Sometimes when we're at sea for awhile, my imagination works overtime. Here's an example ...
A gannet came by this morning at dawn. He flew very close to the boat ... to get my attention, I’m sure.
If you’re not familiar with a gannet, it's one of the larger sea-faring birds … not as large or as hefty as an albatross, but stately enough with a 4-foot wingspan. The underside of this guy's body was white, but the wingtips and tail were mottled black showing a sort of checkerboard effect when he banked sharply left or right and you could see his topsides. His black webbed feet were tucked neatly beneath him during flight like compact landing gear. His head feathers, a bright yellow, looked carefully coiffed as if pomaded sleekly back to keep his feathers out of his eyes. His bright blue eye ring gave the impression that he was a flying, blue-eyed blonde.
A gannet's body is streamlined and culminates in a sleek, tapered tail which completes a fine aeronautic design for efficient plunge-diving. When he makes a plunge from what appears a dizzying height, his whole body morphs from a graceful, soaring bird to a well-aimed arrow and down he comes, splitting through the water with barely a splash. You’d expect a broken neck (hence the term break-neck speed), but up he bobs, mouth empty and with barely a moment to recover, he ascends for another try. Tough way to make a living. We had seen them diving while we were at anchor one time and it was quite the show.
This fellow nearly startled me. He appeared out of nowhere it seemed and there he was not ten feet from my nose, slowing down to match our 5 knots of boat speed. He hovered in a wind draft, hanging in the air as if suspended on strings from a phantom puppeteer sitting on our boom. I immediately introduced myself and told him I needed to go below and get my camera. I know it sounds crazy, but several days into a passage at sea while on watch, I find myself addressing the moon, the rising stars, petrels and dolphins alike in the most familiar terms. So, talking to the gannet was nothing out of the ordinary. Seeing a gannet so far from land was pretty odd though.
He must have thought me rude or misunderstood my intentions because he flew away. He must have reconsidered, there being so few opportunities for visiting out here, and gave me a reprieve. Some minutes later he returned, politely flying by, showing off this side and that for the benefit of my camera.
Though some of these sea birds are considered to be dolts (like boobies, for instance), this fellow looked pretty intelligent as he gracefully rode the air currents, expending minimal energy to stay aloft… a wing flap here, a wing flap there. I thought perhaps he was looking for a landing spot to rest a bit, but he never attempted it. He flew around for about 30 minutes and entertained me so sufficiently that I forgot the 0700 ship’s log entry. Then he was gone like most fleeting relationships formed at sea.
Another uneventful half hour crawled by and I heard distinct loud squawking. Not the radio, not those siren voices you hear at sea, but definite squawks. My buddy had returned, bringing around the relatives for a look-see. Two more gannets had joined him, alternately eyeing the boat and the sea beneath them.
A squid had gotten caught up in the scupper during the night and I thought they might enjoy the treat. I tried in vain pointing out this fine delicacy on the side deck, using subtle hand signals, so as not to frighten them away. No amount of signaling, however, got the message across and so the squid lay there, rigor and foul fish smell setting in.
The threesome dove and performed elegant aeronautic feats, chatting in fluent gannet as they maneuvered the flyovers in perfect sync. They didn't seem to be catching anything and hence did not allow photographs. Just as suddenly as they appeared, all were gone once again.
Not for long this time, however. On their return they were joined by yet another gannet! Now four were surveying Cups in a most discriminating manner, as if the fourth had to be convinced we were really there. They soared over, around, back and forth…sometimes together and sometimes individually. It made me dizzy. I’m not sure if four constitutes a flock, but it was a good start anyway.
After these frenetic observations, they flew off and never did return. It is my contention (and who can dispute it?) that the fourth fellow was the boss bird, squadron commander, as it were. He was non-plussed and certainly unimpressed by a sailboat in the middle of the ocean which had wasted the precious feeding time of his minions and he hurried to get them back on track.
For me, end of watch and a well-deserved nap plus a little something to write about later.