Searching For Mermaids by Liz Cleere. Finalist. ‘A well-crafted story with a strong narrative structure, evocative descriptions and a humorous tone that engages the reader right through to the conclusion.
Kate Simon, Travel Editor, Independent on Sunday
As the reef rushes towards me, I grip the slippery stainless steel wheel, my hands sweating and prickling with fear. The sea moves from lapis lazuli to sapphire, then turquoise, emerald and jade, finally fracturing into a myriad piercing colours. I’ve no time to admire its beauty; I must hold my course. Jamie shouts words of encouragement.
“For God’s sake concentrate!”
For millennia ancient mariners have told of mermaids, with their mesmerising beauty and seductive songs, luring sailors to their death on sharp-toothed rocks. Today, as we sail our thin-skinned boat through shards of coral, I’m beginning to understand where those old Jack Tars were coming from.
Dolphins peel off into the navy blue sea, and a hitch-hiking tern flies away. Balancing high up on the boom, Jamie peers into the now crystal water, navigating by sight – and the seat of his pants.
Dugongs gave rise to the legend of mermaids. One had lived on my desktop at work, but I left it behind when I exchanged the daily grind for a life at sea. Distantly related to elephants, and looking like a cross between a walrus and a potato, these gentle vegetarians – they eat nothing but sea-grass – grow to three metres in length and weigh half a ton. When a fellow sailor whispered to me that she had spotted one in a hidden “marsa” on the Sudanese coast, I persuaded Jamie to stop there on our southbound passage through the Red Sea.
“Five degrees to port. Don’t lose your speed.”
Marsas are narrow winding creeks, the desert equivalent of a fjord. We found this one easily, but manoeuvring the boat – our home – from the safety of the deep Red Sea, through a kilometre of crooked coral-fringed channels, is proving to be even more of a challenge than we’d anticipated. I follow Jamie’s command and shrug off the instinct to slow down – I mustn’t lose momentum.
Our cat, oblivious to the danger she’s in, leans overboard, ears twitching as her x-ray eyes follow hundreds of startled fish beneath the bow. She is not alone in savouring the smorgasbord laid out in front of her: an osprey, with the speed and precision of a missile, swoops down to pick up its dinner.
We glide round another hairpin bend and the marsa bursts open. A welcoming lagoon, ringed by a creamy golden shore, folds us into its protective arms: we’ve made it up the creek, paddles intact. After dropping the hook on a sandy seabed, with a healthy carpet of sea-grass growing on it, Jamie gently peels my clenched fingers from the steering wheel. We’ve stumbled into a David Attenborough BBC documentary: African savannah stretches to distant mountains in the west; to the south the sea tickles a pristine beach, and on the northern shore ten metre high fossil-filled rocks jut over the water. There’s not a human in sight. Neither is there a dugong.
On cue, the late afternoon desert wind sweeps in, whipping up the waves. I scan the surface for a fluked tail. Nothing. Unperturbed by a 44 foot hull appearing in the middle of its afternoon perambulations, a turtle silently swims past. For a millisecond I mistake it for a dugong and am ashamed at my disappointment.
When dusk arrives the wind drops, smoothing and quietening the lagoon. But not for long. Soon the water is boiling with fish: the familiar sound of nocturnal behemoths herding their prey. After our own supper of tuna, caught off the back of the boat earlier, we relax in the warm night air. Later, while Scorpius crawls across an ebony sky, we fall asleep.
Dugongs share a need for sun, sea and sand with package-holiday makers, but they are shy creatures, and are losing the battle to jet skis and sunscreen. Designated “vulnerable” on the IUCN list of endangered species, they are victims of our human population explosion.
Over the next few days, we explore the marsa: stingrays glide in the shallows; a Goliath heron stands poised for the kill, and hermit crabs (in a variety of recycled homes) play hide and seek with me on the beach. I collect bits of jetsam, driftwood, broken coral and two football-sized, empty conchs. Jamie finds the osprey’s nest, complete with chicks, tucked away on a rocky outcrop. There are no dugongs.
A few days later it is time to leave our haven: the wind has turned southerly and we have an ocean to cross. Reluctantly I take the wheel, while Jamie lifts the anchor. Then a dugong comes up for breath, and time stands still. I am enchanted. It dives and re-surfaces, trawling for food, a graceful and stoical, giant spud.
As we drift towards the rocks, a shout breaks the spell.
“Say goodbye to the mermaid.”