13 October, 2009

Long Row to the land of the Coconut Crab___________________

Rain – morning row – abandoned village – coconut crabs – island diversity - row to windward – octopus - wreck

Rain, rain, rain. Within a few days of arriving in Chagos, the rains returned. (I'd been sailing in rain for most of two weeks.) I couldn't complain. I sat back with a morning cup of coffee and Lord of the Rings and spent the days basking in solitude and the quiescence of a boat without wake. I might take Alice the dinghy out in the afternoons if there was a break. Just drifting over the reef I would see sea turtles and sharks and rays, the water being so clear and the coral only three feet down at the tops. It reminds me of those glass-bottomed boats for yokals. I would try for a snorkel in the mornings, but it rained and then rains some more.

After a week however, I started to feel it was time to move on. The weather seemed to be fairing up. But I felt like my old self (in a bad way), like I wasn't really making the best of the place. I was drifting in Alice and looked across the lagoon to Boddam, an island on the far side. There had once been a settlement there and I had meant to move Brillig there and anchor and see the place. The rain had dashed that. So I thought, why not row?

This idea caught my fancy. Indeed, I wasn't even sure if I could do it. It was downwind. . . what about current? I didn't know. Not sure how hard it is to row that far as I've never tried it. All the uncertainty gave it a really exciting feel. My blood tingled; it seemed the thing to do.

I figured eight miles in the worst conditions could be done with ardor. If your life depends upon it—you can row eight miles! All I had to do was make sure I didn't get swept out to sea or sunk. If the weather was fair in the morning, I was going.

And so it was. I was up at dawn and didn't skimp on provisions. I was still alone on Chagos; I'd have to take great care. Water, lunch, dive gear, and my usual emergency supplies. It felt good. The morning was calm and brisk and strangely quiet; the lagoon was flat and the current was setting me north into the lagoon instead of sucking me out. I made great way and I felt fit. I was set hard north, but I made Boddam in just over two hours. Almost anticlimactic. Not sure my heartrate was even up. The day was young yet, there was plenty of time for the trouble, and that was yet to come.

I beached Alice and started a jaunt down the beach. I didn't know where this so-called settlement was, yet, looking about fifty yards down the beach there was a stone outcropping with a flagpole. I took that as a sign that I wasn't far off.

Just off the beach there was a concrete building with no roof, no windows, no doors, just rubbish strewn about the foundations. Was this it? Totally disappointing. So a family had lived in this little ramshackle hut and cruisers had used it since to homestead. Okay, so it had a volleyball net. But the scene lent me no desire to have "An Island to Oneself" as Tom Neale had.

Yet my aloofness was premature.

Overcoming my disinterest, I wondered why they bothered to build a wall far out beyond the building. Walking beyond it, I found a clear path. (Still strange to me that it should remain clear after so much time.) Following it, it let to yet another structure, then another. As I walked, a whole former community opened up in the heart of the island. (I wonder if, deep down, I knew there was more. No one builds seriously on the beach—no protection from the wind and storms.)

It struck me as strangely eery. Like a lost Inca city deep in the jungle. A concrete wall running down the lane. An old church, all building lacking roofs and doors. The island was quiet except for the odd occasional rustling amongst the coconuts. There weren't any animals here, domestic, I mean. I thought little of rustling until, on the edge of the path, I saw a literal monster.

It was a crab, a crab like I've never seen before. (Okay, only once though.) But they are now rare. It was a coconut crab, the largest terrestrial invertebrate in the world. (I read that just now.) They live for decades and can reach three feet across from leg to leg. This one wasn't that huge, but when you are used to hermit crabs, it was spectacular. That is, until it took a few steps toward me instead of scurrying into the palm fronts. Then I eyed his claws and wondered about their temperament. Those claws clip off fingers.

He came no farther. I was next to scurry. . . for my camera. I saw an old coconut crab once on Suvarrow Island in the Cooks. It was sort of a pet of the caretaker of the island. But here, on Boddam, they were all over. It was something to behold. They reminded me of old fat kings, sitting atop a horde of coconuts all to themselves. And there were piles and piles of coconuts, simply a wonderland if you were a crab.

It is an interesting fact about Chagos, and small islands in general—there is no competition. So few species ever make it here that, if they can survive, it is all theirs. On the motu where Brillig is anchored. The island is dominated first by coconut palms, almost a monoculture. In the trees squawk boobies and noddies. Loads and loads of them. The trees sway with them. On the ground teams hermit crabs, and a few other varieties. In the middle are the spiders, which, oddly enough, look just like little crabs. And there is at least one hornet or wasp. I know because it stung me.

