The Spike: or, Victoria College Review, October 1909
A Day with the Gannets
A Day with the Gannets.
"Harken thou craggy ocean pyramid!
Give answer from thy voice, the sea-fowls' screams!
When were thy shoulders mantled in huge streams?
When from the sun was thy broad forehead his?
How long is it since the mighty power bid
Thee heave to airy sleep from fathom dreams?
Off the western shores of Hauraki Gulf lies a chain of islands—the cone-shaped Rangitoto, Motutapu the sacred, Motuihi and Waiheke—stretching snake-like south ward. Off waiheke in the heaving waters of the gulf lie two precipitous islets, mere specks in the distance; the yachtsmen know them, the Shag and the Gannet Rocks.
At daybreak in the calm of a prefect summer morning, we had landed on Shag Rock and had shot several of its inhabitants, for shag flesh is the daintiest morsel known to the finny tribe and we had in view a day's fishing. A few from the rock the gulf is fathoms deep and we lowered our game-baited lines to the cool rocks depths below. The Fates that control the luck of fishermen were kindly disposed and we filled the dinghy astern in short space. Schanpper, yellow-tail, butter-fish and the luscious garnet came leaping unwillingly over the counter. Then came the sharks and the day's fishing was at an end. Breakfast on fresh fish, toast and boiling coffee, under an azure sky, brilliantly illuminated in the east by the rising sun, was something to be remembered in joy.
Late in the afternoon a light easterly abeam carried us slowly northward and to the leeward of Gannet Rock we dropped anchor. We left the yacht tugging at her cable and pulled into the rocks which rose sheer from the sea. Alongside a heavy ground swell was breaking and we were put to it find a landing. Presently we pulled in on top of a roller and in a second were left stranded on a rocky ledge. The roller following close behind broke ceresin over us, but we held the dinghy fast and scrambled clear none too soon. Above sat the gannets, tire upon tire, eyeing curiously our peculiar method of landing, and towards them we slowly climbed.
This islet is the gannets' castle, where most of the gannets on the Auckland coast find a nesting-place immune from danger. The rock is their own, a place where they are free from any animal intrusion and except for the presence of a few despised shags and screaming gulls, they have undisturbed possession. page 48 Occasionally fishermen and curious yachtsmen pay a short visit, but for the most part these gannets are left to the wildness n and isolation of their haunts. There are few gannet rookeries in New Zealand and most of them are inaccessible. We were favored.
The gannet is a great snowy-white bird, usually seen flying alone, (at least so it is in the Hauraki Gulf) long of wing and strong of flight. His flight is truly graceful, like an aeroplane, and his gliding motion against a heavy breeze is thrilling. He is daring; especially note his method in obtaining his food supply, fish. Descrying his prey from a great height, he drops at a terrific speed, one wing stretched downward and the other folded, strikes the water with enormous force, and emerges with the surprised fish securely fastened in his bill.
There, on clefts and overhanging rocks the birds were seated in thousands, but we clambered past them to the top of the cliffs, into the very centre of their settlement. Here we could study them in fullest detail. The nesting season was over and everywhere empty nests were strewn around. In her domestic life the female gannet is indolent. Her nest is certainly inartistic, and apparently uncomfortable—if is a mere collection of sticks arranged with no particular end in view. Her food is sought and brought by her mate, but the arrangements for disposing of the scraps are crude; the litter about the nests furnishes further proof of the antique method of housekeeping.
Birds of every stage in life were represented. First the "infant," fluffy, white, helpless little thing, a ball of flesh, its occupation squealing, and its mode of progression an undignified roll. Should it venture to the cliff edge and roll, it is doomed. Sharkds and huge schnapper have acquired a dainty taste for "chicken." Then the half-grown gannet, the youth. He has grown bigger than a duck, his body feathers are arranging themselves and whitening, and his head, which he holds with all the pride of youth, is capped with darkish gray. Perched on an elevated rock he educates himself, learns to fly. Monotonously he flaps his great wings in imitation of his superiors, until at last one day he finds himself skimming down from the cliffs straight into the sea where he falls. This is the critical stage in his existence. He may succeed in rising out of the water, or an unkind shark may determine his end. But the fortune which favours the brave does not desert the majority of these youngsters learning to fly.
The full-grown bird is a type of rare beauty. The feathers are snowy white, swan-like, the bill yellow and gracefully curved, page 49 the head crowned with feathers of a most delicate yellow hue. His manner is shy, indeed the whole colony took wing on our approach. The sight of these great sea birds, soaring noiselessly and without a movement of the wing, wheeling in the vault of heaven, was inspiring to a degree. Greadually they settled and we were then able to study them more closely. They sat peering across the waters, craning their necks, gazing as it were into the inscrutable future, eager to solve some mystery. Their lives are strange, weird, and there is a fascination in studying them, a longing to understand them better.
Lifting anchor, we envied the gannets in their island home surrounded by such beauty; in the east the Coromandel Peninsular stretched through the light haze to Colville and was lost in t he blue; while to the north the far off Barrier raised its crest from summer seas and stood defiant against the sky. A light breeze tempered he afternoon sun and happy, we ran before it to Hook's Bay on Waiheke Island. Our thoughts that evening, as we were softly lulled to sleep by the gentle rolling of the yacht and the crooning of the shingly beach were of the gannets, of their life apart, their fascination.