I need you to believe me on these two things.
To the best of my knowledge, the only three people who have really seen the Yellow Sea, are Tramore inshore fisherman, skipper of the Little Tern John Stubbs, local (international record-holding) kayaker Mick O’Meara …and myself.
Three of us three who haunt the Copper Coast, each in our way and individual oceanic obsession. Even so, neither John nor Mick have not seen it as I have. They skim the surface, engaged with the Celtic Sea in their own way, but neither has my viewpoint, my, well…immersion.
The second thing that is absolutely true is that I have seen the Yellow Sea three times over twelve years. Two of the three were this year, and the third was a few days ago. The last Friday of October.
Well, I do understand your distrust.
It was late afternoon as I began to write, the Sun westering but still bright in a cerulean sky, shining directly in the window on my east-facing desk, such that I had to lower the front blind to eliminate the glare on the monitor. The day was clear with autumn sunlight and retaining an unseasonable warmth. The shadows outside lengthening in the way that photographers love, but it wast not yet the golden hour. The mid-morning fog in the river valley that sent me to the coast instead of the pool to escape to the light had actually dissipated before I got home, though I thought it would not clear all day. In short, there are only hints of darkness and they are nothing to fear. There is no actual darkness in this story.
The regulars were at the Guillamene as I arrived on Friday morning, in their active communal 11am to noon hour, the cabin open, raiméis and rúla-búla being hurled about. The sky was clear, washed out blue, the Sun destined to reach no more than 10 o’clock at meridian as we move into winter here in the temperate northern latitudes. We chatted, the usual guff and blather. A couple mentioned the water was dirty. Tony said it was sewage or silage spilloff, which was a surprise, as I’ve never seen that here before. We’re near the town, there aren’t fields of cattle above, and how much would need to spill to cross the road, flow down the cliffs into the sea and still be concentrated enough to notice? Implausible, I thought. The Merchant Prince asked me how long silt would stay in the water and if that explained the dirt. No more than a few days if there was nothing stirring it up again, I replied, as there had been the previous weekend from the storms. It’s especially quick to clear if the breeze went offshore.
I looked down at the water. It seemed a bit yellow where it washed over the reefs. Hard to say from above though, especially facing south, the further-out surface steel blue and grey. I told Paddy about the yellow current I’d seen, swam in and filmed some years ago.
Every so often I get asked what’s the strangest thing I’ve seen in my years in and around the sea. My answer always disappoints. I wonder if they imagine feral seals or stories of narrow escapes with sharks or ghost ships or pirates. The prosaic nature of my strangest experience invariably underwhelms, a shrug of indifference the best response, a blank gaze the most common.
They don’t have sea water in their veins. A current came against the tide, it came from the south-east and I saw it arrive, both above and below the surface. The water colour, temperature, texture and taste all changed. You can see video, read the article.
It was strange because it was outside of the scope of normal events on the Copper Coast, which is wider than most realise. It was strange because I know these waters, I understand these waters. We’ve seen eleven metres waves, hurricane force winds, stainless steel north-facing railings ripped from concrete and two-inch bolts. Wrecks, sea life from the Caribbean. It’s the sheer range of conditions I’ve seen over two decades that makes me consider normal a broad spectrum. But people like a more tangible story, and I can’t provide that. John Stubbs had seen the yellow current once in twenty years as a professional inshore fisherman and his catch disappeared. Who else looks at the Copper Coast as we three do? Everyone else is more concerned about the Copper Coast land, or at best the interface between sea and land. They look at the sea, they don’t see or understand it.
I’ve thought of it as “that strange yellow current”, for years.
Earlier in the year, in a warm spell after swimming the Gibraltar Strait, I decided on an impromptu unaccompanied swim from Kilfarassey to the Guillamene. A lovely calm day, unseasonably warm water for early July. I passed from Kilfarassey bay to Gararrus bay. Then when I swam through a small low arch east from Gararrus, the water on the other side was totally different to the clear warm water on the west. At first I though it was the tide, or a breeze had picked up from the east, screened by the stacks and reefs of the coastal section I call Wonderland. But after a few hundred metres, I realised I’d swam through an arch, and into a different sea.
Yellow choppy water. Colder, with the choppy surface of a short sea but with an continuing absence of wind. The second half of the swim was much different, though the day was the same. Bright, sunny, on a rising tide. A rising tide that flows east, toward Tramore Bay. And I began to think of it as more than just a strange or weird current. The first time I saw it arrive. The second time, it was already in place.
Last Friday, I tried to explain the mystery of the yellow current with the usual result. All they cared about was that the temperature had dropped significantly, and the water seemed dirty. Convivial social niceties over, I decided to take advantage of the flat water and do a cave swim. I slipped into the water. The temperature was significantly lower. Down is the word we always use. “How is it?” “It’s down“. All that needs to be communicated in five syllables. Maybe two degrees since the previous Sunday. And the water was yellow. I knew immediately that this was once again the yellow current.
The surface was not as calm as it should have been in the absence of wind, I thought, but maybe I was wrong, and regardless it wasn’t actually rough. The tide has just passed high water, and there is little local significant tidal current, rarely more than quarter of a knot.
I swam a wide loop to the Head, coming at the cave under the Head from the east instead of north-east. I entered the outer grotto and long vestibule leading to the inner chamber, being pulled close to the right hand side of the cave instead of the usual push onto the reef at the left hand side. The opacity and temperature of the water had not varied on the outward swim. The water remained cool. The yellow colour was not vibrant or saturated but wan and pale. It displayed not sienna nor ochre nor saffron characteristics but was nevertheless strongly though not completely opaque. Pervasive and universal and loathsome. I could see my hand at maximum extension but not beyond that. It was if anything, most reminiscent of jaundiced skin or dilute urine but no jokes like “don’t eat the yellow snow” came to mind. It was vaguely obscene in some ineffable way.
