St Vincent will forever remain tender in our hearts, probably because it was where we had a break!
Now I don’t think we will reap much sympathy here… With the usual question coming to mind, ‘So, you’re surveying seabirds in the Caribbean’? (With warm, azure seas, golden sweeps of beaches and day after day of sunshine, in-bedded in the question).
The reality: it is fantastic and we love being outside and finding tennis balls of fluff gaping up at us from under a boulder… But, seabirds don’t follow the holiday makers. They go where others won’t, to the most remote, wave battered, hostile rocks far from man and his predating pets.
And so we followed, on our mission to record the number and location of all breeding seabirds on islands never or arbitrarily surveyed in the Lesser Antilles – reporting our findings to the Mothership, Natalia, at the EIPC (www.epicislands.org) head office. So by the time Wallilabou Bay came along we were ready to collapse in a heap.
But first Megan and I lead a publicity campaign to which no other could rival. We presented to the police and the young police club, the National Trust, the Forestry Department, over five schools, two radio stations, anyone who would listen and finally the ‘holy grail’ TV! Now, I think I was the only member of the team who truly relished performing in front of the camera. I blame my acting ‘heyday’ (ehem, primary school rantings) Anyway, it turns out, also as a surprise to myself, that I am a pre-Madonna and have found my home on the big screen, well local St Vincentain TV.. So poor Megan and Dave hardly got a look in as I glowered at the public of St Vincent. Although, in truth, Megan hated the mere mention of filming and it took a good elbow from Dave and myself to ensure our siren got a slice of the action. That night we videoed the TV at Wallilabou and watched the scene unfold… the edited broadcast version showed much of me and then a brief glimpse of domestic violence as Megan was shoved into the fray! The long and short of it was that everyone in St Vincent knew we had landed and learnt about seabird conservation, so the multi-prong attack had succeeded and was a recipe for success……..?!
The route into town, Kingstown (the capital) from our anchorage at Wallilabou was tortuous. A mini bus would grind, honking to a holt and the entire human cargo would file out so we could squeeze onto a seat. Then, we would pound through the countryside with our ears blasted by Carib-dance anthems, wheels screaming around hairpin corners, Megan and I clutching one another as we nose-dived down to the sea and then up the next hill. The driver would blast the horn to tempt victims and catapult a massive Mumu or two onto a seat and half of Dave’s, before speeding off past banana plantations, thick forest, rainbow-coloured houses on stilts and a meandering skein of plastic rubbish.
One morning we caught the bus at a particularly rude hour, still in murky half-light we sped for nearly an hour past sleepy eyed residents rubbing their eyes and wondering about in boxer shorts. Finally arriving in Kingstown we marched down the streets past the first fish and veg sellers and found our way to the radio station and then set off to the Forestry Department who were superb. They were interested in the work, lavishing us with ideas and help, suggesting media contacts, schools and partnerships. In turn, we offered to give presentations and to take their staff on a survey of the island.
At eight am on the survey day, Amos and Springer arrived and we grabbed them from the pontoon and paddled to Lista. That day we sailed/motored from Wallilabou Bay on the mid-West coast of St Vincent north, down the east coast, finally stopping near Young Island on the south-east of Wallilabou. We recorded every seabird (and any land-birds) roosting, flying or loitering, as well as the official breeding seabirds.
The seas were buttered with gliding birds: Red-footed Boobies, Brown Boobies and occasionally the biggest Boobies of all, the Masked Boobies, soaring over the crests of the waves. Sometimes, we happened across a thick, multi-species knot of birds, frenziedly feeding on a school of fish. This was a spectacle to see throughout our surveys, often near islands in upwellings of crashing waves, with different species using different tactics to hunt their prey, whether diving like arrows from a height into the deep (the Boobies – relative to our English Gannet), dipping into the surface (many of the ‘butterfly’ like terns) or the bandits (Magnificent Frigatebirds) chasing other seabirds until they disgorged their meal.
The Boobies had become a particular favourite of ours (although if you were to ask us about any of the other seabird species, they would no doubt be a favourite too…). Anyway, they were a superb family with their quizzical faces peering at us, whether an inquisitive Red-footed Booby chick looking down his beak at us from a guano covered tree nest, a Brown Booby adult in her waiter’s suit bobbing to her mate or a Masked Booby tight as a tick on his nest of neatly assorted stones. Then there would be the juvenile Brown and Red-footed Boobies in their almost indistinguishable liveries who would almost crash into Lista in their enthusiastic investigations and repeated, but failed attempts to land. And of course there was the name, which without failure sent every classroom of pupils into fits of giggles whenever Megan or I mentioned it. We tried talking our way around their names, but that didn’t really work, besides, laughs were always good and at least everyone would remember one family….!
