A few months ago, my partner accepted a welding gig in French Polynesia, and I agreed to trade six weeks of grunt work scraping oysters and diving down oyster baskets at the same pearl farm for room and board. The location was like Waterworld without the apocalypse, a tiny donut-shaped ring of coral jutting out of turquoise sea. Mid-80’s temperatures, constant sun, a rainbow of fish, mollusks, eels, sharks and various land crabs scrabbling for existence.
The South Pacific environment is also one of extremes. Perhaps the most beautiful place I’ve been, it offered waters with world-class free diving. Yet one slip washing dishes meant a peeler lost in the ocean; it would take 10 days to get a new one. We walked to work over boards perched on wobbly rocks whose position shifted with the tides. A swim in the gorgeous outer reef meant traipsing over sharp and slippery coral, then donning fins while waves threatened to sweep us off our feet. We had to find openings in coral channels, then time our entries and exits to coincide with smaller groups of waves. It was easy to get slammed into spikey coral as a strong wave swept you back over the reef.
After two weeks, I learned to slow down. On and off the job, the risk of injury or loss wasn’t worth it, and I needed to make sure that every knot I tied 20 feet underwater was perfect. Plus, it turns out that tension burns through oxygen at a rapid rate. I wasn’t able to secure oyster baskets to the underwater lines reliably until I relaxed my shoulders, and trusted my hands to figure out the knot, even when my brain had its doubts.
And as I slowed down, I more fully appreciated the beauty of the place. I saw that not only larger fish were living in the coral, but tiny fish in tiny schools were also colonizing chunks of coral a few inches wide. I started sneaking outside just after sunrise to watch the sky light up with color. I noticed that amidst the gunk scraped off the oysters we were cleaning were miniscule sea creatures now looking for new hosts.
Happy New Year, all! May your roads be plowed and salted, your employees rested and your installations seamless. And may you slow down to embrace the adventure – and the grunt work – that 2020 holds.