Close encounters of the wild kind

I reckon one of the best things about living on a yacht is having a lot of close and personal encounters with wildlife. I have actually got a bit too close and personal a couple of times but mostly it has been an incredibly rewarding experience.

BIRDS

The bird arcs from the port quarter to the starboard quarter only a few centimetres from the seas surface and only a few metres from HQ’s stern. After a sharp but smooth turn to port it crosses astern again. Then again. It has me mesmerised. It rarely flaps its wings and seems to glide on the air waves effortlessly.

I know it is searching for food but it has to be having fun. Its arcing turns certainly look like fun to me anyway. I am having fun just watching it. It is giving me a feeling of well being. I know this because a segment on ABC radio just informed me that a study has proved watching birds will do this. Mind you I have always sort of known that.

The first thing I did after building my house about thirty years ago was plant native trees and shrubs and put in a birdbath. I simply enjoy watching birds and wanted to encourage them.

WELCOME SWALLOWS

While not seabirds these cheeky little cuties certainly do not mind heading out to sea, a lot of islands seem to have them.

They also seem to look at boats as an ideal place to rest. Or to nest. I have actually found a swallows nest on HQ with baby birds in it. Being such a kind hearted soul I waited for them to reach the flying stage before I destroyed the nest.

Now I am onto them and if they rock up with some nest building material in their beak I track them to find out where they are building and block it off. They are the most common visitors into the cabin and even go down into the hulls. I have even had the cheeky blighters flying around me as I have an afternoon nap on my bunk.

I have a simple rule with birds in the cabin. No pooing. I let them go where they like for as long as they like unless they poo. If they do a poo; I shoo. I once had two swallows that never pooed in the cabin for over two weeks. This was when I was anchored over a mile offshore at Yardie Creek.

A couple had the feathers on their heads sticking up like a mohawk so I called them the ‘punk sparrers’. When mates Baz and Mitch came to stay the punks were not fazed in the slightest. They flew in, checked the boys over, shrugged their wings and carried on as before.

When I sailed away I actually missed them. On my return to Yardie about a month later I was keen to see the Punk Sparrers again but they never turned up.

PETRELS

It is fairly common to see petrels flying around the ocean sometimes in great numbers. It’s also pretty common to see them resting on an island.

At Morley Island my great mate Horraman and I were sitting out a big blow. As we enjoyed a late afternoon beer or three a petrel waltzed into the cabin, found a spot and settled down for the night.

Then another. And another. By the time we turned off the light and hit the bunks there were over a dozen in all sorts of nooks and crannies and one was even sitting on the helm chair.

When we got up in the morning they were all gone, or so we thought. As we sailed to Kalbarri, anchored up the Murchison River, we found a stowaway behind Horras surfboards. I called it Morley and it wandered around for a few days before finally deciding to leave, down river in the general direction of Morley Island.

TERNS

It is not unusual for terns to think of a boat as a nice spot for a rest.

If it is only one or two I let them spend the night. Any more than a couple and cleaning the poo off the deck becomes too big a job. They really do crap a lot. I have even had a few that have come into the cabin and made themselves at home.

Being anchored close to Lancelin Island can make shooing terns away a regular job. While there is lots of islands where this can happen, Lancelin Island is easily the worst in my experience. Seabirds can gather on islands in amazing numbers. Even more amazing is that they can all decide to go fishing at exactly the same time.

I do not know what sets them off but they all rise together and move out over the sea to begin hunting baitfish. Once, at Wreck Point off Pelsaert Island, they were so thick it made thinking about how many there actually were; a mind-boggling exercise and that was just the terns. Then something would get the gannets going and they would head out for a fish too.

Then the petrels and the noddys would rise like black clouds.

The most southerly point on the most southerly island in the Abrolhos certainly gets a lot of birds for some reason. Some would fly low and straight over HQ and the flock would separate around HQs mast and regroup on the other side. If every one was giving me a feeling of well being I must have been getting a big dose of well being at Wreck Point that day.

PACIFIC GULLS

I thought they were small albatross until it was pointed out to me they were actually Pacific gulls. They are very pretty birds and seem to have a pleasant personality. They do not usually land on deck but will land in the water ahead, look at me as I sail past, and then fly ahead and do it again.

I like the Pacific gulls. If you hold a small fish like a mulie over your head some will fly in and politely take it from your hand. Much more politely than the silver gulls at Wajemup, which will try to knock a pie from your hand as your putting it in your mouth.

The juveniles have a dark mottled appearance compared to the adults brilliant white with black upper wings.

