Green Pages

The Meaning of Sanctuary: It’s for the Birds

gp-bird-on-rockStory and Photos By Kathleen McNary Wood

There are no places left on earth that are not altered by man and his activities. As time ebbs and flows, a tide of change has swept across the planet. Gone are the days when man battled against nature only to maintain a fragile foothold on existence. We are no longer separated from a truly savage natural world only by the campfires burning protectively at the edges of our settlements. It is now the savage beasts that are threatened by us, and while most people (including this author) would rather not return to prehistoric days, it would be unbearable to think of a world in which the most majestic of the creatures of the land, air and sea no longer existed.

Fortunately, the Turks & Caicos Islands are a nation among the enlightened that understand the importance of protecting and preserving nature in all of its magnificence. Under the National Parks Order of 1992, four Sanctuaries were created. Under this law, these four areas are awarded the highest order of environmental protection. They are places where nature can find a refuge above and beyond the selfish desires of mankind. Nature rules in a Sanctuary, and humans are only allowed to visit with a specially-issued permit.

Having managed to procure a permit to enter the French Cay Sanctuary, I set out early one July morning poised for adventure. My appointed task for the day is to survey the island’s flora and fauna.
Poised on the very precipice of the Caicos Banks, boating out to this cay is no small task. Heading due south from Providenciales, it takes about an hour to get there by motor boat. Fortunately, the elements were accommodating on this particular day and the usual chop on the Banks was at a minimum. But it has not always been this way.

The waters surrounding the island of French Cay have a dubious past. French Cay is named for a French pirate that once lived there. Rumor has it that Jean David Nau, a.k.a. L’Ollonais, took refuge on the tiny island and ransacked unsuspecting ships as they neared the treacherous fringing reefs of the Caicos Banks. To add insult to injury, folklore states that the famed pirate practiced cannibalism on his victims. By perfecting a skilled technique, he was able to rip out a victim’s heart and eat it while the condemned watched. In an ironic twist of fate (or an extreme case of what goes around, comes around), L’Ollonais’ life was cut short by a tribe of Carib Indians who reportedly ate him.

Fortunately, there is no threat of a pirate attack now. As Providenciales disappears over the horizon, the tiny cay to the south comes gradually into view. At first, there is only the promise of dry land, as the seabirds who rule this domain send out scouts to check out intruders. As the cay grows closer, a raucous cacophony sounds in the distance. It is this sound that foreshadows the unimaginable swelling of avian life that inhabits this miniscule speck of land only barely reclaimed from the sea.

gp-birds-on-boatAs I step onto the shoreline from my craft, I already feel like an intruder. This feeling is made all the more palpable by a flock of 30+ laughing gulls that feel it is their duty to inform all other life forms on the island of my presence. They scream out their laughing “kaa kaa kaa” followed abruptly by an angry barking-like vocalization. Around the back side of the island, the reason for their distress becomes apparent. There are numerous juveniles wandering aimlessly along the shoreline. They are too old to sit quietly in a nest and still too young to fly. I move quickly to avoid them, hoping my intrusion has not overly stressed them.

Once I’ve moved out of what is clearly laughing gull territory, I come across an area where several wrecked Haitian sloops are grounded along the coastline. While these relics of humanity are, in a purist sense, trash upon what should otherwise be an unspoiled shoreline, they are in reality serving a significant ecological function. Upon every square inch of the ruined masts and rotting bows sits a brown noddy. To these sea birds, man’s trash is their treasure in the form of valuable roosting space.

For sea birds that spend a majority of their lives at sea, these flotsam and jetsam perches are a welcome resting place. Unlike the laughing gulls, the brown noddies are practically oblivious to my presence. They too have numerous nearly-fledged juveniles among their numbers, but perhaps as birds that rarely encounter humans, they don’t recognize the potential threat I pose. Rather, they stand all in a line with their faces pointing to the wind like troops of soldiers. They number easily in the hundreds. I suspect they ignore my presence rather than losing their prime roosting spot to another by flying away.

Space is certainly a consideration. In addition to the noddies and gulls, there are others here as well. Perhaps as many as 100 sooty terns are also grappling for nesting and roosting places. A group of brown pelicans crowd the bowsprit of one boat carcass, and an osprey sits proudly at the highest possible perch on the same craft. A small group of ruddy turnstones scatter along the beach trying to make a decent living while avoiding the crowds everywhere else. For a tiny cay of only a few acres, it is really quite a spectacle.

gp-nurse-sharkBirds aren’t the only creatures that find sanctuary here. Every summer, nurse sharks make their way to the shallow water off the cay to mate and spawn. During this period of time, the nearshore waters are a frenzy of activity. I am lucky on this visit to catch a glimpse of the first wave of activity in early July. Approximately 20 nurse sharks swirl around in couples engaged in what seems like a passionate although frightening embrace (if one can imagine shark copulation as passionate). They too seem oblivious to my presence, which is not surprising, given they have more interesting things to attend to. Over the course of the summer, hundreds of sharks will come to these waters and engage in this ancient ritual that has probably taken place since long before man ever set foot or eyes upon this shoreline.

With all of this activity, it’s hard to believe that the vast majority of French Cay was, until recently, not extensively used by wildlife. Shark and bird activities take place for the most part in the coastal areas, leaving the inland areas largely fauna-free. But this scenario is now changing. For the past few years, Dr. Glenn Gerber and his team of scientists from the San Diego Zoo have been working to establish a viable rock iguana population here. Removed from other islands slated for development, these Critically Endangered reptiles have been successfully relocated to this sanctuary, where by all reports, they are thriving. Come wintertime, the sharks will return to their haunts along the reef and in the uncharted depths of the deep blue beyond, the majority of the seabirds will be back out at sea, and the iguanas will have the island largely to themselves, save the odd ghost crab.

I, too, shall leave this place to the iguanas, crabs, sharks and birds, and this is as it should be. In a world that is increasingly bowing to humanity’s will, it is a real privilege to be a guest of nature for the day. It is heartening to know that there are still some places on earth where people are allowed to enter only with a special permit. Even if we never see these places ourselves, it is enough to know that they exist. This is the true meaning of sanctuary.

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Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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