Updated: Jun 28, 2020
June 09, 2020
I live in some of the most incredible spaces. I’m not sure how exactly I come to find them, but it feels as if some internal, soul-searching algorithm has discovered a pathway for me to come into the most exhilarating and unique experiences.
I feel as if we’re given many paths to choose from. Landing upon one of travel and adventure came as a choice no different than any other path. When I tell folks what I’m doing, I hear the same response time and time again: to “do it while I’m young.” I wouldn’t think to overlook the advice of hundreds of different people, but I’m skeptical of the reason behind it. My guess is that it comes from a place of resentment towards their own set of choices. Resentment towards choosing a life of certainty and never offering a step in the direction of what’s unknown.
I’ve found there’s always a way to incorporate travel into your lifestyle, but it does require certain adjustments for what’s considered normal or comfortable. Travel is no vacation! It places you in the most incredible settings and amongst eclectic and interesting people, but it will absolutely test your limits to get there.
To me, working a job you are not passionate about, taking the occasional vacation and grinding until you’re nearly gone is not a lifestyle. It’s a sentence. The most truest lesson I’ve learned is that when you are following your dreams, you’ll never work a day in your life. I feel that it's never too late to start listening to that inner calling.
To say to do it while I’m young, might actually go back to when I was really young. I was brought up in very fortunate circumstances and since then, have changed paths enough times to be labeled frivolous, distracted and possibly even flippant in my regard to settling into a determined pattern or routine. I can’t help but to notice the grass on the other side and half the fun is hopping the fence to get there.
As a youngster, I noticed I felt differently about my world than most. I certainly conducted myself similarly when in the presence of my peers: going to soccer practices, hosting sleepovers and rotating our play activities throughout the different backyards. But I also started to take to these backyards as if they were beyond the compulsory extension of a property and more like a gateway to a larger world. One in which I felt a strong alliance towards and ultimately, a sense of belonging. And to a child, belonging is everything. It's what shapes us in the hallways of schools, and later as an adult separates us as we come to develop our interests.
I felt connected to the world we played in. The feeling of tree bark gripping against my skin is a sensation I cannot forget. The heart-warming jubilee felt when reaching the top of a tree is as triumphant as any graduating moment. Still to this day, I’m unable to keep a chuckle from happening when I’ve squished mud between my toes. This natural world was allowing me a place to develop, unencumbered by the thoughts of others. I was free to act, less to be judged and all I knew at the time was that I wanted be fully immersed in this world forever.
I was learning how to see past the homes, the driveways, the parking lots and the constant droning of construction into a world of dreams. Beyond the highways lie thickets of mystery and there was always an adventurous and daring path to get there. And within every creek bend, carried forth the lessons of history. That at one time, this was all people ever needed. Every rock, boulder, log and field that I explored, became a doorway to a newfound sense of pleasure.
From Thoreau’s, “Walden” he says, “Not till we are lost, in other words, not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”
Journaling became a close counterpart to Spirituality
Nature served many purposes for me. It was not just a backdrop for play. During my younger years when the growing pains became so unbearable, I would bolt from the house and run into the woods at night. Looking back I recognize the stress this caused for the people around me, but it was also revealing how nature was unique in its ability to offer itself as both a healer and teacher. I was seeking comfort, and it could provide the quiet stability I was seeking in the harsh times of pubescent chaos. It wasn’t just teen angst that drove me out into the woods, I genuinely believe it was calling to me in a way that said, this is where I will find peace and this is the space in which I would be truly set free.
Once within the dark forest, the tears would erase themselves and a calmness settled in almost immediately. I could peel back the complex layers of emotions that had my chest swelling with rage, sadness, confusion and hurt and develop a sense of composure and mindfulness during these challenging times.
I found strength in these moments to grow dignified just as the forest had done. Persevering in my own right, like the trees I took shelter in, I came to flourish and understand my place on this planet. It was not easy to overcome these obstacles, but after many years of listening to that voice, and truthfully, within my first ayahuasca ceremony did I ever fully come to understand the little boy who wanted to love, wanted to be set free and exist exactly in the way that he was designed for.