I have seen a few fair dinkum albatross and they look pretty much like a big Pacific gull. Whether they be albatross or Pacific gull does not seem to alter the feeling of well being.

SHAGS

They are as common as a cormorant. There are heaps of them everywhere and lots of Shag Rocks, Shag Islands, Shag Bays and Shag Points on the charts. They do huge poos and are not encouraged to land on HQ.

One seemed completely unfazed by my close presence and I worked out why the next morning. The poor old bugger had died during the night. I actually felt quite honoured that it chose to spend its last night on HQ. Then I unceromoniously pushed its body into the sea with a boathook.

SHAG VERSUS OCTOPUS

One of the more amazing things I have seen is a battle between a shag and an octopus. I had no idea octopus liked eating shags.

With some tentacles holding underwater rocks and some holding the shag it tried to drag it under to drown. Shags are pretty big and powerful so the cephalopod was not having an easy time of it.

After many attempts, in which the shag always got to the surface to take a breath, the octopus finally lost its grip on the rock. The shag was able to fly into the air but the occy was still attached by a few tentacles around its body. I had a bit of trouble believing what I was seeing.

It did not fly far when the occy wrapped a tentacle around a wing and it plummeted back into the water. The occy pulled it underwater and I thought that was it for the shag. They can hold their breath a long time though and, after quite a bit of time, it surfaced and took to the air again. This time without the occy hanging off it.

I do not know what happened underwater but thanks to a strong survival instinct and great fighting spirit the shag lived to poo another day.

OSPREYS

It was nearly dark as I watched an osprey hovering over the water just aft of HQ. I said to it, “good luck trying to see a fish now mate”. Suddenly it dived down and plucked a mullet out of the water and flew away for a late dinner.

I like to watch them riding the thermals, going higher and higher without so much as a wing flap.

While not as common as a cormorant there is certainly plenty of them. Sometimes solo and sometimes in pairs and sometimes in family groups. Their stick nests are easy to spot and can be very high.

They like to sit in a high place and survey their domain. Unfortunately, a mast is a high place perfect for the purpose and they love to sit up there. They can be quite big and I have lost a couple of wind indicators and my masthead tricolour to ospreys. Usually a yell will put them off the idea of sitting up there but sometimes a rig shake is required before they get the idea.

I have often seen them getting harrassed by smaller birds but I’ve also seen an osprey harrass a white belly sea eagle. The osprey would swoop down on the bigger sea eagle and, just before contact, the sea eagle would flip upside down presenting its talons to the attacking osprey. The osprey would back off from this display of weaponry and the sea eagle would flip right way up again.

This happened repeatedly, like some bizzare sort of dance, until they must have cleared the ospreys area and it curtailed the attacks. I was gobsmacked and thought, eat your heart out David Attenborough.

HQ was on the hard at Two Rocks and had been backed in to a light tower. A pair of ospreys would sit on top of the lights and eat the fish they had caught. I thought it was great having them so close. One day I was doing some job or another under the light tower when I felt and heard a splat on my head. Ssshhhit.

Lucky I was wearing a hat. It was well splattered with a monster poo and I looked up to see one of the ospreys looking straight at me. If I did not know better I could have sworn it was laughing. Maybe not actually laughing, but it certainly looked amused. Some ospreys are not only cruel but they have a very warped sense of humour.

SWANS

I have seen heaps of Swans. On lakes and estuaries and, of course, on the Swan River.

I was anchored at Red Bluff one time when I saw a rather large black bird cruising towards HQ. It ended up coming within a metre of HQ and I was surprised to see it was indeed a swan.

I do not know what it was doing there but it seemed quite happy and at home. It was not at home though. I have spent a lot of time at the bluff and this was the only time I’ve seen a swan there. In fact the only time I can remember seeing a swan anywhere on the open sea. Surreal.

PELICANS

I will not include every type of bird I have had encounters with but I must mention pelicans.

These rather large birds always engender feelings of well being when I encounter them and having a pelican take a fish from your hand is really up there as far as engendering feelings of well being goes. They are a very personable bird.

When I see pelicans in flight they remind me of pterodactyls so I call them ‘Terry Dactyls’. I recently saw about ten Terrys riding thermals and it looked insane. They do not get as high as eagles or ospreys but they get pretty high. I don’t know if pelicans are related to the prehistoric pterodactyl or not, but they might be and that
is good enough for me.

