Brown booby and nestling, with a rainy Cocos in the background.
Of Booby and Beebe
by Peter Tyson
October 15, 1998
We should have known it was going to be a rough day when Howard Hall
slipped. The panga had eased to within spitting distance of the jagged
northern tip of Manuelita, the small island off the north coast of Cocos.
Foamy chop threatened to heave the boat into the cliff, but with deft
movements Pepe Monge skilfully held it just close enough for our fearless
leader to make the pioneering leap onto the islet. Alas, the rocks were
sheathed in booby guano and seaspray, and he lost his grip. He plunged up to
his chest in the rocky surf, leaving a nasty gash on his right calf.
Undeterred, Hall quickly regained the cliff and began the process of
gear from the panga to the island along a rope held by people on both sides.
IMAX camera, film rolls, tripod, and other gear, all safely sealed in dry
bags, dangled momentarily over the waves before settling safely on solid
We were heading up to film booby birds for the IMAX film, and perhaps a
sunset as well. No matter that it was pouring rain; weather at Cocos can
change at the
drop of a filmmaker.
At the moment, though, Manuelita did look imposing. William Beebe ("bee-
bee"), an ichthyologist and explorer who visited Cocos in 1925, said every
time he looked at Manuelita it reminded him of Arnold Böcklin's Island of
Dead. I know that painting, and Beebe is right. Manuelita, particularly in
gloomy weather or in the brief tropical twilight, looks like some great sea
monster rearing out of Chatham Bay. A quarter mile long by less than a 100
feet wide at its thickest, its colossal curved back of gray columnar basalt
arches 150 feet into the sky. Tufts of grass cling impossibly to its sheer
flanks like some kind of strange fur, while green-leaved fig trees with
dangling roots make it appear as if the monster has just burst forth from a
bed of seaweed.
"There's one thing I won't miss when I leave Cocos," Billy Holdson told me.
"Booby stench." As we started up the island's rugged spine, I had to laugh.
The pungent fragrance of booby poop hit us with the force of a squall.
Whenever I reached up for a solid grip, my hand came away with a smear of
greenish goo. Every rock, every leaf, every blade of grass was greased with
the stuff. We moved as if on ice, using fixed ropes that Hall's crew had
in place from previous excursions there. It was too hot to wear raingear,
our t-shirts were soon soaked through. To add insult, brown boobies nesting
everywhere on the ground thrust their rapier beaks at our bare ankles when
passed too close. Mark Conlin received a slice or two not unlike the one
had gotten earlier.
Billy Holdson (in shades) and Peter Kragh lend a hand getting the film crew
Manuelita is one of the premier booby nesting sites at Cocos. The two
of this gangly seabird neatly divide up the two available niches, with the
browns nesting on the ground and the red-footeds in the trees. Except for
their webbed feet, which in the brown booby are yellow, both species look
alike, with brown backs, white bellies, and beaks either yellow (in males)
blue (in females). I was surprised to see chicks in all stages of
from hairless newborns to robust fledglings not much smaller than their
parents. Mom and dad share the duty of caring for the single chick. When the
nestling is very young, one parent will go fishing while the other stays
behind, the baby bird snuggled beneath its warm underbelly. When the chick
reaches a certain robustness—and is consequently hungrier—both parents
will head off to find food.
These bigger chicks had the routine down. Whilst left alone, they stood
defiantly on the twiggy nest, feet splayed wide, pecking just as their
do at those who approached too close. But when mom or dad returned with
they made as if their wings had been broken and flopped about in the nest,
looking helpless. Squawking obstreperously, they poked
so determinedly at their parent's beak that I was amazed they didn't put an
eye out. Maybe it took the adults awhile to bring up the half-digested fish,
or maybe they were just trying to teach their offspring a little patience.
eventually, with the youngster's beak thrust deep into its parent's crop, up
"Regurgitated fish again, Mom? Can't I have something else for a change?"
Watching greenish slop spill off a chick's beak inevitably sent the film
into paroxysms of imitation gagging and vomiting. They stuck their fingers
down their throats or turned away and made ghoulish faces. The same occurred
whenever a booby let fly with an explosive burst of freshly minted guano. On
previous visit up there, Holdson had fallen victim to one such four-foot
blast. Hall, seeing it coming, told me later that "I thought of holding
something in the way, but then thought, 'Nah.'" It hit Holdson right in the
back of the head. More paroxysms. Anything to relieve the monotony of
for hours in the pouring rain.
For hours it was. The rain would let up, then pick up, let up, pick up,
and over. Conlin pointed to a patch of sun far out to sea: "Look, it's
our way." Yeah, right. It just sat there, three or four miles distant,
tantalizingly out of reach. Cocos itself lay largely hidden beneath a
of saturated clouds. After his visit in 1925, Beebe wrote that the island is
"very often veiled by such heavy mists and rainstorms that a ship may pass
within a few miles without glimpsing a trace of [Cocos], the very existence
[which] has been denied in comparatively recent times."
Beebe had an experience with boobies—one that the Halls have also had—that shows just how far off the beaten track Cocos lies. A fierce storm came
up one night, and booby birds, dazed by the electric lights of Beebe's ship,
began alighting on the deck by the hundreds. "Nothing showed the complete
absence of man from this island as much as this," Beebe wrote. "The terrific
wind and blinding rain utterly confused the birds. All doors had to be
for otherwise they filled the staterooms and laboratory, and their long,
thrashing wings worked havoc until we ousted them." Ever the curious
scientist, Beebe at one point tied a handkerchief to the leg of a booby and
cast the bird to the winds. "[A] minute later it was again at my feet, and I
retrieved my property."
A lone booby chick courageously stands its ground.
Eager myself for a bit of relief from the boobies, which swirled dizzingly
the air all about us, I climbed up a fig tree for a closer look at a lone
fairy tern perched on a branch. When I got within a yard of it, the pure
bird began peeping and shuffled further along the branch, so I pulled back.
Though as big as an adult, it retained downy clumps of fuzz that revealed it
to be a fledgling. Very likely it was standing right where it had hatched.
Fairy terns are remarkable for laying their eggs right on bare branches,
without a supporting twig in sight. No one knows how the egg manages to stay
there. (Don't quote me, but I have an idea: guano glue.)
One second Hall was sitting as he had been for three hours, staring through
sheets of rain at the ocean. The next, without so much as a word, he was
donning his backpack. The weather had won. As we made our way back along the
slippery rocks and fixed ropes, Conlin said he was astonished Hall had given
up. Normally he'd wait till the bitter end, long after everyone else was
to throw in the towel. And more than once he'd been rewarded, with a late-breaking sun on Manuelita, or an enormous school of hammerheads. Such
to the cause is what makes Hall such a successful filmmaker. ("Patience and
perseverance," Conlin told me later. "The two things that Howard has taught
most of all.")
Looking at the horizon as we descended, I knew Hall had made the right
decision. It was socked in. No sudden clearing was in the offing, such as
Beebe saw one day when "one cloud lifted with amazing rapidity and revealed
Cocos Island, clear and green, as the handkerchief of a conjurer is raised
displays a bouquet of exquisite flowers where a moment before there had been
nothing." At least Hall wasn't leaving anything to chance. And that included
renegotiating those slick rocks that had done him mischief on the way in. As
the rest of us clambered one at a time back aboard the bouncing panga,
and Michele stripped down to their suits and leapt into the ocean.