The incorporation of mapped out adventures into the woods would complicate my nights as I would rather sneak out to canoe to the nearby islands than state my aims publicly. Something about the denial of my desires caused me to seek it out in nefarious ways. I was of course followed and asked to come back home, but still I felt that calming embrace of being outdoors and blanketed by the comforts for which it provided. I was more at ease in a remote and uninhabited snow covered landscape, than I was tucked away in a bed with all the givings of a home. The fallen foliage of a secluded forest had become the timbers of my heart.
Guided by this hearts desire to be deep within an adventure, my instincts lead me to my first job. I worked at a marina pumping gas for boaters. I earned good cash, which I learned to save and was also gaining those desired freedoms. I traveled to and fro upon a john boat and the story goes, that I had to keep the bilge running the entire way as the loosely riveted panels would constantly leak and let water in up past my ankles. Once, while trying to sneak over to visit a nearby neighbor girl, the throttle cables had snapped, leaving the engine engaged while I was attempting to dock. I crashed up and over the dock, nearly striking the girl and bounced off their jet ski back into the water. We hung out for a little while, but all my mind could think about was fixing the boat and hopefully not getting her into any more trouble. I was learning a lot about the responsibility and valuable lessons of how to fix things on the fly while keeping a vessel operational. Important lessons for future days.
In another, much younger memory of fond moments, were the times our family would travel out to see cousins in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Jockeys Ridge, Kill Devil Hills and riding bikes through Kitty Hawk were all sensational memories, but the one that holds dearest, is when I was allowed to drive along the beach in our Ford Bronco atop my fathers lap. Learning to negotiate these irregular surfaces with the crashing waves to my side, would also be another fine, foretelling moment.
This sense of exploring is deeply rooted. For the most part, I feel that setting is everything. I really enjoyed growing up with the lake as my backdrop, but after awhile, I had explored every island, traveled every channel marker and it began to grow small. The shorelines were now completely filled with homes and carried scenes of boozing, partying and screaming disruptions that replaced the serene setting it once was. The inevitable heavy-handed enforcement from law officers made it no different than driving along a highway during a holiday weekend. It was once waters dedicated to bass fishing and water skiing, often having an early morning all to yourself, able to ski directly up the main channel without a single boat in sight. It was thick with crowds now and I was seeking out bigger and more challenging waters. Thankfully I made my escape and Florida became the target of my new aspirations.
Another morning begins at the Jupiter Inlet
I’ve always been fascinated with water and south Florida provides a real opportunity to explore those inner passions. It baffles me why I like it so much, considering I left a place because it was overcrowded only to come to a place that is an even more so. Behind all of that commotion though, there is a mystery written into those skies that I cannot fully conceptualize. I simply feel it every morning when crossing over the high arches that span the intracoastal waterway. I look beyond into the most exciting and captivating world. Illuminated beneath those skies, is a world fit for great new discoveries. Each and every time I cross the bridge knowing I am headed towards a new day spent within the ocean, I am beset with gratitude and excitement.
Of course, for my professional interests, this hub has been very rewarding for me. Being accentuated by a rich and opportunistic setting, all that I could ever want and ask for lies waiting and simply requires the desire to pursue it. Beyond all of these industries and careers that captivate me, I seek to transcend the physical form and carry forward towards a more spiritual, higher plane of existence. I feel this world is too magical not to consider living beyond just what we can see. Even still, South Florida is capable of providing a spiritual context despite the ridiculous spending and general focus on short-lived pursuits.
Within every person, I believe there is an inherent goodness. And despite our tendency to reduce our vision to only a few certain lenses, nature, I think, speaks to us whether we are able to recognize it or not. I think that its steadfastness in being relevant makes us earthlings succumb to its forces. The boaters are governed by it and the tourists flock to Florida simply because of our degrees of latitude.
