I say that the kids and I like to go bird watching and hiking back home in Canada, but what we really do is seek adventure. When I went to the EAG’s offices in the Antigua and Barbuda Museum to sign myself and my kids up for a sea turtle watching expedition, the kids and I were drawn not only by the idea of observing sea turtles, but also by the promise of other unforeseen ecological adventures.
As I chatted with Donald Anthonyson of the EAG and he spoke about the organization’s different environmental programs, ecological and awareness issues, and educational programs for the islands of Antigua and Barbuda and their surrounding smaller islands, I was struck with all the possibilities for adventure. I thought of making the boat trip to the bird colonies on some of the smaller surrounding islands. I thought of seeing islands, bays, and inlets I had never seen before. I thought of hiking through an unspoiled Caribbean ecosystem and seeing what parts of the world around me here in Antigua might have looked like long ago.
I was lucky enough to be able to arrange for myself and my kids to come along on one of Donald’s working excursions to the North Shoal islands off Antigua’s coast. The purpose of his expedition was to bait rat traps in order to avoid the incursion of rats into the islands. The idea of the boat and hiking trip was a hit with my kids. We hadn’t been before and didn’t exactly know what we would find, but we looked forward to going.
Yesterday I got a call from Donald to confirm the time and place of our meetup. We were to meet Donald and Joseph Prosper of Antigua’s EAG (Environment Awareness Group) at 8:00 am at a village called Seatons on the North East shore of Antigua. We would be travelling with these two EAG staffers along with their two helpers, and the trip would take us to Rabbit Island and Bird island. We expected a little ruggedness since this was a working trip to set traps for rats which had previously invaded the bird colonies and threatened the endangered non-poisonous snakes on at least one of these islands. We came along to photograph the bird colonies for the EAG.
Our directions were to drive to the village of Seatons and once there keep going all the way to the top of the hill to the shop there where everyone would start to gather at 8:00 am. We were told to expect to push off at around 8:30 am. As an aside, Donald warned “we’ll try not to fall back to West Indian time but there is a possibility that someone might be late”.
Donald said that once everyone gets together we’ll be heading out to Rabbit Island but because this island is a little bit rough the kids and I won’t need to get out. We can take pictures from the boat. We’ll then travel to Birds Island where the endangered racer snake might be found. He said the entire trip should last around 3-4 hours. I asked about beaches. He said that Birds Island has a beach where the kids might play a little but this is a working ecology trip so there may not be time to do other than photograph.
My son is the eager beaver and usually wakes up early to pack extra gear that I occasionally have to unpack. However this morning my daughter was the one who was too excited to sleep. We both were up at 5:00 am. Me to finish a little writing and then to pack lunch and get breakfast ready for the kids and myself, and her to get dressed while speculating about the types of real and imaginary creatures we might find. My son must have worn out his enthusiasm the night before because this morning he was heavy with sleep. I had to wake him up. But it wasn’t hard. All I had to do was roll him over gently and say “it’s time to go on the boat”. Even though his eyes were still too sleepy to open, the smile on his face was uncontrollable. Soon after he was up, dressed, finished his breakfast and asking what he could pack into the car to help us get ready.
For once it was me who lagged. I went over my mental checklist: an insulated container of ice water, fruit and sandwiches for snacks, bug spray, bug bite cream, child sized life preservers … and wait I forgot motion sickness pills. I’m not prone to motion sickness but when my son was four I took him deep sea fishing with me and he had the most terrible bout of sea sickness. We cut the trip short and came back, but even the trip back to shore was excruciating for him. I knew that this was a working trip for the EAG and did not know if they even could interrupt their work for a non-essential emergency such as sea-sickness. I made sure both kids took the medicine.
Then there was the camera gear. Batteries charged … check. Compact Flash in the camera and not in the card reader … check. All the right lenses packed … check. Lens cloth and lens pen put back in camera bag … check. Having gotten up much earlier than usual, I was beginning to get sleepy again after running through these checklists. By the time I got on the road I was full-on exhausted and struggled to keep my eyes open. I was also hungry. I had fed the kids but only had a chance to take a quick bite. My navigation skills in Antigua are suspect at the best of times. Being hungry, tired, and a little distracted from answering the incredulous questions of my two little back seat drivers, I was also lost.
I called Donald on my cell phone but didn’t get through. I stopped to ask a young woman which way was Seatons. It was Sunday and she was wearing church clothes. She just shrugged and walked on without raising her head to acknowledge me. I briefly imagined myself in her eyes as someone headed off with my children on a Sunday morning for some place that was not church. I kept driving. The road turned into a dirt cow path that ended abruptly in a pasture that stretched to the hilly horizon. The pasture was devoid of any people or homes and contained only greenery and the sun above it. It was past the scheduled departure time of 8:30 am. Just then the phone rang. It was Donald “How are you making out? Have you reached Seatons yet?” I confessed that I was a little lost.
