Sunday, September 07, 2008

Espanola Island - thoughts on flight

(It has occurred to me that keeping a journal no one will ever read full of verbose insights into the trip and posting short nothings is perhaps the opposite of what I actually want to do. So, here's a long post composed over the course of day two. I might back-post my thoughts from day one, probably when I get back to CA). Short version: Today was AWESOME, and there were lots of animals. (likely short version of the trip: it was AWESOME, and there were lots of animals.)

It has occurred to me that I am playing Charlotte Darwin - examining, cataloging, pretending to Genius I cannot imagine possessing. When the thought comes, it is always Darwin-and-his-pet-monkey ala The Fall, boyish and innocent and daring. And it is always followed by the reminder - but he was perpetually sea sick, and he hated it here.

The ship lists noticeably (so much I have trouble balancing), and I bend with it, lean into it, wait it out. The rumble of the engines is ever present. Kevin would not be happy here. Neither, I think, would Darwin. This morning the wake up call comes cheerfully over the P.A. system at seven o'clock, urging us to breakfast before a "difficult" hike. We are off the boat at eight, children with a scavenger hunt in hand (Imagine -- 246. One of Darwin's Finches. 100 customs violating points).

The water here is navy and turquoise and crystal clear. Our zodiac boat shoots across the waves (We rearrange so as not to tip over - using eachother as ballast) onto a black igneous boulder outcropping that doubles as a peir. We are greeted by a male sea lion guarding his turf: arf arf arf means get out of my harem, get out of my house, and don't touch the women (or children).

On the beach lies a cow and the pup she had just given birth to, blood from the labor fresh on the sand. They cuddle, exhausted both, and everyone is reminded once more of humans. The iguanas here are red, black godzilla with pink-red cheeks and heads, and they lie in piles in the cool morning hours to preserve their precious body-heat. In the afternoon they will swim out, arms tucked into their bodies, heads sticking out of the water, tail corkscrewing behind them, looking for all the world like a cross between a sea snake and an otter. But for now they lie in piles (colonies, we are told) on the beach.

Apparently the best nesting location is on the trail, for as we continue we find a warren of boobies (a veritable booby trap, har), a baby seal, iguanas and lava lizards and doves and finches and at least one snake, all waiting underfoot. (Everywhere else I've been told - don't step in the animal droppings. Here that's inevitable, and we're told not to step on the animals.) We climb slowly up from the shore, over rocks and onto cliffs. The cliffs were the Albatrosses nest.

Waved Albatross are endemic (exclusively native) to the island of Espanola, although young ones have been spotted as far as the coast of Japan. They're eight pound turkeys of gulls with dull grey feathers, bright white heads, yellow beaks, and an eight foot wingspan.

They can fly, miraculously, forever. But they canot (cannot) land or take off gracefully. A colony of Albatrosses is a study in awkward elegance - waddling like a duck, flinching and flapping and flocking, then pounding along with wings outstretched to take off like a B-52 (thunk, thunk, thunk, thu--) and gawking-floating-falling to land, almost in a heap, wings and neck outstretched toards the ground like a five pointed star.

The chicks are already as big as turkeys, solid puff-balls of grey and white down with black eyes and grey beaks. They wait to be fed fish oil by mom and dad; as much as a liter at a time, untul the chick falls and rolls onto its bottom, sated. It needs to grow in double-time: in December it leaves the island for college, only to return from afar in four or five years when it can rightly be called an adult. (But even then it will not mate - the first year back is reserved for Albatross singles parties and finding Someone Suitable (TM)). I laugh.

If I were a bird I might well be an albatross (and not simply because I promise to rain a powerful curse down upon my eventual slayer, vindictive beast that I am). But in a way I identify with the oversized seagulls: masters of air and water but confined all too often to the ground by the laws of physics and the mechanics of their courtship ritual. Likewise, I long to be floating, flying, even falling (and Albatrosses pitch themselves from cliffs to begin their flight) but am confined to my earth-bound body by nature and necessity.

Although, it must be said, I have less than an eight foot wingspan.

And I weigh somewhat more than a large turkey.

Later, wetsuits donned and snorkels in hand, one of my compatriots flips backwards, SCUBA-style, into the water. I, nervous of getting water into my snorkel, slip in feet first, tentative that this will prove too much for me and I'll ride behind in the zodiac boat. I breathe quickly at first, my mind too busy acclimating itself to the cold water beneath me to take in the scenery - fish, coral, sand fade into a nondescript gray. I control my breathing, forcing air deeper into my lungs. In, out. In, out. Slowly I realize that I can, in fact, breathe, and I relax. Only then to do I see the floor forty feet below me.

The reef, (since it is by rights a coral reef) teems with color in a diluted, understated way. Fish glint yellow or red when they dusky light catches them and otherwise blend into the blue of the water. The ground, and the walls, are littered with starfish (one, at least, yellow with brown-black spots - a chocolate chip sea star). Whenever I laugh, bubbles shoot from my nose and water rushes in to take their place. I learn to laugh through my mouth.

It is not silent underwater; it is not like a swimming pool. Peaceful, yes, but as I submerge my head there is a steady static clicking sound (perhaps from the engine of the zodiac trailing us), a popping that I hear. The sound of a lightbulb blowing out or a small fuse breaking. The sound comes from everywhere, seems to match the glint of reflected light from the fish, as though they are not covered by mirrors but rather small flashlights, and I hear them flashing on and off like a camera's bulb. Like the shimmer was a spark, and I heard the thunder.

I hold my breath and swim into a school of glittering silver fish - they surround me, shying away and clearing a path as I enter. I dolphin-kick straight down, but the cold has stolen my breath and my lungs burn all too soon. Deeper is a ray - a little patch of black hiding half under a rock. I can't get deep enough for a good look. Our guide is a champion diver, and I feel a tinge of jealousy.

We swim into a cave, and a warm current caresses us (although at the equator, waters here at the moment are a chilly 71 degrees. Brr.) I want to warm up, but the carrot held in front of me is the prospect of sea lions up ahead. I swim on. The sea lions are lithe black spots shooting through the water. They swerve and swim among us but soon grow bored with our clumsiness. My earlier jealousy towards the guide evaporates, and suddenly I want nothing more nor less than to be a sea lion, graceful and nimble, a creature with three dimensions of movement open to it instead of my humble two. It is an old wish, perhaps, that of flight, strangely inverted. But there's nothing for it. I swim back for the boat.


Alex said...

sounds amazing. Adventures like that are always so much fun. I've never been scuba diving... I'll have to figure a way to do that in the future.

John said...

Wow; glad you're seeing so much! You should definitely try it on SCUBA one of these days. Also, the clicking noise around coral reefs is usually snapping shrimp. They're pretty ubiquitous, and very loud. Hope you're taking lots of pictures!

ayn said...

This was a terrific post. I can't wait to see pictures!

Elizabeth said...

Alex and John: I have resolved to learn SCUBA. Seriously.

John: I don't have an underwater camera, so no underwater pictures. sad!

John and Ayn: I have tons of pictures. It's going to be awesome. I will send you some.