Sunday, May 29, 2011

Circle of Life

Yesterday morning, in White Bay, Peter Island, BVI, Aidan enthusiastically woke me up around 6:15am to show me all the action and new creatures he's been watching off our bow. He told me about a fish he saw, with eyes "this big!" indicating a circle with his hand, about 5cm in diameter. Once I dragged myself out of my berth to join him, I was amused at his ongoing monologue about what he was witnessing. "Oh, oh, here comes some action!" he would call out as he pointed to some approaching ripples in the water. He'd follow them from stern to bow, "It's like there's a life circle around our boat! Maybe we still have some tiny shrimp on our hull, tiny fish are eating those shrimp, small fish are eating the tiny fish, medium fish are eating the small fish, and that big fish is eating them all."

And we were treated to another display of a local ecosystem in the Caneel Bay anchorage last night. Austin had stepped out to the swim platform to rinse out the pasta pot, then rushed below to invite everyone to come out to see the large tarpon at the stern. Skye got a flashlight and shone it at the fish ... many fish (we counted about 9 of them) ... and boy, were they big! Each one was about 1-1.5m long, their scales shone silver in the night, their mouths turned up in the distinctive way tarpons' mouths do, and their eyes looked like yellow glowing golfballs floating in the black water. We could see little splashes all around the boat, caused by smaller and smaller fish which the tarpon appeared to be eating.

Then we were surprised to see a new participant in the feeding frenzy -- a night creature in flight. Could it be ... a bat? A fruit bat*, as Austin surmised. Its wingspan was about 50cm, and its body seemed bigger than my fist. Eventually, there were about 7 bats feeding on insects at the water's surface. We wondered if some of the smaller fish may have been catching the same insects as the bats, or were the bats eating small fish? The bats' wings would occasionally splash in the water, and Austin saw long claws on their feet, so we were curious to know what they would be eating. But they were probably responsible for keeping the mosquito population down on the boat last night, so "Thank you, bats!"

This spectacle reminded me of a summer evening at Diefenbaker Lake when I was a teenager, visiting with family at their summer cottage. About 10 of us were sitting on lawn chairs on the porch. Mosquitoes started to pester us a bit, then a swarm of dragonflies came to eat the mosquitoes. One dragonfly lit on the shoulder of my cousin, Brent, who responded with a wide-open-mouthed call of surprise. All of us burst into fits of laughter, and within minutes, several birds swooped around the porch to pick off the dragonflies.

*I found this information on the fauna of the Virgin Islands:

Bats are said to be the only animal that is native to the Virgin Islands. Bats can be found in caves in less populated areas of the islands and are sometimes spotted flying at night. It is not uncommon for several dozen bats to roost together in a cave. They are primarily insect eaters and nectar drinkers however there is a fisherman!

The fisherman bat is a threatened species in the Virgin Islands. The bat roosts in caves near the sea, woodlands and in roofs of old houses. Through the use of echolocation or sonar, the bat detects ripples caused by fish swimming close to the water’s surface and uses it’s long, curved claws to catch them, thus the name fisherman bat. They are good swimmers and they use their wings as oars. The species' numbers have greatly declined because of coastal development.

According to another web source, fruit bats only eat fruit - not insects. However, as one often experiences on the world wide web, there are conflicting reports. This article on the bats of the Virgin Islands states that fruit bats control the insect population on fruit farms. The article also describes the "fisherman" bat as the gender-neutral name, "fish-eating" bat. It's cool to think we could have been so close to an endangered species, that seems to be thriving in this environment.

See this National Geographic video on the fishing bat.

I'm eager to go to the National Park Service headquarters today, to see about the interpretive centres and hikes offered here. Other cruisers have told us about this, and knowing they are part of the Unites States Park Service, we expect loads of interesting information, equalling what we are accustomed to in our great Canadian National Parks.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

We're Cruising Again

Leaving friends in St. Martin was hard and we miss them already but boy does it feel great to be cruising again. 2 months (less 10 days in Antigua) was more than enough. After a calm 20 hour passage (motoring all the way) we're in the legendary Virgin Islands. I don't think we've seen the seas this calm since we sailed in the protected Georgia Strait and this was our longest passage without seeing land (100 nm).

Just as we were preparing to leave St. Martin a new cruising family (Happy Times) pulled into Marigot Bay. We just had to say hi and ended up spending much of the day showing them a few key spots. We had so much fun with them that we put off our departure for one last St. Martin sundowner. We had a great time and wished we could have spent more time with them.

We finally got away around 9:30pm local time. The trip was rather uneventful. The seas were calm, the wind was light (too light) and we motored all night. By early afternoon we could see the hills of Virgin Gorda then the islands Ginger, Cooper, Salt, Peter and Norman all came into view. Due to our delayed departure and no help from the wind we calculated that we wouldn't make it all the way to Cruz Bay St. John before dark. The entrance to Cruz Bay has some hazards that are best left to daylight so we decided to "Q-flag" our way through Peter and Norman Islands.

Peter Island is shaped like a tipped over "L" with the top pointing south. The inside shores are sparsely populated and the anchorages largely deserted. The cruising guides say little about them but they looked perfect for us in this settled weather (they don't offer much protection if the wind is up from the south). Best of all, we were the only boat there! In no time we got the anchor down and set and turned off the engine. Oh bliss! The silence was just what the Dr. ordered ... except it wasn't silent. There was this strange, unfamiliar sound soothing our poor ears. What could it be? No, not bird song? Could it be? We couldn't believe it but sure enough, it sounded just like song birds from back home!

