Monday, 25 August 2008

wonders and monsters


I was sitting in Brendagh's garden yesterday afternoon, drinking tea and munching hummous on crackers and chatting and watching the birds. A high flight of swallows, swirling slowly westward. A sparrow landing on the gutter.

It gives a little sparrowy chirp.

A sparrowhawk clunks against the gutter, its wings beat against the roof slates, and it's off, away along the front of the house with a little sparrow-sized bundle in its claws.

Gosh. I am really rather shocked. Never seen that happen before. Although I saw a hawk snatch a fish from the harbour in Colombo once. But this was sudden death in a Somerset garden, where that sort of thing seems slightly outrageous.

But the sparrowhawk isn't a monster, it's just a sparrowhawk doing what sparrowhawks do.

I was talking with Geraldine about the funny stuff you see at sea.

...no, not that sort of funny, silly

Or as the Bible sort of put it,

They that go down to the sea in ships,
that do business in great waters;
these see the works of the Lord,
and His wonders in the deep.


My first trip to sea, rounding Land's End in December 1981; there was a hurricane going on, and I was wedged by the compass on the bridge to stop me from going flying. The wind was howling in the superstructure, and the sea was mixing itself with the sky as though we were in a very large food mixer. The captain was faintly illuminated by the lights of the instruments. He was listening to the radio. "Some ship in trouble to the west," he said. That was the Union Star, about to be lost along with the Penlee lifeboat.

A winter's evening in the Bay of Biscay, a long low swell running and a washed feel to the twilight. Gannets were sitting stilly on the water, as far as you could see the sea was punctuated with gannets, uncountable numbers of them.

Thundering across the Arabian Sea on Condor 10 at night, watching silent fireworks flashing under the water around the keels, as the plankton fired off its flashbulbs. Photoluminescence, it's called apparently. Looks very impressive anyway.

Loitering on deck in hopes of catching the Green Flash, when the sun just disappears behind the horizon. Not seen it yet. But there was one sunset when a column of light stood in the sky over the place where the sun had set, for quite some time.



Which was not a patch on what I saw in the Indian Ocean, sometime towards midnight, a thousand miles from the nearest land, out on the back deck and seeing a very bright vertical column of white light way off on the port beam. I went up to the bridge and asked if anyone had seen it. They thought I was being silly There was nothing on the radars, nothing at all. Then there was a terrific flash of white light, from horizon to horizon. We exchanged "Well I never saw anything like that" looks, and continued with our business.

And then there was my sea monster.

It was not a hugely monstrous sea monster, but it was the one I saw. We were chugging along southwards across the Bay of Biscay. It was a flat calm summer's day, nothing but the occasional distant splashings of tuna shoals 'hitting' mackerel shoals. Away ahead, I saw a dark object get closer and closer. It was a long eel-shaped creature swimming along in the opposite direction to us, with its head sticking out of the water. It passed down our port side, gave me a cursory glance and continued its indifferent way.

I looked around the bridge, where the watch were doing what the watch does best, chatting, drinking tea, gasconading. "Did I really see that?" I wondered.

I did, you know.