The Birdman of Bonaire

Island Notes 81 

The Birdman of Bonaire, Jerry Ligon with a yellow warbler in the background.


It is a long path from the low, rolling hills of Ada, Oklahoma to the shores of Bonaire.  In between those two disparate points, naturalist Jerry Ligon has spent his life admiring nature.

He fled the Oklahoma plains for a Rocky Mountain high where he worked as a National Park Service naturalist at Estes Park.  Later, he became a certified dive instructor and spent five years on Saint Thomas, the heartbeat of the US Virgin Islands.  During that stint, Jerry was offered a job as a resident naturalist aboard a small, 150-passenger cruise ship that plied the Caribbean Islands and the long coasts of South America.  This was career utopia for Ligon. He learned all the birds of these ports by visiting the numerous botanical gardens often found on the islands.

Paradoxically, his last stop was Bonaire, an island without a botanical garden.  With his contract all ran out, the cruise ship offered him a plane ticket back to the States.  He never flew home.  That was in 1994.  Since then, Jerry has become the only bird guide on Bonaire.  “In the land of blind men, the one-eyed man is king,” he declares.  But if only one eye is dedicated for the birds, Ligon uses the other for fish.  He also gives reef fish ID tours underwater as well.

Wild cucumber, just one of many plants we came upon.

My friend, Nathalie, and I joined Jerry recently for a terrestrial tour.  It was as much about plants as birds, and I learned about some unique flora. Take manzaliña di bobo for instance, the ‘little apple of the fool’.  It is more commonly called manchineel or poison guana, and is known as one of the more poisonous trees in the world.  Unaware tourists often seek the shaded shelter under this tree during rain.  Bad move. Toxic chemicals wash off the tree’s branches and leaves producing a severe, blistering rash for those sitting below.  The Arawak Indians, the original bad boys of the Caribbean, used to coat their arrow points in the plant’s nasty, white sap to ensure a quick kill.  Take that, Jack Sparrow!

Beware of the bringamosa or ‘pretty girl who can fight’.But Jerry turned us on to other less notorious plant members of Bonaire’s mondi.  My favorite was another don’t-touch badass, bringamosa or ‘pretty girl who can fight’.  He also pointed out a red cedar complete with drooping, yellow oriole nests; an evening roosting spot for hundreds of yellow-shoulder Amazon parrots along Kaminda Santa Barbara; and a brilliant orange butterfly, the Tropical Julia.  No, this was not the 2010 tropical storm labeled by NOAA.  Rather, this elegant insect, native of verdant Costa Rica, is surprisingly found here on our arid island.

The list went on as the morning grew old—least grebe (a South-of-the-Border, fresh water diving bird), spotted sandpipers (“that’s the only sandpiper that bobs continually”), and a tri-colored heron (“Can’t miss its white belly!”).

Yellow oriole nests hanging high in a red cedar tree.

Five hours later, I was steeped in the lore of island plants and enlightened to the nuances of our local birds.  I spoke to Jerry about my upcoming trip to Peru to check out the country’s thousands of exotic bird species.  He just smiled and said, “I couldn’t do that.  After a week or two, I just couldn’t leave.  That would be teasing myself.  I would have to stay and explore for years.”  Something tells me that Ligon’s job here is far from done.  I expect the Birdman of Bonaire to be around for a while.  Hopi bon.

Post Script—This has nothing to do with Jerry Ligon.  Rather it is about my friend, Bruce.  We were returning from a dive today at the Invisibles and rounded the traffic circle near the airport.  The tires of Bruce’s truck were squealing the entire time that we traveled the circumference.

“Sounds like your tires are a bit low on air, Bruce.”

“Yeah, I actually have two tires with slow leaks.  I have to fill them up with air every three or four days.”

I just look at the man.  Here is a competent dive leader and former health care manager/professional in a former life.  “Man, you have really gone down island.”

We glance at each other and just laugh hard.


A Gusty Encounter

Island Notes 80

I start the morning asking myself, “Should I stay or should I go?”  No, I’m not singing The Clash’s phenomenal, 1981 punk rock song with that as a title.  Rather I’m pondering 19-knot winds, gusting to 22. (22-25 mph for you North American landlubbers).

But as The Clash continued to sing… If I go there will be trouble.  If I stay it will be double. I simply decide to cut my losses and head to the boat.

The first thing to go wrong is while swimming to Kotentu.  There is an amazingly strong current today that sweeps me north of the boat, and with dry bag in hand, it takes everything with a scissor kick and a one-arm stoke to get to the stern ladder.  I arrive puffing.

Then, while raising the main sail, a cleat that holds the sail down comes undone.  I break out my Leatherman tool and make the repair.  Is someone telling me something?  After all, 19-knot winds are the top of Kontentu’s range for controlled sailing.  I consider calling this off, but for only a heartbeat.  The sun is bright, the water blue.   The winds are ample.  Many of my friends are back in the States toiling at work this morning.  It would be a dishonor not to represent them on the ‘fun side’ of the day.  I cast off.

I decide to head into the wind and sail two miles south in the direction of the Flamingo International Airport.  Upon seeing its flaming pink terminal, I tack and head for the Plaza Resort’s Tipsy Seagull Bar & Restaurant.  The smell of morning bacon wafts from shore.