There is nothing else. Nothing. Yet Boddam was a bit different. Not nearly the preponderance of spiders, thank the lord, yet it had more mosquitoes, which on my island never bothered me. And not the birds either.

As I was taking this walk amongst the eerie abandoned settlement (apparently the British Gov. kicked them all out for some reason), the trees started to bend on the beach. The tradewinds were back. And strong. And in my face. And I had an open lagoon to row.

This fact made it a little hard to sit back and relax on the island, or do a little snorkeling amongst the many coral heads there. A fetch was building up and I started to realize that my wish for adventure was in fulfillment. It was going to be a long row home.

Brillig was four miles DEAD upwind. The current AND the wind AND the windwaves would all be working against me. And Alice Carrol was so so small, with such meager freeboard (height above the water)—at least she was light and my oars are good.

Well, that was that. I ate my lunch, now only eleven o'clock, sharing my crackers with some hermit crabs. I was wanting to be off. How long would it take? How long could I go? We should see.


It was slow indeed, but not so bad as I had feared. Alice reared up over the swell reasonably. I rowed with some confidence and we trudged on. After the first hour, we had done nearly two miles. This was incredible. . . in a good way. The leeway was bad, but again, better than feared. I found a reef in the middle of the lagoon and anchored the dinghy to have a dive and a rest. It was a beautiful pillar of coral surrounded by blue. So near the reef breaks I thought I might see some large sharks. I didn't but what I did find, all by accident was more amazing, and perhaps one of the damnedest things I've ever seen.

As I dove down to a smaill shelf, I approached a wad of fish; they cleared out but there seemed to be one left behind, which I took a close look at. And all of a sudden, this great eye looked up at me, and, somehow, the thing changed.

What the hell was I looking at?

It was a great big octopus. Big. Its body was over a foot across. It had turned all crimson as I approached it—what the fish were doing there, I haven't the foggiest—I was only three feet away I figure. Close. I never would have seen it otherwise.

I had to stare at it for some time until I saw it properly. It isn't like you'd see in a book: an open-swimming, tentacled, sea monster. His tentacles were coiled beneath him; I just saw a crimson blob. . . with an eye. It moved a bit; a tentacle curled around itself and then I knew all at once: octopus.

Then it got weird.

It was smooth and crimson. I saw it and knew it. Then it vanished, well. . . it transformed, but perfectly. It's colors went to shades of brown and tan in great blotches. But what was more, its skin took the patchy texture as well—it grew great lumps, like boils, developed pock-marks.

Wow. . . I almost failed to remember to breathe. I didn't want to take my eyes off it—I would never find it again.

Remember the movie Predator, or James Bonds car—that invisible-stuff is no joke. Nature can do it better than technology. When it changed, it vanished. There was nothing 'octopus' about it. Only a coral head. Completely invisible. I couldn't have dreamed any 'real' thing could possible do true magic like that. I saw it. Me. And I am amazed.

It warily slunk into the coral and was gone. I was wowed and slunk back aboard Alice for the remainder of the row. I was unconcerned now. I was nearly halfway home and it was yet one o'clock in the afternoon. I had to beware the leeway. Nothing else.

Yet conditions change. I don't know why, but the going only got worse. The fetch was beating against the bow and those last few miles just wouldn't come. At least I finally got what I wanted: tired. If I hadn't thought to bring my old mountain-biking gloves to wear I hate to think of condition of my hands.

The southern break was roaring in my ears; the last few islands slowly eased on past, and the lee of 'my island' came at last. I was hot and tired and dropped anchor away to the south of Brillig for one last dive. To my amazement, as I dropped in I spied a hulk on the edge of the reef. As I swam over, a fifty foot hull lurched on the edge of the reef where it had unwillingly become part of the topography.

Being no more than ten feet under, it was easy to dive. As I went down and into an open hold, I was met by hundreds of copper sweepers, teeny-tiny fish with strangely articulated tails. Apparently they are nocturnal. I guess they spend their days lingering in the wreck. The hull was simply full of them, a fog of fish as dense as I have ever seen. They didn't shy away either. I came right in amongst them and they sort of looked at me, but without interest. (Ha, I am reading into the eyes of a three inch fish!)

Upon inspection, I found a gaping hole in the side of the yacht where it must have worked against the reef until it failed and sank. It was a concrete boat, which do not tolerate reefs with any candor.

That was enough for me. I craved hot coffee, a rolly, and some peace on deck. The day was done; an adventure was had. Tomorrow I would haul anchor and get back to the work of finding Africa at the far end of this voyage.

Of course the weather did not hold and I did not leave for Africa.

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