Part One – Why This Quest, and Why Now?
What should people who care be doing as we enter 2024? Maybe we should get people to calmly admit that we are in an end-game? But first we need to get ourselves into a state in which we can think clearly and calmly.
We live in a very special time. After two or more generations of near constant growth during which populations, economies and quality of life have all grown rapidly, and often exponentially, we are entering a time of collapse. First to disappear is that sense that each generation will experience a higher standard of living than its parents did. This seems well under way as young people in western countries become increasingly aware that the chance of owning a home, let alone one bigger and flashier than their parents’ home, gets smaller every year. Second to disappear is any sense of security, a belief that ‘my life will go on pretty much as it has always done, with ups and downs, but no major disasters’. Third to disappear is a reality of stable, functional governance and the dependability of lives within social groups. Increasingly greater portions of the planet seem to be tumbling into a state of dysfunctional government, civil unrest, war, starvation, and mass migration of refugees. Beyond this is the collapse of civilization, initially in local, unlucky places and then more globally. And underlying all these signs of societal collapse is the collapse of a natural world system that supports, and is essential for, the continuance of the human experiment.
The collapse of the natural world has been happening quietly for a long time and is now accelerating. Deforestation, desertification, the loss of freshwater and the mass conversion of natural lands to biologically less productive human-occupied lands have squeezed terrestrial ecosystems into ever smaller areas, leading to massive loss of biodiversity and biological production. The oceans were protected by their immensity for a while, but our depredations through chronic overfishing, and pollution mean the oceans are now catching up with the land as being overstressed by humanity. Nor has the atmosphere been spared; our pollution of the atmosphere with waste products of our energy-intensive lifestyle has measurably altered the global climate and is now ushering in a world climate that has not been seen at any time in the prior history of our species.
We are causing all these changes, and we are doing so with little general awareness of how dependent we are on the natural environment for our individual well-being, our food and other essential resources. It is past time to recognize that we are on a dangerous downward path, and to consider how best to adapt to these perilous conditions, and how to act to make the path less steep and less painful. To not explore the need for drastic changes in our lives, is to march lemming-like over a cliff into a hellish world in which most people will lead short, uncomfortable, brutish lives in a world without any of the richness that our civilization initially brought us. And we must begin this process of radical course corrections immediately, whether or not there are national leaders able to inspire and lead.
So how do we get ourselves into a state in which we can think clearly and calmly? It is hard to do that while being bombarded with the strident messages that flood the internet, sneaking in, uninvited, to alert us via text, email, and pop-up news flashes, to whatever the latest outrage might be. I decided it was past time to search for my perfect beach.
Part the Second: My Perfect Beach Might Be In Australia
I’ve always known I had a perfect beach somewhere on this planet. A place in which I would feel utterly at home, relaxed, contemplative. Yet alive, inspired, ready for whatever may come. A place which, once found, could be visited in my imagination whenever I needed its calming influence.
I have memories of beaches from those years long ago when my age was measured in single digits. Two in particular; one that was excessively tranquil, very safe for children, and one, closer to home, that was more rock than beach, and more interesting because of that. The former we called Gibbet Beach because it looked across to Gibbet Island. It seldom had wavelets, let alone surf. My mother could relax as I played in the shallows. The latter was just ‘the beach’, a couple of cow pastures down the hill from our house. It was much more exposed and the tidepools scattered across the rocky shelf provided lots to fascinate an impressionable young boy. (You can read more about this beach in Coral Reefs, my 2021 book.)
The beach in Bermuda – much more exposed, and the tidepools… provided lots to fascinate…
Although I remember happy times at both these childhood beaches, neither qualifies as perfect. Perhaps I was not ready for perfect at such a young age. But neither measures up using any objective criteria today. Too small, too tranquil, too imperfect.
