On the crossing we were joined by large birds which seemed to hang or glide in the air around us. They were boobies. First there was a single brown booby and then a number began to appear. They swept along the side of the boat sometimes hanging in the air feet away from me seeming to be studying me with their astute beady eyes.
There were three types of boobies – the brown booby, the spectacled booby and the red legged booby. They were all magnificent but I was particularly fond of the red legged variety with its yellow tail feathers and blue beak.
The boobies would soar over the waves seeking food. They feasted on the flying fish that scudded away in large numbers, escaping the huge predator that was our ship. As our boat cut through the water the bow-wave would eject flying fish and the boobies would swoop to pluck them out of the air or dive into the sea to grab them as they plopped back into the water. That is primarily what was attracting them to the ship.
Here we were hundreds of miles from the nearest land and yet there were birds effortlessly gliding on the breeze.
As we got closer to South America we were joined by huge frigate birds. They hung in the air above the ship without a single wing-beat, looking like kites. They roosted on the ship’s infrastructure. On one night, as I was walking the deck I noticed one of the giant birds had settled on one of the ship’s long flexible radio aerials. The aerial was whipping about under the weight of the bird and the movement of the ship and the frigate bird was gripping on for dear life. I watched for a while thinking that it would surely leave such a precarious roost. It would be getting dizzy with the violent motion. It was still there in the morning. Perhaps it enjoyed being whipped around?
The frigate birds did not feed directly on the fish. They were rather evil and raggedy looking when perched with dishevelled feathers, like tattered black cloaks of a highwayman from the past, and their long beaks with its wicked point. There was none of the elegance they had when in flight. Their perched character was revealing of their true nature. They were robbers of the worst kind. They would watch the boobies doing the work and then swoop down to bully them into regurgitating the fish from their crops.
There are always some characters who are lazy, arrogant and vicious, who believe that it is beneath them to do any work; they can let the others do it and then simply take the product of their exertions by force. History is littered with the stories of these callous brigands. They’d storm through raping and pillaging, burning and torturing for fun. These scraggy frigates were the avian equivalent. I felt sorry for the poor terrified boobies.
There was other sea-life too. Every now and then a leatherback turtle would drift past the side of the ship with its neck sticking out of the water as it craned its neck to watch us go by. Pods of dolphins would sometimes make a bee-line for us and play in our bow-wave or wake before heading back off into the ocean’s expanse.
There were whales sighted all around us. Blows would be spotted and the fins or tails of a pod seen sinking below the waves. Great fun was had deciding from the height and shape of the blow and the nature of the fin what sort of whales they might be. Occasionally they would be quite near to the ship.
Isn’t it always the case that you never have your bloody camera when they pop up alongside you? That’s sod’s law.
From this account it sounds as if the sea was full of creatures. Sadly that was not the case. They were few and far between.
Back in the day of the old wooden sailing boats the seas did teem with life. The ships used to land on islands in order to restock with provisions and fresh water. Unfortunately the provisions included fresh meat and the sailors would bludgeon every creature that moved. They decimated the breeding grounds of seals, sea-lions, turtles and penguins, taking eggs, young and pregnant females indiscriminately. It wasn’t just the poor dodo that they pushed towards extinction. One of their favourite tricks was to stock up with live turtles that they would stack on deck upside down to kill when necessary. One can only imagine the agony of being left for days and weeks in the baking sun without food or water. It was cruel and callous.
The whalers also exacted a terrible toll. Not only did they decimate the whale populations but also took penguins, seals and even polar bears.
What we saw was the rump of what had once been. These creatures were hanging on as the human populations exploded. Their habitat was being destroyed, their food sources reduced, their breeding grounds taken over and they themselves hunted and killed. The tide of humanity was washing over the entire world.
In order to glimpse the majesty of what was left we spent hours scanning the oceans. But when we saw them they were wonderful.
Those creatures were testimony to the glory of natural selection. Evolution is amazing.
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