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Ship Logs

The Value of Tranquility
Written by Carlos Eyles
Photography by Jim Watt
September 18, 2002

Sunup, and traces of ribbon-pink clouds, like those tossed in the wind when the parade is over, trail across a high sky hung in shades of gray. The low pressure system seems to have moved on; a hint of wind out of the east scarcely ruffles the water indicating its grand ideas have subsided. Within minutes, the gray clouds vanish like a shadow and loose formed feathered wings reveal themselves still higher in the sky like great birds fallen from another heaven.

Bristle-thighed Curlew.We are going ashore on Laysan today the first land I have touched in eleven days. Birds from the island reflect the high sky and are already working the surface for an early morning feed; some will range several miles offshore today. The terns are diving around the boat, making those endless sweeps that seabirds cast; a wing arching and appearing to delicately brush the surface for a hundred yards before shifting to then skim off the tops of waves. I cannot think of any creature more graceful and in control of their environment than a seabird working the invisible air currents of an ever stirring ocean.

In preparation for this landing today we had to buy new clothes, then freeze them for at least forty eight hours, this includes shoes, hats, anything that might be the vehicle for bringing some alien insect, or seed, or bacteria that could over run roughshod over the island and wipe out the native plants that took so long to reestablish. Like excited children on the first day of school we don our new threads and disembark, Watt discovers too late that in his last minute rush for new shoes, he purchased reef walkers with two right feet, which gives him the appearance of an erstwhile Chaplin listing to the left whenever he takes a step.

Laysan Ducks.The zode hits the beach and we scramble off, six Laysan Ducks greet us on the shoreline. These diminutive brown and tan ducks number some three to four hundred; all that are left in the world. At one time they were found all over the Main Hawaiian Islands, and were wiped out when the rats aboard ships descended into paradise and ate the duck's eggs. Once human contact was established their downfall became a matter of time. Walking up the white sand beach which stretches south for several hundred yards before turning in, looks to be one of the more lovelier beaches I have ever seen, one is overcome with the desire to lay down in it, feel its softness, maybe take a nap. Restraining myself, I sit instead and shortly a little sparrow-like bird all but hops into my hand, the Laysan Finch, also on the Laysan Finch.  Photo by Andy Collins.endangered list, and only found here on this island. So we are not here five minutes and I have the privilege of meeting its two most noteworthy residents. We are greeted by Kevin Payne and Alison Agness both field researchers that spend up to six months at a time on this isolated island, keeping watch, accumulating data, clearing debris that might endanger both birds and monk seals. The monk seal colony numbers 350 and an average of 100 can be counted at any one time around the island when they haul out. We found them laying on the beach and up in the high ground throughout our trek, and gave them wide berth, so as not disturb their naps in any way.

Our guide this morning is Beth Flint a fixture in the restoration of this island who has dedicated her life to the preservation of seabirds. She was the first graduate student to work in the field on Tern Island. Early in life while still a child visiting Yellowstone Park she was inspired by the Park Rangers and wanted to grow up to be one. A higher calling prevailed for which every seabird is grateful. She first came to Laysan Island in 1982, but did not begin to make her significant contributions until 1991 and for over eleven years she was instrumental in making this island inhabitable for all the species of birds that now reside here. When I asked her what she liked about Laysan she said it was the distinct odor of the guano that somehow triggers feelings of great joy. The last time she was here in 1996 the place was full of weeds, a sandbur, common to Central American had arrived in Laysan in 1961 when the U.S. Military established an operation here. The weeds took over and overran the island placing it in serious jeopardy, only through the efforts of Grad students doing back breaking weed pulling over the last eight years did the island escape yet another calamity.

As we trek rather gingerly southward, Beth cautions us to be aware of the burrows that Wedge-Tailed Shearwaters, Bonin Petrels, Christmas Shearwaters and Tristram's Storm Petrels have constructed in the soft sand. Some of these burrows are an astounding ten feet long. There are tens of thousands of them across the island. The sheer numbers on this island is mind boggling, next month over 400,000 albatross will fly in for the mating game. Everywhere we walk birds are on the wing and on the ground, as are the camouflaged eggs of white Terns, who are anything but camouflaged all white with large black eyes, their purity and innocent look could transform the most callous heart. The terns find a suitable rock and sit down, no nest, and forty days later their single egg hatches. If Beth had not pointed out an egg of a tern she accidentally flushed I would have never seen it.

Dead Albatross with plastic debirs. Photo by Monte Costa.Among the birds lies the debris of man that routinely kills them. There is plastic everywhere, plastic balls, shampoo bottles, shards of plastic, combs, bottle tips, toys, plastic, plastic, plastic. If it were just debris one might tolerate it, but as they float about the ocean flying fish attach their eggs to them, long strings of delicious eggs, and the albatross adults pick up the eggs and the attached plastic and bring them back to the island and regurgitate them for their young who will soon die from ingesting a bic lighter, or bottle cap. Albatross skeletons are scattered everywhere and in observing their remains one finds in the empty space where their stomach used be pieces of plastic. Our world extends its invisible hand of death to the remote corners of the planet and does its insidious work.

We have walked to the southern end of the island where lie terraced tide pools that are simply stunning in their arrangement to the sea, pure and clean, with fish ripping currents of play in their perfect world.

There is a timeless quality to the island, a portal to a natural environment as it once was (plastic junk notwithstanding). It comes with the hope that through the efforts U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service it will be kept this way for a long time. It is at once uplifting and sad, for a small group of dedicated people are trying to keep nature intact, fighting all odds. And in return, there exists the thread of connection for man and for the birds, for we, mankind, need these places as much as the birds need them, we desperately need a pathway to nature, intact and pure like an innocent child whom must be protected from a world who has forgotten the value of tranquility.

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