The Tuna Hunter Ch.1 “The Empty Quarter “
Posted on December 25, 2008
1. THE EMPTY QUARTER
Alone above the Pacific Ocean, just south of the Equator, the tiny speck in the immense sky seemed lost and out of place. It circled, hung around for a while, and then popped off to look at another interesting piece of ocean. Slowly, it grew in size, and became a Bell 47 piston helicopter.
For the hundredth time, the lone pilot checked his instruments. His gaze traveled quickly across engine and rotor rpm, engine oil pressure, oil temperature, cylinder head temperature and electrical load. Without any surprise he recognized normality, and then he transferred his left hand to the cyclic stick, releasing his right hand to move to flick over the temperature switch. It was a clumsy system, but only in this way could he check the main rotor gearbox temperature. The only alternative was to reach across to the switch with his left hand, a peculiarly uncomfortable maneuver, and one he chose to reject. The main rotor gearbox temperature came up in the green also, slightly cooler than the engine oil.
He sighed quietly, and swapped hands on the cyclic stick again. The old Bell 47 helicopter rumbled and grumbled quietly on, nothing in her performance attesting to her twenty seven years of faithful service.
For countless thousands of hours, her pilots had variously babied or abused her, appreciated her classic lines and old style quirks, or roundly cursed them. It was all the same in the end, and steadily she droned on, her rotors playing tricks with the scorching sunlight.
Where, he wondered, were all the Tuna gone?
For nearly two hours now he had circled the mother ship in ever widening circles, and now he was thirty six miles north-north-east of the only landing site available to him. Below, in all directions, spread the awesome immensity of the Pacific Ocean, horizon to horizon, with not a single ship in sight. His mother ship was way out of sight over the horizon, and no human life signs showed themselves.
He was completely alone.
In the early days, he reflected wryly, it had worried him.
He had gazed out anxiously many a time, always hoping to spot another ship on the horizon. It would make him feel better to know that help, however intangible, was at hand if a sudden mechanical problem forced him down amongst those hungry waves. Whenever he had found himself totally alone, he had worried. Stories would come back to him about tuna spotting helicopter pilots who mysteriously failed to return. Who simply disappeared…
An emergency call would go out, and tuna helicopters would rush in from every direction. They would search for days on end, but never find a trace. No machine, no bodies. No wreckage. Nothing.
When he remembered stories like that, he would nervously finger the tab of his inflatable life jacket, and mentally go through the emergency ditching procedures. It had taken him some time to settle down.
Now, with over two thousand flying hours tuna spotting behind him, he knew he was more relaxed, although not totally. It still, like this day, gave him a vaguely chilly feeling to be alone like this, a thousand miles from the nearest land, flying along at only eight hundred feet, searching the waves for the Signs of the Tuna…
There had been times he had seriously considered quitting permanently, and going back to instructing helicopter and airplane flying in California. That was a more stable life, more regular, as opposed to the cramped, noisy, at times very insular life aboard a Taiwanese tuna ship, where few of his shipmates spoke more than a few words of English. He would complete a six month tour, go home for a few months, grow restless, and come back for another six months. He only vaguely understood the reasons. Certainly, the financial incentives were excellent. He was remarkably well paid. Qualified as both a pilot and a helicopter maintenance technician, he combined two jobs in one. His employer was fair, and treated Bob McCann well. His company knew him as a stable pilot, an average mechanic, but above all as an employee who somehow never got on the wrong side of some of their more mercurial client captains. They rewarded him accordingly.
To Bob however, there was more to it than just money. In the vague restlessness he felt after a month or two back home on holiday, he sometimes half fathomed his longing to get back onto another tuna boat. He, almost uniquely amongst tuna pilots, actually liked hanging alone above the Ocean…
It was a strange love affair, that had started on almost his first reconnaissance flight, three years earlier. He had been flying with a Taiwanese observer, Yang, who had spent almost the entire flight peering through binoculars, and barking out compass headings.
“You fly two-seven-zero, quick-quick! ”
Bob had obediently swung the helicopter around, and then had peered into the distance, puzzled at the little Taiwanese’s obvious urgency. He had noticed nothing.
“You see? White water. Foamer! You see? ”
Bob had not seen. He had looked hard, but seen only white topped waves, and spray blowing back.
