“Kekeno”

It’s a golden early September. The cool grey clouds still glaze over our heads, but the sun has been pressing closer day by day. Sunlight flickers off of the sea, just for pinpoints in time. Sara is already snug in her cockpit, her neoprene skirt stretched tight around the kayak seat’s protruding upper lip. I lean forward, knees bent, and push the hefty tandem boat from the stern into the softly crashing waves. My neoprene booties seem impenetrable only for a second. The chilled seawater finds its way through the opening at my ankles and seep around my toes. I jump into my cockpit. Stretch the skirt over the lip. Flatten the lever and lower my rudder. Finally, I pick the paddle up by its shaft and push the blade against sand and frothing surf.

We are like an unobtrusive intruder in this polyethylene, tiny red ship, both shooting through the water and bobbing like a top in this sheltered bay. The sea rolls underneath. I can imagine I’m riding atop a massive blue-backed leviathan. Its diaphragm rising and falling.

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Gull cries pierce the soft symphony of wind and waves. They peel off towards the Abel Tasman coast, hills cloaked in green and the dissolving morning haze. I watch them glide in circles, beat their wings, and swing back around. Gwen sits in his single-seat kayak, perks of being a guide. He detracts me from my gaze and tells us that Adele Island is our next stop. Straight ahead, it sits indifferently to our tiny presence, as small as it is itself.

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As we paddle closer, my shoulder burns. Gwen tells me to swing more, but I reckon to myself it’s because I have to contend to the waves pushing back. My suspicions are confirmed when we near the sheltered Adele coast. The water calms, but still shatters and foams against the coarse, beaten granite boulders. I navigate the shoreline with forced confidence, emulating Gwen who slips unflinchingly between sharp protruding pillars. Suddenly I realize that the rocks, which once appeared empty, were dotted with New Zealand fur seals. Properly, as Gwen explained, sea lions. Many slumber on, either unaware or indifferent to our minute, quiet presence. However, as we press on, a small dark shape flounces ungainly, enthusiastically off a granite shear into the water. Suddenly transformed into a graceful smooth-spinner, it flows and cuts through the water at the same time towards Gwen’s kayak.

Like a little black Labrador pup, the young seal follows closely at Gwen’s heals. He flicks his tail, nose dives, twists, as though dancing with the kayak’s rudder. Eventually Gwen slides away, and I find myself gingerly pressing my foot against the left pedal towards the shore. Sara is quiet, but I sense her excitement vibrating into the air as much as mine. The seal pup is relatively still now, treading, with its head peering above the shallow, bright turquoise water. I can only identify its feeling as curiosity. Then, it decides. Our kayak teeters lightly above small ripples, waiting. Breath. Held. In.

Kekeno. It is the name the Maori people give the New Zealand fur seal. Gwen told us the name means “large eyes”. Rightly so. Between his jovial swim-dance, he would stop to watch us. Watching us watch him. Gwen watches us watch each other. He has the biggest brown black eyes, the white yellow sun glinting off his wide, curious orbs. His fur is slick, brown black too. A pup’s fur is usually darker. The sunlight defines the smoothed, thick hairs which groove together, linear crevasses and ridgelines, basin and range topography.

The pup dives into the water from its outpost. He twists, spins, flows like a swift river’s current. Straight to us he glides. I think I let out a small squeak – the balloon in my chest was so filled with excitement, I couldn’t help let a small bit escape. I twist my torso, limited to the skirt hugging my waist, to see the pup prance at our stern. He could best an Olympic synchronized swimmer. My fibers wish to transform into this furry, joyful body. Slide ungainly from polyethylene into salty, living, seawater. And be free.

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