I’ve experienced many beaches since. In many places. And I anticipate a few more before I die. I am drawn to beaches by powerful forces I do not understand, compelling forces that draw me in as if I were tethered to the sands. And, deep down, I suspect I became a marine scientist because that gave me beach opportunities I would otherwise not have had. But in 2023 I decided it was time to search more systematically and to embark on a quest for my perfect beach. Because I need the peace of mind, the clarity of thought, that being on a perfect beach can bring me. This is the tale of that quest, not the hero’s journey, rich in symbolism and of great import. Just my personal hunt for beach perfection.
Half-way through 2023, I decided I would participate in the 11th Indo-Pacific Fish Conference being held in Auckland, New Zealand, November 20th to 24th, 2023. This conference occurs every four years, except this 11th one had already been delayed twice by covid (and so the 12th will occur in 2025 in Taipei to get back on schedule). It is one of those Goldilocks conferences, large enough to be worth attending yet small enough that you can still find the people you are hoping to catch up with – 500 or so participants drawn from around the world, but primarily from countries bordering the Pacific. And all of them just loving the thought of doing nothing except talk about fishes for five days. I knew that, in New Zealand, it would attract a sizeable contingent of participants from Australia, including many old colleagues and friends. Sounded like fun.
I did pause to reflect on the fact that I’d be something I had disparaged in earlier years – one of those lost, confused old men, standing in the corridors wondering where the meeting room was that they were supposed to be in. It would almost certainly be my last science conference. And I would give a paper of some sort, just so I could appear slightly more ‘with it’ than those old men of my memory from conferences long ago.
I rationalized that if I went to the conference, I was going to be in Auckland, and it would be a quick hop to jump across to Australia and go searching for beaches. That would justify the risk of looking like a lost, confused, old man for a couple of days. I booked a three-week trip, getting to Auckland in time for the conference, crossing to Sydney and then, after a couple of days beginning a leisurely drive up the New South Wales coast to Brisbane and then home in time for Christmas. There was a possibility my old friend, Bruce, would accompany me, but in the event, he was unable to get his head around travelling half-way round the world and back so that I could search for beaches. His loss, and anyway, whoever heard of the hero embarking on his journey with a longtime friend? (Well, there was Frodo, but even he shed friends along the way to Mount Doom.)
Now, I did not know that my perfect beach would be found on the northern NSW coast, but it was certainly a place worth exploring. And, despite having lived in Sydney for 20 years, with numerous trips north into the Great Barrier Reef, I had never explored the northern NSW coast until now.
On November 15th, my journey began with the drive down to Toronto to board a plane the following morning to take me to San Francisco. An overnight in a seedy motel near the San Francisco International Airport, and I departed early evening of the 17th bound for Auckland. After 13 or so hours in the air, I arrived at 9am on the 19th, courtesy of the date line. I had just blown my carbon budget for 2023. I checked into my hotel and wandered off to find some lunch and a grocery store because I would be economizing on this trip by fixing my own breakfasts. Economizing? After what I was spending on airfares, hotels and a car, breakfast was not exactly a major expenditure needing trimming!
A very vertical city (as seen from my hotel room). Image © P Sale.
Over the next hour I learned that Auckland is a very vertical city with every short trip requiring at least one major climb and one major descent. Had dinner in a delightful Italian restaurant that friends of mine had found and went to bed early hoping to be bright and alert for the first day of the conference. Must not appear to be one of those old, confused men, on the very first day.
The conference was everything I had hoped for. The venue was excellent. The wine flowed plentifully at every opportunity. The food was great. The talks were of high quality and included some that inspired me. I found myself becoming intellectually excited at times. Just like the good old days except that, happily retired, I don’t have to be nice, lick boots, or do any of those other unspeakable things we scientists do to ensure the grant money keeps flowing and our papers keep getting talked about. I listened to talks, asked questions, and bantered with old friends.
Any good conference provides lots of opportunities to eat and drink with old friends (we did eat – the wait-staff cleared the dishes before the glasses). Image © P Sale.
