Tuesday, May 01, 2007
Lonely Afternoon Adventures-Life Story #9
It had started out as a typical afternoon on one of the remote islands of the South Pacific. It was a relatively calm day with coconut fronds waving gently at intervals and with moderate temperatures. My husband and I had headed out on the laboratory boat with another scientist to survey some wild oyster beds. The morning went fairly fast and we collected enough data to stop for an early lunch at the edge of the mangroves. I was eating my tuna salad sandwich and gazing over the stern of the boat watching an archer fish with fascination as he skulked in the shadows waiting for a meal from an unwary insect.
The water in this area was shallow, only two feet deep, dropping gently to about four feet toward the open ocean before reaching the boat channel. Brushing bread crumbs from my swimsuit, I stepped around the outboard and holding the top of the motor housing slipped over the back of the boat for a cooling swim after lunch. Hubby and the colleague decided to motor to the other side of the mangrove peninsula to the mouth of a river in search of some innocuous biological event that I have since forgotten.
Once the sound of the outboard had disappeared behind the mangroves, I realized how quiet it was with just the sound of my hands in the water and the insects on the island. Other than the boat just a short distance away, I could imagine I was the only person on the planet. I poked in the soft sand with my toes and watched the sea birds in the distance and listened to the lapping of the gentle waves against the mangrove roots. I was concentrating on retrieving a terebra that I had unearthed with my big toe when I thought I saw the shadow of something on the surface of the water beside me. I looked up but only saw the gently rippled gray surface of the water. I looked down at the sand again, replacing the mollusk and slowly worked my way toward the open ocean until the water came to just below my shoulders for a complete cool down. As I looked toward the horizon I once again caught movement out of the corner of my eye. Suddenly, being all alone became somewhat unsettling. I started scanning the waters around me and in a few minutes a gray dorsal fin broke the surface about ten feet away and swam a foot toward me and then moved away disappearing beneath the surface.
I was guessing by the size of the fin that it was a small gray reef shark, maybe just over two feet in length, surveying the area. In less than a minute, he returned. Initially, I was fascinated by this typical behavior when he started circling me ever so slowly. The concentric circles made by the dorsal fin that broke the surface of the water were about six feet away and getting closer. I wasn't afraid of such a small shark until I remembered he also wasn't afraid of me. He was a “teenager” out for an experimental event. I had felt the sandpaper skin of a shark with my hands not that long ago and realized if he swiped me it would hurt and possibly draw blood, not a good event in shark country.
The boat was too far away to hear my call and the prevailing breeze would have pulled my voice away anyway. I also was too embarrassed to admit I needed help against such a little guy. I moved carefully, walking backwards toward the mangroves, and scanning the surface of the water around me as I did so. There was no place for me to get out of the water and the water wasn't shallow enough to prevent the shark from swimming directly at me. I decided to throw caution to the wind (avoiding thinking about water snakes or crocodiles among the tangled tree roots—both of which existed in these parts) and stepped up to carefully balance on the larger arching mangrove roots as I leaned against the trees. Leaves and blunt branches poked my head and shoulders as I squatted in precarious balance. After about ten minutes of this yoga experience the shark became bored and left the area.
As I sat balancing awkwardly on the roots in my bare feet I began to survey the mangrove jungle and did not realize I was in store for a second adventure of the day. Behind me I heard a weak squawking noise that I must have missed earlier in my mild panic to eliminate the shark bait. I couldn't see where the sound was coming from over my shoulder, and so, gently entered the water and walked behind the first section of mangroves to another sandy space behind the first patch of trees. About a foot above my head I saw the cause of the noise. A small blue heron had become caught in the mangrove branches. His head was caught in the fork of a branch and while he flapped and squawked ever so weakly, his position and weight had trapped him. His outspread wing was the only thing keeping him from hanging himself.
Wary of his long and sharp bill, I realized that I was going to be responsible for his rescue. I tried to balance on the roots but couldn't get high enough to grasp him safely…safely for him and for me. The eye that stared at me was still clear but his movements were very weak. He must have been there for hours. I watched a few minutes more trying to think of some way to lift him from the branch. I was starting to panic for him. I called to my husband. My call was lost in the great expense of water. I walked around the trees and to the front of the island and putting my hands to my mouth called, hooted, and whistled toward the mouth of the river.
It seemed that a lot of time passed, but eventually I heard the outboard and soon I saw the boat approaching. My husband could see I was trying to convey some emergency, and when he kicked off the engine, I explained the plight of 'my' heron. After I lifted myself aboard we poled our way to the back of the mangrove and were able to get close enough standing on the side of the boat to reach and eventually release the bird. Actually, my husband did most of the gentle pulling and lifting while I provided encouragement. We placed the bird carefully, with hands on bill, on a tree root and he paused getting his balance. Like the shark, he too left us shortly for another clump of mangroves and the pursuit of another meal. I didn't mention the little shark adventure until after we got back home.