We had no intentions of stopping at Aves Îsland. Rather we were trying to give it a wide berth in the way most boats do. After all, the island is low and centered in the midst of a lethal web like a spider waiting for ships’ blood. Located about 100 miles west of Guadeloupe, it lies astraddle their course between St. Thomas and Grenada as well as half a dozen other major routes, with an unreliable light when there has been a light at all. For centuries the island has been a joker in the pack of Eastern Caribbean traffic.
However, the early summer weather had grown flat calm and our boat, en route to Venezuela, was going nowhere and rolling scupper to scupper. Her crew longed for some dry land even if it were just a scrap. We decided that instead of burning up all our fuel getting to the island of Margarita, we would stop there a little and take a look around at this notorious spot. We were about 10 miles to leeward, so we altered course and steamed full speed ahead to the little island.
My passengers were three nephrologists—that is to say, kidney doctors, high powered professionals whom I wanted to impress at this beginning of a three-week trip. This was in the days before GPS, back when navigation required a sextant and tables and art and judgment to determine where you were on the ocean. It was called celestial navigation and it was not something that anybody’s dog could be trained to do.
Something dear has been lost, like so much else in the modern world which has stripped life of its subtleties and its mysteries by doing everything for us and rendering the art of navigation a matter of pressing a button on a plastic magic card—which also functions as a
camera, a wristwatch, a computer and a washer/dryer.
It certainly added to the mystique of the Captain’s authority when he brought out the precious instrument, "sextant,” like something whose mysterious power one had to handle gingerly lest it burn him, then peered through a tube to discern the future, then consulted with his numerologies and ciphers, then plotted lines and angles and arcane arithmetics—all of which so baffled the uninitiated that they kept themselves well in check and particularly looked to the welfare of the Captain, at least well out of sight of land.
I played my part wishing to impress the three professionals and they were duly impressed when I spoke with authority, pointed towards the east southeast, and declared that land was imminent. I was justified as the dark smudge appeared on the surface of the sea.
As the island grew in size, we made out—like smoke above it—a great quarrel of birdlife rising and falling, circling and weaving, in and out
of landing and taking off. As we got closer, we began to hear
the noises of the birds, raucous calling and mewling, the boobies in their nests croaking and creaking like mangroves being rubbed together in a strong wind. The skittering cry of the terns and the seagulls’ manic mirthless laughter, a sound that invokes salt spray and far-off climes.
We got up close, carefully watching the color of seawater over the sand, and soon found ourselves in about 15 feet of water moving gently to the swell. We could see the swell was coming from both sides of the island so we anchored by bow and stern to help keep us facing the ways as well, which, being done, we found was good. Then we sat around taking in our surroundings, very low surf washing the strand, the myriads of birds of various description sounding off to the heavens.
At a distance down the beach, a strange structure loomed over the shallows. It looked like a rough and ready version of a moon-lander, but huge…it had six feet or legs that were clearly made out of big barrels filled with cement holding at their top a platform which appeared to be a big container with holes punched in for air-conditioning. Just as we were concentrating on this rust-stained artifact—an earth-lander for all we knew—a man came out the door and down the long steps to the dry sand, scattering birds from their closely-packed perches on the handrails. Around the bend in the beach, he ran toward a small dinghy, jumped in the water, and stroked out like Johnny Weissmuller. We welcomed him aboard and offered him a glass of wine.
The man’s name was Jorge Torre and he was a Venezuelan Marine Biologist. He and a cohort had spent the year here and he explained that the outpost contained soldiers but no Customs. He helped us finish another bottle of wine and then offered to guide us around the little island that night.
"Would you care to see turtles laying eggs on the beach?" he asked, to which we answered enthusiastically, and so a couple hours after
dark, we found ourselves squatting on the sand swatting mosquitoes and looking for the Mama green turtle. It was about 10 o’clock when we saw a darker blackness in the water rise up and come huffing onto the soft hardness of sand leaving tracks for all the world like tractor treads.
I remember that night spent watching on that mid-Caribbean speck, where turtle after turtle appeared at the ocean’s edge like black boulders moving out of the dark surf. Their painstaking clamber stays with me—
out of their element as they panted with effort, heaving their great weight forward up the low beach with their flippers.
Then, in precisely the right layer of sand deep enough to dig a neat firm-sided hole—not too wet and not too dry—it excavated a perfect hole with its hind right flipper, as though it were fashioned for the purpose, which of course it was. It remains one of Nature’s enobling mysteries how turtles find their way across oceanic drifts of wind and current to the very spot of their birth to lay their eggs. We stayed awake a long time that night, mulling over in our minds images of those sad-eyed, wise creatures too good for this world.
In the morning, we met Jorge on the beach and he motioned us over to see a nest that had just hatched that morning. Jorge had put a fence around the nest because it was too likely to be washed away, the mother having done a less than perfect job in situating the eggs. Since first light they had been struggling frantically to get past the fence. I scooped three of them in my palm and watched them struggle.
"We are a restraining them for their own good,” Jorge said. "They’ll never get past the barriers that nature puts up against them this morning. See those birds circling about overhead? If one gets a clear dive at any of these turtles, that’s one less to make it to the sea—and the same
goes for those ghost crabs, did you notice them?"
I looked where he was pointing where the surf met the land and something scuttled in the surf zone—something translucent with two raised black eyes and large claws deployed for a killing. The surf line was inhabited with them.
"Look," pointed Jorge, and we saw on closer inspection that the very ground we stood upon was littered with small bodies, baby turtles, each one perfectly formed and adorable—except that their eyes and brains had been neatly eaten out from the top of their heads. I picked one up and stared at it, mesmerized by the horror that must have suffused the last seconds of the baby’s life. Unavoidable, unavoidable death had met the little creature like scores of its nest mates around me, waylaid and butchered in their desperate bolt for survival.
I thought of the Dark Ages, of peasants tending their little plots of land when over a hill came a troop of mounted men armed for battle, hardened men, hard of sinew and hard of heart, wielding cold sharp steel against uplifted hands—and yet another injustice was added to the o’er-stuffed ledger of such atrocities.