My own talk, set for the second last day, was a near disaster. That morning, about to leave my hotel, I picked up the memory stick containing the backup of my presentation, then put it down again. It would not be needed. The conference was well-organized and was proceeding without hiccups. My presentation had been uploaded a week ago and I had the confirmation email. What could go wrong. Five minutes before the session began, I learned from a concerned Jeff Leis, looking out for his older colleague, that mine was the one presentation that had been misplaced. Instead of filing into the auditorium, I set out to break all walking speed records on the way to my hotel and back, while the speaker who was scheduled to follow me agreed to go first. Breathless from my walk, I gave my talk to a crowd including many, confused, because they had filed in at the appointed time to hear some exciting new work on the genetic control of metamorphosis in the larval manini, and instead were treated to that confused, old guy talking about when Jack Randall first noticed larval manini swimming into the shallows of the Ala Wai Yacht Harbor one evening in 1954. My very last conference presentation. One I will remember, but not for the right reasons. Thank you, Marcela Herrera Sarrias at OIST, Japan, for allowing me to trade places with you.
Memo to self: the really talented know when it is time to leave the stage.
The conference came to its inevitable close. Goodbyes were said. I skipped the closing banquet in order to have a quiet dinner with former student of many years ago, Peter Doherty, in a venue where we could actually hear what each was saying. The following morning, I checked out of my hotel and headed to the airport for my Sydney flight. Beaches were calling.
Part the Third: The Bondi to Coogee Walk
The trip from Auckland to Sydney began with some excitement. I had got to the airport in plenty of time, and the flight was on time. We boarded smoothly and I was idly browsing through the movies when they announced we must all deplane and leave our carry-ons behind. Filed back out into the departure lounge while fire trucks surrounded the plane and somebody in hazmat gear searched to find the source of the smoke (which I never sensed). Amazingly they found it (never told us what it was) and declared the plane fit to fly.
By this time an hour and a half had elapsed and connecting flights were going to be missed. To their immense credit the staff of ANZ kept the passengers informed, explained what they were doing and why and kept everybody pretty chilled. I was impressed. (I can imagine what havoc many other airlines would have created under similar circumstances.) The flight was uneventful, but the late arrival meant a rush to my scheduled lunch with old Sydney friends at a restaurant just down the street from my hotel (the Adina). That stretched to mid-afternoon and I was pretty tired, so I had a simple pasta dinner at an Italian joint (the street is lined with restaurants) and went to bed.
Next morning, I got up, had breakfast in my room (another hotel with kitchenette in the room, and I’d shopped the day before), and walked down to the beach with my camera. Sunday morning and crowded because the local surf lifesaving club was having some sort of regatta, with hundreds of swimmers in speedoes and swim caps competing in lengthy swims out to sea and back. And tons of people on shore in various stages of swimminess watching. I people-watched for a while, confident that my sunglasses prevented people knowing I was staring. Some corpulence, but lots of buff bodies of both morphotypes to enjoy.
Coogee Beach on a busy Sunday morning. Image © P Sale.
That flotsam is not plastic pollution, it’s competitors racing out to sea! Image © P Sale.
From whatever angle… a bit crowded this morning with only the path
for competitors kept clear. Image © P Sale.
After doing that for a while I set out walking along the trail towards Bondi Beach. This was to be my main preoccupation for this visit to Sydney – I wanted to experience some city beaches. Did not intend to go very far but ended up almost halfway to Bondi. Lots of people walking. I was planning on the full walk for Monday when it should be a little quieter. Wonderful beaches, rocky benches, and rocky cliffs.
Looking north past the Koojah cliffs north of Coogee Beach –
somewhere up there is Bondi. Image © P Sale.
