There are places in this world that when you arrive, the experience is simply overwhelming. They define our perception of what is magnificent. There are the well-known ones—the Grand Canyon, Jordan’s Petra, the Mayan pyramids, the Great Barrier Reef—the list goes on. And then there are those unknown spots, places on the globe that few ever get to see. These are the hidden gems, biotic hotspots, erogenous zones of the earth. Thanks to good friends and a stout Beneteau 46 sailboat, I was delivered to just such a place, the Aves Islands of Venezuela.
The Aves are just 40 miles east of Bonaire at 12 degrees latitude. They make up two mini archipelagos of small, uninhabited islands. Other than some transient fishermen and a few stationed Venezuelan Coast Guard sailors, few go here. Rather, these spits of sand and palm and dense mangrove-packed islets are dominated by nature—sea birds above the waters, fish and ocean mammals beneath.
We leave on a midnight passage under full moon from Bonaire. I’m aboard Nawati, a luxurious 46-foot sloop owned by Werner Haan. I’m the only gringo on the boat sailing with five Dutch guys. Behind us is Holiday, a 35-foot Beneteau owned by Nico and his crew of Bart, Margo and Ellen, all Dutch citizens living on Curacao.
Fourteen hours later we arrive at Aves de Barlovento, the eastern group of islands. We have planned our trip well, arriving when the sun is still high in the sky. That is necessary for spotting the treacherous reefs that lace the waters. Eyeball navigation rules here over charts and GPS. Follow the technology, and you will soon be aground. It’s comforting for me to be in a place where human skills and intuition are still needed. I am in my natural groove.
We zigzag through a maze of coral and tuck in behind a massive horseshoe-shaped reef that extends for 5 miles. Nawati drifts by the carcass of a 40-foot whale, beached in shallow water. I don’t find this disturbing. Rather it is a statement to where we are—a place dominated by natural cycles of life and death unabashed. There is a universal honesty to what has befallen the whale. All things must pass. And so it goes.
To the east, the full force of the sea sends incessant waves that crash upon the coral. Behind the protective horseshoe, it is calm. We drop the hook into 11 feet of gin clear water. Our anchor digs into snow-white sand. Holiday follows suit and rafts up next to our boat. After a long voyage, we can all finally relax and get some sleep.
My friend, Patrick Hulsker, sailor and fisherman extraordinaire, lands a horse eye jack on the way in. We collaborate for a fish feast. He filets the jack and a barracuda that he also hooked. I prepare the ceviche marinade. By sunset, we dine on the fish and drink rum while the sun dips into bloody red only to be replaced by a pitch-black sky. We bid adieu to sunset number one.
We are far from light pollution here. The stars seem to drip down to the water. I watch the planet tandem of Jupiter and Saturn rise in the east. Jupiter puts out so many BTU’s that its reflection makes a shimmering line on the water directly back to our boat. A half hour later, Patrick yells to the group that there is a fire far away on the eastern horizon, perhaps a burning tanker. All ten sailors scan the red glow. “No, wait,” says Patrick. “It’s the moon rising!” No one speaks for the next 15 minutes as we watch the magical sphere do its chromatic acrobatics from crimson to blood orange to mellow yellow. It is a cosmic moment that sweeps the crew away into private thoughts and self-discovery. We have landed in the Aves.
- The next morning, Patrick, Bernard and I leave the group and take off in a dingy to explore Isla Sur, the mangrove-packed islet that starts at the termination of the horseshoe reef and runs a couple of miles west. As we motor along the dense green we witness a Jurassic Park-esque landscape of towering, gnarled trees and soaring birds. Red-footed and brown boobies fly overhead in great numbers. Sea eagles, frigate birds and pelicans soon join the party. We find a small inlet and drift in. “I knew that the Aves (birds in Spanish) would have a lot of birds,” states Patrick, “but I actually thought there would be more.” He soon cuts the motor and the boat floats silently into the mangrove where we are surrounded by vegetation on three sides. The place has a primordial vibe to it and it is alive with squawks, groans and chirps of our avian brethren. As our eyes adjust to the shadows, I find myself staring eyeball to eyeball with a red-footed booby just two yards away. We soon realize that we are surrounded at least 20 birds in the trees. They are unafraid and a bit curious about us. It is obvious that few people come her. “I’ve changed my mind,” retracts Patrick. “This place is packed with birds.”
The three of us are silent and in awe of where we find ourselves. Time is suspended. Only the moment matters now. We are inside The Discovery Channel and there are no commercial interruptions. Perhaps a half hour passes. It is only when the mosquitoes discover Bernard that we pop out of the Twilight Zone and back into real time. Patrick pulls the cord and the outboard springs to life. The birds look at us, still curious, as we put-put away from our mangrove cocoon.
At the end of the day, I find myself with Patrick on the bow of Nawati staring the sun down on its descent. We begin to talk about the Green Flash and how tonight’s conditions are perfect to see this rare event. Seconds before the sun dips under, green appears above it. The moment it is below the horizon, “pop”, the color vanishes. “Did you see it? Did you see it!?” I exclaim. “No, I missed it,” says Patrick. “I probably shouldn’t have had my sunglasses on.” Sunset number two is in the books.
The next morning we have to wait until 11AM so that the sun is high enough for us to navigate through the puzzle of reefs that block our exit. Two hours later we arrive at the western archipelago, Isla Aves de Sotavento. We anchor on the northern shore of Lighthouse Island. It is time to search for treasure.
It was back in 1678 that a large French fleet was on route to attack the Dutch stronghold of Curaçao. But three Dutch frigates deceivingly lured Admiral Jean d’Estrees’s flagship onto the reefs of Aves de Sotavento. The other French ships mistakenly followed their leader and all sunk. Remnants of the French wrecks littered the sea bottom and we set off to find the cannons and anchors that still exist today. But all we find is bad visibility as the afternoon sun fades fast. Still, the dense, dead elkhorn coral below takes on the appearance of a ghost reef. It is easy to imagine how the French fleet met its end here.
A persistent clock and island obligations soon tell us we need to pull up anchor and head west back to Bonaire. After a grilled barracuda steak and a glass of white wine, we do just that. A pod of dolphins lead the way ducking under Nawati’s bow. Later, I sit forward watching sunset #3, a dramatic explosion of color and cloud that would make Gone With The Wind look monochrome. I don’t photograph this one, but rather just take in the show. The sky turns deep purple with hints of the first stars when Patrick gets a strike on his line. He hauls in a beautiful black finned tuna. Ah, sashimi will be served tomorrow night back home. But for right now, I just enjoy the ride. I’m Aves dreaming deep into the night.