Island March

another Island Note…

I don’t need the calendar to know when March has arrived.  All I have to do is listen.  Along the shore that banks Kaya Playa Lechi, the street that fronts my home, the incessant calls of Laughing Gulls can be heard.  And they do laugh, “ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, haaaaaaaaw.”  It is a guffaw that takes about 10 seconds.  And when dozens chime in, it becomes a sea gull cacophony, an avian Woodstock, a comedy hour laugh-in with feathers.  Don’t take offense though.  These black-hooded beach bums really aren’t laughing at you.

They could be laughing at the cruise ship tourists, though.  March seems to be the height of the Boat-tel season.  The passengers who don’t book day tours often stroll down Kaya Playa Lechi in search of something.  The adventurous spread towels over the coral strewn shores.  It looks like a bumpy seaside visit to me.  Others stop and gawk at the local fishermen as they gut the day’s catch and throw the entrails to the frigate birds and pelicans.  The more entrepreneurial of the laughing gulls also enter the fray.  This is no joking matter.  But I often feel that George and Martha from Kansas are just filling time on island until the big ship blows its whistle, signaling their impending departure.  The striped-and-plaid clad waddle back to the dock in anticipation of the frosty boat drinks that await them on deck.  If it’s Tuesday, it must be Bonaire.

March also marks the return of the Dutch to their homeland.  Many come here for the winter months to avoid the cold wind, rain, and gray of the North Sea weather.  But as spring approaches, many flat landers head back for the blooming of tulips, the growing anticipation of warmer weather, and the release of happy cows into the polder, just liberated after months in their winter barns.

This third month of the year also kicks off turtle surveys.  This is my fifth year volunteering for Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire’s annual fieldwork.  We ply the leeward coast of Bonaire from the Willemstoren lighthouse in the south to Playa Fungi in the national park to the north.  Circumnavigations of our offshore partner, Klein Bonaire, also take place at this time.  We do turtle counts, capture those that we can, and enter all their stats into a database to determine the status of the four turtle species that frequent our waters.

Photo-John Kuntz,Cleveland Plain Dealer.

In some ways, March is the same for me as it was in the States. I still celebrate Saint Patrick’s Day with Guinness and a dram of Irish.  I get to see the NCAA National College Basketball Tournament albeit through a convoluted arrangement to streaming video, black boxes and a friend with stateside Direct TV.  Yes, the Big Dance is delivered to my living room.  That is until the local Internet goes south.  Then I get to miss the last two minutes of the victory game of my Ohio State Buckeyes over Syracuse.  They now head to New Orleans and the Final Four.  Too cool.

But most of what happens here in March is unique to the island.  The month marks the beginning of the dry season.  It is in the spring that the leaves fall from the trees because of a lack of water.  It is also the prelude to our meager island agricultural harvest, which happens in April.  So as the Southern Cross starts its lazy slouch, hanging out on its side just above the horizon, I ponder the days.  Kids fly kites on the trade winds in anticipation of Kontest di Fli, an annual kite flying competition. That winter ‘chill’ of cool nights has left.  The heat of the day gets stronger and my ceiling fans spin constantly now in the PM.  It is Island March, another grand passage of time while living in the tropics.

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Koló i Maravia-Paranan na nos Isla.

Color & WonderThe Birds of our Island.

I finally am getting my digital still-to-canvas project, Color & Wonder, Koló i Maravia in Papiamentu, going.  This has been a culmination of many hours laying in the hammock considering if I want to work this hard again.  Taking photos of wildlife is not easy.  I learned this when I produced nature documentaries back in the 1990s. It requires expensive equipment, huge doses of patience and a lot of luck.  Plus it can be physically demanding.

With Color & Wonder, I am attempting to capture more than just a bird on the perch.  I am seeking the kind of shot that tells a story through the animal’s beauty, behavior or ideally both.  To do that, I have to spend a lot of time in the field trying to get physically close to the birds.  This often requires getting up in the dark and positioning myself in place before the birds rise.  Then it is a game waiting for the right light.  That gives the mosquitoes and no-see-ums plenty of time to chew on me while I drink coffee to wake up.  But that is all forgotten as the birds awake, the sun turns on the ‘golden hour’ and I try to capture a slice of time in space.

Above are the first of forty-five canvases that I plan to do.  They are currently on display at the gallery of Wil’s Restaurant in downtown Kralendijk.  Wil and Sue Heemskerk were so kind as to display them at their restaurant.  By year’s end I am hoping to have an exhibition at Kas Di Arti, Bonaire’s art museum.

Meeting the Manta

Another episode of…  Island Notes

I had never seen one in the four years that I have been on island.  Manta birostris, sometimes called the devilfish or simply, manta ray, is an elusive resident around the shores of Bonaire.  Sure, we often get to see Southern stingrays and lovely spotted eagle rays, but a manta?  That is rare. A friend of mine once saw a manta in the rough east coast waters of the island, but only for a few seconds, and she has lived a life in the water here for the past 12 years diving and doing turtle surveys.  So when I heard at the Yellow Submarine dive shop yesterday that a manta ray has been spotted recently in the water right in front of my house, I was skeptical.  “People have been seeing it in the shallows at around ten in the morning,” claimed Patrick, a dive master, “I went in this morning at that time but had no luck.”

I was all too familiar with the AGG-the aquatic gossip grapevine- here on the island.  I often hear rumors about beasts of the deep.  Two years ago a rare hammerhead shark had supposedly visited.  Last fall, a blue whale cruised by and that sighting was documented on YouTube.  So maybe, just maybe, this manta ray was the real deal.

At 9:45am the next day I grabbed mask, fins and an underwater camera and jumped into the blue.  I swam out to where the shelf tumbles hundreds of fathoms deep and swam the line between cobalt hue and aquamarine green.  This is my usual route.  Going south, I stop at the point where I can spot the Venezuelan consulate on shore.  To the north, I turn around just past the Blue Water Residence.  Returning from either one to where I live gives me a nice ½ mile swim.

Today, with the Blue Water Residence in sight, I turned back.  But on the return trip, I chose to swim in the shallows in hopes of encountering the ray.  I constantly scanned left to right while heading home.  There was the deceivingly deep hull of Sea Star, the sailboat that Yellow Man looks after.  And yes, to the left was the severely chimed hull of the homemade sailboat, ScreechScanning back again at two o’clock, I saw it—the distinctive, enormous form of a manta ray.  I quickly plotted an interception course and kicked furiously to get close up.  While underway, I got the camera out of my pocket and turned it on.

The manta was heading directly north on a course parallel to the coast.  I stopped kicking in order to avoid approaching the ray too closely.  I had never been around one and was a bit intimidated by its Darth Vader-esque appearance.  No deep breathing sounds here, however.  Simply a silent, slow motion running as the creature, perhaps 6-feet across (small by manta standards), deftly moved its “wings” up and down for propulsion. I was mesmerized—black on the top, creamed-colored belly, long, thin tail and two paddle-like lobes extending in front of its mouth.  I started snapping pix.  But the manta was on the express route and passed by me quickly.  I followed but just could not keep pace. The ray simply left me behind as it vanished into the infinite blue.

In one way, it had been so easy. Swim out at the appointed time and the ray appears.  But I know better.  If my course had been several yards either way I could have easily missed it.  Or if the creature passed 10 minutes sooner or later, I would have never seen it.  No, this encounter had the perfect alignment in space and time of its life and mine.  What a grand way to start a Friday, meeting the manta.