“In nature,” explained Sotiris the Skipper, “there are three types of relationship. Parasitic – where one creature benefits and the other one suffers. Mutual – where both creatures benefit. And commensal – where one creature gives, but gets nothing in return.”
He gave a wry smile. “You see, they are very much like human relationships…”
It was my first day on board Tahita, the beautiful little yacht that would be my home for the next week, carrying me around the Aegean Sea. Sotiris was clicking through the slides of his Powerpoint presentation, giving his passengers a crash course in marine ecology, preparing us for the next seven days of life above and below the waves.
It turned out that the marine life here had quite a bit in common with humans. Female sea urchins, for example, can be distinguished from the males as they place pebbles or strands of seaweed on top of themselves – “to make themselves beautiful.” Other species were harder to anthropomorphise, such as the sea cucumbers that spew out the contents of their own stomachs when attacked. The predator gorges on the contents – and is then too full to eat the sea cucumber. And then there were the gender-shifting creatures, such as the grouper, who transform into males as they mature. “These animals do not conform to Christian or Muslim prejudices,” observed Sotiris, as we giggled at the thought of the groupers’ liberal attitudes.
As we adjusted to life on the Med, the days and nights quickly began to blur, between blue sea and blue sky, sailing and docking and dropping anchor, awaking from slumber as the boat rocked me gently back and forth in the early hours, my ears picking up each wave and rattle and clatter, otherworldly sounds for a landlubber like me.
The anticipated seasickness thankfully never came, the pack of ginger capsules remained unopened. I suffered instead from landsickness, feeling quite drunk each time I set foot on the islands, on solid ground that didn’t rock constantly. My head spun, and sometimes I swayed deliberately, trying to trick my brain – or my inner ear – into thinking I was back at sea, not caring how daft I looked.
Swaying on Tahita, swaying on dry land – the only place the swaying stopped was, ironically, beneath the water’s surface, as we scuba dived with colourful Turkish wrasse, a serene stingray, silvery sea bream, skittish scorpion fish and a stone-still moray eel, awaiting his next meal. Down here, ten, twenty metres beneath the waves, the Aegean was pond-still and clear, and we floated around vast, coral encrusted caverns, steep, submarine cliffs, and a Nazi plane wreck without the fear of currents casting us adrift from our boat base. Marine life was fairly scarce, the legacy of decades of overfishing and harmful trawling. The dolphins had departed in search of food; the larger fish scattered at the sight of our bubbles. But the underwater world remained strikingly beautiful as I rose and fell with the rhythm of my breath, emerging into strange air pockets dripping with stalactites, floating over a cliff edge, dropping into a dark hole which led to an open fronted cave.
We dropped anchor in little marinas, all jumping into the dinghy to reach the beach or dock. One evening we cruised into a tiny bay in the far south of the island of Naxos, where the young Zeus was raised in a cave. We scavenged for kindling along the pebbly beach, and dragged heavy, flat rocks around the makeshift barbecue as seating. The flames rose as the sun fell, searing our pork belly, baking potatoes in their skins, crackling through the silent island night. The smoky meat was roughly chopped and passed around; we ate, sticky fingered, hungry from the fresh air, giddy with Greek wine and the knowledge that there was a sea between us and the nearest human beings.
On the days we sailed, we were left exhilarated and exhausted. Tensing muscles and bracing bodies for three hours against the angry Aegean, whose summer winds whipped waves into the air, tossing Tahita in the water, tossing us in Tahita. One wrong move, one missed grip on the rails, and we could have ended up in the sea, or crashing onto the deck. Sotiris stood splayed-legged behind the wheel, his quarter century of experience in the Mediterranean giving him the knowledge to deal with the raging sea – and the wisdom to know when to not even try. Sails were unfurled, ropes coiled, booms swung and we became insignificant dots on a vast naval chart, disappearing between islands and islets, following the instantly erased paths of seafarers past.
We ventured onto land to replenish supplies – the endless Greek salad for lunch, salty feta, fresh olives, set yogurt, bottles of frozen water, fresh melon and nectarines. By day, our island excursions became less frequent as we grew comfortable with life at sea. Why sit on a sandy beach when you can swim off a boat? Why surround yourself with people when you can surround yourself with the waves? But we did step ashore each evening though, to sample the fare at the tiny tavernas: goat stew, roast lamb, baked aubergine, stingray salad, warm feta with sesame. Each Small Cycladian Island had its own character – but each, too, was reassuringly holiday-brochure Greek: whitewashed houses, vivid blue shutters, hot pink bougainvillea cascading down the walls, contrasting with the dusty ochre earth and cloudless sky. Theie names rolled off the tongue like an ancient odyssey: Iraklia, Kofounisi, Naxos, Schinoussa.
We spent our final evening on the tiny island of Antiparos, staring into the sun as it sank behind the island, Greek wine in hand, spicy peanuts burning our lips, skin tinted pink from the sunset and sunburn. The summer winds dropped, and a small round of applause broke out as the burning sphere dipped behind he hills, casting glowing beams across the sky. We sea gypsies returned to dry land in the morning – the arid streets of Athens no less – but the Aegean refused to let us go so easily. As I marched up the hot, steep steps to the Acropolis, I teetered with the heat and landsickness, my inner ears refusing to let me believe I had really left Tahita behind. At the foot of the Parthenon I stopped and swayed, as I had learned to do to stop the giddiness, and the sea glittered far in the distance, winking goodbye.
This trip was run by the lovely Annie and Sotiris of Mystic Blue. Their sailing, diving and walking holidays around the Cyclades are run with an incredible environmental ethos and do their best to support local communities, businesses and producers.