Its unfortunate that even against something as powerful as an entire planet system consisting of infinite and unyielding geological processes, we too are powerful enough in our own ways to encumber it. The fact that we can fish off 90% of all sharks in a thirty year period doesn’t seem real. That we can off-gas so much pollution there are holes in our atmosphere. We have drilled down so deep into the ground, the entirety of our planet has been exposed. The same childish recklessness to punch holes in my bedroom walls is being enacted by industries and humanity at large. We have burnt our forests. We have drained our rivers. We’ve even filled outer space with trash. It puzzles me how we think these actions can remain to go unnoticed. That nature will fix it. Nature will only recognize it and respond in such a way that levels us to our own core. It sounds crazy, but maybe COVID-19 is a self-inflicted wound caused by our lack of care for ourselves and our planet.
Inti Rymi festival in Saraguro, Ecuador
Something I have noticed while traveling is how the actions of its townsfolk impart a sort of characteristic to the area and is often more readily visible to an outsider. As a traveler, I enter many different towns and start to recognize the behaviors of its members. How they speak, how they look at me, if even at all. Am I approached, or must I do the talking in order to find my avenues of play. I notice when towns have a sense of selfishness and lack of care in their appearances. The way they treat animals becomes apparent in how they treat each other. Towns that have looked at their setting through the eyes of beauty and value, express themselves more lively and likely to be the ones that greet me with a smile. Pride is sometimes labeled as an ignorant and senseless virtue, but pride can also show to others what matters most to you. And I think pride, in that way, is an exceptional asset.
The most notable asset I’ve come to discover thus far in my travels has been boats. The liveaboard research vessel, Stenella, with its mesmerizing and watery backdrops, has transformed my backyard into the substance of dreams. Instead of leaving my home to drive over bridges towards these exciting scenes, I simply walk out the front door and am right there within it. I feel the water cradling the boat all day and night. I hear the water drumming the hull like fingers against the skin of a drum.
The colors of cascading purple and orange sunsets atop lapping waters is that same, rejuvenating sensation of calmness I felt within the woods. The sea breeze becomes as refreshing as the sips of cool water taken on those hot summer days spent at play. The jittery, outstretched palm fronds dance along with the coastal winds. These scenes have become the metronome for an elaborate symphony capturing the chorus within my heart. Finally, that life goal of spending every day fully immersed in the outdoors, has been achieved.
Below those sublime waters lives a separate, but connected world of mystery. Cast with a diverse crowd of amazing fish, spectacular turtles, intriguing sharks and a microcosm of life that, to this day, continues to impress. I teach, share and experience exactly what it is that brings me joy and the cycle of passions influencing choices, choices becoming lifestyles and lifestyles creating careers has lead me to a life filled with captivating dreams set into reality.
Something about the combination of a breeze, rocking boat and colorful sunset pins me into a state of exuberance. At the ground level of this experience is the vessel that carries me there. And just as much as I care and put love into her, she too responds by delivering me to some of the best places on earth.
Expected path of Hurricane Dorian, 219. Click to read: “Dorian Chronicles”
I talk often of the weather and lately I’ve been looking at it plus this machine as the game pieces to which I am in a match against. However much I treat them both with kindness and respect, they too are on a path of uncertain futures capable of delivering any number of outcomes. The sea breeze, just as it can simmer to a lull, can also escalate itself into a raging fury. The boat, 62’ of rugged antiquity, hosts plenty of challenges. And just like any game, there is a score clock, putting pressure on us all to perform optimally within its constraints. We strive to complete each trip as successfully as we can, but sometimes it is taken from our hands and we are forced to simply react to a given situation.
Looking out at glassy calm waters overtop Molasses reef, Key Largo
With COVID-19 delaying our start by one month and the Bahamas still not open to the public until July, we would attempt to charter our first trip down to the keys and entertain one of the project’s long-standing funders and three of her dive pals.
