest power, the power to decide.

There are times when the material outcomes of our choices are bad. You chose not to work for a bad boss, quit your job, so food is hard to come by. But suddenly you encounter networks of ways to get the food you need. So, you survive, and you do so on your own terms. The outcome of this choice is that you have preserved your personal options. You have the day to search for a new job, and you used resources to get the food you need to sustain your search. This is already a massive step forward compared to living under the oppression of a bad boss who removes your greatest personal freedom, even if you have to be hungry for a few days to exercise this power.

Millions of people have sacrificed themselves for this basic human principle, and probably billions more wish they had the personal resolve to use their power of choice, but they are too afraid. If there is one thing that separates people who live in abundance from those who live in despair, it is the courage to preserve choice.

Choice is expensive and often is not conspicuously easy to make even after it is earned. But it is the most precious part of the human condition, the ability to use our massive brains to decide our destiny against any condition.

 

 

 

 

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