June 2, 2010 Letter to Family and Friends

Dear Family and Friends,

Go back in time some twenty thousand years to the end of the last Ice Age and you see the atolls of the Chagos Archipelago thrusting out of the sea much higher than they are today. Over the years a rising sea covered more and more of the land, possibly all of it. Only 6,000 years ago did the sea levels drop a little so that the islands of the atolls could peak their heads above water again and these beautiful green isles surrounded by fine white coral sand beaches and coral reefs emerged. This is a young land with no indigenous people, but it is a land teeming with life-birds, fish, rays, turtles, and crabs. The Portuguese were the first discovers, followed by the English and French. Eventually the British won possession and these iles became the British Indian Ocean Territory. There were coconut plantations here in the 1800 and 1900’s but that stopped when the British leased one of the atolls, Diego Garcia, to the US to be used as a military base. This happened in the mid- 1960’s and as part of the agreement, the US insisted that all inhabitants in the islands be removed. So by 1973, the islands were once again growing wild with no humans except the visiting scientists and cruisers. It is truly a little paradise and we are so glad that we decided to spend two months here. But we can’t believe the two months have passed so quickly. We arrived on April 2 and will be leaving tomorrow on June 3. Our next destination is Madagascar. The passage is 1500 miles and it has the potential of being a windy one. But with or without wind, by mid-June we should be anchored on the northwest coast of Madagascar. We hope to stay there for three months before heading south through the Mozambique Channel to South Africa. So much ahead of us . . .

But now back to Chagos. How have we spent our two months here? Basically our time has been spent doing the things you do at home like cooking, cleaning, and maintenance. The only difference is that we are in a drop-dead gorgeous place to do these things. We have to work at catching rain water to supplement what we can make with our little watermaker or we go to land to get water out of the wells. This is not drinking water, but it can be used for laundry, dish washing, and showers. Mark has spent hours with Ed taking the dinghy outside the atoll to fish so we have had a good supply of Yellowfin Tuna, Wahoo, and Bonito while here. The sea became our supermarket. Fishing outside in a dinghy is a rough sport. You have to go about 15 miles an hour in order to catch the fish, so just imagine doing that in a little rubber dinghy on seas that are never totally calm. Mark does a great interpretation of the experience, but he really has become a fisherman. In addition to fishing, we go snorkeling as often as possible and we have truly enjoyed our walks around and through the islands exploring the plants and animals that live here.

There are a few animals that are found only in Chagos. The Chagos clownfish (Amphiprion chagosensis) are here and entice us into the water as they are fascinating to watch. A particular brain coral, Ctenella chagius, is also found only in Chagos. We think we have identified it, but it is most difficult to make positive identification of coral by just looking at it. If what we are seeing is Ctenella chagius it is the most perfectly round brain coral we have ever seen. We have seen and photographed one of the two endemic butterflies and have spent untold hours walking on the islands identifying the plants that are here. In the air and roosting in the trees on the islands are Red-footed Boobies, frigate birds, and a variety of terns, our favorite being the delicate and beautiful snow white Fairy Terns. Then there are the crabs. The most abundant are the hermit crabs that wear abandoned shells. These shells scurry here, there, and everywhere on the islands, climbing the bushes and scurrying over your toes. There is hardly a shell to be found here that is not alive or lived in by a hermit crab. The coconut tree (Cocos nucifera) is king of the plant community here and the coconut crabs (Birgus latro) are king of the land animals. They are related to the hermits and have borrowed the trait of living in empty shells until they are big enough to provide their own protection. Coconut crabs are giants that can be twenty inches long including their powerful claws. Their natural shells are usually a color combination of black, shades of brown, with a tad of red thrown in. But the really large ones are a beautiful blue. They live entirely on land and can be seen tucked away in every little hidey hole on the islands. Our favorite beach crab is one we call the pirate crab. This one is light yellowish-green in color, has a body about two inches across, has eyes on stalks that stick straight up and a hollow space by each eye, one that looks darker than the other giving the appearance of a pirate with an eye patch saying, “Aaargh, Matey.”

We have had wonderful outings exploring the reef flats at spring low tides following the full and new moons. On the seaward side of the islands, the reef flats extend out almost a quarter of a mile with very little coral growing on the flats. But there is a rock-hard pink algae that grows on the flats. It is this plant that looks like pinkish-red rocks that repels the constant onslaught of the sea and keeps the islands in place. The flats support a great deal of life. Turtles, triggerfish, puffers, small moray eels, sea cucumbers, and various sponges live in the shallow waters. On the lagoon side the reef flat slopes quickly and supports the growth of huge coral bommies. This is where we snorkel among the colorful reef fish and coral. Sometimes there are turtles, sometimes Eagle Rays, but always there are parrotfish that come in every color and size that you can image, loads of powderblues, a type of surgeonfish, lots of yellow, white, and black butterflyfish, and beautiful blue and yellow Regal and Emperor Angelfish the size of large dinner plates. There are often moray eels sticking their heads out of cracks and crevices trying to scare us and lurking on the bottom are huge grouper with their big, ugly mouths. There are white fish, red fish,, yellow fish, black fish, brown fish, orange fish, and fish in every possible shade of blue. There are fish decorated in shades of purple, striped fish, polka-dotted fish . . . you name it, it is here.

We are having a very hard time thinking about leaving all of this behind, but it is time to move on as we have miles, literally thousands of miles, to go. We miss our grandbabies so very much so we are on the way home going as fast as the weather will allow us to travel. But we can’t round the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa until December or January, so we will spend three months in Madagascar and then head to a place called Richards Bay in on the northwest coast of South Africa. From there we will visit the game reserves and wait for the weather to be just right to head on south. By March of next year we should be in Brazil, but even from there it is another 3,000 miles to south Florida. So we have many miles and many adventures ahead of us.

We would love to hear from you. We miss family and friends so much and hearing the details of how your lives are going helps us feel connected. But if you do reply, please remember that we are bandwidth impaired. We cannot receive attachments and make sure that you delete our message if you hit the reply button. Whether you are family, friend, or fellow cruiser, we miss you.

Affectionately,

Mark and Judy
S/V Windbird

Day 220, Year 5 Passage to Madagascar, Day 1
Day 218, Year 5: Cue the Manta Rays