Ruth Petzold is an amazing human being. She brings out the best in me and I really look forward to seeing her enthusiastic take on nature and boat life. She travels all over the world, but like many I meet aboard Stenella, something about this boat and its adventures keep them coming back. It’s got charm and the work done here is truly unique. Water for her is as much a joy as it is for me, and I really enjoy being in her company. She’s a fastidious go-getter, but settles nicely into a laid-back routine when the going gets good. Her smile is captivating, and despite being in her seventies and stands atop a prosthetic lower leg, her energy comes in leaps and bounds.
Our first two days we may as well have been landlocked. The weather game piece was bringing in intense moisture and the entire eastern seaboard was getting belted with driving rains. In addition to that, hanging off the tip of the Yucatán, was a tropical storm pulling towards it the winds from the straits of Florida. It was also our first “shake-down” trip where all of the work done in the offseason gets its trial by sea.
Water makers, generators, air conditioners, boat tenders, plumbing, window seals, hydraulics, electronics and it all rests upon the minds and stamina of two persons for the next three and a half months. Our team is great, and Dr. Herzing's many years at sea and aboard this ship prove worthy, but ultimately it comes down to the captain and I to keep things operational. Often departing with twelve persons, we also contend with the day to day challenges of keeping an eye on the safety, morale and hopefully fulfilled entertainment of our passenger and crew. It takes an around the clock effort, and we can’t let off the throttle until the 100 day season is complete. Talk about pressure, not much compares to captaining a liveaboard research vessel!
Instead of trying to fight the wind, rain and heavy seas, we put down within the intracoastal for two nights just beyond the bridge of our marina. Each day we weighed our options. We debated the idea of running the ditch all the way to Biscayne and popping out around the upper keys, but the rains would not let up and we would have to take anchorage in a lot of unknown spots and rely completely upon electronics to navigate the tricky intracoastal waterways. Not a safe move, so we waited until 5:30AM the third day to get out into the ocean and pound our way south. It was hellacious, but not beyond what the big girl could handle. In the galley and salon, it meant a lot of tossing, thumping and crashing noises. On the bridge, we faced frequent whiteouts where the rains would come down so thick we lost sight of nearby freighters 1000 feet long in an instant. But somehow, twelve hours later, we put down at Rodriguez Key in the lower stretches of Key Largo.
Along the way, we fixed a few leaking windows, leaking pipes, broken eisenglass, faulty waste pump and just before we were about to call it a night, someone notified us of a smell near their bunks. A head pump had gone bad. So at 11PM I’m in the lower hull with rubber gloves on having the captain shield my face from exploding feces with a tupperware lid as I dismantle the blown pump and put in a rebuilt one.
For our first day in the Keys we picked up a couple mooring balls at the nearby dive sites. Most famous is Molasses Reef, which is located inside the Penekamp Marine Sanctuary. It would come to be our favorite snorkel site as the crystal clear waters and towering coral formations proved far superior. Upon arriving, we were the third boat on site and about three more joined in on the litany of mooring balls there. We had arrived just at high tide, so the current was starting to go out and continuing to grow in strength, but the visibility was astounding. Easily between 60-80 feet. The swim was called short and we dropped the line to go in search of another calmer spot.
We landed at the nearby White Banks. Hopping around to these different dive sites was truly adventurous, but also quite a grind as the seas had not really changed all that much. Once the ocean becomes charged with so much energy, it takes awhile for it to unload. Steady crashing into our beam was the continuous flood of three foot waves. Everyone on board was a seasoned aquatic traveler and this was well within their limits, but it meant extra caution when entering and exiting the water. All hands were on deck and the team performed flawlessly. We were hitting our stride early on.
Even with the seas, this adventure was striking all the right buttons for me. Our operation seems to slide in between a lot of different categories. We passed a few smaller fishing vessels, some larger motor yachts and navigated along the lengthy and protected water of Hawks Channel. Along the shores, we passed by the series of homes squeezed onto the populated stretches of Key Largo. At the dive sites, we moored alongside a lot of the popular and well-known dive charters and when it came to rest, we settled in against the key to toss the hook near other sailors seeking refuge for their anchorage. It was as if we were doing four or five different things and we hadn’t even begun to start the science work yet!
