Fiona Hall

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LISTING TO STARBOARD

Sea level. Only, level it wasn’t. The sea of our journey along the Kermadec Trench was wind-blown and wave-flecked and shifty. As unsteady on my feet, on the Otago, as was the sea beneath, I took some advice from the ship’s bridge and stared ahead to the horizon. At the outset the expanse of ocean and sky and the rolling of the ship had a nauseating, yet mesmeric effect. It didn’t take long to register that looking out to sea was not only the most obvious pastime on board, it was the intoxicant of our voyage. Sunsets and rises were main events; each dawn on the bridge I caught the last light of the morning star as it faded out over the water, and watched the Southern Cross flying on the ensign shoot its red stars high into the breeze above. And red again at night: as dusk fell about our ship it switched its incandescent lighting to an infra-red twilight. It continued its passage through the night; our dimmed grey hulk was a shadow-ship crossing the inky sea. During daylight hours, I watched from the bridge as small and sometimes bigger waves pitched into our prow, causing us to slope into a trough and then set to rights again.

Somewhere I found my sea legs. Another occupation I discovered was to lie headlong on the lower deck at the stern, looking down over the edge into our wake which spewed out behind the engine. The white line slicing through the water was ruler-straight, precisely drawn by our ship-shape ship on the unruly ocean. Steady as she goes.

I imagined that the line of our wake on the surface of the sea might, from below, look like a scratch in the thick glass-green bottom of a bottle. It was an image in reverse, and made me reflect that our lives are lived in a world composed largely of water, in which we are all passengers sailing on the model ship marooned inside the bottle, tossed about in the sea of our dreams and wild imaginings. In my mind I drew a vertical line from our ship to the bottom of the Kermadec Trench below, down to a crack in the molten eggshell of the Earth’s core. The line drew deeper than the lowest limits where daylight could possibly reach, and slipped in the darkness from the firm grasp of science. And then the line I drew sank from my mind’s view, beyond the farthest, darkest fathom that I could ever reach by my imagining. Ten thousand metres from the sea floor to its surface.

Falling up. On the ship, on the bathymetric Trench map I saw the long gape of the Kermadec’s jaw and its set of volcano teeth, each identified by name; the ‘Rumbles’ at the Southern end I thought of as a band
of renegades in a generally mutinous dynasty. The way to the Trench’s surface is, inescapably through its subterranean mouth-minefield. The whole place smokes like a chimney: its sulphurous breath pours out through hydrothermic vents. It constantly blows its stack. And habitually it gets the shakes, having an unstable geomorphic disposition. At the top of the Trench swim the top predators of the deep; whales and sharks. And now, although nowhere (as yet) visible to the eye, other subversive life (or death) forms are circling in the water: fishing and mining interests. The ocean is not quiet; new hunts are on, greedy for a kill. New breeds of corporate pirates have their spyglasses trained on the Kermadec treasure chest below. To them, it looks like a submerged bank vault: the volcano teeth have gold fillings. Lying in the sunlight on the deck on the surface of the sea, I shut my eyes to picture the volcanoes. Blood flows. Behind my eyelids I saw red.
Rock the boat.

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