Instead, I ship my oars and lean over the edge of the boat to watch the bottom of the harbour. I drift on the current while images stream past below me: rocks flecked with light and limpets or hidden beneath tangled golden piles of waving rockweed, schools of tiny silvery fish, white sand, underwater fields of bright green seagrass, whelks, clamshells, a lone laggardly jellyfish, and huge scary fingers of kelp like a monstrous bronze hand reaching out to grab the boat from below and drag it down to a watery grave. I'm away from each sight as soon as I arrive.
I have been looking for starfish this summer, but I have not seen a single one. Last summer they were plentiful, at least below the government wharf and out on the seal ledges. Maybe they'll return again next summer. The ways of starfish are mysterious.
But while searching for starfish I found sand dollars instead. I hardly recognized them at first since they looked so unlike the only sand dollars I've ever seen: dead ones, whitened skeletons piled in souvenir shop bins, with that silly, insulting Legend of the Sand Dollar attached to them so they'll sell better.Here, though, I began to see, in particular places beneath the water, as if cast upon a soft bed of pale sand, what appeared to be perfectly round and flat black objects.
As I looked more closely I could see that these dark round objects bore the sand dollar's five petal pattern, but in reverse, like a wax resist technique using fine sand instead of wax to reveal the pattern. The sand dollar is an ocean filter, sucking in organic matter beneath it and releasing water through the tiny holes that form its petal pattern on top. What I could see was, I think, the residue of its filtering process.
Even at low tide they lie a couple of meters below the surface, beyond my reach. That's just as well. As it is I can only look but not touch, as if I am visiting a collection of rare masterpieces. I doubt they are rare. But who knows anymore what's rare or endangered? Things seem to slip away without our noticing, and then they are gone. For now these sand dollars remain where they belong, on the ocean floor, their dignity intact, doing whatever small obscure thing it is they do on behalf of the world.