We sail east, along the north coast of Sudest, to investigate Snake Pass. Shallow coral reefs appear to port and force Moira to slide closer and closer to land as we near the end of the northeast sector of the lagoon.
These are tricky waters. The sun is high and I can see the reefs clearly through my Polaroid glasses. But still, I decide it would be a good idea to stop at the small village just inshore of Snake Pass and climb the mountainside to have a good look at the area around the pass. I don't trust the chart and want to see what we are getting into.
Snake pass is, according to Matthew, the only other place the Australians worked Gold Lips. It is the sole egress from the northeast section of the Tagula Lagoon. I plan to anchor just inside the pass and do a float-through.
A small wooden pier stands off from the shore and I nudge Moira up to it. Freddy jumps ashore with a line and secures the stern to the wharf. Several people from the village are already coming down the path to greet us. By the time we have finished tying up, a small crowd of villigers have gathered on the wharf. They mope about looking at Freddy, me, the Moira and Walter the Cat. A even bigger delegation is marching down the path. "I guess they don't have many visitors," I comment to Freddy.
"Mmmmmm." She says, "They don"t look overly happy to see us.'
I hadn't noticed. Sure enough, there are no baskets of fruits or shells to trade and not one smile in the whole bunch. A middle-aged man, dressed in a wrap-around, comes forward and says, "You Americans come here to....resesserrrch?"
"Yes," I reply and smile.
"You come our village," he points back up the path. By now half the village is on the wharf.The man adds after another minute of thinking, "Talk with chief."
Freddy and I and an escort of some 50 people file up the little path to the village overlooking Snake Pass. As we climb the hillside I am struck with how dry it is. The island looks like brown death, the tree leaves are wrinkled and thirsty, the grass brittle and gray, the soil hard as a rock and dusty. There has been very little rain here this year and the crops must be suffering badly.
We are lead to a clean little house with a trim little garden. The Chief is sitting amid the flowers with two other men.
"I am very happy to meet you," I say to the Chief. "You have a beautiful village and a spectacular view." I turn to look at the glowing lagoon and carefully check the pass and approaches for coral heads and reefs. It really is stunning. Snake pass is a long, sharply defined deep blue ribbon winding - like a giant serpent - through the white sands and coral capped shoals. I am hot to get diving, but the chief apparently feels we need to have his OK to dive in his fishing waters.
"What is your purpose in coming here?" Asks the chief, smiling, but with undertones of authority.
"The National Fisheries Division wishes to help the people of Sudest begin village pearl culture projects. They feel pearl culture projects will bring money to the people here and help the national development. But nobody knows if there are enough pearl oysters here to make such projects work. Maybe there are only a few. Maybe plenty of oysters. I come here to look and see if there are enough oysters. I must dive and look with underwater television to count the big oysters in the deep water. If there are plenty, this is good for your people. Fisheries will provide money and people to help you start pearl culture projects... if you decide you want to do it."
"I see." He looks at the two men sitting next to him. They talk for a few minutes in their local language and I study the pass again. The air and the water is clear this morning. I can see lots of details of the reef structure. I can also see what must be a damned big shark in the pass, lazily swimming against the tide. Too bad I did not bring the binoculars.
The chief finishes talking and studies me as I study the pass. I ask, "What do you call this pass in your language?"
He says something I can't begin to comprehend and, seeing my blank look, he laughs, "Means Pass of Great Serpent."
I nod my head, smiling. Snake pass.
"Legend say, long ago when the world was new, a giant crocodile lived along the shore here. There was also a giant serpent - the only serpent on the island. They had a fight, the crocodile and the serpent. As they fought, they made the lagoon where their bodies fell into the sand. The crocodile won and the serpent ran away. The pass is the hole in the reef made by the giant serpent as it ran away to sea."
"Good story," I say, laughing with the Chief. "It really looks like a giant serpent crashed through the reef there. Maybe it's true."
"Maybe. Hard to tell with stories, eh?" Says the Chief. "We heard a story on the radio this morning. Did you listen to the radio this morning?"
"No," I shrug and look out at the pass again, adding,"To tell the truth, we hardly ever listen to the radio."
"You know Sir John Guise?" he asks.
I nod my head, "Who hasn't heard of this veteran PNG politician?"
"You know any Japanese?" asks the chief.
