Suwarrow ‘atoll is a living island’- Behind the scenes of ‘once i counted birds’ film

‘I have been aware of the sea as an enclosing presence, both sheltering and dangerous. But most important, I have noticed that the atoll (Suwarrow) belongs to the organic world; it is a living island’

RD Frisbie, ‘Island of Desire – the story of a South Seas Trader, 1944

Readers,

I have been overwhlemed by the response to my new film ‘once i counted birds’ for the UK Guardian’s 1minutetosavetheworld Climate Change Film Festival. Thank you all so very much for the great comments and emails. Here is some background to the film and this special place.

Below is a drawing I made from my art notebook that I took with me  on the trip in 2000. You can see that the atoll is literally made up of islets of coral, ever growing upwards, to literally form a great ‘circle in the sea’.

We visited and counted the birds on all the islets;  Suwarrow is an atoll in the Northern Group of the Cook Islands, about 800km NW of Rarotonga (the Cook Islands are in the middle of the south pacific, not that far from the equator, look above NZ on the map). The atoll is approx. 80 km in circumference,and 10km across (we took a small inflatable dinghy, which I nick-named ‘the Dawn Treader’ (after my love of the Narnia books) to carry out the survey work, on the yacht we hitched a lift on). We rarely crossed the lagoon however, after many warnings about seas suddenly becoming high and dangerous, not to mention its healthy shark population). In the drawing, you can see us crossing the lagoon, but in a much larger dinghy that a passing yachting couple took us on. You can also see how we sailed up and around to get to Anchorage isle, our homebase isle for the trip).

Suwarrow Atoll drawing

This trip all came about because my New Zealand friend Rhys, a scientist who I had worked alongside at the agricultural research institute in the 1990’s, told me lots over the years about this unique atoll. Rhys had first become fascinated with Suwarrow after reading about the modern day NZ Robinson Crusoe, Tom Neale, who stayed alone on this unpeopled but bird/wildlife rich atoll for many years (An Island to Oneself, Tom Neale, 1966) but we never realised that one day that we would both visit and catalogue its bird population.

Here Rhys describes the rich history of the place in an article after our visit, that he wrote for the NZ Forest and Bird Journal, in 2001.

‘Described by Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife as ‘the most romantic island in the world,’ the motu (islets) that make up Suwarrow are small but have a history rich beyond their size. From ghosts of Spanish soldiers, through murder and mayhem, to a hide-out for German raiders during WWI, Suwarrow has for centuries provided the stuff of romance and an idyllic breeding ground for seabirds and turtles.  However, these days (in 2000) all is not well in this tropical paradise and a battle is looming…’    At that time neither Rhys and I were thinking of global warming and rising sea levels (though I did notice pamphlets in the local telecom office about it but it wasn’t on my radar, coming as I did from a country which is not under the same threat as pacific nations). Instead our survey was conducted against the very real threat at that time, that Suwarrow’s rich wildlife, including rare species, was going to be severly disturbed by commercial pearl farming in the lagoon.

We did the bird survey in 2000,  a repeat of a similar study that had been done 5 years previously; basically to highlight the rich and unique migratory seabird populations, that breed so successfully in Suwarrow since they are little disturbed by human interference.

Rhys later published our bird survey findings ‘The status of seabird colonies on the Cook Islands atoll of Suwarrow, R. Jones, Bird Conservation Int. (2001) 11:309-338 and I produced a very rough, 10 min un-narrated film that was later screened on Cook Island TV. Some years later, thankfully, and after much work by local activists, Suwarrow atoll was the statue of a Cook Island National Park.

The birds you see in my new film are ghost/fairy terns, brown boobies, red footed boobies, frigate birds, the long sea distance travelling red tail tropic bird and the rare and enormous Masked Booby (in fact we thought no Masked Boobies were breeding on the atoll. It wasn’t until the last week, just as we were finishing counting on one the motu, that we looked across and saw a large white object on the last motu left to study. More rubbish we thought, maybe it’s a large lump of polystyrene? Unfortunately a vast amount of rubbish drifts across the pacific and gets swept across the atoll in the hurricane seasons. Yet in fact, on coming closer, we discovered it was a pair of Masked Boobies and their chick -the chick was about 3 ft high!!. These enormous birds, with a huge wingspan had the motu to themselves and needed a good long runway of a beach just to takeoff – the parents were incredible fliers to watch. It was a thrill to discover them on our last counting day (we had been there for almost 2 months at that stage –  and we were getting a bit tired of the last remaining dried food we had brought with us in the four barrels of supplies we had).

I’ll just finish by saying what are my strongest memories of the visit were:

how small and unremarkable the islets looked, until you turned a corner and saw thousands of terns and frigate birds nesting (I had a the job of counting the ‘big’ birds, Rhys took the larger job of counting the smaller ones, it was working out perfectly until one day we found a motu covered with thousands of frigates, Rhys laughed for ages); coming right up to birds and having the amazing experience of being with animals that had no fear of humans; the constant scream of the terns crying ‘wideawake’; seeing all the wonderful sealife, turtles, parrot and puffer fish and some other, unidentified enormous fish-thing? that scared me  and Rhys right out of the water, still not sure what it was; always looking over my shoulder to check the junior sharks that hung around the edge of the lagoon weren’t coming up too close behind me; being so near the equator with the full moon so bright that it seemed we were in a black and white movie; seeing on the night of full moon, the sun set on one side of the lagoon and a few minutes later the moon rising; remembering the heat and humidity that killed any enthusiam of doing anything energetic in the middle of the day, like bird counting; going to bed at night, uneasily hearing the roar of the ocean against the reef, knowing full well that hurricanes, when they do strike can bring the ocean right over the islets as happened to the author Robert Frisbee and his children in the 1940’s – they survived as he tied his children to trees so they wouldn’t be swept away; eating my lunch and watching the numerous species of crabs crawl along about their business; trying not to think about how we were going to get off the island after our very lucky escape on our yacht voyage to Suwarrow – our yacht was hit by a freak wave and 50knot winds!! Our captain wrote later it was one of the worst passages he ever had – ‘sitting, sleeping, and living in the salty, spongey, rolling wetness – it sucked. But being new to sailling, Rhys and Cathy were superstars (they literally strapped me in so I wouldn’t get knocked about – don’t think I spoke much for 3 days after), and had the optimistic “at least we’re not dead attitude of veteran sailors’; and remembering on the last night, looking up at our wonderful Southern Cross, and the crabs in a line coming down to the beach and promising one day, to return again…

Notes:

Probably one of the most lyrical writers of this area and communities little touched by modern life was US born Robert Dean Frisbie but his books are rare and hard to find. The South Pacific has always attracted artists, writers and other searchers; I happened across a fantastically illustrated book recently on my last visit to NZ, ‘In Search of Paradise – artists and writers in the colonial south pacific’ by Graeme Lay, Godwit, 2008. You’ll find Frisbee, RL Stevenson, Gauguin and other well and lesser known artists, illustrators and writers who came to the South Pacific and NZ. A big retrospective of Gauguin work is coming to the Tate in London next year too (30 Sept 2010  –  16 Jan 2011).

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You can still vote for the film before 5pm on 6 Nov here (roll over the yellow stars below the film to vote). Please leave a comment if you like it too.

You can share it with your facebook friends here, and on twitter here

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