With the golden winter sun burnishing the water, and not enough wind to take the polish off the waves, we were chasing the setting moon out of Caxambas between two spits of sand that were foaming and awash with the outgoing tide.
After sailing our coastal waters for decades, and relating as much to my more nervous passengers who always seem to ask, “How long have you been doing this?”, the beauty of our islands and our nautical surroundings often inspire a more creative question.
“What is the most incredible thing you have seen out on the water?”
My answer to this day remains the same: “The day I saw the animals playing.”
After sailing through the sandy gate and the narrow channel leading out to the Gulf, what was left of the offshore breeze began to sigh and fade away. Without the breath of wind over the water, the sky began to reflect upon it like a vast and shining mirror. With the absence of wind, every ripple became a wave and every splashing disturbance a mystery to be investigated.
When you happen to be a sailboat skipper without any wind, you are certainly obliged to find something to keep your guests entertained. On this particular day, something incredible found us.
Just when my first-time sailors were giving me “the look” and beginning to pout about the lack of wind filling the sails, I could not help but notice a frigate bird circling high overhead.
“Check it out,” I suggested and then pointed aloft.
Magnificent Frigates truly are magnificent in flight. The wingspan of these incredible soaring birds can reach to over six feet and is made even more dramatic by the fact that frigates’ wings seldom move. These magnificent birds can soar for days just riding the wind. With a sleek–black prehistoric profile, the timeless cadence of these amazing airborne creatures can be mesmerizing. They silently pivot and climb . . . with wind under wing . . . sun on the water. . .
“Wow,” one of passengers broke the silence, “What kind of bird is that? It looks like a pterodactyl—the flying dinosaur.”
“It’s a frigate,” I answered as everyone watched the jet-black bird with the swallowtail wheel and circle.
“A what?” was the contagious giggle that usually follows this explanation.
“They’re called Magnificent Frigates.” I tried to explain away the uncomfortable “frig-it” slang.
“These birds are named after a class of old sailing ship,” I continued amongst more giggles. “A frigate was a type of naval vessel known as a man-of-war. The Magnificent Frigates are also known as man-o-war birds. They would follow sailing ships and wait for scraps of food. The old sailors say that watching the frigates can forecast the weather. When the weather is fair, only one or two frigates are visible. When the weather starts to change more will move in closer to land. When we are under a tropical storm or hurricane warning, there will be hundreds circling over…”
Before I could finish with the old sailor folklore, our singular frigate bird tucked in a wing and began dropping toward the water with incredible speed. Then just before our diving man-o-war reached the still and shining surface, we saw it happen.
It seemed like only a split-second before the black streaking wings were destined to crash into the Gulf when the water immediately below the bird erupted with a giant splash. With everyone watching, the now soaked wings of the frigate began to beat and rise, and once again our fleeting man-o-war was aloft and circling overhead. After less than a minute, it happened again. Another dive almost to the surface followed by a giant splash just before the diving bird reached the water.
With everyone amazed at the unknown eruptions from the water, we cruised in closer as the frigate climbed back to its original height and began to circle again. When we finally found the frigate’s newfound friend it was easy to understand what was causing the splash.
Lying awash on the sun-touched water was one of the wonderful creatures that many of us will remember as “Flipper.” An Atlantic bottlenose dolphin was lounging on its back with its face and white belly facing the circling bird and the sky. The dolphin’s pectoral fins were moving back and forth to tease the water slightly and as all aboard watched in awe, the frigate began another dramatic dive. With the man-o-war bird apparently intent on attacking the dolphin, everyone became tense. Just before the mock attack was complete, the dolphin’s tail came up to create a huge splash that soaked the bird; then the black wings began to beat and pump and carry the winged playmate back to its original soaring height.
Over and over, we watched in amazement as the scene repeated. There was the dolphin waiting and taunting on the surface as the frigate circled overhead. When the bird was sufficiently teased, the black wings would tuck, the frigate would dive, and the waiting dolphin seemed more than delighted to douse the black feathers with a powerful tail driven splash.
“What are they doing?” one of the perplexed passengers asked.
“They’re playing,” was the answer. “The bird that looks like a pterodactyl and the dolphin are playing.” Our youngest passenger offered the only possible answer. She was a little girl of about ten.
As another wave of amazement washed over all that were aboard, and as we were watching the scene repeating again and again, the meaning of what we saw was now obvious. The youngest of us—the little girl—had recognized what was happening before any cynical explanation could replace the truth.
Could the frigate bird be thinking that it was going to eat an eight-foot dolphin? No way! Could the dolphin have been luring the bird in hopes of meal? No chance!
As Marco Beach Boys and Girls, we have always been fortunate to live and work where we play, but some days are better than others. As our little catamaran came about on that unforgettable perfect Marco afternoon, I believe all aboard realized we had just witnessed something beyond incredible. We had obviously just seen the natural world in all its glory, and the good heart of nature at play.
Tom Williams is a Marco Islander. He is the author of two books. Lost and Found and Surrounded by Thunder—the Story of Darrell Loan and the Rocket Men. Both books are available on Kindle and Nook.