The evening was fresh and had me fixed upon the back deck to take in the breeze and spend some time chatting with the captain. The crew had been gelling nicely and the addition of a new cook was providing us with a completely new asset for our fun and games. We laughed the night away over a fabulous grilled feast and a special birthday cake was brought out for one of our longtime field interns. There is so much camaraderie here on Stenella, most of us spend the entire off-season awaiting the summer reunion.
My mental goals for the season are simple, be a teammate and enjoy the season. That’s it. That’s usually what allows me to grow the most and soak in all the greatness of a season without over complicating it. There’s certainly a lot of hiccups and that’s where a positive mindset can clear a path for me. Being a teammate means I am not putting myself before others and look to tighten the bond versus subjecting myself to the misery of finding out what isn’t going my way.
Choppy waters alongside Rodriguez Key, Key Largo
The mighty white broadsides of Stenella has been spotted again, hanging her hook off the favored sandy shoals of Rodriguez Key. Waterlocked due to high winds, we spent the entire second day in the keys anchored and awaited the passage of Tropical Storm Cristobal. Its effects, despite being hundreds of miles away, extended all the way through the gulf and out into the Straits of Florida to our East.
Favorable winds became hectic and gusty, surging as much as 30 mph. Even in our sheltered anchorage, five miles onto the shelf, we sat in sloppy, white-capped seas.
The wind shredded as I occupied myself with various cosmetic work. To our South, the boaters began to pull onto the shallows and toss their hooks similarly, but surely not for the night. In the morning I’d seen a few sizable sport fishes attempt to charge out towards the deep water, but ultimately came back slow trolling the shallows with their outriggers tucked back like the tail of a just shamed dog.
As a customary reminder when sea conditions slip into being less than favorable, I ask myself, where else in the world would I rather be and the answer brings an instantaneous smile. The nation was aggressively demonstrating for peace, we’d just experienced 100 days of reduced human interaction and at last I was situated atop tropical waters with a clean ocean breeze gracing my skin. It’s not hard to realize fortune when its this apparent.
Perspective is like that. One minute you’re watching the seas, wondering where the breeze is and then you can barely walk to the front of the boat without something being blown out from your hands or off your body. But as everyone knows, perspective can also shift our desires from focusing on what we have to what we want. I want to do a lot of things and feel it every time I step onto this boat. She can carry me to the most amazing experiences, but there in lies the untold story. With each story I write, it begins a certain way, but as soon as we’re underway, the true narrative of the trip starts to take form. What will happen and what will I be forced to reckon with? What we ask for and what we get, will be the constant reminder that a lot of the times, we have little control.
It does seem that I write about as much of storming skies and turbulent waters as I do for miraculous and thrilling encounters. That to me is the evidence that we live in a constantly changing and dynamic planet. One that is full of surprises and capable of a degree of variance beyond what most could fathom. It always blows my mind that the same ocean I ride out in from the inlet can one day be glass calm and appearing as if she were a lake and other times be filled with twenty foot monsters ready to bring anyone foolish enough to enter it down to the bottom. Perspective of weather is tough, as recorded oceanic data only goes back 130 years and far less if you consider anything beyond a hand-written ledger as data. When you zoom in, sure, it looks like its rapidly changing, but to zoom out a thousand, million, billion years I wonder what the picture looks like then. The earth travels in cycles and we are too young to fully understand its entire process. I often look to the sharks, turtles and birds with admiration to know, they have seen so much of it and remain so astutely aware of what their purpose is on this planet.
