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Why do the plovers fly away? - Chapter 21

Updated: Nov 17, 2021

What does the cup of ocean hold?

Glory of purple and glint of gold;

Tenderest greens and heavenly blue,

Shot with the sunlight through and through;

Wayward ripples that idly roam.

Tumbling breakers with gallant foam;

Sands and pebbles that chase and slide;

Mystic currents that softly glide;

Mighty spell of the ages old,

This does the cup of ocean hold.

The Cup of Ocean by Amos Russel Wells


Mel’s stomach heaved. She clutched one hand over her mouth, silently willing her body not to be sick. When that didn’t work, she flew to the rail and noisily deposited her breakfast over the side of the boat. Behind her, her classmates groaned.

“You alright, lass?” asked Harry, the old fisherman whose vessel she’d just befouled.

“I’m fine,” Mel managed weakly.

Her face was pale as snow, but now she could feel the tips of her ears beginning to redden. She didn’t ordinarily get this seasick, but, ordinarily, she was in better health to begin with. Between the long hours at Schooner or Later and her internship, lying to her parents, and studying for exams, she was anxious and exhausted, and apparently the rolling waves were enough to send her over the edge.

Anne walked over and handed her a tissue to wipe her mouth. Mel cringed. “I look like I just got pulled out of the ocean, don’t I.”

“Mel, you’d still be pretty if you were a blobfish.”

“Not as pretty as you, Anne.”

Oh no. Was this real flirting or pretend flirting? Mel couldn’t be sure. The same thing had happened last week after they’d assessed the damage inflicted by the errant dog. (“Four nestlings dead, and probably other issues caused by parents fleeing their nests,” Anne had reported matter-of-factly.) They’d been waiting for Jackie to pick her up for work when Anne said, I like your bracelet and reached over and spun it with her finger, and really there was nothing that unusual about it, except for something in her low tone of voice and a flickering in her eyes...

Mel shook herself back to reality. She was hearing what she wanted to hear. She wiped her mouth gratefully and returned her attention to Harry the fisherman, who was telling a story about his grandfather while his brother steered the boat. Mel and Anne’s biology teachers had joined forces to take their students on a rare class trip to learn about marine conservation. Harry had been working with Ben and Bakul who, in addition to their research, were trying to build relationships with local people interested in conservation.

Mel steadied herself as the boat continued to bob, breathing deeply through her nose. The wind came from the north now, whipping away the fine, wet mist and dispersing the smells of salt and fish. Mel faced into the wind and watched the playful waves. Sail far enough into that wind and you’d offshore find oil rigs, the Shetland Islands, maybe Norway if you went off course.

“Now who can tell me which country in Europe has the worst record for overfishing?” Harry asked.

Halima Bulmer raised her hand. “The UK.”

“Precisely!” he boomed.

A few of the students who hadn’t been paying attention jumped. Halima beamed. “Now, I’m not a scientist, but I’ll tell you this. Over a third of our fisheries here in the Northeast Atlantic are overfished. If we keep setting our catch limits higher than what scientists are recommending, there’s going to be trouble. No more herring, no more salmon, no more cod.”

At this, Harry paused dramatically to take in the students’ reactions. A few of the more astute pupils raised their eyebrows, nodding thoughtfully.

“I’ve been fishing these seas since I was a lad. More than sixty years, which I suppose makes me old as dirt to you. I love these waters with all my heart. And I might be an old codger with only half a brain left, but even I can see that we have to act now.”

Harry’s brother nodded emphatically from behind the wheel. Mel turned away as another wave of nausea overtook her. Harry moved sinuously from one topic to the next: climate change, oil drilling, coastal erosion. The European eel was dying off, Harry said, and nobody even knew how it reproduced. For a man who claimed not to be a scientist, he sure knew quite a bit about science. Mel wished she could pay better attention, but her stomach was churning and her mind was full of questions. She’d received notification from Bangor that she’d been awarded a half scholarship, but her parents still wouldn’t consider letting her leave. Would anything ever change their minds? Would her earnings from Schooner or Later be enough to pay tuition? And what if she failed her English exam? Despite all her studying, she could never remember why April was so cruel to T.S. Eliot, nor which of Romeo’s friends was thoughtful and which one was rash.

“What’s that?” one of the students asked, pointing.

They had just returned to the marina. Harry’s quiet brother stood at the helm, while Harry hopped ashore to moor the boat. A plover with a red leg band was locked in battle with a strand of fishing line.

“Penelope!” Mel gasped.

“Oh dear,” said Harry.

He moved slowly down the dock, so as not to scare the bird, and scooped her up before she could fall into the water. With her head between his forefinger and middle finger and her body resting in his palm, Penelope looked pretty comfortable, except for the fishing line wrapped around her legs. Harry gestured for Mel to help with the untangling. She stepped gratefully onto the dock, legs swaying beneath her. Anne followed, holding her elbow to make sure she didn’t tip over.

“What were you doing all the way out here?” Mel scolded. “You ought to be watching your chicks.”

Penelope blinked her beady black eyes as if in a display of innocence. After a bit of muttering and fiddling on Mel’s part, Penelope was free. Harry stood back so the students could get a better look.

“This is why it’s important for us to pick up after ourselves, especially us fishers. Animals can get tangled in all sorts of rubbish,” he said. “Now, would one of you call the vet so we can make sure she doesn’t have any injur–”

Penelope had sprung free from his grip. Away she flapped in a flash of black and white, bound and determined to return to her nest. Mel quietly tucked the fishing line into her pocket and watched her fly away.

Read on:

About the author: Ella Shively is a recent graduate of Northland College. She is now working as a water resource specialist at the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation in Ashland, Wisconsin, USA. You can find her online at

About this chapter's featured poet: Amos Russel Wells (1862-1933) was a US editor, author and professor. He wrote a number of poems as well as some Christian hymns.

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