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Life of Reilly III - Life of Reilly III

the Mystery of the Shearwater

An ocean passage requires endless hours of standing watch in the
cockpit. Nothing to do except watch. Watch the vessel's heading, watch
the set of the sails, watch for other boats, watch the wind, watch the
waves, and - occasionally - watch the wildlife. Sadly, in recent years
the wildlife has been scarcer than in previous years. I try to put it
off to the fact that my vision is failing with age, but I fear that the
true explanation for the dearth in sea life is much more tragic.

One of our frequent companions when 100s of miles at sea is the
shearwater. This graceful acrobat of the waves follows us tirelessly. I
wonder whether it is out of a need for companionship or out of
curiousity. He swoops effortlessly in the troughs between waves, never
flapping his wings. He is never found near land, and rarely lights on
the water surface. As he skims mere inches above the wavetops I have
often marvelled at how his wingtips never contact the water. I imagine
that - travelling at his high speed - he would be somersaulted claws
over beak if one of his wing tips were to clip the water surface. So I
am amazed at his unparallelled agility as he glides in amongst the wave
tops, without flapping his wings, microscopic distances above the water
surface.  He must have lightning fast reflexes.

Then one day the mystery was solved.

After countless hours of watching these birds wheel among the waves my
patience was rewarded. I now know how the shearwater flits among the
waves without crashing into the sea.  The answer is so simple that it is
almost disappoinnting. His wingtips DO touch the water! - and not
infrequently. It is simply not the catastrophe that I had imagined it
would be. Their wingtips occasionally graze the sea surface, creating a
tiny wake, and presumably giving the bird feedback about his elevation.

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