Swimming with the Fishes

Joelle Renstrom


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For whatever we lose (like a you or a me),

It’s always our self we find in the sea. — e.e. Cummings

‘If you go to Caye Caulker, see Juni.’ The Australian woman whose name I never caught shouted this tip as she waved goodbye and got off the bus. I follow advice from fellow travellers as much as possible—I owe many of my most memorable experiences to spontaneous word-of-mouth recommendations I would have missed had I limited myself to guidebooks or Trip Advisor. The name Juni stuck with me. I liked the way it sounded, perhaps because it wasn’t so different from my own nickname, Joey, but it was smoother, special. I didn’t know who or what Juni was, but I’d be in Belize in a couple of weeks and I intended to find out.

I arrived in Belize City via bus with three travellers I’d met in Guatemala. The two men, Mikael and Martin, were Swedish, and they were travelling through Latin America studying Spanish. Bee was Sri Lankan and English, and had met the others in Antigua when they were the only ones in their hostel dorm room. Travellers pick up people the way a dog picks up burrs in the woods. Sometimes you can’t shake them off, but other times, you want to travel with them to the ends of the Earth. On a bus ride that lasted twice as long as predicted (as most bus rides seemed to do, somehow), the four of us talked about places we’d lived and seen and the Swedes demonstrated their extraordinary and humbling skill at punning in English. A romance was brewing between Mikael and Bee, which left Martin and me as a non-coupled pair, which was fine with us. Four is a rounder number than three—and one—and we fell into the kind of rhythm one might expect of old friends.

After swimming the limestone pools Semuc Champey, hiking, and spelunking in the partially underwater Kam Ba Cave by candlelight, we bussed to Flores and then to Tikal, where we screamed in terror upon hearing the howler monkeys for the first time and took triumphant photos on top of the temples. Then we were set to part ways, the three of them off to Mexico and me to Belize. I only had a couple of weeks of travel left, whereas they still had months and only rough agendas. As I described my destination, a small island off the Belizean coast, they started shooting ‘are you thinking what I’m thinking?’ looks at one another. They travel like I do, taking leaps of faith and ditching itineraries for unplanned adventure. Next thing I knew we were all on the bus to Belize.

From Belize City, we boarded a ferry to Caye Caulker. Most of the passengers disembarked at Ambergris Caye, the bigger, ritzier island, and home to the town of San Pedro, the inspiration for Madonna’s song ‘La Isla Bonita’. We continued to Caye Caulker, a five-mile-long island of white coral beaches and signs saying, ‘No Shirt, No Shoes, No Problem’ and ‘Go Slow’. No cars are allowed on the island—those who don’t want to walk ride in golf carts, giving the place a timeless, unhurried feel. Iguanas darted out of our path as we walked down the beach looking for a place to stay. We found two cabanas next to one another on the beach, ramshackle and buggy, but we didn’t care. Nothing could diminish the sleepy charm of this glittering, nor our excitement to explore it.

As we ambled down Front Street, people called out to us to slow down. If Caye Caulker has a motto, that’s it. You could crawl down the street and still be told you’re moving too fast. The lazy swing of a hammock demonstrates the island’s natural pace, and riding the breeze is the best way to synchronise oneself (and to avoid melting in the heat). We smelled barbeque wafting over from the beachside restaurants where patrons camp out at picnic tables and feast on seafood, rice, taro fries and rum punch. A nondescript house caught my eye—or rather, the sign that said ‘Juni Sail & Snorkel’ did.

Mikael and Martin had plans to scuba dive the Blue Hole, so Bee and I walked up the stairs of Juni’s house hoping we weren’t intruding. The front door was open and inside sat Juni, a 70-year-old man wearing a white cross necklace made of sun-bleached shells. He seemed the personification of the island—relaxed, understated, tan, and shirtless. He projected an unassuming but quietly venerable aura, the type I might expect from a Zen master or monk. We asked if we’d come to the right place, although of course we had.

‘You want to snorkel?’ he said.

‘Yes, please,’ we answered. ‘Tomorrow or the next day, if you have room.’

‘I have room,’ he responded, looking at us carefully, as though inspecting us for something. He leaned back in his chair. ‘Why do you want to snorkel?’

‘Because it’s amazing,’ Bee said. ‘And we’re right on a barrier reef.’

‘You come highly recommended,’ I added.

Juni held his gaze and asked, ‘whose dominion is this?’ and swept his hand out, gesturing at the sea.

‘It’s the fishes’ dominion,’ I said. While it wasn’t hard to intuit the answer he was after, I’ve always felt nauseated by the assumption that earth belongs to the humans. ‘We’re lucky if we can visit.’

Juni nodded and turned toward a desk with paperwork. ‘I have to ask that question, you see. I don’t take everyone out. People who lack the proper respect for the ocean and the creatures who live there or people who believe the ocean belongs to us, they can go with someone else.’

Those who didn’t demonstrate proper reverence for the environment got tossed back like small fish, which made us feel special, like we were worthy of something extraordinary. He booked us on a morning outing for the next day.

