Lost Travelers (Part 1 of 3)

Lost Travelers (Part 1 of 3)

This post is contributed by Coastal Rivers Trustee Barnaby Porter from his archive. Read the previous post here.

A note from Barnaby: This is the first of three attached pieces, a trilogy of sorts, that embrace one of the most remarkable events in my life. It took place during this fall season in 1994. The setting is in the tropical Pacific, but in the first and third pieces there are real tie-ins to home and Maine, as you’ll see.


This autumn season has found me at an unusual vantage point to ponder the changes afoot from afar, to find myself thinking of home and how it must be from a point on the globe so remote and untrafficked that I can’t describe precisely where I am – somewhere just north of the equator, 500 miles southwest of Acapulco, Mexico, and probably a thousand miles or more west of Costa Rica and Panama, far out in the Pacific Ocean.

For the last two weeks I have been aboard the Atlantis II, a 210-foot research vessel operated by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. Most notable about this ship, other than that I am on it at the moment, is that it functions as the mother-ship for the deep-diving submersible, ALVIN, the same little submarine that back in 1966 found and retrieved the atomic bomb lost off the coast of Spain and which, in 1986, made the first manned visit to the sunken liner, Titanic.

Why I am here is a long story, which I will save for later. I will simply point out that this place is a virtual wilderness, vast, untracked, nowhere. In two weeks, I have not seen a single ship, not a single airplane, not even a vapor trail. No one comes here except fools like us to look at things below the waves . . . and lost travelers.

We came by way of the coastal town of Mazatlan, Mexico. Our departure was delayed a day and a half by a strong hurricane named “Rosa” with sustained winds of 80 to 90 miles per hour and gusts of 110. When we did at last set out late on an afternoon, it was into the flying skirts of Rosa, and she passed us by with 8 to 10-foot seas and an uncomfortable rolling motion as we took them on our beam.

Three days we steamed toward a study area on the East Pacific Rise, a site the crew refers to simply as “Nine Degrees North.” I spent a good part of those first days by the rail on deck, not throwing up as some did, but watching, watching for things I’ve never seen before: birds, fish, whales, anything. Flying fish were something new to me, and I saw them by the hundreds, flitting mirages skipping over the wave tops.

Constant companions to the ship where various species of boobies, who wheeled endlessly around us, diving occasionally to snatch a flying fish. Sometimes I’d see three or four of them sitting on the water, but more often they would alight to rest on the ship’s rigging. One, a blue-faced booby, I approached as it sat on our bow. Standing at arm’s length, I talked casually to him and made the most of the opportunity to get a good look at this strange looking creature with blue-green webbed feet and a leathery blue beak and face. His eyes were deep-set, close together and looking straight forward. His plumage was rather raggedy and gave me the impression that it had seen considerable duty on the high seas. I reached out and stroked his tail feathers. He didn’t appreciate the gesture much and let out a squawk. Boobies, I was told, are regulars in these parts and are generally looked upon as nuisances whose droppings around the ship are an ever-present aggravation for the crew.

The second night out, as the sun was setting amid an amazing Pacific panorama of towering thunderheads and billowing pink and blue clouds, I was suddenly aware of a swallow, a familiar cliff swallow, as it swooped around the ship once or twice and then landed near me on the top rung of a ladder. Way out here! The next morning, I saw two more, and in the course of days since, I have seen many small birds, sparrows, various warblers, including an American redstart and a very pretty blue-winged warbler with its fluffy yellow head that spent two days hopping around on deck before disappearing. One afternoon a flock of 30 or 40 snowy and cattle egrets circled the ship. They seemed exceedingly weary and I’m sure were very dehydrated and hungry. Within a few minutes they had all landed on the cross arms of the radio towers.

None of these poor creatures belongs in such a place. They cannot land on the sea and expect to find rest and nourishment. To contemplate their plight is sobering. Most of them are migrating at this time of year, to Mexico and South America, and it seems clear to me that they most certainly have been blown off course, far out to sea, by this hurricane Rosa and various other storms that have arisen in the past weeks. At the very least, they have flown 500 miles since last resting and probably have flown considerably farther. To think of something so small as a warbler, one that might have nested in my woods in Maine, flying all the way to Mexico only to be blown out to sea in a storm, having to stay aloft for several days over salt water, wing muscles throbbing, heart pounding, no fresh water to drink, no food for fuel, lost, exhausted, nothing but ocean in all directions, the migratory route programmed in its genes hopelessly out of sync with the reality of its predicament . . . a terribly sad and desperate situation.

I have seen many of these lost travelers, maybe a hundred of them. I watched two barn swallows come aboard yesterday at noon. They’re still with us. This morning a small finch appear two inches from my hand on the rail as I was drinking my coffee. They just keep coming, literally out of nowhere.

All aboard ship have taken the plight of these small unfortunate souls to heart, doing what they can to sustain the poor things. They will come readily to drink fresh water sprinkled on the deck and appear to enjoy a cooling shower sprayed directly over them, but food is another matter altogether. Having neither insects or seeds in store, there seems to be little aboard to offer these birds. They pay no attention to breadcrumbs or bits of meat scrap. Only one of the snowy egrets would eat, and after several days of sardines and even fresh (!) tuna, he rallied and became quite tame. Named “Albert,” he’s been the ship’s mascot for a time – until this afternoon when I found him keeled over and in very bad shape. The only thing moving was an eyelid. Later in the day he was dead and gone, gone the way of all the others.

We are only one small group of observers isolated in the vastness of the earth’s greatest wilderness, the Pacific, and yet we are witnessing what seems to me an alarming number of doomed birds who have been blown out to sea, far off the course of their fall migration. How many more are there? Does this happen every year? How many have dropped from exhaustion into the sea? Species by species, what percentage of their numbers will meet such a fate. This must be a regularly occurring form of attrition – a heavy-handed one at that.

It makes me wonder now about the abandoned mud-globe nest of a pair of cliff swallows who three years ago chose a spot under the eaves of my shop. I was in hopes they were the beginning of a colony that might return year after year. But no, last spring they did not return. Considering the elemental forces that these frail, feathered beings must face, I think the miracle lies in the spirit that wills them to live . . . to fly on and on and on. Only that sustains them in a place such as this. There is nothing else.

Read the next post: To the Edges of the Earth (part 2 of 3)

Barnaby PorterArtist and author Barnaby Porter has had a varied career in marine research, aquaculture, and woodworking, among others. Most recently he partnered with his wife Susan as co-owners of the Maine Coast Book Shop & Cafe in downtown Damariscotta. On October 7, 2021, Barnaby completed his tenure on Coastal Rivers’ Board of Trustees after six years of service.

Cliff swallow photo by Don DeBold