The Canadian expat at Tony’s Sports Bar in Dickinson Bay, Antigua, had told my first mate Bruce that the frigate bird sanctuary on Barbuda was worth visiting – if you like birds.
“I mean, but it’s just the one bird there, you know?”
When we returned to our chartered sailboat that evening after enjoying Tony’s drinks and his mother Esther’s chicken and ribs, Bruce related this sage advice, announcing that he had decided the bird was named Harry.
We were set to sail to from Antigua to Barbuda in the morning along with the other two boats in our chartered fleet. The opportunity to hire a local for a tour of the frigate bird sanctuary had been on my “to do” list since I’d read up on Barbuda’s charms.
First thing the next morning we hauled the anchor and raised the sails on our Beneteau 473. The sail to Barbuda is about thirty miles, or four plus hours. About two and a half hours along, I gazed astern for a long while and decided that I could no longer see Antigua in the haze behind us. Pleased, I looked ahead, saying, “No land behind us, no land, oops, I’m wrong. I can just make out Barbuda.” Darn. I’d wanted to be out of sight of land. To top it off, there was Harry, soaring above us on wide, black wings.
The fleet picked its way up the western coast of Barbuda between the Eleven Mile Beach and various off-shore shoals and reefs. At times the bottom was less than a foot beneath our six and a half foot keel. I cranked the diesel engine down to dead slow at these times, hoping the bottom was sand, not coral or rock. When you rent a boat worth a half a million dollars, you try to treat it well.
We anchored, three white sailboats in a row, off a stretch of the pinkish beach that looked much like any other stretch. Off to the south there were three or four monster cruisers – yachts so big their tenders were larger than our forty-seven foot sailboats. To the north a few more boats, mostly sailboats with the lived in look of long-distance cruisers, not one-week charters, rode at anchor. On the beach in front of us, were four large wooden umbrellas – pink, green, blue and bare wood – next to a small building. They were the only structures along the entire eleven miles of beach, save a small inn still under construction about a mile further north.
This stretch of beach was on a sandbar separating the sea from a shallow salt-water lagoon. At its narrowest point near the inn, the sand is only a couple hundred yards across. This is where Mr. George Jeffrey, the recommended local resident who I called via VHF radio, told us he’d meet us in the morning for our tour.
Meanwhile, some of our crew members took dinghies ashore to explore the beach. I did what I love most about anchoring in a deserted place: went for a swim, had a saltwater bath, strung up my hammock on the bow, and stretched out there with a rum drink to watch the sunset.
Over dinner, grilled steaks, Joanne said she’d seen a bird on the beach.
“Harry!” Bruce declared, half rising as if to go find him.
“I mean, he was an odd looking bird,” she went on. Someone gave her another drink and the conversation shifted.
As is the nature of traveling in a group of eighteen, minds are changed and moods swing. So in the morning, I swam from boat to boat confirming the participants in our bird watching venture. Sure, I could have used the dinghy, but if I’m only in the Caribbean for a week, I’m going to spend as much time as I can in the deliciously warm water. By 0930, participants were dinghying up the beach to the meeting spot – leaving a few lazy souls to watch the boats and loll about on deck.
As is my wont, I introduced some chaos into our excursion when I decided our guide must have meant to meet him at the dock we sighted in the lagoon behind the unfinished inn. While Bruce, Dennis and I walked up the beach, others of our dozen sailors hung back, or started looking for shells and taking photos. The construction workers – three or four guys industriously driving small earth moving equipment around in the brush – ignored us as we strode across their work site. Not a single “hard hats must be worn” sign, let alone fencing to keep wanderers out of the recently poured foundation. It’s good to get out of the United States.
I was already feeling uncertain of my certainty about the dock. Obviously it was private. Emerging on the lagoon side near it, we looked to the south and saw two local boats arrowing across the water toward the narrow spot where we’d been dropped off. Fortunately, it was where most of our group had remained. So much for my commanding tone in urging them to follow me!
We split up, Bruce back out to the beach side, me on the lagoon side (and I lost track of Dennis), to walk back and redirect any wanderers we might find. I caught a ribbing from Bruce for the half mile hike, and Dennis later expressed some genuine annoyance, but for the most part, our easy-going group had not really noticed my misdirection, not having followed it.
I was glad to see Doug already negotiating the tour price with Mr. Jeffrey when I reached the boats. He announced that it was $15.00 per person, and that one boat held six and the other seven. We divided ourselves among Mr. Jeffrey’s boat and the other one, driven by a big, silent young man who might have been Mr. Jeffrey’s son, but was not introduced as such, or at all.
