Dominica Diaries

I’m back from the tropical wonderful-ness that is Dominica. Outside, here in Wales, the weather is doing comedy rain, rain so hard, so visibility-obscuring as to be faintly ridiculous and artificial looking; the kind of rain you get on cheap, made-for-TV movies when a guy with a big hosepipe is standing just out of frame and squirting the actors, in a shot that is other wise bright and sunlit.

Dominica, an island country with a population only slightly larger than Carlisle, is one of my favourite places on earth. It’s a little mountainous, forested jewel, surrounded by seas warm as bath water. I was there to help with a long term study of sperm whales, directed by my friend Hal Whitehead from Dalhousie University and to do some research for my next novel fro Random House. But things didn’t turn out quite as planned….

Here are some posts I wrote while I was there…

May 28th Roseau, Dominica

Thanks to my friend Hal (zoology professor, sailor extraordinaire and sperm whale supremo) and his excellent taste in shipmates ( I’m his one failure of judgement in 35 years) I have sailed with some wonderful people on a succession of boats from little leaky wooden Firenze in the late seventies, through swish Elendil in the eighties and now lovely fat bottomed, motherly Baleana.

One of the first people I sailed with was Patty. Patty had been first mate on a tall ship, the Regina Maris and was full of sail lore and sail skill. She was a fabulous singer and musician and taught me songs I still sing to this day. She also shared with me a surreal and silly sense of humour. I don’t really expect anyone else to understand why we found our impersonations of ‘The Happy Salamander’  – open mouthed, dead eyed expressionless – funny, but it made us giggle every time. We pored over books of cetacean identification to find our favourite, most wanted-to-see species (crack open any zoologist even a tiny bit and you will find a fact obsessional geek) and lighted on Pepanocephala electra. Who could resist such a gorgeous Latin name, so much like a command issuing from the end of a magician’s wand? But there was more to P.electra than that. In the illustration it looked pretty much like our impression of the Happy Salamander AND it had a wonderfully comic – or so we thought- English name: The Mealy Mouthed Whale; this because of the white insides of its lips. Patty and I of course took the mealy mouthed at its other meaning.

We never saw Mealy but ever since Patty and I have been the founders and  only known members of the ‘Pepanocephala electra Appreciation Society’ . So when I arrived at the bar of the Anchorage Hotel in Dominica on Thursday night and was told by Marina – another of Hal’s fine choices otherwise known as Marina the Ninja Warrior Princess – that they had been seeing, ACTUALLY SEEING , Pepanocephala I was delighted. (Marina is from the Yukon and I imagine all Yukon women to be able to say the things she does, such as ‘last summer a bear looked in my tent’ and ‘when I was canoeing across Hudson Bay…’ and ‘it would be useful if sperm whales were different colours like orange and pink’. Also to be able to operate a computer tracking sperm whale clicks, whilst taking perfect photographs, cooking dinner and cracking narrative comedy better than Eddie Izzard).

For me, the Mealy mouthed whale had become a kind of symbol of the promise of any voyage on Hal’s boat, the chance of seeing new and unexpected creatures, of experiencing the adventure and discovery that the ocean offers. So I boarded Baleana in good spirits. I was with my old friends, Hal and his photographer and explorer partner Jenny, with a beloved and bonkers shipmate Marina and two new partners in crime young biologists Mauricio from Brazil and Ashely from Ontario. I knew that I would have to go through my usual rite of passage, thirty six hours of seasickness, before finding my sea legs, but even that didn’t seem too daunting. After weeks at my desk and three years since I had last been to sea I had high hopes of my week on Baleana. New animals, new friendships and cementing of old ones.

I flopped in my usual bunk- port side, just forward of the galley – the bunk I have spent literally months in since turning 20, and slept.

And I woke up to the edge of a night mare. The vague niggle of infection in my right ear that I live with all the time now had stepped up an assault on my inner ear and given Seasickness, which normally only gets into my body, access to all areas. I had been taken over, possessed. There wasn’t an idea, a thought left in my mind, the blank gluey grey of Seasickness had erased it all. For the first day I couldn’t even stand.

On  the second day I rallied, the seas were a little calmer – meter swells rather than two meters – and I made it on deck to see sperm whales: first a little calf maybe four or five  meters long lolling a cricket pitch away from us, it’s round head loping along and coming shining from the water, it’s tail swishing the surface as it waited for mum to return; then adults in fits and starts of little groups of ones and twos and threes, lolling in the rough water, straight black backs like logs and forward pluming blows stolen by the wind. Noddy terns and wide awakes dotted occasionally over the white tops and the water sang in blue ness. But I wasn’t there. I tried to be. I stood in the bow, clinging to the forestay and sang and sang, trying to reconnect my self to myself.

