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Discovery at Low Tide

Yesterday, the wind was blowing hard from the east, so we went to a little beach that is sheltered, facing north. The sand is coarse, much rougher than the fine sand of Kailua. If you scoop up handful you can see tiny pieces of coral and shells; larger pieces are scattered everywhere by the tides. Small rocks hide just under the surface, so slimy with limu that a distracted explorer can either stub her toe or slip and fall into the water. At low tide, the shallow water is the perfect depth for our three foot tall daughter as she learns to let the salt water hold her in gentle arms, and as she learns to feel the rhythm of the sea breathing in and out.  Large rocks jutt up from the calm waters; mussels live in holes on their sides, and tiny ʻopihi grip their rough surfaces.

When we first arrived, I saw only an empty sea. The longer I stood and watched, my eyes remembered how to see beneath the distracting patterns of the ocean’s surface, and fish materialized all around me. Under, inside, and in between the rocks, the water was full of life. Some fish were the length of my hand — their sides flashing silver as they twisted to eat. Smaller fish swam and turned in schools, then scattered as we got close. A few kihikihi (moorish idol) floated serenely, accompanied by the more frantic mamo (sergeant).

Walking to the far end of the beach, I squatted down on my heels, staring intently into the tide pools formed by tumbled piles of lava rock. I caught one of the pāoʻo (rock-skipper blenny) in one of Jill’s little buckets. Then I found a pāpaʻi iwi pūpū (hermit crab).

There aren’t many hermit crabs at this beach, I guess mainly because there aren’t many snails or the types of animals with the shells that hermit crabs need to inhabit. This one had a broken shell, too small for it, and as I watched it struggle in the bucket, righting itself only to flip over again as it crawled across the bottom, I decided to find it a new home.

Over the rocks and around the corner is a small lagoon, and I thought at the far end there might be pockets of snails or other creatures which might have left behind a good home for our little adopted crab friend. So I climbed over the rocks, Jill following with steady feet and only occasional complaints, and then we waded out into the enticing water, enjoying the cool embrace and the warm sun on my shoulders, distracted from my mission. Jill followed me in all the way up to her chin.

Coral was growing on the rocks at the depth where I stood, with the water splashing up to my thighs. I saw what I thought was a red sea cucumber, but it darted back into a hole as I approached — an eel, perhaps? And I realized how uncomfortably close my bare feet were to the unseen crevices and caves under the water. I returned to shore.

Wandering in and out of the shallow water, we made our way to the far end of the lagoon where a shelf of rock dominated.  After walking carefully over the pockmarked shelf, I found a channel of sand and stepped down into it. My presence startled a pakiʻi (flounder), which flew up through the water, across the sand, and out of reach. I followed the fish’s trail in the sand, marveling at the pattern of crests and valleys it had left in its wake. The water was so clear and calm, I thought I saw the fish buried at the end of the trail, so I waded deeper, hoping for another glimpse. Instead, I discovered I was only looking at a rock, as had happened to me many times already that day. But this time, a few inches away lay the perfect spiraling shell for the hermit crab.

I felt grateful to the pakiʻi that had shown me the way to this shell. It was such a small thing, perhaps. The work of randomness and chance. But when we got back to our bucket, Jill and I watched as the unauna (another name for hermit crab) explored our offering, pulling the puka close with its claws, then darted in and out to quickly test it, so that we saw the vulnerable part of the crab which was normally hidden inside a shell. I thought perhaps it would reject the shell, but then we watched the pāpaʻi carefully cleaning out the inside before moving in for good, settling in and crawling around happily ensconced. It felt deeply satisfying to have helped it find a roomier and sturdier home.

When it became time to leave, we returedn the hermit crab and little fish we had caught to their ocean home. Jill crouched down in the edge of the water with me to watch them go, and to wave goodbye to our little friends. Then we drove back to our own home, to our shell of wood and stone and where we, too, hide our most vulnerable selves.