First stop was directly across the lagoon at Barbuda’s capital and only town, Codrington. Here everyone paid the $2.00 national park fee to enter the bird sanctuary – not included in the $15.00. Indeed, Mr. Jeffrey seemed to want to be sure that the petite government official seated behind a worn desk in an airy dock-side office saw that we were paying her directly. The intricacies of bureaucracy in small island nations can be subtle.
We motored north across the lagoon, brightly hued boat hulls just skimming over the corals, sponges, and other creatures basking in the shallow water’s warmth.
We stopped adjacent to a stranded red bell buoy. It leaned drunkenly on its wide ballast, exposed underside slightly improper, like a lady with a hiked up skirt. Mr. Jeffrey explained that it had washed into one of the un-navigable channels to the sea. Locals had dragged it to this spot in the lagoon. Based on its markings, he said, the buoy had come loose in Nova Scotia and drifted with the gulf stream, probably all the way to Europe and back, before coming to rest at Barbuda. I could tell Mr. Jeffrey was delighted with this free addition to his two-bit tour.
The two boats moved on into the mangroves, eventually driving their bows up onto a shallow reef. Hundreds of Fregata magnificens – frigate birds – inhabited the stands of trees ahead of us, black adults soaring on four foot wing spans overhead while adolescents and babies watched from perches and nests in the trees. Mr. Jeffrey told stories of the birds’ local history and their life cycles, while we watched them soar above and occasionally land to tend to their young. The babies emitted plaintive squeaks in counterpoint to the mature birds’ throaty voices.
Barbuda’s sanctuary is the second largest in the world, after the one in the Galapagos Islands. Contrary to the Canadian expat’s description, it is home to 170 species of birds, among them more than 5,000 frigate birds. They are also called the “man o’ war bird", an apt comparison of their large size, aerial agility and aggressiveness with warships. Frigate birds are known to harass less skilled flyers, such as pelicans, egrets and cormorants. When a bird drops its catch, the frigate turns scavenger and collects a free lunch.
Frigates also snatch the chicks of other bird species in addition to grabbing fish from the surface of the sea. They are not diving birds and do not swim or even alight on the surface. Perhaps the frigate’s most notable feature is the male’s bright red throat pouch, displayed during mating and as a defensive display. Unfortunately, our visit was not during mating season, nor were any of the many birds we viewed feeling particularly defensive.
“No Barbudan will disturb these birds today,” Mr. Jeffrey assured us, his story pitched perfectly to his conservationist sailor audience through thousands of repetitions. “They eat de fish, so dey taste very fishy.”
“How do you know?” I asked, catching him off guard. Some of our crew chuckled as his eyes widened, mouth forming a sheepish smile.
“Well, I happened upon some men cooking one once. De bird was already dead, so I tasted it.”
Uh huh. It was clear that some time in the past – perhaps the last decade or so – the tourist potential of the smelly black birds had reached a high enough value to support rigid conservationism. Whatever it takes, I thought. With the rest of the world heating things up and killing the coral, any action these islands take to conserve their environment is a good step.
When everyone had gotten their fill and filled their camera cards, Mr. Jeffrey and his friend drove us back to our departure point. Mr. Jeffrey continued on the subject of conservation – or at least honoring nature – when someone asked if developers could buy Barbudan land and build things.
“No mon, de land is not for sale. Dat hotel being built by a local born man who lives in de US,” he indicated the unfinished structure across the lagoon. “You know dat hotel’s foundations only twelve feet from de water. Tree years ago a storm filled in a channel down dere,” he pointed to the other end of the lagoon.
“The Canal?” someone asked. “It’s on the chart.”
“Dat right. Next time a storm come, you never know what happen. Dat hotel,” he paused, shaking his head with a wry smile.
No, he would certainly not use the hotel’s dock.
Dinghies were hailed via VHF, but some of us decided to walk back along the beach. After all, the dinghy could be waved down for a pick up anywhere along that sandy stretch. One only had to wade out into the water through almost non-existent surf.
Bruce and I stripped to swim suits for the walk, intending to swim to the boats when we got nearer. The mid-day sun bore down on already reddened shoulders, but the glorious, deserted juncture where crystalline blue sea meets fine, pinkish sand beckoned. Ahead of us a grey gull appeared to be keeping pace, moving at our speed in order to keep just the right distance between us and him. We exchanged a grin and called out:
“Hey Harry, wait up!”