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2008 NWHI Mission
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Neighborly Visit

By Barbara Mayer

Today was the first day for us to be completely out of sight of land.  As I stood on the flying bridge, the topmost deck of our ship, I saw a dark, royal-blue ocean stretching away in all directions to meet a paler blue sky at the horizon.  The ocean had swells with a few white caps here and there; the sky had happy fair-weather clouds scattered about.  There was no green anywhere.

spinner dolphins
A young Red-footed Booby drops by the research vessel around lunchtime. (Photo: Barbara Mayer)
I'm not complaining; in fact, I felt a sense of freedom with all this wide-open spaciousness. Perhaps cowboys have a similar feeling when they work on the open range.

Nonetheless, when a familiar seabird showed up and circled our ship, I felt as if a neighbor had come for a friendly visit. I live in Waimānalo on O'ahu; when I go for an early morning beach walk, I often see Red-footed Boobies doing their dawn fly-along-the-coast before heading out to sea for the day.  These elegant birds are saddled with an unfortunate English name; I much prefer their Hawaiian name, ‘Ā, which sounds like “ah,” the appreciative, clipped beginning of the English phrase for a sudden discovery, “ah-haaaa!”  

The ‘Ā are important in Polynesian wayfinding.  If the birds are spotted by the sailing canoe in the early morning when the ‘Ā are flying out to sea to fish, then the navigator knows the direction from which the birds are flying is the direction to land.  At the end of the day, the birds are flying back home, toward land.

We spotted the booby as it flew around our ship, and it was plainly looking for a place to perch and rest in the middle of the day.  He (or she) had flown about 200 miles from land; would you go that far for lunch?!  He was obviously a young bird, because it had not yet gained the beautiful white feathers over much of its body, with jet-black flight feathers at the trailing edge of each wing.  Its feet were only slightly pinkish, not the full red of adult birds.  Perhaps the bird’s youth explained why he didn’t seem quite able to maneuver a landing on the front mast.  There’s only a small bit of level surface on which to land, among the wind direction devices and lights. 

Finally, the bird landed on the ocean surface, not far away from us.  It must have needed only a brief rest, because it soon took off from the ocean, flew around our ship a few times as if saying, "A hui hou (see you again) neighbor," and then flew away.  I wished him well on his long flight home.

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