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Looks Fishy

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The Pacific Dreams cruise opens the oceans to snorkelers, scuba divers, and other peeping toms of the marine world.

The winter of 2015–16 has hardly been one of hardship in Madison. Thanks to El Niño, December was largely snowless, and Lake Mendota didn’t freeze until January 11.

Still, it was good to get away from Wisconsin in wintertime and see where El Niño is coming from: the central and southern Pacific.

Along with 25 other Badgers, I joined the cruise ship Marina for Pacific Dreams, a roughly triangular voyage that covered nearly 1,900 nautical miles of French Polynesia. Beginning and ending in Tahiti, our ship stopped at ports of call in the Society Islands, Marquesas, and Tuamotus. During the course of the journey, we saw the places that helped to inspire Herman Melville’s Typee, James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, Robert Louis Stevenson’s later work, and Paul Gauguin’s various paintings of naked people.

The Marina isn’t huge as cruise ships go, but it’s still sizable. It can carry 1,252 passengers and 780 crew. If it ever sinks, Gordon Lightfoot will go nuts.

Our port of origin was Papeete, which is pronounced pah-pee-AY-tay, rather than pah-PEE-tee, which rhymes with Tahiti. Someone in marketing missed a trick there. At any rate, the islands of French Polynesia are volcanic and tropical, and many are surrounded by extensive coral reefs. This makes them a haven for snorkelers, scuba divers, deep-sea divers, and HydroBob riders (it’s like a bicycle in a diving bell — a nightmare that encompasses both claustrophobes and aquaphobes).

Basically, it’s a place to see all the critters from Finding Nemo and most from The Little Mermaid. What those critters think of the surface-dwelling peeping toms who like to spy on them while they eat, sleep, and have romantic encounters, I don’t know. But I did my share of peeping anyway.

I was not, I’ll admit up front, a snorkeler. Lots of our travelers were, and, like tropical golfers, these snorkelers enthusiastically (and competitively) compared notes on every aspect of the experience: best spots, species seen, and the numbers, colors, and sizes of the fish, turtles, eels, and clams they came across.

All I know of snorkeling is this: Sergeant Snorkel is the main antagonist in Beetle Bailey. I preferred to spy on fish through a glass-bottomed boat, instead.

I did this several times, and the best of the trips was at Bora Bora. After half an hour or so of floating along over the coral reef, Léon, our boat’s captain (or “driver” for you land-lubbers) slipped over the side, his hands full of chum, so that he could attract schools of fish to come directly beneath the boat.

This produced oohs and aahs from those on board — until the small fish were joined by a seven-foot-long barracuda. Léon then popped back out of the water and contented himself with throwing chum out of the boat overhand.

We greeted Léon with somewhat mixed feelings. While all were happy to have someone drive us back to shore, we couldn’t help but think that, had the barracuda eaten him, it would have made this a more thrilling anecdote.

There is, of course, much more to do while cruising in Polynesia than watch fish — there’s eating fish (and, as the Marina has seven restaurants, five bars, and 24-hour room service, one can eat a lot of fish, and many other things as well); there’s baking in the sun; there’s watching folk dancers blow on conch shells and shimmy in grass skirts and chant in high-pitched, wailing tones. But those will belong to another person’s scrapbook. I’ve filled my available space with recollections that are fishy at best.

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