Chapter XIII: An Island of Water, pp. 324-327
The Arcturus Adventure
Director, Dept. of Tropical Research
First Oceanographic Expedition of the New York Zoological Society
P. Putnam’s Sons, New York and London, The Knickerbocker Press
[The vessel Arcturus has anchored for the night in a tropical storm, about sixty
miles out from Cocos Island, the air too muggy to close the cabin doors.]
“At midnight the unending warp of rain still threaded the invisible sky and sea. … I lay in my bunk, writing on my drawn-up knees … when I heard a gentle whipping of wings – the sharper tone which is given out when wings are very wet. In mid-air in my cabin, beating a little cross current to my electric fan, was one of the fairy terns of Cocos. As I looked, the immaculate little beauty fluttered upward and poised close to the wall light, then sank slowly and came to rest on my knee. I finished my sentence and began to write a description of the dainty bird, while it ruffled and shook and settled its plumage into place, showering me with drops. … For the space of several minutes we looked at each other, the tern much the more composed and less breathless of the two. Then, lightly as thistle-down, it rose, fluttered over to my desk and alighted in the middle of a large map of Cocos Island which happened to be lying there.
“For a long time the bird preened its white plumage, looking about with its dark, quick eyes and burying the slender beak deep in the feathers, fluffing them out. The chicory blue of the beak was just the touch needed to set off the snow-white plumage. As it preened, it walked slowly about on the paper Cocos, the violet blue webs between the toes pattering softly. Then the long, angled, capable wings were stretched, high, high up, and a half dozen quick beats lifted the whole little being, making palpable the thin air. Without haste, yet without hesitation, the fairy tern drifted out of the door, glimmered like a painted kakemono ghost for a moment, and vanished. … I marvelled how such a pinch of a white fluff of a bird, scarcely a foot in length, weighing less than five ounces, could have the courage on such a night to leave light and shelter and safety – for it had showed not the slightest fear of me – and launch out into the driving rain, with the nearest tree sixty miles away.
“During this first night of rain and wind, boobies by the dozen also sought haven on the lighted steamer, after a fashion far otherwise than the white tern. They heralded their coming with squawks, sounding muffled through the distance and rain, and then flopped to the decks or against the cabins with a bang. Thereupon they raised their voices to the highest pitch of raucous outcry, launching awful protests, screaming curses of anger and fright until the steamer rang with the noise. Toward morning a great red-footed booby bludgeoned into my room, missed my face by a narrow margin and thrashed his way out again. I snapped on the light and envisaged a mill of devil birds. At my threshold my visitor encountered another of his kind, a hated rival of long standing, it appeared to me. In addition each immediately credited the other with all the blame for the storm, the confusion and an intense dislike for this newfound sanctuary. A battle ensued, and with beaks gripped on one another’s persons, the combatants remained locked, lying on their sides, squawking full steam through half-closed beaks until I went out and hurled them both over the rail. After the voluntary leave-taking of the white tern I had no fear for the safety of these great birds, provided the plunge cooled their frenzy of hate.”