Between Donald and the WPS (Wadadli Positioning System … the name I use for asking locals in Antigua where I am) I soon got sorted out. I found everyone waiting at the store. They would have liked to have left earlier to avoid the hottest part of the day, but in the face of the uncontrollable delay they were nevertheless making entertainment amongst themselves with a little conversation. I felt immediately at ease.
Donald loaded up the rest of their gear to head out. I was appreciative that I was provided a life preserver. I was told it was standard EAG policy to bring along one preserver for each EAG member. I can swim like a fish and could probably swim across the bay unassisted in the buoyant salt water, but I’m unsure whether I could make the swim towing my two kids. Joseph drove Donald and the others in a pickup. I followed with my kids. Our little convoy made its way down a steep hill to the small fishing boat that would take us between the islands. The boat was tied up to a dock and the boatman was waiting there for us. It was small fishing boat, exactly the type of shallow hulled craft I would have expected for an excursion across shallow waters ending with a beach landing. Donald and the others helped my lift my camera gear in and then helped me lift in my kids. Donald and one of the two others untied us from the dock and we were off.
In the boat the kids and I were introduced to boatman and the two others that helped Donald and Joseph in the EAG’s work. Their names were Shawn and Tahambay and they had been helping Donald and Joseph in their environmental work for over a decade. Although soft spoken, Shawn, a rasta, showed a generous and considerate nature in offering the kids a snack. Tahambay was a little of a natural entertainer and his comments ensured that all of us could not be other than of good spirits . Aldrick, the man steering the boat, was a longtime boatman who had worked with the EAG many times in the past as well. I wanted to get more of their stories, but the spray of the water on my notepad and the roar of the wind encouraged me to put my notepad away and simply enjoy the ride with my kids.
On the way to Rabbit Island we passed Guana Island to the left of the boat. Joseph pointed out a bird he said was an American Oyster Catcher. Having the name “American Oyster Catcher” doesn’t mean the bird is American and not local, but nevertheless I imagined it to be from Texas. I wondered if despite the hope offered by Obama’s presidency, the financial turmoil in the US might have somehow blown the bird here. Perhaps it was itself the cause of the turmoil and was lying low on this island waiting out the aftereffects of some massive ponzi scheme. Whatever reason it had come, it had in any case ended up on this small island off the coast of Antigua. I assumed it was eating Antiguan oysters tax free. Perhaps it had come to sponsor the athletic pursuits of local oyster catchers, perhaps urging them on with the crickets popular here. It studied the birds around it. I’m only an amateur birder so relying on intuition rather than scientific observation, I had no doubt that it spent its days in the sun chasing the female oyster catchers about. No doubt it must have had at least four of them on the go. What an enterprising little bird I thought.
We landed briefly on Galley Island directly across from Bird island. Donald stepped out to quickly bait the traps. Everyone else stayed in the boat. We kept moving on to Rabbits Island. Joseph pointed out some seabirds called Brown Noddys that flushed from the trees and cliffs of the shoreline as we approached. The clouds over the sea looked foreboding. I thought of the sudden violence of Antiguan storms and looked nervously at my two kids. I had forgotten to pack a waterproof windbreaker for one of them. I voiced my concerns. Our boatman took a look at the clouds and said “don’t worry. The clouds are passing that way”. He pointed east. “But get ready for just a little bit till they pass through”. He had barely finished speaking when a light sprinkle touched down. But he had given me enough warning to pack away my camera gear. The sprinkle lasted for less time that it took to write about it. After that, the day was as clear as a good deed on the way to Sunday morning church. I recognize that for some readers this comparison may not be meaningful. For them perhaps I should say the day was as clear as the Devil’s voice calling from behind the door of the “Sports Bar” as rum shops these days are now called.
Rabbit Island was rugged but not as rugged as I had expected from what Donald had told me. From the boat I didn’t see any sheer cliff faces that my kids aged 5 and 7 couldn’t scale. I asked the kids if they wanted to stay in the boat or come with me to take a couple pictures. They wanted to see what was on the island. The water was only knee deep on me so it was easy enough to carry them from the boat to shore. I lifted them one at a time and came back for my gear. We started through the bush after Joseph. The ground was steep, but we were able to follow a small trail leading to the top so we didn’t have to struggle against the full violence of the dense thorns on the island. I was glad that we had dressed appropriately. The kids and I had on running shoes and socks along with very light weight hiking pants that protected our legs from the scratches while not overheating us. We also had on very light long-sleeved shirts to protect us not only from being scratched up by the bush, but that also protected us from the raging sun.