To understand what an incredible feeling it is to hear these birds, those of you reading this from Canada or the northern US need to think of the feeling you get in early spring as the song birds return. This is just what it was like. Only, unlike back home where different birds arrive at different times, this was like having all of them show up in your back yard overnight! What a sound. There are so few birds in the Caribbean, we haven't heard song birds since we left Vancouver last fall.

The sun rose the next morning to crisp clear blue skies. The tropical heat was already starting to shimmer off the glassy water by the time breakfast was done so we decided to put "school" on hold for a bit and go for a swim. I spied a skate on the bottom as we got ready, being shadowed by some large-ish fish. It almost looked like the fish was teasing it. As we swam closer we could see that it appeared that the skate would scare up some creature from the turtle grass and the fish would eat anything that the skate missed. Strange but there you go.

Austin and I went swimming first. And didn't bring the camera. Silly me, the reef we found near the rocky shore was one of the healthiest we've seen all trip. Lots of tube sponges, elk horn coral, gigantic violet fan corals and plenty of curious fish. There were even a couple yellow jacks that decided to follow a few meters behind as we explored. Kind of like a lost dog hoping someone would take him home. Aidan said they waved back when he went swimming with Carla later.

By noon we needed to get moving or we'd not make St. John before dark (again). The wind was a little stronger so we made decent time but still needed to motor the whole way. Entering Cruz Bay was a breeze in the daylight but we were glad we didn't consider it at night. While the rocks and cays are marked, it was a risk not worth taking.

The harbour in Cruz Bay is busy with a ferry dock and charter boats zipping in and out. We managed to find a temporary spot between the marked channel, a yawl and the beach in only 7 feet of water (we need about 5' 4"). All that practise in crowded and shallow anchorages the past few months sure paid off as the customs office was closing soon. We got the anchor down and set in record time before all piling into the dinghy. Just as we were about to pull away, a spotted ray leaped from the water not 10 feet from us. It would have jumped right over the dinghy if it were heading in our direction!

After one of the least intense experiences with US Customs and Immigration (perhaps it had something to do with the boat name, Singing Frog, that effortlessly evokes smirks from officials) that I've ever had, we zipped back to our boat, raised anchor and motored around the corner to Caneel Bay where we picked up a mooring from the US Park Service and free WiFi from the Caneel resort. Lucky us.

Tomorrow we head to shore to explore and see if the music festival we heard playing today has anything interesting to take in.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Bottom Cleaning

There's not much effective anti-fouling paint left on our bottom so "stuff" tends to grow rather quickly. We've just spent a little under 4 weeks in the Lagoon which is ... very conductive to growth. We have quite the ecosystem growing down there. Just the other day I discovered a couple small crabs had walked up onto our swim platform. We have completed all our major projects that needed to be done before leaving St. Martin so all that is left is to move out into cleaner water and spend a day scraping all the c__p off the bottom. Yuck!! Keep the vinegar handy as I'm going to need a serious cleanse after this.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Lost in Paradise

I've been back in St. Martin for a few days now, and Skye recounted this funny story, which I think is well worth sharing. Here's an excerpt from a VHF radio interchange between a cruising couple (L)ost and a locally anchored vessel (O)perator:

Lost female voice...
L: "Hello?"
L:"Hello? We called you yesterday. Is our slip ready?"
O: "What party are you calling?"
L: "You."
O: "I don't think so. Are you trying to reach a marina?"
L: "Yes. We called you yesterday to reserve a slip."
O: "Well, you didn't call me. You're on a VHF radio, broadcasting to all radios monitoring channel 14 in this area. Normally, when you use a radio, you first announce the party you are calling, then you state the name of your vessel and once you've connected, you switch to another channel."
L: "I don't understand."
O: "Where are you?"
L: "We're right out front."
O: "Can you describe where you are?"
Lost switches to a male voice...
L: "We're by the fuel dock." (there are about a dozen fuel docks within radio range)
O: "Which fuel dock is it?"
L: "I don't know. The sign just says, 'Fuel Dock.'"
O: "Ok. I'm going to help you. You're probably looking for a marina in the area. Do you know the name of the marina?"
L: "No."
O: "Let's figure out where you are now. Where have you come from?"
L: "Guadeloupe." (by this time, many listeners must be astonished that these folks got this far!)

Friday, May 20, 2011

Stuck in St. Martin

Now that Carla and Aaron are back (yeah!) we should be making tracks ASAP. Except we have a problem. I discovered a crack in one of our new shrouds the other day that needs looking into. This is a bit of a big deal as this is what keeps our mast up. Yup, big, big problem if this comes down. What's especially strange is that the rigging was replaced only 6 months ago. It should last around 10 years. A rigger is coming by tomorrow morning to make an assessment and advise on ways we can fix it.

This crack is hard to see in this picture but is the best I could get. To see it you need to look down to the end of the terminal to where the eye wraps around the pin. The crack radiates out from the pin on the face of the eye at about 12:30 or about 15-20 degrees.

Now SPOT on

We decided to get a SPOT GPS tracking and emergency device for the remainder of our trip. While I'm not convinced that their emergency services are all that great (401EPIRB's are much better) it's a great backup to our EPIRB and a fun toy to help keep family and friends informed of where we are. We don't have a sat phone or SSB radio so this will be especially helpful on our next few extra long passages.

To check out our map you can go to the spot tracker website. This link is also on our blog for future reference.