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Learning the Ways of the Oceans

We departed Charlotteville under the blazing midafternoon sun, heading due north around the spit of land that marked the end of the world-famous Pirate’s Bay, also coincidentally the end of gentle, turquoise water which marked our entrance into the mighty Atlantic Ocean.

Remarkable how two oceans can exist side by side yet still, even though both are made of the same water, manage to retain their individuality and character. Perhaps another lesson we can take from Mother Nature. This phenomenon has been used before to justify racism and separatism, but it’s all up to which brush is chosen to paint the picture. It should not be seen as two oceans that refuse to mix with one another, but two beings made of the same matter, different as they may be, coexisting seamlessly.

I’ve witnessed this convergence of large bodies of water before, earlier this year we flew over the mighty Orinoco River pouring out from mainland South America into the Caribbean Sea. One of my favourite places to see it is from the safety of dry land at Galera Point on Trinidad where the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean meet one another. But nothing comes close to – or prepares you for – experiencing this border crossing between two oceans in a boat.

The colour of the water changed almost like someone flipped a switch. The relaxed ups and downs were replaced by a feeling that more recalled riding a horse in slow motion. Even the air itself seemed to smell different. My good friend, fellow guide and self-described old sea-dog Zolani (check out and follow him on Facebook here) advised that we relocate ourselves from the bow to the stern, given the new conditions. He didn’t need to tell me twice, a memory of being thrown around relentlessly on the journey back to Cedros from Soldado Rock a few years ago is burnt in my brain. I had waited for everyone to board the boat before I did; the only remaining seat was at the very front of that boat. Every bone in my body was sore for a week after.

Needless to say, we scooted to the stern and I attempted to use my binoculars once and quickly gave up on that quest. In my birding career, I started off using a camera as my eye-extensions and as such I am most at home with this method. Shoot first, ask questions later.

The first birds we saw were Bridled Terns, adults and recently fledged juveniles hunting the border between the two seas. This habit of theirs is actually crucial in separating them from another very similar bird, the Sooty Tern. Sooties never follow current edges, instead opting to follow large schools of fish that get pushed to the surface by larger predators from below.

At this point I should make it known that I was on a mission for two particular birds, birds I had photographed previously but had the images evaporate into cyberspace with a crashed hard drive. The chocolatey Brown Noddy and the regal looking holy grail of resident seabirds, the white phase of the Red-footed Booby made up my pair of desires for the afternoon.

A young Red-footed Booby rockets past our boat, with St Giles in the background

A young Red-footed Booby rockets past our boat, with St Giles in the background

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we approached the first rocks of Saint Giles, I unpacked my camera and set up. Brown Boobies and a couple brown morph Red-footed Boobies of varying ages flew around our boat. Brown Noddies were also around, but my eyes were hungry for any of these birds sitting eye-level on rocks. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait too long, a couple Brown Noddies were seen sitting in the perfect position, their calmness juxtaposed against the pounding surf was something I couldn’t even dream to capture in a single photograph. While working these two, a third Brown Noddy flew in, and miraculously ended up right where my active autofocus grid was. I have a special secret of stabilizing a telephoto lens which I’ll share eventually, perhaps in the future I’ll do a seabird photography trip as this secret is best revealed with a practical demonstration that out of context is nothing short of complete hilarity.

A trio of Brown Noddies on an obviously popular perch rock.

A trio of Brown Noddies on an obviously popular perch rock.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Slowly, we drifted closer to the edge of the rocks. Within this bay, we were sheltered from most of the prevailing winds and the birds were coming in fearlessly. Magnificent Frigatebirds and Red-footed Boobies made up the lion’s share of the population here, many of these birds were still seated on nests. Red-footed Boobies come in a variety of phases or colour morphs, seen most often around here are brown, white-tailed and white morphs. These morphs do not discriminate by gender and do not indicate a separate species – nor does it dictate the colour of the offspring. At least it is not known to us yet!

White morphs shone like beacons in the blazing sun, white-tailed morphs took a little more effort to see against the rocky, cacti-strewn backdrop and brown morphs were virtually invisible save for their bright red feet.

White (left) and White-tailed (right) morphs of Red-footed Booby

White (left) and White-tailed (right) morphs of Red-footed Booby

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We eventually rounded the island and made our way around the windward side where a prehistoric sight greeted us. Pounded by centuries of wind and surf, the rocks themselves seemed to bend backwards under this immense, invisible pressure, giving way to a much gentler gradient as opposed to the steep cliffs on the leeward side.

Gentler slope was a slightly different perspective.

Gentler slope was a slightly different perspective.

 

 

 

 

 

 

While bobbing around here, looking southward at Saint Giles and Tobago in the distance, something was happening behind us. Frantic activity at the surface could only mean one thing – even more dramas unfolding beneath the waves. We made our way further out to where scores of seabirds had congregated, gulls, noddies, boobies, terns and frigatebirds all jostled for position as a frightened school of baitfish huddled to the surface, presumably being attacked from below by some predators unseen by us.

Magnificent Frigatebirds with a Brown Noddy and Red-footed Booby follow the bait-ball

Magnificent Frigatebirds with a Brown Noddy and Red-footed Booby follow the bait-ball

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Periodically, the shoal of fish would come within reach of the hovering seabirds, at which point they would all dive into the water in an attempt to pick out a fish or two.

Periodically, the shoal of fish would come within reach of the hovering seabirds, at which point they would all dive into the water in an attempt to pick out a fish or two.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By now, we were well in the open, with nothing buffering the elements. Our captain kept the engines on to allow us to simply stay in the same place, as the bait-ball shifted position around us. I was tracking the mixed flock of seabirds as they periodically vanished and reappeared as the ocean heaved, when Zolani drew my attention to a white morph Red-footed Booby that had joined the fray. Surprisingly, it started to chase the juvenile Magnificent Frigatebirds (stay tuned to my social media feeds for that image in the coming days), harassing the massive birds for a reason I couldn’t understand. Even though Red-footed Boobies are the smallest members of their family, this individual (looks like a young one from its plumage) saw no problem with harassing its arch-enemy.

The extreme positioning of boobies' feet allows for maximum efficiency in water but at the same time makes them ungainly on land.

The extreme positioning of boobies’ feet allows for maximum efficiency in water but at the same time makes them ungainly on land.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Juvenile Magnificent Frigatebirds have heads that are all white, this will gradually turn black as they mature.

Juvenile Magnificent Frigatebirds have heads that are all white, this will gradually turn black as they mature.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After getting lost in the absolute grandeur of being in the presence of one of nature’s greatest shows, we looked up and saw that the channel was about to be changed – a massive wall of dark grey clouds had materialized in the east and was bearing down on us, riding the unbroken wind currents across the Atlantic. Although we initially had planned on visiting the iconic London Bridge Rock, the captain turned us on a direct course back into Charlotteville at full speed – and not a moment too soon, for once we threw our bags into our car, the first droplets of rain began to fall. Gradually, it got heavier, and didn’t ease until maybe four or five hours later. Never have I ever experienced a change in weather that was so drastic and so sudden, but it seems that this is the norm on the high seas.