My first surf on this journey took place on a beautiful beach lined with towering trees of the cool temperate rainforests for which British Colombia is renowned. There was a sense of euphoria and child-like excitement that accompanied my return to the activity I enjoy the most. As I trudged down to the tepid waters of the Juan de Fuca Strait, a group of onlookers glared at me from a distance. “What are you doing here?” suggested their discontented stares.
The collection of spectators comprised a bunch of Brown Pelicans. Similar in size and stature to the Australian Pelican that I’m accustomed to seeing, the Brown pelican has different coloured plumage and beak colour to that of its cousin on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. The Brown Pelican hunts for food by dive bombing in an almost curious manner. To me it seems much less efficient than the aerodynamic entry of a gannet or cormorant – the large bird seems to twist its neck and beak in the opposite direction to which it is flying. It obviously works though. The move does seem a little clumsy but is often followed by an open beak quickly gulping down a decent sized fish or two.
Somewhere in Oregon I’d decided that my ‘spirit animal’ for the migration south had to be the Canada Goose. Moving in the same direction as me I’d often look up of an afternoon to see the familiar flying V zoom overhead – always moving in a southerly direction as nature and climate dictated terms. The goose was ubiquitous on my travels through Alaska, BC, Washington and Oregon and I was fond of the way they waddled around on beaches, in paddocks, and anywhere with a decent amount of open space. They chat light heartedly amongst themselves on their flying breaks as I watched on, taking a breather of my own from sitting in the saddle.
But it seems that while there was a connection to the Canada Goose, I’d been a little hasty in adopting it as my spirit animal. Since that inaugural surf on Vancouver Island I’ve managed to add over fifty more surf spots to the list. And that has meant a lot of time spent either looking at, or being immersed in, the ocean.
I remember reading something Tim Winton once said about surfing. He made the point that when you go for a surf, the time you actually spend riding waves is a pretty small percentage of the time spent in the water. Winton emphasised that much of the surfing experience lies in engaging with and observing the world around you. Of waves and their form, the landscape, the sky and all the wildlife the ocean contains and supports. On Vancouver Island I was navigating my way through clumps of leathery kelp as massive Western Hemlocks and Red Cedars swayed in the breeze behind me. Yesterday’s view was of coconut palms and tropical coloured fish that swam below my feet. I’ve travelled through countless climates, landscapes and a few countries and the trusty Brown Pelican continues to swoop in low near the face of an unbroken wave, using its updraft to coast effortlessly along the coast – expending minute amounts of energy as it goes. It is a truly beautiful sight and one I am unlikely to grow tired of.
I’ve seen many a Brown Pelican ‘ride’ waves at sunrise, sunset and everywhere in between. They’ve cruised through the lineup on crowded days and days when I’ve been surfing alone. I’ve seen them when it’s offshore, onshore, or when there’s not a puff of wind about. I’ve seen them soar across the swell lines alone or in groups as large as twenty or thirty – each bird mimicking the movement of the bird immediately ahead of them, creating a type of caterpillar like delay in the occasional flapping of wings. This simple gliding manoeuvre leaves me transfixed every time. I often wonder how they read the wave. Is it similar to how a surfer reads it, or is it completely different? Does it give them the same feeling of euphoria that waves gift a committed surfer? Unfortunately, I’m unaware of a Brown Pelican that speaks English (or Spanish for that matter) so these questions have been left unanswered.
With a journey of this nature, I find myself subject to constant change in a dynamic environment; a state of flux. But within this state, it’s always nice to pick out some constants. The constants help to make me feel a little more comfortable – like the way I repack my bike every morning. Every object has its place, and it’s comforting to go through that process with a sense of familiarity and routine. I guess the Brown Pelican is another constant in ever changing environments. Maybe one day I’ll get to ask one what it’s like to ride a wave with wings.