FISH

While the study mentioned earlier only dealt with the feeling of wellbeing generated by birds, I can safely add that seeing just about any form of wildlife can engender a feeling of wellbeing. Especially when they acknowledge my existence. As little as a curious fish that swims up to check me out can make my day.

From the tiniest little ones through to some fairly large ones they are a joy for the eye to behold. In fact some parrot fish look like they are coloured purely to please the human eye.

To visit somewhere like Ningaloo Reef or Abrolhos Islands and not get in the water with goggles and snorkel should be a criminal offence. These reefs are worth the price of admission alone and the amount and variety of fish life is mind boggling. While this is the best way to see fish there are some fish that can be seen from on deck as you sail along
out on the ocean.

FLYING FISH

The fish launched out of the water just in front of HQs port bow and, with wings flapping madly, skimmed the surface for an extremely long distance. I have seen heaps of flying fish but this is one of the longest flights I’ve witnessed and I was impressed.

A fish with wings is one of nature's mystery creatures and they certainly get my attention. I have read a lot of sailing books and they nearly all give the flying fish a mention.

They are everywhere it would seem and a lot of sailors have eaten them. The beauty of flying fish is you do not have to catch them.

Some mornings on passage I find flying fish on deck but have never eaten one myself as I am usually not short of a feed of much nicer fish. They look like a mullet with wings and I do not eat mullet either. They go in the category of fish only to be eaten in an emergency.

MULLET

I do not catch them but still have some encounters with these very common fish.

Well, I did catch one once.

It had launched into the air and landed in the dinghy where I found it stiff and dead in the morning. They seem to love launching into the air but with no wings they fall back down.

Or into the side of HQ. It took me a while to work out the cause of these random bumps in the night. Some of these mullet must be blind. When they are in great numbers I can get a ridiculous amount of impacts.

One day up the Murchison River I saw a big, closely-packed school of mullet ahead of HQ, Over the next half an hour they came closer and closer till they were thick down HQs port side. Some sort of mating frenzy I asume. The incoming tide slowly took them past HQ and on up the river to continue their orgy.

RAYS

Stingrays are some of my favourite people. I mean animals. Friendly and inquisitive I find snorkelling along with a stingray a glorious experience. Of course it is look and do not touch. We all know what happens if you try to grab one, don’t we Steve?

A lot of anchorages have resident stingrays. I know every bay on Wajemup has a resident family. Within seconds of dropping the pick a boat can get her first visit. This has happened almost every time I have been there since I was
a kid on dad’s yacht
Little Tiger.

After cruising with the stingrays for a while I may decide to have a look at the anchor and they will usually come with me and have a look too.

Manta rays are also very friendly. They are huge but you can swim with them. They will not eat you and they cannot sting you as they do not have a sting. A divine creature, as are all rays.

I always cut them free if I accidentally hook a ray but they are edible. I presume they would cook up much like their shark relations.

In a survival situation they would be great tucker. I would dress it like a shark, by cutting the tail off till blood flows from the backbone. This bleeding is essential. Shark meat and, I assume, ray meat, can vary from very nice to inedible purely on the bleeding. I know because I have eaten quite a bit of shark.

SHARKS

Wobbegong is my favourite. When I was crayfishing we would get them coming up in the pots occasionally.

They are the only sharks that can bite their own tail so must be handled very carefully. We would bleed them and then clean them, take them home and eat them. When we did it right they were delicious. When we did not the ammonia would make our eyes water.

We used to set shark hooks off each header pot baited with parrotfish that would come up in the pots. Our targets were up to two metre bronze whalers which we could sell. Sometimes we would have much bigger sharks that had swallowed an already hooked two metre shark, waiting for us in the morning. Sometimes we’d lose the header pot to some large beast that had dragged it away or wound up in the line.

We got a lot of sharks much too big for us to deal with. Four metre plus sharks are not something you want to get too close to even when they look like they are dead. One morning there was a four metre bronze whaler head waiting for us. It was chopped off clean probably the work of a giant white pointer.

I have caught ‘em, cooked ‘em and eaten ‘em. I’ve also surfed with ‘em. I was sitting on my surfboard waiting for a wave one time up north when I saw a shark coming straight at me and it was coming in hot. In the clear water I could see it had my dangling legs in its sights. At a distance of about five metres it scanned up my now rising legs until it was looking me in the eyes.

At that point, now only a couple of metres away, it went hard to starboard and darted off. It was under two metres long and my legs were a good size for it but when it realised they were attached to something bigger it aborted the attack. The fact I was looking at it may also have put it off.

SHARK DEFENCE

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