Since, in my quest for spontaneity, I had planned carefully, I had no hat and no water. It was time to get to a place with cool drinks, so I left the trail and headed inland into a quiet residential area. Stopped at Gordon’s Café, not a place I would recommend, for copious water, a coffee, and some lunch. I had a long walk back home without any beaches in sight. Eventually got back to my hotel for a cool shower, a rest and a quick self-help course in how to get Uber onto my phone and learn how to book a ride. Booked one successfully for 6.15 to take me to dinner with my very good friend Patsy Armati and her husband John.
(Let me repeat – I installed Uber and booked a ride successfully with no 13-year-olds in sight. Why no Uber app already – I live in a small town without Uber.)
Anyway, had a delightful evening and marvelled once again at how old friends, after a long absence, pick up again as if no time has passed. (Maybe in our friendships, we have a different relationship with time; one that is less linear, less determinant, more flexible. I wonder which relationship is the more real? Does time have to always march us metronomically into the future?)
Monday morning, after breakfast, I grabbed camera and hat and walked down to the beach for a coffee. Then I called for an Uber and was taken back to Bondi. I started the walk back to Coogee. Took me 3 hours including the 15 min Uber ride, and time for lunch at Clovelley Beach.
Famed Bondi beach on a Monday morning. The Bondi Pavillion is the large red-roofed complex. Image © P Sale.
I love the way Australians obey the rules. They are not swimming; they’re all surfing. Image © P Sale.
I am very impressed by this trail. The municipalities had the forethought to keep the cliffside public (or to reacquire it) so that even though the clifftops are mainly lined with expensive homes, there is a path along the cliff edge or half way down from north of Bondi to well south of Coogee, It is paved, is wheelchair accessible in some parts, and where it has steep grades or stairs there are study handrails for people like me. And the views are magnificent. From Bondi in the north, I passed a tiny, unnamed beachette between Tamarama Point and the much larger MacKenzie Point to its north, then Tamarama Beach, Bronte Beach, Clovelley Beach, Gordon Bay, and Coogee Beach. All were different. And all were less peopled than Coogee had been on Sunday. In fact, despite the existence of a city of 5 million behind them, they were distinctly uncrowded. Not deserted, but with plenty of space between the bodies.
The Iceberg pools at Bondi. Image © P Sale.
The trail begins with some beautiful, wind-eroded limestone cliffs. Image © P Sale.
First sight of that little beachette, Tamarama, and Bronte beaches. Image © P Sale.
A beachette just big enough for one guy and his dog. Image © P Sale.
Tamarama Beach. So crowded with people, but what do you expect
in a city of 5 million? Image © P Sale.
At Tamarama there was a tiny kiosk offering food and cold drinks. I ordered the ‘fresh-squeezed orange juice’ and they proceeded to squeeze the oranges in front of me! At Clovelley, there was a little restaurant higher up the slope on the edge of a grassy park in the middle of nowhere. I had lunch – a slice of sourdough with a topping of various herbal things and ‘gin cured sea trout.’ Delicious, and the iced latte and real orange juice I had with it were great too. All in all, a world class experience.
Sea Salt café and my lunch at Clovelley Beach. Image © P Sale.
Beach at the head of Gordon Bay. Image © P Sale.
When I got back to Coogee, I sat in the shade for about 20 min, people watching. I reflected back to the day before when Coogee had been very busy. No matter how crowded a beach gets, each individual or small group is in their own space enjoying the sun, sand, sea breeze and surf (many seem to ignore the latter). If we could practice beach etiquette when in other kinds of places the world might be a saner place.
Back on Coogee Beach. Strangely tranquil compared to Sunday. Image © P Sale.
Back at the hotel I took a cool shower before attending to email and to downloading photos making sure I know where they were taken. Then out to find some dinner. Tomorrow, the quest for the perfect beach begins in earnest. I will check out, take an Uber to pick up the rental car, then get the car across Sydney traffic to Patsy’s house – not a plan that could possibly fail. I will then proceed in loose tandem with them as we head towards their place at Nelson Bay – my home for Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.