Of paddles, creatures and friends

I got as close as, I don’t know, perhaps 100 feet. She was just floating there, as placid as her vast ocean playground. The sun blasting my bare back looked silky on hers. Beautiful shine, I thought.

I had stopped paddling — didn’t want to scare her away. The surf board drifted slowly toward her. It was my first time paddle boarding. I was like a kid out there playing with a new toy, trying to focus on not falling off. The only distractions were coastal tour boats creating these cool waves I could ride, and brown pelicans flying and dive fishing all around.

As I got close to my smooth pelican neighbor, a friend of hers smashed into the water. Didn’t rattle her a bit. Fifteen seconds later, they were both off on a stunning flight two feet above surface for what seemed like an eternity, and then lifted along the coastline and out of sight.

For me, it was back to my balancing act. One of the great ironies of my life — of most people who live on an island, in fact — is that I’m surrounded by water — in my case, around the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico — but don’t play on the ocean very often. It’s just not my thing. People pay thousands of dollars to come down here and hit the beach and marvel at the beauty of our shores, and I marvel, too, but from the shore.

The tide today, December 31, was high. When I arrived with friends and family to the spot in the western town of Rincón where we would usher in 2016, one of the members of our party, who frequents the place, said they always take their beach chairs to the shoreline and have plenty of walking room on the sand between the rock wall behind them and the water ahead. This weekend, the water chopped right up to the rocks. No beach chairs this time around.

As I floated and paddled on my borrowed board, I leaped ahead to the day when the water will not just keep the chairs out, but reach past the coastline homes, pond the quaint little streets behind them, and establish a new shore along what is now a small inland forest.

Two meters of sea-level rise is already baked in for the coming decades. Some scientists believe it will be closer to three or four meters, or more, by century’s end, enough to wipe out ports, airports, tourism zones and all matter of daily life in places as leisurely and peripheral as this one and as central to global commerce and finance as London, Shanghai and New York City.

Paddling back to sand, I wondered which climate change consequence would come first, this one or any among so many — species extinction, for instance, including my brown pelican friends and countless others at high risk from toxic chemicals and ocean acidification.

COP21 wrapped up barely two weeks ago, the much-awaited UN climate conference in Paris that produced the mixed results I and so many others expected. At the very least, the summit did raise the tide of climate consciousness, emboldening ever more change agents — visionary brands, cities, citizens and NGOs — to ride this biggest-ever wave of urgent and decisive action.

No one knows if it will be enough to transition from today’s quicksands of climate change to a future of love and prosperity for pelicans, humans and every creature on the planet, to paraphrase my colleague Mark Eckhardt. What we do know, as my forester friend Scott Poynton says in this reflection, is that we’ve no choice at this point but to grab our oars and paddle as hard as we possibly can.

Tomorrow is a good time to start. Happy New Year, my friends.

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