Danger Signs

Was the sea trying to warn them a killer wave was on the way?
In the pre-dawn darkness of a Suday morning on November 14, 2004, a thirty-five-year-old Thai fisherman by the name of Wisthnuth-Tipong and four of his friends got into his traditional wooden long-tail boat, started up the 150-horsepower Honda motor, and left the beach near their village of Bang Niang to head for the open sea. The village of Bang Niang consists of about 500 local people, and a transient flux of foreigners. Like everyone else in the village, Wisthnuth’s extended family had profited from the phenomenal growth of the tourist industry over the last twenty years, and today’s boat crew all had good service jobs as well. Wisthnuth’s parents were building a large two-storey house on the other side of the busy coastal road, under the green hills of the National Park, a kilometre or two east of the village. Their beach provided something foreigners had always insisted on, a sunset view of the Andaman Sea. By mid-morning the beaches would be full of people, not only vacationers but also illegal construction workers from Burma and Malaysia, banging away on the new projects with their hand-forged iron tools.

But now, in the blackness before dawn, only the twinkle of security lights from the new hotels and bungalows were visible, stretching in an unbroken swath from the Royal Thai Navy base in the south to the far northern shore, a distance of some fifty kilometres. Wisthnuth had grown up here; only the dark line of the lumpy, irregular green hills was the same as he remembered it from his boyhood, part of a protected forest reserve.

Wisthnuth’s long-tail boat was named Pornsawan, which in Thai means “gift of heaven.” It was hand-built of redwood and teak, twenty-three gongs, or ribs, in length as the fishermen measure them, about twelve metres in all. Long-tails are designed for the coastal seas, aiming for a critical balance between cargo hauling, sea worthiness, and shallow draft for easy beaching over hidden rocks and coral. The Pornsawan was painted light green and red, earth colours, and like fishing boats the world over, she was named after the master’s daughter. As she headed out to sea where the reefs lay submerged at high tide, one of the fishermen began trailing his dakuwa, the sounding-weight. In the hands of an experienced boatman, this 300-gram lump of lead at the end of a hemp cord will tell you everything you need to know about the sea floor below—not only the depth, but whether you are striking sand, rock, or coral. The fishermen were looking for plagopon, red snapper, and sardines, platoo. They were also happy to take khung, wild shrimp. Despite the competition from sea farms, local buyers still favoured wild seafood, which they insist has a detectable difference in taste.

Wisthnuth remembers this day as calm and easy. A tranquil sky greeted them; the faintest light over the hooded mountains to the east promised more softness in the hours to come. “The sea is another world,” goes one Thai expression; and it means that the sea is not really part of our world, but a separate one, far distant from human reality. Going out on it is like dreaming, or praying to Lord Buddha, or even dying—another state of consciousness. And while all fishermen carry detailed maps in their heads of currents, tides, island smells, shorelines, reefs, and trade winds—things that lie within and below and contiguous to the sea—there is no map of the sea itself. It remains blank. Despite its many and enumerated qualities, it is essentially unknowable. “You do not know what is inside,” says one fisherman. They call it mahasamud—the great sea, too great to have mere qualities attach themselves to it, and going far beyond our words like raw, or cold. Closer to the Chinese word Tao, meaning a transcendent, primal energy.

The Thai word for beach is chaihard, meaning rim or edge, and the word for wave is krone. Bang Niang Beach, just north of Khaolak, lies at a latitude of about nine degrees north of the equator; accordingly, day and night are evenly matched in seasonless perpetuity, and the sky in the east begins to glow at 6 a.m. Perhaps glow is not the right word, for the change is more subtle than that. What really happens is that the stars and planets (which here hang so mysteriously and palpably in a thick tropical swarm of Chinese constellations) lose their connection to each other, like old men, former teammates who start by forgetting their names and end by forgetting what game exactly they used to play together in the park. The stars over the Andaman Sea go inward into themselves until they disappear, eventually leaving the sky hollow and undone. The dawn sky at this hour seems to grow even blacker, despite the cool fluorescence hanging tight to one corner. This was the traditional time, perhaps, when armies attacked—not dawn exactly, but at this off-kilter moment, when the stars have faded from sight and all chance of reckoning distance and direction is lost. This phase lasts in the tropics for about twenty minutes. Little ash-white sand crabs scuttle out of their holes and into the sloppy water before the birds can spot them; and the village dogs rouse themselves and bark at the first thing that moves.

Twenty minutes after the east has first begun to lighten, something unexpected happens. The sea, the surrounding hills, the few smudges of muddy clouds that play uncertainly between the two, all grow fatly cold and silver, and barren of purpose. Suddenly a charmless, metallic world appears out of nowhere, as if the desolation hidden from human eyes had dared to reveal itself at last during a change of stage sets, either by mishap or design. A chill is accentuated by an offshore breeze that whips over the foaming surf and the fine keening of wind-blown grit makes itself heard, for those who care to hear it. Then, at about 6:30, the bravado of another day takes over and the sun showers the palm fronds and the sharp, crested ocean with indelible marks of brilliant chromatic action. Birds warble and whoop knowingly; waves resolve themselves into familiar blue fixtures; the night cedes control to the flagrant minions of a triumphantly pink sun.

Wisthnuth and his crew had only reached two metres of water when he began feeling lucky; there was something special about this day. Didn’t he see a black cat up in a tree yesterday? And today was Sunday, his name day. He looked deep into the clarity of the sandy depths, and saw something none of them had ever seen before. There were fish down there. Lots of them. Fish in the transparent shallows, fish travelling in schools along the sandy bottom where there should have been one or two lone mackerel, hunting for tideblown plamuk, squid.

Like all sands, the sands of the Andaman Sea have their own microscopic qualities, signatures unique to themselves which make this beach distinguishable at once from all others as surely as the fingerprints of one person read differently from his six billion brothers and sisters. The sands of Bang Niang Beach are powdery fine; they squeak underfoot and take the impression of a rubber sandal with easy precision. Examined under a magnifying glass, the sand of Bang Niang is revealed to be made up of irregular beads of translucent quartz, mixed with creamy wedges of frosted silicates and microslabs of pyrites the colour of pale mangoes. A sparser fourth mineral is a pure black flake resembling ground pepper, jagged and organic-looking. Together these four types of grit create a beige hue that to the foreign eye suggests European skin tones. There was a similar colour in the Laurentian school set of pencils, an orange-white called flesh tone. The Thai word for this colour is namthon, or brown sugar. The Thai word for sand is sai.

But there was no word for what the fishermen saw that day. They cast their nets and began pulling in silvery mackerel, squid, sardines, red snapper, white snapper—they grew giddy with excitement at this unaccountable largesse. Fish, shoals of fish, in only four metres of clear seawater! When they should have been at least a kilometre or two out from shore, in depths of twenty metres or more. Yellow catfish, prawn, even a feral, gleaming tiger fish, more common to the waters far south, towards Indonesia, but which they recognized at once.

A bright yellow tiger fish comes boiling out of the nets and rockets against the boat’s wooden planks. Wisthnuth is loath to kill it before he has a chance to observe its strange beauty. The life of an ocean fish is a vivid rainbow that disappears irretrievably with a blow to its head, as if the fantastic final colours were the spectral thoughts of the creature itself, and not merely its inherited camouflage. Enough—Wisthnuth hits the tiger fish with a mallet. The men are laughing, ready for more, but the Gift of Heaven is bulging. They must stow their catch in ice crates on shore and hurry back, before these schools disappear.

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