May 23, 2013
Captain Jerome loves his job. Really loves it, as it combines two of his favourite things; boating and the birds of Antigua. Every day, unless the weather has thrown a rare wobbly, he ferries visitors out for the 45-minute ride to Antigua and Barbuda’s famous frigate bird sanctuary.
Cutting the engine as he nears the northern edge of Codrington Lagoon, Jerome glides the boat effortlessly across the water, twiddling a much-repaired rudder and paddling with a wooden oar. Guiding his vessel out across the shallows, he skirts marshes and creeks to reach one of the most important frigate nesting sites on the planet. Known locally as Man of War, the frigate bird is unable to walk, swim, toddle or shuffle. So, as the boat nears a densely knotted tangle of mangroves, Jerome looks upwards in silence. Then, with considerable pride and drama, he simply points both hands up into the sky.
Nothing prepares you for the amazing spectacle of 5,000 magnificent frigate birds. Have your camera at the ready, as this is not a struggle to see a distant feathered speck. The Antigua and Barbuda’s Frigate Sanctuary allows close encounters with these showy seabirds – I swear some even pout and strike a pose as shutters click and whir. Crimson-red throats and glossy jet-black plumage (males) and blue eye-ring and bright white breasts (females) guarantee plenty of wow. And with a 6ft wingspan, majestic swoop, and sleek, powerful body it’s easy to capture the splendour of Antigua and Barbuda’s beloved national bird, even with limited zoom.
Soaring up to 2,000 metres the frigate dips below the horizon in hypnotic circles to hunt for fish, small frogs, young turtles, insects and worms, amongst cormorants, egrets, whistling ducks and Barbuda warblers. With bellies full, these most aerial of waterbirds will then seek out a mangrove limb on which to precariously perch. Nicknamed the Man o’ War bird owing to their resemblance to warships and propensity to steal dinner from other birds, the frigate has plenty of nerve, cheek and pluck. On a calm day, they can notch up speeds in excess of 20 mph – equal to a scooter at full pelt.
Just like holidaymakers, frigate birds are drawn to the islands by the warm year-round weather, low humidity and steady trade winds. While the guidebooks point to the mating season (Oct-Dec) as the best time to visit, there is no time not to go. Courtship rituals are the major draw in November, while chicks hatch in December. Yet skies are congested with masses of soaring frigate birds even in early July. Expect to pay Jerome $40-$50 per trip for 4 – 5 people.
A top tip? Well it pays to talk in hushed tones in the boat and avoid loud, sudden noises with birds up above. Why? Because thousands of frightened frigate birds produce a heck of a lot of poop, so shhhhhhhhhhh.
Header image © Brian Ritchie Photography
Have you visited the frigate bird sanctuary in Antigua? Share your thoughts in the comments below.