I had snorkelled and scuba dived before and knew what to expect—or so I thought. Caye Caulker is situated right off the Belize Barrier Reef, the second biggest in the world, so we’d be swimming with countless psychedelically-coloured, improbably-shaped fish. The minute I put my face into the water I’d be transported into another world, as though the waves were a portal. I wouldn’t think about my life, politics, the future or anything else while I was in the water. I’ve long thought some of people’s ills could be addressed by snorkelling. People who have forgotten beauty and wonder, or who tend toward misanthropy and mistrust, or who can’t recognise realities outside their own could perhaps experience transcendence in the water, the purity that exists when one’s mind and one’s body are both completely engaged with the same extraordinary task. Rilke once said, ‘When anxious, uneasy and bad thoughts come, I go to the sea, and the sea drowns them out with its great wide sounds, cleanses me with its noise and imposes a rhythm upon everything in me that is bewildered and confused.’ After my dad died, I had what I can only describe as an otherworldly experience in the ocean as I observed and followed a sea turtle whose moments were so fluid they filled me with peace, and whose wise eyes returned my gaze and made me for the first time believe that everything would be okay. Still, none of my previous experiences prepared me for getting into the water with Juni.

We met him at his house in the morning, along with a couple other passengers, and we all walked down to the beach and climbed into Juni’s sailboat. It felt strange not to help him with the boat, but none of us could have helped if we’d tried. Juni moved surprisingly quickly, untying us from the dock, hopping onto the boat and expertly swinging the bright blue sail to catch the wind—all the while managing to keep his hat on. If you’ve ever seen a mountain goat run and jump across crags and cliffs while somehow maintaining perfect balancing, knowing where its hooves are in relation to every crevice and cranny at all times, you have an idea of how Juni manoeuvred this boat.

He poured us coffee from a steaming thermos and gave us biscuits as we cut across the water, the relative coolness of morning already shifting into the kind of hot, blindingly sunny day that make the Caribbean famous. Juni told us he had lived on Caye Caulker for his entire life and grew up in the water. He considered the fish, sharks, rays and turtles in the ocean his family.

In fact, Juni had a photo album of fish and other sea life on his boat. He passed it around and we looked at all we’d soon see face-to-face. I thought the album was supposed to introduce us to the various types of fish we’d see, but Juni told us that we would see those specific fish when we snorkelled.

‘Wait,’ I said, ‘you mean, we’ll see this exact fish today?’ I pointed to a butterfly fish with bright yellow fins.

‘Yes,’ Juni said. ‘He always comes to visit me. We’ll see most of my family in the water. I’ll point them out to you.’

I studied the photos of the fish. While the species types were recognisable, I couldn’t imagine being able to identify individual fish among schools of the same, identical-looking kind. I wondered if Juni was having us on.

He dropped anchor at an area he called ‘Shark Ray Alley’, for what would become obvious reasons. He gave us flippers and snorkels and we rubbed spit into the masks to keep them clear, rinsing them in the ocean water. After we were all outfitted, we tipped backward over the side of the boat.

And that’s when the sharks came.

It’s a strange feeling seeing something depicted in horror movies, petrifying news stories, and beach warnings swimming straight at you. Even though Juni assured us that nurse sharks are perfectly safe, the brain struggles to reconcile that idea with the lifelong knowledge—and accompanying imagery—that sharks kill people. I froze, as though remaining perfectly still would save me, as the sharks sped by me and swam right up to Juni. We all watched in disbelief as Juni petted and played with the sharks, wrestling with them like one roughhouses with a puppy or a younger sibling. He never fed them or did anything particular to entice them—it was just him. It was clear they recognised him and were thrilled to see him, and after a few minutes he beckoned us over so we could pet the sharks, their slimy, soft skin surprisingly pleasant under my fingers.

After a few minutes, Juni was surrounded by a pack of sharks that followed him everywhere. He led us around the reef, pointing out moray eels, octopi, coral shrimp and tree worms, the sharks sticking by him all the while, as though they took the buddy system very seriously. Toward the end of our swim, we had attracted not just sharks and fish, but other snorkelers who had noticed Juni’s entourage. That’s when Juni hauled himself back up over the side of the boat. ‘I don’t want to be a spectacle,’ he said. ‘No one’s here to see me.’

After he helped us back on board, he put the photo album on his lap and opened it to face us. ‘We saw her,’ he said, rapping his knuckle on a picture of an iridescent parrotfish, ‘and her, and him.’ He flipped through the pages and pointed. Some of the fish had names. As we munched on biscuits and drank coffee, we asked him how he had developed such a friendship with the sharks. He told us the story of how decades earlier he rescued a dying shark from the shallows that had a fishing hook stuck in its mouth. He removed the hook, swam the shark back into the depths, and let it go. That same shark visited him regularly after that, and then its offspring did. According to Juni, the sharks that swirled around him in a frenzy of affection were its descendants.

