Are You a Swimmer or a Drifter?
I used to be a swimmer, but I have become a drifter. I enjoyed swimming. Drifting is so very different, I’m still adjusting. But there sure are advantages to my new lifestyle, and much to learn.
Far out at sea, beyond rocks and hiding places and visible sea floor, animals either swim or they drift. Swimmers, like tuna, mackerel, sardines, find their dinner, and avoid being someone else’s dinner, by moving fast, often in a school, eating on the move, and eating a lot, to make all that energy they need to keep swimming.
Drifters, another word for plankton, (the word is the same as “planet” – Greeks thought the planets “drifted” through the heavens) cannot propel themselves much, so they find dinner by stinging prey (jellies) or just by bumping into it (copepods, diatoms.) Drifters need much less energy, so eat much less food. Unlike the swimmers who can avoid prey by swimming fast and/or in schools, drifters protect themselves by being transparent, or tiny, or stinging.
Actually it’s not really an either/or, swimming or drifting. Almost every creature begins life as plankton, little drifters. Even human egg and embryo. Some remain drifters all their lives – copepods, jellies. But some drifters, as they age, grow into swimmers (fish) or they “settle” (crabs, sea stars.).
As an Aquarium volunteer my favorite station is the “Tiny Drifters” microscope, formerly called the Plankton Lab, where we can show guests magnifications of tiny live animals. Putting a tiny plankton baby crab or sea star under the lens, I would say, “It’s drifting now, but will grow up to settle or swim away. I have children in my house - they are in the plankton stage of their lives, but eventually they will ‘settle’ or move on.” And yes they have.
But strangely I, their aging mother, have gone from a life of happy non-stop swimming through life, moving fast to the next meal and accomplishment, to a contented drifting. Call it retirement, pandemic lockdown, a spiritual seeking for still waters - this girl is one peaceful plankton.
Another difference is that swimmers travel mostly horizontal, while drifters go vertical. It’s not quite accurate to say that drifters can’t propel themselves, or that they just float along. They actually take part in the largest migration on earth, travel
ing every night from the safe dark depths up to the surface for food under cover of night, and then back down deep at dawn. It’s estimated from their tiny body size it would be like us walking 20 miles a day. It’s just a different kind of movement from the frantic swimmers. These days I too, rather than propelling myself forward, am having some “down” time.
It’s easier to call myself “plankton” than “drifter.” We modern Westerners disapprove of drifters, assuming they are tramps or vagabonds, aimless, moochers. Get into the swim of things! Expend more energy, consume more, including other life forms, you must keep moving to live.
Like all metaphors, this one is exaggerated and imperfect. But these days this drifter is certainly consuming less (well, at least buying at lot less stuff), impacting my environment less, using less energy. I am not hiding in crowds or chasing a dream. Of course, while both swimmers and drifters live dangerous often short lives, I am so very lucky to be able to drift in my small safe habitat with enough to eat and not much danger (so far.)
Maybe I’m reversing that normal pattern, how drifting plankton grow up to become determined swimming fish or settled crabs. I’m doing the opposite, getting out of the swim, taking “down” time, and casting my fate to the wind. And currents. Sail on.
I post these Blue Theology “Tide-ing” ocean devotions every Wednesday here and at on Facebook. Come and sea, be in touch!