I am always amazed at the amount of aquatic wildlife to be seen at water’s edge. I don’t mean the storied ‘water’s edge’ where water meets land. Rather, I am mesmerized by the amazing convergence of sea and sky, that endless millimeter-thin, 2-D plane of indigo blue where creatures of fin and wing congregate.
After too many land-locked years in the States, I have finally developed ‘sea eyes’. While many people look out from the coast and gaze at endless water stretching to the horizon, I see much more than that. There is a surprising amount of aquatic wildlife to witness. Some are very subtle and as fleeing as a Green Flash. Other encounters are hard to miss.
Brown pelicans fall into the latter group. No mistaking their dinosaur pedigree with the bird’s signature primordial beak and endless smile. Pelicans’ ability to glide inches over the water’s surface without touching their wings amazes me. Their internal GPS allows for variation of wave height in an instant. Just as speedy is their uncanny ability to spot fish just below the surface and dive in a heartbeat. Local fishermen claim that old pelicans eventually go blind from repeated headers into the sea. Once their sight is gone, the end comes soon.
Frigate birds are another favorite. These large, gull-winged acrobats fish the bay, but also fly hundreds of miles out to sea in search of food. The frigates have a precarious problem as fish hunters. If their wings get soaked with salt water while diving for food, they are unable to fly and eventually drown. Because of this inadequacy, frigates execute amazing maneuvers mere inches above the water in their quest for fish. In terms of aerial maneuvers, they are the Top Guns in the water bird world. A visiting sailor once told me that he was far out at sea when he spotted a frigate diving for food. A rogue wave washed over the bird just as it went in for the catch. The bird floundered in the sea, moments away from drowning. The sailor claims that two other frigate birds flew in, each grabbing a wing of their helpless comrade, and freed it from its pending doom.
Sailing the Caribbean gets me up close and personal with a lot of aquatic wildlife. The other day I was sailing alone, cruising downwind in front of downtown Kralendijk. I looked over to the now-deserted cruise ship dock. It was lined with local fishermen hand fishing the day away. I noticed a barnacle-laden buoy nearby, sinking below and then resurfacing repeatedly. I changed course to investigate. Was something tugging on the buoy’s line? As I got about 10 yards away, I saw that it was not a buoy at all but a large hawksbill turtle. The animal rolled on its side, gave me the eye, and slipped down into the deep. Only the silence of a sailboat allowed me to get so close. I surprise sea turtles frequently while they bob on the sea’s surface, taking in the sun.
My boat, Kontentu, also rousts out flying fish as we sail the bay. These amazing animals of electric blue color can easily soar the length of a football field in their escape. They remain airborne, defiant of gravity, for a half-minute at a time. The best flying fish story I have heard if from my sailor friend, Wendy. “We were on a trans-Atlantic passage about mid-ocean, and I was in the galley. The window was open and a frying pan was just sitting there on the stove. Before I knew it, a flying fish flew in, landing right in the pan! The crew wanted me to cook it immediately. I decided this guy deserves to live after what he did, so I threw him overboard. We ended up calling it the frying, flying fish incident.”
Dolphins also occupy the sea-sky convergence. We often see spinners breaking the surface, corkscrewing their slick black forms in the air before splashing back into sea. On Kontentu’s maiden voyage, a pod of dolphins came to greet the new boat in the bay. They raced the bow for five minutes, squealing with delight. Hettie had to hold our dog with both hands to prevent her from springing overboard. Sparky wanted to swim with the dolphins. How touristy, dog.
My aquatic wildlife encounter of the strangest kind occurred at Malmok. This desolate, rocky outcrop is Bonaire’s most northern point. It resembles the craggy, treeless coast of Labrador rather than a tropical isle. I was posted at the top of a 100-foot cliff overlooking the sea. Our mission that late afternoon was to count brown boobies, resilient shore birds that roost in this isolated corner of the national park. The boobies, however, were not arriving in their usual numbers and soon my attention drifted to the sea below. I spotted what can best be described as a small flotilla of vivid purple and pink, floating empanadas. Yes, empanadas–those fruit filled Mexican desert wonders that please the palette after a hefty plate of creamy green enchiladas. These bizarre creatures had the same thumb-indented edge to them as my beloved empanadas, but their unearthly color puzzled me. Actually, I found the sighting disturbing at best. I was convinced that this was an invasive aquatic landing of extra-terrestrials on Planet Earth or something evil from the deep fathoms of the sea. As I stared at the alien gathering below, a fellow booby-counter passed by and noticed my horrified look. “Oh, Portuguese Man O War. Haven’t seen that many in awhile.”
The next day at sunset, I walk Sunset Beach with Sparky and contemplate the strange looking flotilla of Portuguese Man O War. Looking west, the water is backlit by golden light. In a burst of speed, a school of ballyhoo–pencil-thin, near-surface dwellers– explodes on the water’s surface. The sound of a thousand fish breaking the water can be heard above the lapping waves. Something big is below, looking for dinner. I continue my gaze. Yep, once again the group leaps for their lives, rising a foot out of the sea in fourth quarter desperation. Ballyhoo sunset. The end of another day.