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From Dawn to Sunset on the Beach - Pelicans, Whales and Memories of my Father

A squadron of pelicans in a feeding frenzy. All photographs Copyright © 2013 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

Living and writing by the ocean - in a spot we like to call Aldabra (which in reality is a remote and very beautiful atoll in the Indian Ocean) - the beach figures large in my thoughts and daily routine.

Usually I wake early, and on occasion I walk at dawn through the waves, past the occasional fisherperson, enjoying the darkness slowly transforming into light, the spray of the breakers, the pull of the tide around my feet, the constant barking of the sea lions, the damp of the ocean mist - and the sight of the sun breaking over the horizon to the east.

Dawn panorama on the beach. Photograph Copyright © 2013 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

Running from the waves. Photograph Copyright © 2013 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

Recently, a few days before what would have been his birthday, I thought of my father as I trod the beach at dawn. He came from a tiny Scottish fishing village, Rosehearty, settled by Danes in the 1400s, on a forbidding coast actually farther north than most of Denmark - and not an unimaginable distance from the Faroe Islands and Iceland.

My parents. Photograph Copyright © 2013 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

I visited his village only once as a young child of four or five, although I have fairly vivid memories of his parents and of the rather desolate but close-knit community they inhabited. But as I walked in rather warmer temperatures now, many thousands of miles away, then ducked into the always welcoming coffee shop that sits where the beach ends and the harbor begins, to order a coffee and croissant, I was struck quite forcefully by the recollection of a warm and flaky pastry treat I enjoyed in Rosehearty as a child, which my grandmother, I believe, fetched from the local bakery. 

I had never had a croissant at that age, and I think what I was given must have been the Scottish equivalent - a "buttery," a similarly flaky and delicious concoction - but my memory of the flavor and texture and warmth of that treat is one of the few distinct "taste memories" of my childhood, and is a wonderful and somehow profoundly intimate connection with my father - and both my parents. 

It is almost a "pre-memory," for I remember little else from that age or of that trip - except a sense of the excitement my Scottish grandparents felt at meeting me, a somewhat vague recollection of their simple house, and of how people from the village would pop in to see us without even knocking on the unlocked door, as I recall. 

Sunrise on the beach. Photograph Copyright © 2013 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

As I sat eating my croissant in the coffee shop by the beach, with the day slowly awakening outside, I thought of how far my father had traveled, to leave that tiny village - where a hard and dangerous life of fishing at sea was really the only occupation available to most men - and marry my mother, his World War II pen pal in London, when both were young and he was serving in the Navy, and to work for Shell Oil, as he did for almost his entire adult life. 

I thought also of how much he loved the sea - my parents moved to the south coast of Britain in their last years, and my dad was thrilled to have the ocean close again. I remember that he told a story of when he was ten or twelve and went to stay with an uncle who had a farm. My father loved the farm but felt incredibly lost and claustrophobic in the countryside, unable to see or hear the ocean for the first time in his life. (As I write this, I'm struck by the irony that he spent his life working for a company named Shell, with an equally distinctive marine logo.)

I love the sea with a passion, too. I love swimming in it, I love bodyboarding with our children, I love kayaking on it and walking by it, I love the smell of it - even when the whales chase the fish into the harbor and the fish die from a lack of oxygen in the water, and the whole place smells like a cat's wet dream. 

The thrill of a salty ocean breeze blowing in my face is one of the most wonderful experiences I can have, and I never tire of watching the waves break on the beach - each one extraordinary and unique - or of the play of sunlight or moonlight on the water. 

We are incredibly fortunate here to be surrounded by abundant marine life, and to see dolphins, seals, sea otters and sea lions - as well as pelicans, seagulls, herons, cormorants and all manner of other sea birds - as well as the majestic sight of whales spouting and occasionally breaching the surface.

Pelicans feeding as the sun dips over the water. Photograph Copyright © 2013 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

In the past few weeks, the whales have been particularly active, and the shoals of fish they chase (anchovies, to name one) attract startling masses of birds, so thick that the sky is almost black with them at times as they circle and swarm and dive into the water to feed. 

The pelicans have been notably evident lately, gathering on the water or flying in vast squadrons, then plunging dramatically down to get their catch. It feels a privilege to be surrounded by them and to watch them - and to watch all the creatures here, not least the 150-250 kilo sea lions that haul themselves up onto the docks of the harbor to jostle aggressively for space, then to bask in the sun - or moonlight - and bark and watch for fish, or whatever it is they do. 

I wanted to be a marine biologist when I was young, perhaps ten or twelve, and living here has rekindled that passion. Watching our children enjoy the huge variety of ocean life - and simply enjoy the shifting sand and the changing tides - is a great joy, but I can also savor the ocean alone or with our dog. 

The ocean is the closest I have, as a Buddhist, to a concept of "god" - a mother from which we all came, but a vast and powerful presence whose force you must respect, even as you wonder at her beauty. I have thrown myself on the ocean floor as huge waves have broken and swept awesomely over me - and I am acutely aware that it is the water, and not I, who has the upper hand.

Sunset on the beach. Photograph Copyright © 2013 Alexander Chow-Stuart.

Since I first saw it as a young writer, I have been deeply influenced by Robert Altman's film of Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye (as detailed elsewhere on this blog), and in particular by the character of the "lost" and drunken writer, Roger Wade, who lives by the ocean in the Malibu Colony, and who waves his stick at the sea as his dog runs in and out of the surf.

Equally, I have always loved Ernest Hemingway's magnificent novel, The Old Man And The Sea (the work that received special recognition in his Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954), and I would be delighted if one day these words could be written about me:

"Everything about him was old except his eyes and they were the same color
as the sea and were cheerful and undefeated."

I have lived by the ocean on various coasts in various countries around the world, and it has never disappointed me. It is never the same twice, from moment to moment, and if you are aware and alive and awake (or perhaps even dozing), it is the most wonderful place on this planet to be.

High tide on Aldabra. Photograph Copyright © 2013 Alexander Chow-Stuart.


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