A school of trevally began to swirl around me and then slowed to a relaxing hover, cocooning me completely. I was mesmerised. I had never been engulfed by nature like this before. The fish were utterly calm, and unbothered by my presence. I would have happily stayed wrapped up in this blanket of fish, except I could feel co-director James Sherwood staring at me from the other side of the opaque silvery wall of sea creatures.
I was not sure how long I had been hovering there, wondering why these fish with their forlorn-looking stare had decided that I was worthy of becoming the centre of their social pack, but I tried as hard as I could not to move. I did not want to scare off my new fishy friends.
I must have spent enough time with them to know that the rest of our dive group was gone.
It was time to push through this silvery glittering wall, and move on. The visibility was about 20 to 30 metres. We couldn’t see the rest of the dive group, but we knew if we followed the edge of the coral garden and sporadically-placed coral bommies, that we would find them - and then, suddenly, we saw the school of jacks rip past further below us into the blue with a giant tuna and a couple of reef sharks pursuing them.
While diving I had never before seen a school of fish being chased by predators.
In truth, I thought maybe I would never witness a sight like this on a dive - a thick biomass of ocean species has become rarer and rarer to see, even over just the past 14 years of my life diving.
So for me, this was a first.
We have travelled the world, trying to find nature in abundance (and we can tell you, it is hard to find). It is usually in places that are difficult to access; these places are remote, and are unfortunately expensive to get to, making it almost impossible for the majority of people to see and truly understand.
This is an issue that I think about all the time. It is my dream that one day everyone has access to wild places, so that they appreciate these areas and care for them.
It was the 9th July 2017, and it had taken us two days to get to the remote islands of Palau.
The gruelling trip from Sydney had included an overnight stop in Japan, topped with an arrival flight of 1:30am in the morning with a 6am wake-up that same day, so we could travel out into these far waters, which were just teaming with a magical explosion of life.
During our time in Palau, we would film a school of sea bass, a school of parrot fish, some larger looking grouper, hump-head wrasse, a school of electric purple and black fusiliers, turtles and reef sharks, anemone fish, jacks, the healthiest hard coral we had seen in a very long time, and so much more.
I remember thinking, ‘just maybe this is what Australia’s ocean legend filmmakers, Valerie and Ron Taylor, must have seen back in their day in the 60s and 70s’?’
I was thinking of Valerie Taylor, because the stories she once told me in an interview have left a strong imprint on my mind.
Valerie is a strong advocate for protecting wild places in the ocean around Australia. We filmed her in an earlier documentary, The Last Sea Treasure, (funded by the Australian Marine Conservation Society in 2015).
When we filmed her, she said something that has stuck in my mind.
I had mused in passing to this legendary conservation advocate that perhaps one day my generation might see what she saw back in the day when schools of fish swam right up to the shoreline.
"One day," I said.
“It’s gone, Dear”, Valerie replied bluntly to my wistful dream.
“You will never see what I saw.”
They were harsh words resounding in my ears, but at least she was being honest.
My mother has also told me tales of her childhood - hand-netting an abundance of fish-food from the edge of Macquarie Lake (while also marvelling at, before releasing, such special creatures as seahorses) and, when meandering along her home-town beaches, finding a variety of sharks washed up on the sand.
Her stories also make me sad, knowing perhaps I will never get to see what she saw.
Indeed, the baselines have shifted so much with years and years of overfishing that sadly my generation may never get to see the ocean in its ‘full glory’.
The schools of fish featured in The Last Sea Treasure were mostly provided by other people, courtesy of videographers Julia Summerling, Richard Fitzpatrick and David Hannan - shot over at least a couple of decades. The effort involved goes to show how much work goes into collecting vibrant shots of the wild, which are full of colour and life. Sadly, it something that is getting much harder to do.
However, despite the world’s losses, Valerie told us in that interview (back in 2015) that we must protect what is left.
After our interview with Valerie, she watched our trailer for The Map to Paradise (film), and the first thing she said to us was ‘where is all the fish’?
I remember how my heart sunk.
We had spent a lot of time trying to secure those shots in the trailer of fish and turtles and sharks, and ironically we were content with what we created - yet, it just was no match for Valerie’s lifetime experiences.
We completely understood.
It has taken us three years to collect enough vision of wild places in the ocean to help paint a picture of what an underwater paradise can look like.
I am always comparing it to what I can only imagine is Valerie’s benchmark; swarms of sharks and giant fish, so many that society believed they could never be fished out.
As such, the comments of this wise ocean soul will always be at the back of my mind when I am diving, searching for fish - even here in Palau.
However, like many, I am stubborn and I like a good challenge; so deep down I will never let go that belief that we can restore paradise to what it was maybe a hundred years ago.
It wasn’t until this trip to Palau that this sense of melancholy - worrying over the changing underwater landscapes of the world and on whether my beliefs were wrong - began to somewhat subside.
In Palau, I began to truly believe again that it could be possible to see what Valerie saw in my lifetime. Just imagine: if Ocean Explorer, Sylvia Earle, gets her big wish to protect 50 per cent of the ocean, then it is possible to see what Valerie, my mother, and also Sylvia once saw.
The reason being is that in Palau the quest to protect nature is a part of their national interest; it is central to the country’s policy agenda - something entirely unheard of in developed nations like my home country of Australia.
We are too caught up in resisting such an idea, believing that ‘no protection’ (no laws) is what keeps places wild (although we are sadly mistaken).
Meanwhile, the people of Palau have been rather clever - they are in tune with nature. They have protected 80 per cent of their entire waters, trying out something that no other country has ever done. And the results of their efforts are blossoming into a massive explosion of sea life.
Palau’s ocean policies are key to our blue planet’s future - the key to unlocking the path, the map towards paradise. That is what I was thinking about earlier, at that moment when I was wrapped in the silvery blanket of calm, forlorn-eyed trevally. There, I found a sense of peace that I had been looking for. I think had been yearning for it for sometime without realising.
I was finally able to look nature in the eye and feel a sense of assurance that my species might possibly be able to dig deep and find the courage to do the right thing, and to help bring paradise back.
There are many bits and bobs we need to put in our toolkits to navigate our way on a Map to Paradise, and ‘education’ is one of these - and that is where I know that we fit in.
I was happy that we had made the decision to come to Palau after all. It had taken many sleepless nights deliberating over whether or not we should go to Palau on the invitation of the country’s President, considering the issue of time and budget. Yet, in the end, we had come to the conclusion that it was meant to be.
We were meant to be here.
Palau was that treasure people chase at the end of the rainbow; it is paradise.
In the next chapter, I will tell you about how this adventure all began.
TO BE CONTINUED…