When we got to the crest of Bird Island the view was heart stopping. I paused for a moment without meaning to, intending that as much as I had control over this uncertain life that I would never let go of this moment. But I know that my memory over time will release these images. Only the photographs I take will remain, perhaps tattered and torn, perhaps to be pasted together and reused by some other traveler of the imagination.
Joseph said that twenty thousand tourists per year come to Bird Island alone, but that they are mainly sun bathers who don’t venture inland past the beaches. Some of their kids do, but he says they try to discourage those unsupervised kids because of the steep cliffs and sharp rocks, and also so the kids don’t disturb the colony. Walking through the colony with Joseph I saw hundred of birds flushed from their roosts, but after a couple of minutes of us sitting quietly taking pictures they settled down. “Us coming here and settling down quietly to take some pictures is only a moderate disturbance” he said. “It’s the kids running back and forth that can sometimes cause the birds to be disturbed. “Seabirds are kind of funny that way and you have to be careful. Too much disturbance and they might leave one year and not come back” Joseph said.
Visits to the summit where I was remained rare Joseph said. He felt relatively confident of these numbers since he was in frequent communication with our boatman and a network of other fisherman and boatmen along the coast who are the EAG’s eyes and ears. “You don’t get many birders” he said. “Nature magazines and photographers are rare”. He felt it was because of the ruggedness. “Although” he said, “a couple of film crews from the Discovery Channel and from Disney came to the island to capture the sound of the wind and the birds for documentaries”.
The ruggedness of the island was in its jagged surface and in the precarious paths only meters wide that were bordered on either side by sheer cliffs. In places the cliffs dropped hundreds of feet onto disemboweling coral rocks. Joseph was proud to bring classrooms of Antiguan children to the island, feeling that the experience was important enough to their heritage to warrant looking past the ruggedness of the island. I kept my kids within grabbing distance, but I was very thankful that their eyes had seen what my eyes had seen on that island.
Bird Island Cliffs
There were two cliffs on Great Bird Island that were precarious enough that I asked the kids to stay with Joseph while I crept out on my stomach to take pictures over the edge. As I crept to the windy edge of the upper one my pulse raced slightly. A butterfly fluttered along the ridge to a lonely flower and was blown away by a gust of wind. Knowing my kids like to chase butterflies I was calmed knowing the kids were nowhere near enough to the edge to be lured by the butterfly. I hope the pictures I took can give a sense of how small and vulnerable one feels against those cliffs. And I hope the pictures give a sense of how privileged one feels to have seen them. Antiguan heritage indeed.
Joseph said that since the rats were eradicated the birds have come back. And the trees are back in better health. “Rats will eat the blossoms off trees and stifle the grown of fruit plants and trees. In 1995 when we first came in with the rat eradication program, when we came up to shore with the fishing boat we had to step back! As we approached Great Bird the rats came into the water to approach the boat. We would camp and the rats would tear through the tent. We put our biscuits and other perishable dry goods in the tent with us for safety. We kept the tins outside”. I marveled at the fact that he kept the biscuits with him for safety when many people would have thought of keeping the biscuits as far away from the tent as possible for the safety of their person’s rather than that of the biscuits.
He continued “that’s when we learned that rats when they are hungry enough can chew through tin.” Joseph was adamant about the need to educate people to cart away their waste when they visit the offshore islands. “People leave waste. Rats are strong swimmers. We see them on occasion swimming between the islands. Sometimes when boats are docked here you will see them running down the anchor line to the shore”. Luckily, he told me, their efforts at preventing the spread of rats looked to be a success in terms of allowing the sea bird populations to return.
When I at first sat in the boat and took out my notepad to jot down some notes on the experience. I saw that my five year old daughter Anisa had taken out her notepad to write as well. Later when we had climbed to the top of Bird Island Joseph watched my seven year old son Eric taking photos with me and asked “doesn’t she like to take pictures too?” I told him that she more enjoys writing and painting. He nodded. “It’s nice when you can pass things on to kids” he said.
Anisa wrote the following about the day:
We are going hiking and we are having a great time. The time is 8:00. We will go to Barbuda some day. We are on a boat. We are seeing birds. I am at the beach and we see lizards.
Being seven years of age Eric is a great deal closer to the ground than I am. I see so clearly through his photographs that things look different from his perspective. This is what makes his photographs so wonderful to look at. His choice of subjects shows an unbridled sense of wonder with things most adults find mundane: a lizard on a funny colored rock; a cactus slightly taller than all the rest with birds wheeling freely overhead. Some of his photographs follow.
Long Pants (lightweight and quick drying)
Long Sleeved Shirt (lightweight and quick drying)
Hiking Shoes or Sturdy Running Shoes
Light Waterproof Windbreaker (optional)
Sun Hat (optional)
A positive attitude!
For information about your own adventures, visit the EAG’s website: www.eag.org.ag