Written by Chris Gillette, photos by Filipe Deandrade and Mckenzie Barney
While diving in Cocos National Park, Costa Rica, I had just surfaced from a very successful dive at 90ft filming a tiger shark and a few Galapagos sharks. A large Galapagos shark had followed me up to the surface and slowly made circles a few feet below me. As I handed my scuba gear up to Pepe the skiff driver he told me a baby booby (species of bird) had fallen from its nest not far from me and the bird was swimming around. The baby birds often fall from the cliff edge and quickly become shark bait unfortunately. Being a wildlife filmmaker I have seen the harsh reality of nature a few times and swam over in the direction of the bird to try to film it before it became a shark’s lunch. The white and fluffy baby bird was swimming in circles and the 10ft Galapagos shark that had followed me up was also circling. I recorded a little footage of the baby booby swimming but was more focused on looking down for the large shark since I was also now floating on the surface snorkeling near its prey. As I was looking down I felt something touch my shoulder, the baby booby quickly climbed atop my shoulders/head to get out of the water! I just froze and it perched right up on me and cuddled up against my neck and face, seeing me not as any sort of threat but as a means of survival. It was cold from the chilly water and cuddled up against my face and neck for warmth. With the bird on my back I still was on the lookout for the circling shark, as was the booby! It would stick its head underwater and peer down into the water for the shark when I did, clearly very aware of the danger below and aware that I was also looking for it, taking my cue and peering down when I did. I filmed a little of my new friend on top of me and by this time my friend Fil had surfaced from his dive and came over to shoot a little too, as we tried to figure out what the next step should be. As we talked about what to do the baby bird snuggled against my neck and closed its eyes, trying to rest after all this action.
Our dive master said the booby would not survive and that we should leave it in the water to die, but after having it choose me as safety and ride on my shoulder I felt quite attached; there was no way I could just toss it back into the water to be eaten by the shark. The baby bird had seen me swimming and decided I was not a threat and climbed onto me, giving me it’s trust. I asked if there was any sort of bird rehab but there is literally NOTHING out here for over 300 miles except a scarcely staffed ranger station and no one with the knowledge or ability to care for the bird. I wanted to bring it aboard the boat and try to feed it fish and take care of it, but being in a national park they told me this was forbidden and we were already pushing it by helping it this much. Rules of the national park dictate we cannot touch or feed the wildlife, but this creature had decided to touch me! The best option was we I would bring it ashore, which I was told it would still die there too, and they were probably right, but I had to at least try something.
I slowly climbed into the skiff and the bird remained perched on my shoulder as I climbed aboard, I didn't have to touch or help it at all. I was trying to be as hands off and respectful to nature as possible, if it chose to dive back into the water at any point that would be the bird’s choice and I would not stop it. We slowly motored over to the island. The bird chose to stay with me. I jumped out into the water with the bird and swam to the rocks. The waves were crashing and the rocks covered in barnacles and urchins, I caught a few in my fingers as I climber up with my little fluffy buddy. I found a patch of thick ferns growing against a rock that provided a great shelter from the wind and rain, better than the nests on the cliff. The poor baby bird was exhausted, wet, and cold. From this point I had to let nature handle the rest and leave the bird to the island without further help. The baby seemed to be just getting its adult feathers in and there were other bird nests in the area so I hoped that it could manage on it’s own or perhaps another bird would help it. I know that is wishful thinking on my part, but I really hope this little fluffball survived. Nature is so beautiful but can be so incredibly cruel. I gently placed the bird onto this sheltered spot of dirt under rock and ferns, it looked so sad and cold with its fluffy white feathers and adult plumage just starting to come in. I do not think it survived the night and the thought crushed my soul, but there was nothing else I could do to help. I stayed with the baby a few more minutes and watched as it settled in against the rock and quickly fell asleep from exhaustion. Once it was asleep I reluctantly walked away and swam back to the skiff waiting on the water. I hope the little fluffball makes it.