If I hadn’t directly witnessed the bond between Juni and the sharks, I might have doubted this story. But I’d seen for myself evidence that animals we generally don’t think of possessing capabilities and attachments like dolphins or apes do indeed have memories and complex emotional lives. They were as devoted to Juni as any pet I’ve ever seen, and it seemed clear they loved him (or whatever the shark equivalent of love is). Juni seemed to love them back, every single one.

Our next stop was in the stingray area of the alley. Once again, we entered the water and fought panic as stingrays, some of them nearing a meter wide, swam up to us. Juni communicated with them by making a soft sound with his hands, bending his fingers until the tips smacked softly against his palms, like a one-handed clap. I couldn’t hear it, but the stingrays could. I don’t know what the gesture means in stingray language, but it seemed similar to snapping at a dog to get it to come running. He was gentler with the rays than with the sharks, and they too allowed him to pet and handle them.

He motioned to me and flipped his hand over, indicating that I should float on my stomach. He gently put a stingray on my back where it stayed put for a few minutes as though riding me through the water, its velvety skin tickling my shoulder blades. He flipped his hand again to get me floating on my back and he placed a stingray on my stomach. We looked each other in the eye—or at least, that’s what I think we were doing—and I pet it the way I pet my cat when she settles in on my chest.

The southern stingray can sting people with its venomous barbed tail, but even though most of us were strangers, no one got stung and no stingrays seemed even mildly perturbed that we were in their home, much less touching them. I realise there’s a danger in assuming the friendliness of sharks and stingrays, just as it’s dangerous for the creatures to let their guards down around humans. Yet Juni seemed to have a standing invitation to these waters and its inhabitants showed him hospitality. Juni doesn’t like the phrase ‘fish whisperer’, which I understand. He’s not a therapist or a magician. Juni earned his status as a true friend—as family—to these animals over 70 years of swimming, snorkelling, and diving. When such different species can communicate and forge unexpected, deep bonds, universal harmony seems possible.

On the way back to shore, Juni talked about the ways the reef was changing. I had been so focused on the sharks, rays, and fish that I hadn’t noticed the bleaching of the coral reefs, but Juni said he notices every time he snorkels or dives. Coral reefs form the foundation of the entire ocean ecosystem, and their decimation would have devastating effects all the way up the food chain. Juni recalled the historic and catastrophic coral bleaching event of 2005, an event that would recur just five years later. Later I learned that the NOAA estimates that approximately 20% of the world’s coral reefs have died, including roughly 50% of the Caribbean coral reefs. Juni must have seen it all, the way some people have seen their towns blighted by joblessness or drug addiction. An ecosystem gasping underneath the marvels tourists have the luxury of remembering forever as they were when we saw them with our wide eyes, rather than what they will become as Earth’s climate changes.

Juni noted the increase in tourism, which isn’t necessarily bad—especially for someone who makes money by taking people on aquatic adventures—but he said he’s afraid tourists wouldn’t understand what the water means to those who live in and around it. The commodification of the ocean and everything in it made it easier for people to ignore or overlook what might be lost. How had a man who had watched  a beloved environment and its inhabitants disappear due to human recklessness remain so seemingly free-spirited and joyful? Perhaps Caye Caulker’s carefree vibe was in his bones, or perhaps he made a concerted effort to focus on what he could do—to educate the people on his boat and to take the hooks  out of the mouths of fish and return them to the sea.

I pictured Juni sitting Buddha-like on the globe, trying to prevent the world from spinning too quickly in the wrong direction. But he did not seem burdened in that way. He was not Atlas. But he was an antidote, this man who might as well have been born in the water, this man who saved sharks and kept photos of fish like they were his family, who played with the exuberance of someone who can be, at least temporarily, free from the sins of humanity.

Bee and I were exhausted, sunburned, and changed after our day with Juni. Even though no words adequately expressed what we’d seen and felt on the boat and in the water with Juni, we couldn’t stop talking about it, kept looking for the words because it was important to articulate what it all meant. We wanted Martin and Mikael to understand how special he was. So, on our last night in Caye Caulker, after debating whether it was appropriate, we took a walk to Juni’s house.

He was sitting in the living room, much as he’d been when we first saw him. He recognised us and gestured us inside, and we introduced him to Martin and Mikael. We talked for a little bit about the sea, his friends, his life on the island. I’m not sure why, but we brought M&Ms, which he gleefully shared. Even at 70, Juni had a twinkle in his eye and a childlike laugh—the ocean, I think, has made him ageless, buoyed on salt, waves and the absence of time.

After about ten minutes, we all grew quiet. I suddenly felt self-conscious about invading Juni’s home, even though he’d done nothing to suggest we were unwelcome. We sat together in silence, looking out the window at the sea. Juni has long learned how to speak without talking, and I think he understood that, much like the sharks and rays, we just wanted to be near him for as long as possible, until the real world pulled us back.

Joelle Renstrom

is a

Contributor for Panorama.

In addition to writing about travel, Joelle Renstrom writes about science, technology, and science fiction for Slate, New Scientist, Aeon, Undark, Popular Science, and other publications. Her book, Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, was published in 2015. She teaches writing and research at Boston University.


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