Producciones de la Hamaca
ESSAYS by Judy Lumb

Dolphins, Dolphins, As Far As the Eye Can See

Half Moon Caye is small, with the lighthouse, picnic tables and barbecue pit on one end.  The other end is a thick, tangled forest preserved for the boobies and frigatebirds.  I saw my first booby while walking on the pleasant trail through the forest to the observation tower.  I looked up to see red feet and an innocent pair of eyes peering down at me.  I had been told that boobies, unlike most birds, have both eyes on the front of their heads so they have binocular vision like we do.  This did not look like a real bird, with its gray beak and dark eyes set into a fluffy white head; it looked like a children's puppet.  In fact, it looked very much like a smaller, white version of Sesame Street's Big Bird.

      I had assumed that this was a chick because of the charming, innocent look.  I later learned that the chicks do not have red feet, but have even fluffier white heads than the adult booby I had seen.  The chicks then go through a juvenile phase in which they are all brown before they develop into the adult white bird with black wingtips and webbed red feet.  From the observation tower at tree-top level, one can see the thousands of boobies and frigatebirds.

     Of course, I had heard that the frigatebirds attack the boobies when they return from fishing at sea and get them to regurgitate food, as is depicted on the BAS logo.  But watching the boobies and frigatebirds roosting comfortably together among the nests, one would never imagine that an adversarial relationship exists between them.  My companions on the observation tower speculated that the boobies must somehow benefit from the relationship.  Perhaps the frigatebirds provide protection. The boobies look like they would just waddle up to any predator and give themselves up.  Because we were only at Half Moon Caye during the middle of the day, I did not see the frigatebirds attacking the boobies returning from fishing at sea.

      Although I see frigatebirds daily, I had never seen the male breeding display.  There, just 20 feet in front of me were two males seated next to each other with their proudly inflated heart-shaped red balloons.  They loooked a bit awkward, but that seemed a small price to pay for their magnificence.  Now I know where they get their name.

      In August I returned to Half Moon Caye to spend the night.  This gave me the opportunity to watch the boobies flying in from the sea and being met by the frigatebirds.  I sat on the South Beach at sunset and full moon rise watching this fascinating phenomenon.  I never did see a frigatebird actually get fed, but they definitely were chasing the returning boobies.

     Among the boobies there was a considerable amount of calling and clacking of beaks upon arrival.  I wondered if some were just-grown chicks still being fed by the parents.
 There were other creatures inhabiting the rookery also.  In the short walk to the observation tower I saw four rats, mostly nibbling on the ziricote blossoms.  That seemed a large number for such a short period of observation.  These rats were introduced from ships long ago and constitute a threat to the birds because they eat the eggs and baby chicks.  It is time for another poisoning intervention.

     Everywhere we walked, we had to be careful not to step on the hermit crabs.  They were all in the same kind of spiral shell (I think it's a channeled whelk) and all rather large (up to 5 inches).  I wondered where they got all those shells.  I never saw an empty one.  On Caye Caulker, our hermit crabs walk around in a great variety of suits, including some unconventional ones like plastic bottle caps and champaign corks.

      Our captain, Jim Novelo, and crew, Greg Lopez, took very good care of us.  While I was watching the boobies and frigatebirds, they went outside  the park boundaries to catch fish, cooked dinner and set up tents for sleeping.  It was a lovely, full moon-lit night with only the sounds of the sea and wind.

     Later the next morning, after a refreshing morning walks to say good-bye to the boobies, we reluctantly left Half Moon Caye.  Our first stop was the Blue Hole for snorkeling.  That was a most amazing experience from which it took me some time to recover.  As you approach the edge of the hole, the bottom begins to drop away gradually and then, suddenly, it is gone and there is nothing but the deep blue color with shafts of light dancing and converging below.  There is a gentle circular current and I felt drawn to the center.  Three times I decided to swim back to the boat and went back in the Blue Hole because I wasn't ready to leave yet.  Finally, I broke the spell and forced myself to leave.

      We had hoped to find the tame bottle-nosed dolphin which lives around Sand Bore Caye, but no one had seen it that day, so we headed on back to Caye Caulker.  About fifteen minutes after we left Turneffe Island atoll, we came upon a huge pod of spinner dolphins.  Jim cut off the boat motor and they stayed with us, so we got in the water and swam with them.

     My first view underwater was another magical moment for me.  I had seen dolphins pretty often, but never when I was in the water.  My image was two-dimensional, as they break surface of the water to breath.  But here they were, all around me, at varying depths, as far as I could see in all directions.  Suddenly, my image changed to a three-dimensional one because I knew what the dolphins were doing between their occasional jumps out of the water. I could always see at least 15 at any one time, but I didn't know if  they were the same 15.  They were swimming only an inch or two apart, in groups of 3 - 6, in absolute coordination.  It was a spectacular ballet!  I tried to follow one group, but they were too fast for me and went too deep.  As in the Blue Hole, I had trouble breaking myself away.  I wanted to swim off into the magical, harmonious world of the dolphins, but then I remembered I was human and eventually returned to the boat.  They stayed with us for about half an hour and then swam away.

      Jim was standing up on the bow, watching out for his people, and got a better perspective on the entire pod.  He estimated there were as many as 150 - 200 altogether.  He could see the 20 in the area where we were swimming, another 20 in front of the boat, another on the other side, and at least 7 more such groups jumping and spinning far off in the distance, all around.  He saw them swim away and then make U-turns and swim back toward the boat.  Clearly, they were  staying with us deliberately.

      For several weeks I could talk of nothing else.  We were speculating on why there were so many in the pod.  I asked all the fishermen and divers who frequent those waters.  All said they often see spinner dolphins, but in pods of 3 - 20, never hundreds!  I called a friend in New Orleans to see how she survived Hurricane Andrew and she suggested that the large pod may have had something to do with the hurricane.  We saw the dolphins on August 14, exactly 10 days before Andrew made landfall in Florida.  Maybe the dolphins had fled from the path of the hurricane and gathered in Belizeans waters.

     Whatever the explanation, it was an experience of a lifetime for me!

Judy Lumb
August, 1992