Dolphins leap in the distance behind us as the mainland recedes. There is no wind today. We have been motoring the 36-foot trimaran in gray skies with a glassy, still ocean as far as the eye can see. Kismet sways in the calm sea as the island appears, no longer shadows in clouds, but bold with the familiar “v,” indicating the isthmus. The wind comes up gently so the captain unfurls the sails, and we glide directly to Yellowtail point at five knots.
We arrive to heaven, sun on the still, protected water, a turquoise I have rarely seen in decades, 40 feet visibility as we anchor, white sand bottom and grasses, absolutely clear from the deck. “Into the pool.” Without wetsuits, sun and wind fast reversing, we take the first of three perfect dives where the Yellowtail reef of 20 years ago is returning. The California marine reserves are working! It is like a ghost town suddenly returned to a thriving city.
We are greeted with both young and mature fish of every species we have ever seen here and in abundance. It is a joy, a blessing, as rain after a prolonged drought. Sheephead, bass, opal eye, and fish whose names I don’t even know and haven’t seen for years. A leopard shark swims directly under Captain Larry to be sure we don’t miss him. They usually stay hidden in the cabbage-like grooves of the reef, shy seeming. In my youth schools of 30 or more would darken a cove as they swam together as a legion on the march. But they are still here. We have not lost them. Later I will watch the leopard shark at our favorite golden kelp-covered rock go to frenzy over something and head out past the reef to swim, looking like the shark that he is along the white sands of the deep water where the bat rays hang out. They are here, too, after many trips missing completely. A “Star Wars” reminder of galaxy fighters, their square dark heads and sweeping wings, covered with a splash of snow-like sand camouflage, their slow grace like a poem that can ignite to light- speed, mix the universe of stars with the universe of sea. The babies are dark against the sand, long barbed tails wafting up like teenage egos. We watch, suspended.
In the afternoon, on the deck of the gently rocking Kismet, we enjoy the glide of pelicans, long time survivors, masters of flight when a new shape comes over the brown hills and dips toward us; a bald eagle, mighty predator near extinction from deadly chemicals, symbol of our nation. Through binoculars I watch as he descends, claws first to perch on a scraggy island scrub at the same rocky cliff where another pair once sat, red tags upon their wings, members of a program here where scientists painstakingly brought them back from the brink. Later he takes off and soars into the valley of golden red rock, perhaps a mate waiting.
As the day’s colors shift into sunset, two seals decide to give us a Sea World show, just for the fun of it. Leap, leap, leap – and then just in front of the boat, two perfect arcs toward one another, double rainbows and then they go on about their business of gathering dinner as we attend to ours. I was reminded of the two young cormorants who had come up to the boat earlier, also most unusual behavior, seeming to want a hand out, then dove in the crystal clear water heading with great speed under the boat, swift swimmers after a meal, not bird-like at all, reminding us of their cousins in the Galapagos who have given up their wings for good.
As darkness falls, without city lights, the night stars show up in their zillions, the Milky Way a path above our mast, humbling us with the echoes of the Greeks who gave them names Cassiopeia, Orion, Sagittarius, reminding us how long humans have looked up in wonder and made these bright lights their guide. I squeal at a shooting star, and then feel sorry as Larry has missed it, both of us forgetting it is a light gone out. He turns toward the western sky and shouts, “There’s one.”
It has been a miraculous trip after so long fearing for the demise of our California reef world. We know it is rare, this list of favors of which just one makes the trip worthwhile. Wrigley, who bought the island almost a century ago and locked it into a preservation conservancy, understood when he named Avalon, a realm that takes us back to King Arthur’s lore. Catalina is the place of the mists where an unexpected other world exists that many will look at and never see.
In minutes the clouds come over seeming to erase the night sky. In our disappointment, we look toward the mainland, its neon orange glow a place we will return to tomorrow.
Suddenly just beneath Kismet in the dark sea, flashes of light, tiny florescent beings surround us as they drift, a moving island of sparkling light, a galaxy beneath us as far as we can see, deep into the black sea.
We will sail home tomorrow with the miracle of images that stay with one a lifetime, helping us to hold the course.
A retired teacher, Marni Magda has lived in Laguna Beach for over 30 years.