Then, amazingly, they had arrived overhead, and he had seen. The foamer. White water. The purpose of his new employment…
The sea had erupted into life. Quick bursts of white foam were appearing all over. He had the immediate impression of a garment tearing, of a beautiful translucent emerald green dress being ripped full of holes. When he looked down again, he could clearly see hundreds and hundreds of small, agile shapes darting about, some leaping high up out of the water, before satisfyingly crashing back down in a shower of spray. They were like a bunch of out of control schoolboys making mischief. The surface of the sea was being torn open, and brilliant white gashes criss crossed the green surface. The white scars seemed to bunch together in five or six groups, each group maybe twenty or thirty meters across. Then two of the foaming, vibrant, living groups were joined together as yet more tuna surfaced to join the wild party. Impossible as it seemed, even more vivid white gashes were opening up, as yet more raving party goers made a grand entrance. Within a minute, the five or six groups had merged into one huge white foaming frenzy, some two hundred meters or more in diameter. Spellbound, Bob could only stare down from the circling helicopter, his eyes opened wide in awed amazement. There had to have been hundreds and hundreds, maybe thousands of fish down there…
“You see, Yellow Fin. All together. Foamer. White water. Is good. Many fish. You understand? ”
The calm voice of Yang, unperturbed, matter-of-fact, had snapped Bob back to reality. He had stared at his observer for a whole second, amazed that this man did not share his own awed breathlessness…
Bob had understood all right. On that day, he had fallen in love with one of Nature’s more spectacular displays. Foamer. White water. To him, it was life itself in such abundance, with such a gay abandon that it was hard not to regard the Tuna as having fun. Having a ball, in fact. The more rational explanation that they were surface feeding, and chasing small anchovy, seemed wholly inadequate to convey the sheer dynamism of the event. It seemed much more appropriate to think in terms of the Tuna frolicking, playing, erupting out of the deep with such force that they sailed clean out of the water, sometimes several feet into the air, landing back with a bursting white splash. He could never shake off an impression of the boys showing off, playing for devilment at who could jump the highest. Who could make the biggest splash. Who could jump the highest wave. Who could make the most white water…
After that, he had become an avid Tuna watcher. He had learned to recognize the foamer from afar. From fifteen and twenty miles away he had been known to spot the ‘white water’, when the erupting Tuna turned the ocean into a boiling cauldron. He had learned to recognize the ‘breezer’, or ‘black water’, a phenomenon much harder to capture at first. It occurred when the Tuna stayed below the surface, but packed together in such dense schools, that they affected the wave action. The result was an area that looked as if the waves had suddenly died down. A relative calm would exist where waves should have held sway. When the helicopter flew over the top, and the pilot looked down, he could see the shadows of the submerged fish.
And finally, one evening after sunset, when he had stood alone on the very bow of the ship…
When the engines had been stopped, and only the generators disturbed the peace, just before nightfall, a foamer had welled up beside the silently rolling ship, only yards from where he alone stood witness.
One moment he was alone on deck, peering through the twilight to the far horizons, with not another ship to be seen. Feeling alone, mournful, missing he knew not what…
The next moment, he was witnessing the first ‘jumpers’ erupting, vanguards of the main formation, only yards from where he stood in silent introspection. That was the night when he realized that a foamer also has its own sound. Its own music. The cry of the circling, diving, hungry birds intermingled with a soft splashing of thousands of busy fins. The surprisingly loud ‘smack’ as the erupting Tuna re-entered the water. The struggling, desperate sounds of small fish shooting across the surface, eagerly pursued by the hungry Tuna. It was like no sound he had ever heard before. With the sound of wind and waves forming the accompaniment, here was Nature in its purest, unspoiled as yet by Man, and he had wished only for all extraneous noise on the intruding killer ship to cease…
He shook himself, and changed course slightly, as if to banish the memories of those early days. At least for now… he needed to concentrate on the task in hand.
Where were all the Tuna gone?
He worried, when it was like this. Were the Tuna under threat? Was he unwittingly just a tool in the hands of the exterminators? Would the Tuna go the way of so many other species?
He sensed already the entry in his flying logbook for that day’s flying. ‘E.Q.’
It stood for: ‘Empty Quarter’. The name of that region of Saudi Arabia where no-one lives. Where dry, hot desert sand stifles life.
The Empty Quarter.
That entry in his logbook signified: ‘Nothing seen. No life. No sign of the Tuna.’
He looked around the Pacific Ocean, from horizon to horizon, and tried hard to shake off the illusion of a dead sea, a strangled ocean, where human avarice and shortsightedness had destroyed all life. It wasn’t that bad – yet. But still the nightmare haunted him.
It was easy to imagine that he was a flier in the year A.D.3000. Flying his space ship over a moribund watery desert.
The Empty Quarter…
Last edited by Francis Meyrick on June 30, 2009, 7:18 am