Back to the round island survey…Further inland, Royal Terns (true to name) with their large amber beaks and black crests, quartered the beaches and coastline, but we didn’t find many breeding seabirds on the cliffs, which actually was the case on most of the populated islands. We did, however, find a new breeding species, White-tailed Tropicbirds. Relatives of the Red-billed Tropicbirds with their magnificent, white, tail streamers doubling their body length, they looked very similar to the larger cousin, particularly in the heat haze over blue sea. On closer inspection, however, their bills were yellow and they lacked the black eye stripe that extended around the back of the heads and joined the other eye of the Red-bills. Additionally, they had a black panel on their median/greater coverts, but the most useful identifier we found was their call; a scatter gun of ‘pepping’ calls, compared to the Red-bills, which is a peeling exclamation followed by a descending spiral of ‘peeps’.. Right, think I will stop there, am not sure you are any wiser with these descriptions.
In the meantime, Amos and Springer regaled us about life in St Vincent and a childhood of long days running free, gauging their selves on fruits. From Wallilabou, north, the coastline was a stunning mass of green towering forest. The forest was pock-marked by the occasional settlement, small shambling dwellings or the make-shift homes of the cannabis growers. Amos and Springer told us of their endemic St Vincent Parrot, which with St Lucia and Dominica, were the only islands within our study area that were home to the rare Amazon parrots. We surmised that the parrots must have flown from South America to the rainforests of these islands thousands of years ago and overtime evolved into the species present. Or could the first Amerindian settlers have been involved in their transportation, was their enough time for the parrots to evolve into a new species?
Wallilabou Bay became our nest from where Megan and I painted, Dave constructed and we all read. Megan nearly having finished her tome, Les Miserables (literally pronounced), also hunted down prospective MSc or PhD opportunities. Dave’s mission was to refurbish just about every block aboard Lista. For the uninitiated, a ‘block’ according to Tom Cunliffe, ‘your man’ (as Emily-being Irish would have said) when it comes to all things ye olde sailing, is, ‘A pulley on board ship’. Lista, being an old gal, boasts the most beautiful of these oval ash or elm contraptions dangling within her hair… sorry, David will be scoffing, this is a far too lyrical/non-sensicle description. A picture below should explain all. Anyway, Dave tried a series of different concoctions to beautify and strengthen the blocks, first sanding, then boiling them in linseed oil, then dousing them in anything he could get his hands on from wood stain to simple linseed. ‘Experimentation’, is the general guiding principle we use aboard Lista, trying new and traditional products that could be more sustainable or ‘green’.
I found a beautiful stream swathed in rampant vegetation and together Dave and I scrambled along its bank running past the odd cow and her calf, but otherwise no humans at all, just nutmeg trees, strangler figs and a trail winding higher and higher into the hills.
One evening we decided to run a different route, passing yellowy houses, under the glow of street lamps and collections of guys hanging around bars and shacks, in a haze of fruity smoke. As we wound our way up the hill, the signs of people reduced, as did visibility and the sounds of the night took over. The buzzing of thousands of cicadas and unidentified insects, with the high pitched squeaks of tree frogs grew into a hot crescendo as our foot falls grew more lethargic. Then, suddenly, we saw a flash. Then another and another, until an entire tree was turning on and off in front of eyes. The lights would suddenly take off and dart into space or join one another, loop the looping down to the vegetation at the road side. It was an incredible performance, the likes of which we had never seen before.
Bouyed by the lack of people, the musty smell of vegetation, the shapes of bats twisting past us and the ultimate display of the fireflies, we drank in the cool air and galloped home. This was the Caribbean we had been looking for, an island resplendent with tropical vegetation, with intact rainforest still growing high. It was far removed from Sint Maarten where the fire flies had disappeared, along with most of the natural world, to be replaced by concrete and burnt, flabby tourists.
St Vincent is notorious for its ‘boat-boys’ who are a hot topic amongst the yachtie brigade. Most detest them, as the guys madly motor towards a boat heading into a bay to anchor and rap on their sides (knocking the freshly painted hull) and demand money for mangoes, wine, oysters, tying lines, making bread…… Others adore their services. On our arrival they flocked around us, with wars breaking out across Lista’s stern as to who would reap the booty. But, we found that they soon grew tired of the three ruffians, anchored for far too long a period to be interesting within the bay. One guy, however, was particularly persistent with a medley of rotten offerings, which he doggedly paddled to us each day aboard his surf board, wearing a huge orange life jacket.
