By Douglas Bernon
December 22, 2000
Biscayne Bay, Florida
25 41.823 N 080 11.532 W
Cruising is a watching kind of thing. One is on watch. One keeps watch. One measures time and distance with a watch. But mostly, one just watches and gets watched. Bernadette and I wear our binoculars as necklaces, always on the lookout for markers, or shoals, or people, or manatees, or dolphins, or snowy egrets hunched in the Virginia marsh grass like little snowballs. We always watch other boats, and of course they watch us.
On our southern progression, we've at times been part of an ongoing convoy of boats that travel at about our speed. Depending on mood and dance, sometimes we pass them, and other times we get passed, even though we often end up at day's end in the same anchorage, reproving that speed doesn't matter much (which is what people say when they secretly wish they had a bigger engine). For hundreds of miles we've leapfrogged with Shamu and Sea Amigo, Mirage and Half Moon, Quiet Passages and Titan, Lunatic and Kaje. When we look at them through the binoculars, often we find them staring back at us in theirs. For better and worse, usually better, everyone seems to keep an eye on each other.
Yesterday we were rocked in a ferocious wake by a speed demon named Hot Wahine, a medium-sized sportsfishing setup, propelled by humongous, twin, 200-horse engines. Our fury transformed to incredulity when we saw that Hot Wahine was jockeyed at wake-thumping speed not by some flaccid John Thomas with a compensatory point to make, but by a single-handed, bodacious, long-haired blond in a short and clingy black cocktail dress — the perfect costume for that name and that absurdity. I watched her carefully.
Watching the animals in whose environment we're traveling is part of the daily fun of living outdoors. It's not like going to the zoo, which is a transitory voyeurism of the captured. Now we're living closer to the critter world, and treasuring the luxury of watching our neighbors repeatedly and at leisure, which is probably the only way one ever sees anything very clearly, anyway. Dolphins, for example, a frequent part of almost every day, are breathtakingly different in color and size and speed and playfulness. Some are quick and squeaky-comical. Some appear more pokey and trepidatious. Their continuum seems no different than ours. I suppose all animal groups have their own version of a Hot Wahine and the Village Idiot.
It's clear, too, that not all birds are created equal. There is nothing so elegant as a loon or kingfisher making its descent. In our current neighborhood we watch cormorants dive, hour after hour. We see that some are elegant, swift and successful, climbing high, pirouetting, angling perfectly, entering the water without a splash, and emerging with lunch. Others are more ungainly and seem to splat against the water instead of knifing through it, often coming up empty-beaked. When cormorants do surface with a fish, it’s clamped crosswise in their beaks, head sticking out one side and tail out the other, with the birds' long, bendy necks turning every which way. Cormorants look like the rubbery offspring of a late-night dalliance between Gumby and a goose. Sort of like cruisers, however, all the birds, no matter their skill set or hunting prowess, resurface at the end of the day with something to eat — which I think is a good thing to remember.
Going under the center span of an ICW bridge this week, on the Indian River, there were the usual five-foot-high-or-so wood bumpers, curling like parentheses around each side of the bridge's columns to protect the bridge as the boats whistle through or struggle against the rapidly funneling currents. The speeding eddies under bridges require rapt attention and induce a tight grip on the wheel. Bernadette was driving, so I had the privilege of an irresponsible, meandering watchfulness. To our starboard side, resting on that bridge bumper were five pot-bellied pelicans airing out their wings and watching the boats. This gaggle of coots were nestled on their great feathery haunches, looking for all the world like old codgers with elastic-waist, sans-a-belt trousers, the kind that retired shuffleboard players, whose bellies have fallen victim to time and gravity, always pull half way up their chests. These were aviary alter kakhers, "old shitters" in Yiddish, sitting on their park bench, watching the world go by. These guys were no Carnaby Street dandies like their cousins, those gaudy parrots and the opulent toucans. These were durable, round, muted survivors, their tufted, yellow forepeaks dirty from the battles of the day.
Seeing them seeing us, sitting close together, I missed my friend Jon Brett in Newport. We jogged together most weekend mornings for nearly a decade. We never ran fast enough to allow breathlessness to interfere with our conversation and we never ran so far that we didn't have time afterward to sit on a bench on Bellevue Avenue, nurse a couple of bottles of juice for 20 minutes or so, and survey that bit of the universe that might happen to pass before us. We talked of life and of course we ogled the girls that passed by, proving, Jon once said, our unredeemable male shallowness.
Were the pelicans that way, too? Did they fart and fantasize? Did they obsess on existential pelican identity issues, and consider the fates? Did they talk at all, or just sit quietly on a warm afternoon, lazily unruffling their feathers, pecking and grooming, beaking out the nits and gnats? Did they commiserate about aches and pains and cholesterol numbers? Did they laugh together, and brag of old conquests, offering lies and summoning ancient schemes? Did they recall great schools of mullet they'd washed down with a particularly fine flow of water? Did they even notice that we were there?