As I swum through the vestibule I felt what I can only describes as random pricks, along my skin, like insect bites or the points of thorns. I couldn’t see anything in the water. There were no jellyfish this late in the year, and which anyway feel different, as you’d expect, like water-filled balloons. It wasn’t free-floating kelp ripped out in the recent storms, because that is more scratchy and draggy. I looked at points on my arms where I’d felt it and saw no marks.
I swam through the cave and out the far side, around the back of the stack, along the Wall of Death into Ronan’s Bay. As I got into deeper water, I chilled in the lower temperature. The yellow deepened in Ronan’s Bay, the taste worsened.
My ocean world is shaded primarily by the colours of the Atlantic, the ocean that owns me. A pallet of jade, soapstone, green-black, khaki, feldgrau. The browns of wrack and kelp, the tans and black of reefs, and the filtered golden nourishing light of the Sun through the surface while swimming south. The surface is steel and titanium greys, aluminium and metallic blues, reflecting dense clouds and channeling winds. The only yellows are the xantoria on rocks above the tideline and plants high on the cliffs. I do not have a pallet of yellows as I have an entire personal landscape of greens.
There was no proximate cause of the yellow sea that I could ever determine. The tide was dropping, which meant ebbing to the west. Waterford estuary is fifteen kilometers away.
The brine taste changed. Increasingly it seemed to me to taste of I didn’t know what exactly. Bile and ashes. Bilious phlegm swallowed after an inopportune infectious cough. In the yellow depths beneath me, I began to wonder if I was seeing the vague movement of reefs or something else. Shapeless shapes, greyellow.
I swam back to the Guillamene, replete with dread and disgust, and an inability to express what I’ve seen and experienced even to myself. I was cold, though not dangerously so, but out of the ordinary. I felt in desperate need of a shower, or to abrade my skin with sharp clean sand. There was no visible mark of the pricks or bites. In my mind were words to describe the experience that I’d never previously used before about the sea, rarely even when encountering pollution. Disgusting, aberrant and abhorrent and hideous. A meaningless list of adjectives that convey? Nothing.
I returned two days later. I swam a similar route in clean clear water that had regained the lost temperature. When I exited the cave into the Aegean-like playground beneath the Metalman, there between the encircling cliffs, enclosed on three sides, I once again encountered the Yellow Sea, as I by then come to think of it, a pool of cold loathsome water.
There’s one remaining part of the story. If the eerie actuality of the Yellow Sea is insufficient for you, it will not add more.
When I exited the water on Friday, as I changed, alone with my thoughts, I looked as I always do, out to the sea I’ve just left. On the horizon I could see a grey line, stretching from Brownstown Head west-wards to the reflection of the Sun on the surface, about three kilometres wide. As I changed and then climbed the notorious 50 steps up the cliff, I could see the line expand from a line to an area. The tide was still dropping, and at this point well over two hours past high water, was reaching its maximum westerly current flow. Yet over the course of thirty minutes I could see over the dull slate blue-grey filling into the bay, displacing the Yellow Sea, an irregular battle-line delineating the two.
We live on the most inappropriately named Planet Earth, and as Arthur Clarke once pointed out, it should be called Planet Ocean. Our seas and oceans are one ocean. All are connected. There is one sea. The world has changed, continues to change. Since Deep Time, when there was one supercontinent surrounded by the All-Ocean, the mother goddess, through tectonic shifting of the impermanent land, the One Sea, the All-Ocean has been the life of this world. From original sulphur-laden freshwater to salty life-force, it is permanent in its changing mystery, the blood of the world.
I have seen the Yellow Sea three times, swum in it three times. I’ve felt and tasted strange things, but know not what they were or if they presaged anything or remembered something. The first time the Yellow Sea was arriving. The second time it was already present. The third time it seemed to leave, but it left a fraction of itself behind, hidden in a place only I see and visit. Did it take something with it when it departed, or is the remnant it left behind the beginning of something?
It is oft repeated that we still don’t understand fully the ocean and its contents and we think of that as merely a few creatures still undiscovered in the abyssal depths.
Maybe the All-Ocean holds still living and migratory pockets of those ancient seas, laden with sulphur, cold, full of even stranger creatures, life we suspect only from the Burgess Shale fossils, the mysterious creatures of long-forgotten evolutionary paths. Maybe pockets of ocean from before our evolutionary branch diverged, and as such are seas that are alien to our most ancient genes. We are alien to them, as much as the converse. Maybe there are there pockets of ancient Yellow Seas still extant, held intact by tides and currents and coriolis forces, roaming the world. I ask myself, if the All-Ocean reaches across the world, does it reach across time? Is time itself meaningless to the All-Ocean, such that all the times that it has touched are the same, similar to that way that things that happened me before are things that happened to me as I am now, not really the past, as I can still touch them in my mind and through my life experience.
Am I, or the Yellow Sea, a dream, or a memory, or a wish of the All-Ocean? Maybe the sea has its own memory, the molecules and animate and inanimate contents creating a web of neuron-like inter-connectedness, creating a hologram of memory or thought we cannot perceive, too large for us. And if the All-Ocean is more than we can begin to grasp or suspect or understand, are we ourselves part of its structure? Am I synapse or neuron, part of the All-Ocean thinking itself?