we are POD

by Christian Vassie


Ten metres above our heads the sun has all but set. The last reds and oranges ripple and fade in a criss-crossing geometry of liquid light that skates the surface of a heaving mountain of water.

Yes I know, I said I wasn’t doing this again. It was four against one. I could either stay alone on the boat to wait an hour to see if any of them returned, or I could join them. Choices, choices.

Calypso and Steve have disappeared ahead. Darkness doesn’t bother them, they see with their ears in this light, using echolocation. Which is nice.

For them.

Rafael pulls my sleeve. I follow his gaze. A huge, steel coloured cylinder hangs in the sea, thirty metres deep and twenty across. The cylinder is revolving at high speed and it’s alive. Thirty tonnes or more of bluefin tuna, the fastest muscle in the sea, powering round like motorbikes on the wall of death in a fairground.

Now I see Calypso and Steve. The dolphins are way below, smudges surging like velvet bullets from the depths.

Dad points down. ‘Remember, we have only twenty five minutes.’ He signs.

We drop until we are level with the bottom of the net. Slashing through the mesh, hand over hand, we cut a wide circle some three metres across. As soon as we have completed our job, Calypso and Steve swim through the hole and disappear into the mass of tuna.

Rafael and I hold open the hole, preventing it from collapsing while Dad secures the net against itself with plastic clips. The fish stream out in a burnished pewter blur, driven by the dolphins. Bluefin tuna can grow over one and a half metres long. Their speed is terrifying, if one misses its line and swims into us it will be like being smacked by a speeding train. Above us is the faintest outline of the buoys and pipes that hold the top of the net in a circle on the surface. Beneath the buoys are the swirling tuna and an occasional darting dolphin silhouette. The flow of fish thins as the net empties. Dad and Rafael exchange thumbs up signs. The dolphins flash past us, clicking loudly. What will that look like on the flippercams the dolphins are both carrying?

The second net goes as smoothly as the first. How many tuna are we saving from the illegal smuggling operation that is emptying the Mediterranean in order to provide Japan with sushi? Hundreds? Tens of thousands?

Rafael points towards a third net, some twenty metres away.

‘Seven minutes,’ I sign, checking my dive computer. ‘You promised.’

‘One more net,’ Dad signs.

Like now is all that matters. Like tomorrow’s Big Event doesn’t exist. I swear, if I could throw a punch underwater, I would.

Calypso returns towards us and Dad signs to her. I notice the way she positions herself in the water, left flipper down, head at an angle, as she emits a stream of clicks.

‘Understood,’ Dad signs back.

We follow the dolphins towards the third spinning column, barely visible now in the enveloping indigo gloom. This is like drowning in ink. Pretty soon we won’t even know which way is up, except by following the direction of our bubbles. Or something else’s bubbles.

Steve passes close by, the pressure of his movement through the water pushing me back into the net before I see it. Dad grabs my shoulders and looks into my face. ‘OK?’ he signs.

I nod. ‘I lost my balance. I’m OK.’

‘The last net. I promise.’

Our serrated blades rip the mesh of the net. I glance at Rafael. Focused, face taut, body tense. Beneath him the tips of his flippers warp back and forth.

The net falls open. Once again the dolphins brush past us into the mass of swirling tuna. Secure the hole and we’ve finished, I tell myself, grabbing the clips from my belt and passing them through the mesh and tying back. The net jerks violently in my hands and the clip I am holding falls from my grasp, disappearing into the gloom beneath me.

Another spasm of the mesh.

I look up. Everything is shades of blue but I can make out a dolphin silhouette thrashing back and forth above me. One of the dolphins is caught in the net. Without thinking, I dive through the hole and swim upwards, somehow avoiding the steady stream of tuna coming in the opposite direction. Five metres up I reach Calypso. A metal rod half a metre long has passed through her flukes and pinned her to the mesh. Seeing me approach she fires off a torrent of whistles and clicks. I cannot understand her.

‘It’s an arrow,’ I explain. (What is the sign for harpoon?) ‘The tip is serrated so I cannot pull it out. I am going to push it through.’