"Japanese? No, is Sir John a Japanese?" I ask, surprised and not really following the conversation. Everyone laughs at my stupidity.
"No, No, He spoke on the radio this morning. He said two Americans on a research vessel were coming to Sudest. To look at pearl oysters."
"Really? He did? I'm surprised someone of his standing would take notice of a little project like this, off in the provinces. That's very nice of him to speak on the radio about our work." I smile. "Perhaps some day I will have the good fortune to meet him."
The Chief looks at his two village elders and they discuss this for a moment. Then the Chief turns back to me and smiles, "Sir John Guise said these American people were spies for the Japanese. He said these Americans were bad people and would try to take our pearl oysters away and spoil our fishing."
"Sir John Guise said THAT? On the radio? Why would he say that? I work with the National Fisheries Division. He must know this. You can check this easily with the district center radio."
The chief looks directly into my eyes for a moment and then nods, slightly, "I don't know why he says this. But I don't think you and your wife look like Japanese spies and I don't think you can harm us or our lagoon. Anyway, I believe what you say is true."
We talk awhile longer and then make our way back to Moira and motor over to Snake Pass. We survey the inner pass area. Nothing. No oysters. The tide slacks and we move into the narrow confines of the pass itself. The water is clear enough for me to see the bottom in over a hundred feet. The pass rapidly deepens to over two hundred feet and although we see a few Gold Lip on the video, there are not enough to support even a small project. Hundreds, perhaps less, in the whole population.
I put on the Scuba gear, thinking about the enormous shark I saw from the mountain side. We have not seen it since we started surveying down here, but it can't be too far away. Passes are the most dangerous areas for shark attacks. Big sharks often swim in or just outside a pass from a lagoon to catch any dead or dying creature carried to sea by the swift currents as the tide falls. Right now, the tide is just starting in, so it is probably end of feeding time for Monster Shark.
I dive down along the wall to investigate the best oyster location. The walls of Snake Pass are absolutely vertical and the edges are so shallow we can't even get the dinghy on top to anchor.
Freddy has a quick swim and then follows me in the Avon to pick me up after I drift through the pass. I slide down the vertical wall to the nearly flat bottom. Incredible, it is just like a man-made canal with vertical cement walls. I swim along the bottom, out towards the center. I can see both walls from the center. I can also see the dinghy high above. I can also see three excited sharks, sleek and swift as a flight formation of jet fighters, headed right for me.
I retreat to the canal wall and head slowly towards the surface as the sharks circle, looking me over. Sharks command an extraordinary aura of strength, grace and beauty. But when I look closely at them, I can see their looks are only jaw deep. Their eyes say, "Out to lunch".
Sharks are like big dogs. Big stupid dogs. Big stupid, HUNGRY and dangerous dogs. But I am big in their environment, too. Enormous, really, compared to the animals they normally see floating around out here in the tropics. With my flippers on, I'm longer than the biggest one. As I think this, the biggest one snaps around, arches his back and gnashes his teeth at me.
Humans, I say convincingly to myself as I look from one shark to the other, are the most dangerous animals on the planet. Humans EAT sharks. I am a shark predator. I might, if I wished, get my shark gun (unfortunately several miles away aboard Moira) and shoot one of these three sharks and cut it up into little pieces and eat it tonight for dinner.
I wonder which one I should kill first. You? Want to die, hummmm sharky? I swim towards the largest slowly, carefully, wondering how it will taste. I move with stealth and cunning so I don't frighten my prey. Come sharky, sharky, sharky. Heh, heh, heh.
Big Shark catches on quick, stops gnashing its teeth and retreats further into the canal. The other two hesitate in their swooping, aggressive flight paths. Now they are uncertain. I pick on the next largest shark and consider how much meat it will yield. How it will taste as I rip it to shreds with my fangs. My mouth waters and I try, oh so carefully, to edge closer without frightening it. But, fortunately, the shark senses my tactic and with a sudden snap of its tail it vanishes down the canal. I grin an evil toothy snarly grin and look narrow-eyed for my next potential victim. But the whole lot are gone.
Works every time.
"Find anything?" asks Freddy as I slither aboard.
"Nothing, let's go home, I'm famished."
After I record the data log I turn to the ship's log and record the day's events. Now the full impact of Sir John Guise's attack hits home. I am confused and hurt. Why would he launch such an attack? He knows damned well it isn't true. Why, why, WHY?
