A brief accounting of wildlife seen on the open ocean

  • Birds, too small to really see, just dark shadows at night, will sometimes circle around theĀ RCS. In the dark, they reflect our lights back to us. At first, one of my watch mates thought they might be bats, because they were just large, flappy shapes swooping over him at the lookout. This was a particularly dark dawn watch, and we had a handful of birds chirping to each other as the hours passed. Sometimes they will land on the deck, and it becomes our responsibility to ensure that that they safely return to the air.
  • Albatross floated by our ship one stormy afternoon. We were surprised to see them in the water. They were sitting there calmly in the waves, which dramatically bobbed them up and down. They seemed rather undisturbed as we passed them on the ship. I’d seen albatross before, flying very distantly on the Otago Peninsula in the South Island of New Zealand. The peninsula point is decorated with a lighthouse, cliffs, and albatross nests. Huge as the birds are, you can still see them soaring, even at a great distance. Though, there, they seemed remote, unreachable.

In the ocean, mere meters away from the bow of the boat, they seemed like fellow seafarers. Calm even as the weather picked up. Comfortable with a world always tossing and breaking. We watched each other for those few minutes as we passed each other. I admired their calm, their grace. Clearly they are made for the unusual place that is the center of the ocean. They are here more often than I, less visitors, more permanent residents.

  • Whales, too, we’ve seen. I don’t know if I dared to imagine that we’d actually see them around Vava’u. Our professors told us that we’d be passing through at the tail end of their migration through the islands. It was too much to hope for, I thought. But in the days between Vava’u and Tongatapu we saw a number of humpbacks. Surprising us in the morning. Being trailed by whale watching boats. Breaching time and time again. Later, we saw a whole crowd of sperm whales. Nearly the whole ship’s company arrived on the quarter deck to watch them. I was on the helm, trying to keeps us on course, while glancing over my shoulders at the whales.
  • And there was a shark once. A white tip shark was the closest ID we got. Someone spotted it in the slow time right after class, and we all crowded around, again. Watching a great shadow meander in our wake. Benign and curious.

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