The run so far has been fine.  I think may have set the wind velocity a bit higher than what I have met so far, but the day is still young.  I change my course to a beam reach and follow the coastline about 100 yards from shore.  When I look down into the cobalt blue water aside my boat, I discover I have company.  There is a pod of eight dolphins following my lead.  They race off the bow, to starboard and port, and give me a smile that feels like my face is cracking.  When the dolphins surface for air, they exhale an enormous ‘shoooosh’.  I make the identical sound when I break the surface after a free dive.  We are all mammals, deeply connected to the sea.  My smile grows even wider.

The Woodwind, a local trimaran, is just leaving the Divi Flamingo Resort with a deck full of tourists headed for a day snorkel.  The captain waves to me and sees my finned buddies.  Woodwind changes course to give the tourists a peak at the dolphins.  I sail on in gusty winds that force me to change my course abruptly.  I try to tell the dolphins my predicament and that I promise to set a straight track once the gusts subside, but it is too late.  Our navigational rhythm is been broken.  Our aquatic syncronicity has crashed. The love is gone.  The pod makes a sudden 90-degree turn and heads toward shore.  The Woodwind pursues.  I’m content with my ten-minute encounter and point home.

Should I stay or should I go?  I think The Clash had it right. If I go there will be trouble.  If I stay it will be double.

The only trouble I really encountered this morning of heavy wind was getting the grin off my face.  That is proof of a day well spent, sailing with the dolphins.

Swimming in the Shadow of the Eagle Ray

Island Notes 79

(All photos by Hettie)

Leo brings a hawksbill turtle to the surface.

It is that time of year again.  We begin our fourth year joining Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire in their annual turtle survey.  This entails patrolling the 25-mile leeward coast of Bonaire and the entire shoreline of Klein Bonaire, our offshore island. Five volunteers join STCB staff, Mabel and Leo.  One volunteer captains the Nancy Too, STCB’s boat.  Mabel and Leo are in the water with pony Scuba tanks for the deep diving to capture turtles.  The others are spotters and can free dive for turtles if they are seen sleeping below, an easier catch.  The group spreads out in a line parallel to the coast and moves forward together counting and/or capturing sea turtles.  The captured animals are tagged, weighed, measured and inspected for health.  All the data goes into a long-term study database which STCB later analyzes.

Green sea turtle near the bottom

After three years, I thought I had seen it all.  But on Monday, rough seas with high, breaking waves forced us to change our destination from Slagbaai in the national park to the gentler coast between Plantation Karpata and the BOPEC oil storage tanks.  Serendipity was on our side as the stretch was set aside by the national marine park in the 1980s as a no-use nature preserve—no boating, fishing, diving, snorkeling or swimming is allowed along the 2-mile pristine coast.  We are allowed special access to conduct the survey.

I had surveyed the preserve two years ago with STCB, but did not get enough of this beautiful underwater world.  The corals here are extensive and healthy, the fish abundant and varied.  It is obvious to me that reefs do better without us.  The only people that go into this protected zone are marine scientists and conservation groups like ours to occasionally conduct business.  Some locals may sneak in now and then, but human impact is low.  Actually the day we surveyed, we saw a man and woman hand-line fishing from shore, but that is a rare exception.  When we passed by an hour later, they were gone.

This area is what Hettie calls "the aquarium".

The next day of the survey took us to the extreme southern tip of the island where the Willemstoren lighthouse is located.  This was another special treat.  Normally, conditions here are so rough that it is too dangerous to enter.  Neither Hettie nor I had seen this coast due to its treacherous nature.  But yesterday the waters were calm enough for us to enter.  The swells were still big but as our group patrolled north, conditions only improved.  The sea at this end of the island is what I term “big water”, a place that gets the unprotected flow of the sea often.  I found it to be even more impressive that the reserve.  Huge sea fans of purple and green undulated in a tropical tango with the wave movements.  It was like seeing a Salvador Dali painting come alive with motion.  I spotted enormous, green-yellow shafts six to eight feet tall and about 6” in diameter, reaching for the skies.  It was an astonishing site.  I later discovered these are appropriately called pillar coral and belong to the hard, stony coral family, relatives of Elkhorn and lobed star coral.  Swimming on, I spotted two southern stingrays effortlessly cruising above the bottom.  Later I saw an  eagle ray swimming in concert with two palometas.  I was unsure what the graceful silver fish were up to.  At first they swam in the shadow of the ray.  Later it appeared that they were nibbling or cleaning the skin of the long-tailed bottom dweller.  We followed this aquatic ménage à trois for minutes while still keeping an eye out for turtles.

It was a good day on the water.  We did three, one-hour in-water sessions.  With boat time and data collection, it was an eight-hour day. Our efforts from the Willemstoren lighthouse to Red Slave netted seven turtles, mostly hawksbills.  I got to pose with the smallest hawksbill I have ever seen.  It was tiny but extremely healthy.  May he have a long, robust life swimming in the shadow of the eagle ray.

Karnival Smiles

It is that time of year again–Karnival.  In the past two weeks there have been music concerts, jump ups, children’s parades, drum beat outs, and the finale today, the adults’ parade.  These participants put in enormous amounts of time, money, energy, work and effort in continuing the island’s rich tradition of Karnival.  I love the spectacle, but I am most enamored with the smiles of the people…