One Sunday we all trotted off to church. Megan and I had been meaning to go for ages, Dave was mildly interested. The Pentecostal service was in full swing when we arrived. We couldn’t exactly skulk anywhere being the only white, blonde, blue eyed people and in Dave’s case, giants, in the congregation. So everyone turned around as we shuffled into our pew. Two men at the front held microphones and soon the whole congregation were belting out hymns accompanying the orchestral beats on the stereo. Then the sermon began. People feverishly followed the verses in their bible while the preacher belted out praise for God. We were lambs following God and then he would suddenly exclaim, ‘Somebody Say…..’…. In this instance it was ‘lambs of God’ and so the audience would cry out, ‘God!’ The next verse it was ‘holding my staff’….‘Somebody Say, Staff.’ So we bleated the line. This continued for a good forty minutes, by which time people were crying, swaying and dancing and we were wondering how we were going to extract ourselves as there appeared to be no hint of an end.
Eventually we made a leap for the isle and thanked the relevant parties and wondered back down the lane. Christianity is incredibly powerful within the Caribbean and finally we had a glimpse on the world. Small children, the odd teen and plenty of middle aged and older people attended church. The numbers were clearly much larger than in the UK, but the young were still lacking. Various denominations were represented throughout each island, with most streets boasting one type of church or another. When chatting to islanders God was often brought into sentences, whilst whole radio programmes was dedicated to worship. Then there was the ‘funeral hour’ radio broadcast, when the names of long lines of relatives, close friends, distant friends, anyone wondering off the street… would be read out and their praise for the deceased delivered under the doleful notes of organ pipes.
Whilst travelling through the Lesser Antilles we had very often encountered, ‘one shoe’. We could not really comprehend why it was that only one shoe should be present, but nevertheless, from trainers, to boots, to flip-flops to sandals, the last owner had only seen fit to abandon one shoe. Whether strung over a telephone wire, sitting proud in a ditch, along a beach or under a mangrove bush they continually popped up. Who they belonged to, what they had done to deserve such treatment, was an abiding enigma and there being no noticeable increase in one-legged islanders only compounded the mystery. Then one evening, a clue emerged. Megan and I were walking back from town to meet Dave. We couldn’t find the path in the dark and clambered over a grassy bank aided by the light from a passer by’s mobile phone. Safely at the bottom of the bank, we found a swift running stream that we had to ford. I leapt over and was busy screaming at Dave who we had been trying to attract for the past half hour, when I heard a yelp. In attempting to cross the stream, Megan’s flipflop had slipped to her toe and before she knew it had dived for freedom. No longer inextricably linked to its boring ‘other half’ it was free to kick back and head off to join the glorious waiting room of one shoes in the sky…..
So it was, that Wallilabou Bay, which we had not been all together sure about going to (being convinced that its fame for hosting the Pirates of the Caribbean film would render if heaving with tourists) had become our sanctuary. The bar where we got internet was still the dilapidated set for the film, with coffins and pirates lining the walls. The lady who served us ginger cordial beamed at us and became our favourite, a donkey and her foal grazed nearby and spotted pigs screamed on the hillside. Dave was endeared to the St Vincentians when failing to extract money from a local hole in the wall, without a penny on him, was given $5EC to catch the bus to town to find a bank that would cough up! And then there was the shimmering phosphorescence that bubbled in the water beneath our boat. Under the cover of darkness, we would dive deep into the green water, silver jets bursting from our bodies and bob about under a kaleidoscope of stars.
Finally we left and under sail, with only the sound of water rushing at our bows and belted down St Vincent’s coastline. Lured by the blue sea, Megan and I tied fenders on long lines behind the boat and dived in and sat (no glamorous surfing) in Lista’s wake. Our last stop was Petti Bayout, or Ginger Bay as we christened it, this being the result of Megan churning out vats of ginger cookies and Dave crystallizing ginger, creating a veritable factory of ginger brewing. Now Megan has been christened the Queen of Cookies and she deserves the accolade producing the most mouth-watering, melting ‘biscuits’. Unfortunately, on this instance, we didn’t have the correct sugar for the cookies, so Megan had to use some sort of icing sugar…. Resulting in not quite the same level of culinary excellence. Indeed, I think there may still be some of the little cannon balls hanging around still, failing to grow stale, nor attracting even any insect infestation whatsoever. The bay was beautiful, with wooded cliffs and honey comb peaks, a wisp of a beach and fireflies pricking the sky each night.
And a few last memmories of St Vincent: Milligan Cay where we found Bridle Terns and their eggs. Dave and a blow hole and some urchins on Milligan Cay. Washing in the rain on Lista’s deck (this may have been a St Lucia photo..) it happens whenever there is a downpour (fairly often) and is a longstanding luxury living a board our floating caravan.