The winds finally broke and by midday we were charging the deep water. We rode the deep water edge back to a reef called Pickles. It was still within the marine sanctuary and all along the edges of the natural coral heads, I would find pieces of orange staghorn coral with what looked like a fishing lure stuck to its base. As I got closer to inspect, I realized it was a tag and that these were transplanted corals put down by the coral restoration project. It was so neat to see the little colonies taking hold and doing quite well. They were all about the same size, so I am unsure if they’re actually developing or continuing to get decimated by the pounding seas.
It was an amazing day. We had ridden the hook until after lunchtime and then went offshore to find the seas had finally subsided. In the deep water, we dumped our holding tanks, fished around some scattering birds, moored up at a new reef and cruised in before sunset for an amazing meal and celebratory cocktails.
Sometimes the good days must be earned, while other times they are handed right over. It looked like this trip would have to be all earned. The next day the winds were to lay down even more, so we determined we were going to quote, “snorkel their butts off,” and did just that. Mooring up on six sites, we bounced from each one, determining which position we liked best. Considering we had a handicapped person, it took some scouting first to determine the sites worthiness, but most all of them were exceptional regardless of conditions. With each jump in the water came a exclamatory “woo-hoo” and off they went to explore.
The captain and I would take turns swimming, and even during the mid-day drain, I was still easily coaxed by any crew member saying they were in need of a dive buddy to get back in. I pulled myself up, threw on a rash guard and seconds into paddling out realized it was the right decision to make.
The reefs were incredible in their clarity and health. A lot of broken rubble, but that’s to be expected considering the keys are a barrier island and are the front lines for some of the fiercest storms. Reefs, like levees, provide protection, absorbing the energy of storm surges and disrupt its power before it hits mainland. Next in line are the dunes and mangroves, which do similar work. Past that, its on us to take shelter and find high ground. The reefs, however, are susceptible to more than just natural forces. Salinity and alkalinity disrupt their systems immensely. Coloration is actually a measurement tool to determine their current health. Along with the transplanted stag horns, there were plenty of gorgonias (sea fans) and encrusting corals.
Green sea turtle swims in front of us at Molasses Reef, Key Largo
Our favorite by far was Molasses reef and being our last night and the winds finally subsiding to below 10kts, we decided to moor up here for the night. The ripples began to simplify and through the evening waters the reef became entirely visible through calm, cobalt blue gulf stream water. What became picturesque only got better as the sun started to dip low. The nearby light tower held a dozen frigate birds that would periodically lift off and soar close to the sides of the boat. The sun began its illuminated performance and we were all transfixed in amazement. The cameras rolled with group shots, drones, sunset pics and time lapses. It intensified as the angle started to reflect into the hanging clouds and we gathered, laughing and enjoying the well deserved finale to a trip that seemed doomed from the start. The send off was spectacular. Dinner was customary, grilled items, but the cook had a finale of his own. Scratch made banana foster with ice cream. He even managed to whip up a vegan ice cream option for the vegan and dairy sensitive. Hard to believe this was his first trip and only eighteen years old. Needless to say, we are hoping to see more of him.
Another early start was coming our way, so we started the fuel transfer, cracked a few more jokes and all went to bed with a smile on our faces. At 5:40AM we were up checking fluids, brewing coffee and by 6AM slipped off from the mooring ball and started making tracks towards the gulf stream to gain a little assistance in knottage for our ride home. Strikingly close to the Keys, the gulf stream comes within 1 mile of some of the outer reefs. Even while in low idle speeds, we were cruising at 9-10kts.
The seas had not quite flattened out as hoped, but it was calm enough for us to make our way back. They weren’t quite following, but they weren’t in our face either. Along the way the captain lost a couple mahi’s while attempting to fish and I took advantage of the lengthy day to review footage and gain some distance with writing the story.
Thirteen hours later, we were back in the slip looking at the same scenes we had seen eight days prior. After the passengers and crew had all gone home, the boat was clean and I was once again viewing the majestic skies from the harbor.
Thank you for reading, I really hope you enjoyed that. To accommodate the trip, I proudly present the first video from the 2020 season! Cheers