Quality in Paradise

Zen and the art of blue trevallies.

[by Miles Nolte]

FROM A CUSHIONED LOUNGE CHAIR IN THE SAND, I watch ephemeral blue walls rifle 200 yards offshore. Chest to head high, hollow and fast but clean, the waves look ridable, though demanding. They are breaking just outside a shallow reef. Any mistake, a mistimed takeoff, an ill-chosen set, a poorly placed foot or simple slip would be dangerous. No one is surfing them.

The book in my lap, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, deserves unbroken attention. I chose it for this precise moment: me on a beach in the South Pacific, my wife stretched out with her own paperback bliss, no cell phones, no Internet, no work or distractions.

Yet, I am distracted. The riptide philosophy and dark interior tension of Robert Pirsig’s metaphysical novel (or whatever it is) swirl in my head while I stare at the water. The narrator’s brooding pastself, Phaedrus—seeker of Virtue—lurks among fish and waves. Somewhere mixed into this palette of blue and green, sea and sky, is my own definition of Quality, that slippery and indefinable state that Pirsig’s characters sought to understand, elusive as the perfect wave or fish. I stand, wipe the salt and sweat from my face, and ask Amy if she’d like anything from the thatched-roof bar.

It’s our honeymoon, and I’ve brought fishing gear. We booked five days at this resort on the island of Rarotonga, a nearly round, ancient volcano peak poking up from the subtropical Pacific.

On our first morning, I had gone for a swim. The tide was out, so I picked my way through gaps in the reef, stopping chest deep every so often to catch my breath and scout the route. I swam north, aiming for a black fin of lava rock about half a mile up the coast.

The first leg of my swim was upcurrent, and I started out awkward, too much time inland. Pool swimming is poor preparation for the ocean. It’s like casting on a lawn. Your mechanics might be good, but casting isn’t fishing.

When I began to notice the reef fish, I found rhythm in breath and stroke. Life bloomed around me: angel fish with stiff posture and elegant, streaming fins; elongated, psychedelic wrasses; drab, twitchy mullet; unicorn fish—large, dark, and shy with their namesake forehead horns; prison-barred black-andwhite sergeant major fish; yellow tangs; whiskered goatfish; well-camouflaged honeycomb groupers. Though I never saw any, I could hear stereophonic parrotfish scraping their calcified beaks against the reef. I had stare-downs with pissed-off, pouty-mouthed triggerfish. Though no bigger than eight inches, they charged head-on, unafraid of a gangly, 200-pound interloper slow-motion-slapping them away.

Exercise for its own sake is monotony, the subject–object existence. But navigating a coral maze shuddering with fish is not merely exercise. My heart and other muscles moved me through the cuts and breaks in the reef, driven toward what I might find around the next spiny bend: the texture of live coral, flashes of colorful fins diving into holes like cartoon crooks at a cop siren. I swam at the leading edge of Pirsig’s track, immersed in Quality, that moment before consciousness catalogs everything into orderly stacks of classification and hierarchy.

When I finally poked my head up, the fin of black lava rock stood well south. I hitchhiked home on the current. With the tide now high enough in the lagoon to float above the reef, I just watched the watery world slide below.

About halfway back, I caught a familiar flash of blue at the murky edge of my underwater vision, like a fish swimming through the Jimi Hendrix black-light poster that hung on my college dorm room wall.

Bluefin trevallies are relatively common in the Pacific and were once abundant in my native state of Hawaii, before overfishing collapsed the stock. I first saw one there as a teenage scuba diver with long brown locks that waved around my head like anemone tentacles. At first glance, it looked like any other trevally—a broad, gray oval with sickle fins and round eyes, larger than most reef species. As it got closer, the bright blue tapering tail had me mesmerized. I followed the fish for 20 minutes until it disappeared off a volcanic shelf that dropped nearly 100 feet straight down. I’ve wanted to catch one ever since.