It’s not often that I get within striking distance of a place that has had a unique hold on my imagination for many, many years. A place that seems to be on the boundary between different worlds—the sea and the desert, Europe and Africa, nature and industrialization. And filled with people capable of going between these worlds. A place where nature still bites back a bit. In 2016, I had the good fortune of being in Southern Africa and within a two-day drive of the coast of Namibia, the town of Lüderitz, and these dichotomies.
On the way back to port a man with long hair and a beard opens a large cardboard box on the stern of the boat. He reaches in and carefully extracts a large bird. It is an albatross. He is careful that the bird does not flap around and injure itself. Kneeling, he places the bird on the open stern of the boat. The bird stands there and looks at the man. It does not seem interested in doing anything. The man says “go.” The bird stays. Finally, he softly pushes the bird toward the edge of the boat, forcing it to fly. The albatross takes off, flying very low over the water. For several tense minutes it looks as though it will not get aloft, but finally, its long wings beating slowly, it rises higher in the grey sky, heading back to where we came from.
The man says, “It had such a good time in Lüderitz; it’s going back!”
Lüderitz is a small town of German origin on the arid coast of Namibia. There is a Marine Research Station that has a small rehab facility for injured seabirds, mainly endangered African penguins unique to this part of the world. In the morning and in the evening, two men feed the birds. One is the same long-haired, bearded one from the boat. He is the “furry one.” The other is younger, clean-shaven, with short hair. They take fish out of a fridge and, fish by fish, place a vitamin in its mouth. The vitamins are especially formulated for the birds. The men herd the birds into a corner of the pen and, down on their hands and knees, grab each bird that tries to get by. They collar the bird, pry open its mouth, and shove a fish, vitamin and all, head first into the bird’s gullet. One bird escapes without being fed, but they know which one it is. Fifteen minutes later, when most of the birds have been fed, the unfed bird seems to suddenly realize that her joy at escape comes at the price of hunger. She comes back to where the men are kneeling, and they feed her.
“They must be very eager to be fed.”
“Yeah. Some. They are all different. Some run up and beg for a fish. Some sulk like teenagers. Many are grumpy. Some you have to catch and ram a fish down their throats.”
“How long does it take to rehab a bird?”
“Depends of course on the problem. Sometimes a month. The problem is that the longer they are in rehab the more rehab they need. If it’s oil, maybe it’s a month of rehab, but by the end of that they have often lost muscle tone and need more rehab. It’s tricky.”
The men proceed to another small enclosure, where there are two orphaned “downies,” or very young birds. They do not have to be corralled. The younger of the men, the “non-furry one,” sits with his legs out and a small bucket of fish next to him. The downies crowd around him, eager to be fed. But clearly also eager to be touched, stroked, petted. He feeds and strokes them and talks to them. After ten minutes, he is up and out of the enclosure.
In with the downies is an adult penguin that has had the major parts of its feet bitten off by a seal. It can’t get around so well. It has no future. But it’s alive, and they feed it and take care of it.
The men are asked to pose for a photograph. The furry one says, “I don’t know if I want to be in the same picture as this ugly guy.” But then they throw their arms around each other with the automatic ease of old friends.
The men are rarely in Lüderitz. They live on a rock in the ocean. It is an overnight boat trip from Lüderitz. There is not a level spot on the rock. They live in an old building, partly on stilts, built by guano collectors a hundred years ago. The barren island, without a speck of green, seven acres in size, is off the coast of one of the driest and most desolate deserts in the world. It’s riddled with caves; a large one divides the island almost in two. If large swells come from the south and enter the cave, the whole rock shudders, reinforcing the fragility and insignificance of their existence.
They do not see another person for six months.
“I hope you have a guitar.”
“It was tough when I started out. It was only me. There was no electricity, only candles. Now there are some solar panels, and we have lights and all. We now have some radio contact with Lüderitz.”
The colonies of penguins seem like undifferentiated masses of random motion.
“When you first see a colony, you are impressed with the chaos and disorder. But after a while, you see how orderly it is. The same birds on the same spots adhering to the same schedule.”
“Do they get used to you?”
“We are always the strangers, the foreigners. It’s their island, their home. It’s more like a kind of cranky tolerance. When you walk by, they are always angry and still peck at your legs.”
“A thankless task.”
“It has its moments.”
These penguins mate for life; they are very loyal.
“What happens if one dies?”
“The remaining one usually waits for a while. Maybe after a full season it finds a new mate, maybe in the same situation, and they become a pair.”
The men know the history of guano mining and overfishing in the area. On some of the islands, guano was seven or eight meters deep. It provided ideal nesting for the penguins. By 1900, it had been stripped away. Penguin populations have plummeted. Some people say that a recovery is in process, but the two men are skeptical. It will take many years. Overfishing by foreign countries has depleted the food sources for the seabirds, and it continues unabated in spite of Namibia’s efforts to protect a much larger share of its marine resources.
And the climate is changing. Ocean currents are shifting and sea level is rising. There are huge global trends that are beyond the control of two men on a small island. The currents are too big to resist or control. It would be easy to give up.
There is a small rock in the middle of the ocean off a deserted and desolate part of the coast of Namibia. There, two men are perched in a small nest surrounded by grumpy seabirds. They chip away at the loss of the wild, one penguin at a time.
[Caption for header photo: Rian, the “furry one,” and Willem, the “non-furry one,” after feeding the penguins at the rehab facility in Lüderitz. Photo credits to Jon Anderson]
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