An underwater view of a school of Rainbow Runners accompanying the R.V. Odyssey.
Chris Johnson and Brian Hall attached an underwater camera to a pole to capture this
unique view while the Odyssey traveled at 4 knots.
Photo: Chris Johnson & Brian Hall
December 6, 2000
Rainbow Runners: Part I
Right after leaving Howland Island on Sunday evening we raised the sails and as we were tidying the deck and coiling ropes by the soft illumination of the shroud lights, someone noticed a school of fish swimming back by the Odyssey's stern on the Starboard side. So we did what any sailors would do and immediately began trying to catch them in the dark. We had soon caught one on a lure and it turned out to be a rainbow runner, a thin, streamlined, silver, pelagic fish with a beautiful iridescent rainbow racing stripe running the full length of each side (its lateral line organ, I suppose) with dorsal and ventral fins that compressed into grooves until it was perfectly streamlined-as beautiful a creature as one ever gets to see.
We cleaned it in preparation for breakfast but were unable to net or gaff another in spite the energetic attempts of three of the crew, two of whom came close to falling overboard more than once. But as the rainbow runners reacted not at all to our violence, except to make pacifistic half-second dodges and then resume their resolute swimming ahead, and because they showed no evidence of abandoning us in spite of all the commotion we were making (net plunges, gaff slashes, trials with every lure and sinker in the tackle box--all of them failures), but resolutely kept swimming along by Odyssey's starboard stern (never the port stern), never deviating, never slowing, never speeding ahead, always there, at heel as it appeared-perfectly trained, companion fish. Because of this, I say, we finally gave up and went to bed, deciding we would try to catch more in the morning should they still be with us, though each of us felt a bit of a fool for having been so aggressive towards these faithful fish.
Well, they stayed with us all that night, as every watch confirmed by checking frequently. They were always there, twenty or thirty slender fish swimming steadily, each about 20 inches (50 centimeters) long, never resting, apparently inexhaustible, in spite of our relatively rapid sailing pace of about 6 knots (7 mph, 11 km/hour) or more. Surely they would have to rest after running at this speed all night.
But no. And they stayed with us all the next day too as the miles of ocean ticked off. And though we did catch one more, we felt awful for having done so and have since declared the ocean around Odyssey a rainbow runner sanctuary. (Eating such tireless, and accomplished creatures seems not only like consuming some consummate Olympic athlete, but killing someone with whom one has been through a life-changing adventure.)
So off and on, all yesterday, whenever we had free time we would go out and watch them by the hour, or film them, or just watch them more. And they were always there, tirelessly swimming, never resting, never varying, always keeping pace, never deviating, never slowing, never speeding ahead, always at Odyssey's heel, hour after hour-our tireless companion fish.
And thus it went until nightfall when the sun had packed it in... but not our rainbow runners. They were still there. And all this second night every watch checked for them and found them present, as though by now they were members of the crew. And at dawn this morning they still were with us, though we had covered eighty miles in the night. And they were with us still at lunch, fifty miles later, as they are now-with the sun about to set, and the third night about to begin; tirelessly swimming never resting, never varying, always keeping pace, never deviating, never slowing, never speeding ahead, always there, at Odyssey's heel hour after hour, our faithful companion fish.
We saw today as well that they have widened their sphere of action. Some even tried out the port side of the boat for a while or ranged off and flanked us at 40 meters distance to starboard, or fell behind for a few minutes. For as we sail, we scare up schools of flying fish which our rainbow runners pursue, rushing off for a few moments but almost at once returning to our side, like falcons to the falconer, after having stooped on some hapless upland game bird. And today we saw as well that they were surfing whenever they had the chance on the stern wave created by our passage, not a very large wave but a free ride nevertheless.
And during the afternoon, we came upon a school of pilot whales. And everyone hastened to see them as Bob started the engine and steamed ahead, so as to follow them upwind-the Odyssey doggedly plunging ahead, burying its face in the bosom of each approaching swell.
When it was obvious the pilot whales were about other business, and the excitement had waned, I returned to my cabin to write, but remembered then the rainbow runners and hastened up on deck to check for them, to see if all our activity had driven them off. But there they were, tirelessly swimming, never resting, never varying position, Always at Odyssey's heel, our perfect companion schoolmates.
And when I returned to my cabin I checked periodically out of my sea level porthole and there they were, scales flashing in the sun, yellow tails sweeping rapidly from side to side propelling their ghost-like bodies through the endless blue of the sea.
We have wondered often what it is they are up to. For as I speak they have now completed a 250 mile swim in 44 hours and show not the slightest indication of tiring. Also, their numbers have swelled. It now seems as though, as Odyssey proceeds through the sea, all of the rainbow runners that ever were will join her, as she becomes some aquatic Pied Piper who, having collected all of them in her van, will carry them to the lagoon at Tarawa, our next island destination, which will then contain... all of the rainbow runners in this part of the Pacific. Our captain has never seen anything like it, though he has spent his entire life at sea.
So I will keep you informed as to what they do. Stay tuned. This is Roger Payne, leading an army of rainbow runners, an oceanic rainbow coalition, as it makes its slow, but steady way across the equatorial Pacific.
Log written by Roger Payne
Sound recordings by Chris Johnson
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