Has she understood? She waits patiently as I force the harpoon down through her flukes. All is going well until it jams; the last two centimetres of the harpoon are fatter than the shaft.

Beneath us Dad and Rafael are holding the net open as the escaping tuna flow out. Above us a wedge-shaped shadow is moving on the surface. A small boat.

Grabbing the harpoon from below I yank at it to pull it through. It won’t budge. I have no choice. I pull my dive knife from its sheath and, muttering a silent apology, I plunge the tip of the blade into Calypso’s flukes, next to the embedded harpoon. She flinches. A cloud of blood forms in the water. I sheathe the knife. The cut has made the difference. This time the end of the harpoon passes through and Calypso’s flukes are free. As she swims away towards the hole, a blur of movement catches my eye. Another harpoon? I head down towards the others.

Coming out into the open sea, I see Dad has a harpoon buried in his leg. Shocked, I stop too close to the hole in the net. A third harpoon spears a huge tuna coming out behind me, throwing it off balance. Another dark cloud blossoms. A large cold eye fixes on me momentarily. The thrashing tail smacks against my chest then the tuna has gone, tumbling into the darkness below.

‘Go Sam. Go now,’ Dad is signing.

Concussed, I turn to Rafael, who grabs me and pulls me back. Away from the net. Away from Dad. Suddenly a column light beams down from above us. A searchlight? A flare? Within the net the remaining trapped fish are a frenzy in silhouette. Like an exploding nail bomb.

‘Where is Steve?’ I sign.

‘Leave, Sam. Now,’ Dad orders. ‘I follow you.’

No, I’ve lost you once before. Not again.

Rafael pulls me back and points to his watch.

He is right, with all the extra energy I have expended my tanks must be almost empty. We leave. The adrenalin is really pumping. We are swimming fast. We can no longer see the net, but we can still see the glow of the lights shining down. I check my underwater compass, heading west. I want to go up, to escape this liquid prison and breathe fresh air. Rafael holds me down.

It’s my Dad back there, dying with a harpoon in his leg I sign furiously. Rafael doesn’t understand sign language. I push him in the chest and swim away. Almost immediately my arms and legs snarl up in something I cannot see. I flail about like a fly in a web.

Desperate but dumb, says the little voice in my head. But little voices are there to be ignored, aren’t they?

In seconds I am completely snared and unable to move. I close my eyes. When I open them again I am looking straight at Rafael’s facemask.

He removes the regulator from his mouth. ‘Den,’ he seems to say.

My face betrays total incomprehension. After taking a breath of oxygen from his regulator Rafael tries again.

‘Lead. Lead.’

I still don’t get it. He ducks out of view and reappears holding something up to my face. Got it. Net. I nod and relax my body while Rafael hacks at the mesh. A dark silhouette glides overhead. Please don’t let them switch on their searchlight. Where are the others?

One arm comes free. I grab Rafael’s wrist. He pulls his hand away to continue cutting. In the distance, back the way we have come there is a flash of light. A few moments later we feel a shock wave buffet us.

An explosion? Where’s Dad?

I am free of the net. We move up to a couple of meters below the waves and keep swimming away from the nets. You use less oxygen closer to the surface.

One second I’m breathing, the next there is nothing left in my tanks. Head spinning, I power upwards. My head breaks the surface. I rip out my regulator and gasp huge lungfuls of air. Rafael appears beside me.

‘Look, there is the rock. Over there,’ he says, pointing.

We have swum too far south. The headland is maybe a hundred metres to our right. Behind it I can make out the prow of our boat.

We swim in silence. Looking back we catch glimpses of three large boats, appearing then disappearing in the swell some three hundred meters away.

Reaching our boat, La Vita Nuova, we are both too tired to haul ourselves up out of the water. We cling to her anchor rope, catching our breath.

‘Hey,’ shouts a voice above us.

The silhouetted figure of a diver is pointing a gun at my face.

Copyright © 2014 Christian Vassie