"Don't worry about it," Freddy says. "It won't make any difference to us out here. Just ignore it."
"Yeah, sure. Island Style. Do nothing. One does not answer back to one's superiors or one finds oneself hammered good."
Foreigners who mess with PNG politics get kicked out right away. If they work for the Government, they get fired and then kicked out. But I don't work for the Government. I can't lose a job since I don't have one. I gripe. "We are volunteers, right? Helping out simply because we want to do something both interesting and beneficial while we cruise around the islands, enjoying their beauty, and finding out more about some of the deeper mysteries of the planet."
"I think you should just relax and forget it."
"Umph," she's right, but now my not-so-unconscious subconscious, whom I have nicknamed Lefty, gets excited. Lefty is the mind (right hemisphere of the brain) looking out of my left eye. Ever the poetic dreamer, never concerned about reality, Lefty can be somewhat of a pain in the ass. While Freddy and my conscious mind are happy to leave the issue die in peace, Lefty will not leave it alone. No matter what I do, Lefty goes on brooding about it, mulling it over. As of now, Lefty hates Sir John Guise.
Every so often, as I work on the survey data, Lefty comes up with another suggestion."How about if we make a counter statement on the radio acknowledgeing we are Japanese spies were hired by the master Japanese Spy in Port Moresby, the Great Mole, Sir John Guise. If he wants to play 'I just want to see him deny it,' we can too."
Shut up, Lefty.
"Write a letter to Pete Wilson. No. A telegram. Demand a counter-statement from Fisheries explaining we really work for ....."
Shut UP, Lefty.
"These things get around, you know. We plan to be in the Pacific for a long time. There is a way you can respond to clear our name...."
"God DAMN! I can't stop thinking about it," I get up and go on deck. Freddy pays no attention whatever.
On deck I take three deep breaths and relax. Lefty is waiting for this and immediately hits me with a tidal wave of fury.... "and force Sir John to back off and leave us alone. Give me a chance. I guarantee I can do it."
Lefty wants to write a letter. Oh, what the hell, maybe it will shut him up. I go below and pick up a pen with my left hand. "OK, Lefty. Do it. Write one." He promptly scribbles a letter to the newspaper. It is simple and very sweet. The truth, actually.
In essence, the letter says Sir John's broadcast hurt and confused me. I am here as a volunteer. The government of PNG asked me to come to lend my expertise as a marine scientist to the people of PNG. My goal is to help protect and improve their marine environment. It is a kind of crazy letter; poetic, weird, potent, filled with love and smoochy words. Lefty makes no attack on Sir John. Does not call him a liar. Just the opposite. According to the letter Lefty produces for the newspaper, Sir John Guise is a man of political renown and proven ability. We wish nothing more than to be his friend and assist in the wonderful advancement of Papua New Guinea. How could he object to a reply like that? He can't.
When I read the letter to Freddy, she laughs. I laugh, too. "God, that's positively gooey." she says.
"A big wet sloppy kiss in the mail. Guise will piss in his pants when he reads this in the paper. Everyone will laugh at him. But he won't make the same mistake again. No more public attacks on the Moira."
I type up the letter, correcting Lefty's terrible spelling and grammar. Tomorrow we will go back to the district center. I'll double-check what Sir John said with the Fathers at the mission, and then mail it off to the newspaper.
Later, as I go to sleep, I realize the Premier of Milne Bay, Vernon Guise, must be Sir John's brother. And I think again of the fisheries economist and of Dennis George both of whom probably object to our survey. Who knows what the connections are? But as I drift off, I feel sad this had to happen. And surprised our survey should have attracted fire from the highest levels of PNG government.
"Why should Sir John set himself up with such an obvious lie?" I mumble to Freddy. "It must be important to him."
"Money," She replies sleepily. "Politicians always do it for money."
"Money," She sounds more awake. "The economist is trying to get a big grant from some aid organization, right?"
"Yeah, that's right."
"The grant means big money for PNG - and the wheeler-dealer economist has probably promised a piece of the action to everybody and his brother - like Sir John's brother. But the economist probably also knows our survey will spoil the story of vast riches hidden under the sea in this forgotten paradise. The economist knows it, Sir John knows it, so they take a shot to spoil your credibility. Now go to sleep."