All Patty’s old songs and all my new ones couldn’t save me. I was lost. For almost the first time in my life I had the sense that my dialogue with the world, my conversation with nature had fallen silent.

The thought of nights on watch, alone and in sole waking command of the boat and the lives it contained filled me with dread: how could I function reliably when even the voluntary lifting of a hand was becoming a burden?

My shipmates were so kind. Hal took my watches, everyone tried to make me feel better, said they too had felt this way it would pass. But I’ve been experiencing seasickness ever since I stepped on a boat at 20 and I know it well, and I knew this was an order of magnitude different from anything I’d felt before.

When on the third day, I felt even worse, and the presence of spinner dolphins didn’t even make me smile and by 8am I was back in my bunk dead as a stone, I knew it wouldn’t pass. That if I stayed aboard the nightmare would only extend and extend and I would become a liability to the rest of the crew.

So last night, bless their hearts Baleana’s captain and crew sailed me to land. Rosea came up in the evening sun as pretty and naively sweet as a box of crayons. Clouds sat on the green high tops and the water whispered a calypso on the shore. Hal, and Jen and Ninja and Mauricio and Ashely said goodbye to me and  Marina rowed me ashore. They had to inflate the dingy specially, take a detour from the transect survey of whales a few miles out and generally add to their workload to do it. A bagful of metal water bottles filled with piña coladas was a very small return. I couldn’t bear to watch them sail away and anyway, I was too grateful just to lie down on a bed.

We all carry within us other countries, other states of being into which we slip, or are pushed from time to time in our lives. And like any kind of traveling it can leave its mark. I have been in one of those other countries for the last few days and I feel changed by that experience of terrible blankness. Ravaged. For the time being at least diminished both mentally and physically.

I’m sitting up in bed as the sun rises, I can hear birds and cockerels and the sea on the beach below. I have an empty week in front of me and with a day of rest to recover and maybe some ear drops, I can fill it…I have research to do for my book and of course Dominica is the most ravishing of islands. But I’m filled with a sense of failure and of loss. Loss of being on deck in the early morning, loss of endless silly jokes ( though I did manage to teach Mauricio the value of the word Thingy, which I hope he remembers) loss of flying fish and the gorgeous weirdness of sperm whales.

The new notebook I bought for the trip and labelled with a drawing of a sperm whale is empty. I spent some of last  night reading a new report about the terrible state of the worlds seas, how we are in the midst of a much faster decline due to climate change and pollution than previously thought. And I have this awful fear that somehow Pepancocephala and I have fallen over some dreadful precipice, and will never now be in the same place and the same time.

But at least for now Dominica is still beautiful. In a day I will regain health. Blue, blue seas stretch out in front of me, still containing Patty’s lovely whale with its Mealy Mouth, and a  brown pelican has landed on the sunrise scattering water to fish for its breakfast. While there is life, there is hope.



Since having to leave Baleana five days early on Sunday night I’ve been experiencing the silver lining to that dark cloud.

The first glitter of silver was apparent even before I left the boat, because as we drew near to land, Dominica’s warm arms stretched out to wrap me: the spicy, cinnamony scent of the green hills behind Roseau her capital, floated out over the water and the colours of the houses round the bay gleamed in the sunset. It all promised me quietly that everything was going to be alright, just like Bob Marley always said.

And after ten hours of sleeping like a stone, and a day of schussing myself and saying ‘there there’ internally quite a lot, it was. I was ready for the next stage of my Dominican visit which I had planned all along and which had merely arrived a little early. I had to think about the setting for my third book for Random House, whale boy. I don’t want to tell you the story because it’s always dangerous to talk about either plot or characters before they are cooked, and in this case I haven’t even got the mixture out of the bowl yet, but I think the title gives you a bit of a clue.

I wouldn’t presume to set a book in a real version of anywhere where I hadn’t spent at least a year. So the island in whale boy won’t BE Dominica, it’ll be an imaginary place, but I want it to have a real FLAVOUR, of the a real Dominica. My task then over the five or six days I have is to soak up as much as I can. This isn’t as hard as it might be in other colder, stonier hearted places. In Dominica people sit on their doorsteps and chat, they lean over walls in the sunshine and watch the world go by, they ask ‘how are you?’ and truly expect an answer. So talking to people and listening to the musical pattern of their speech and the lovely old fashioned, poetic way they use English here, is an easily available delight.

‘ And what are you doing’ in my territory this morning?’ a tall gentlemen smilingly asks a lady in a flowery frock and a little trilby hat

‘Looking for you maybe?’ she replies with a kind of sweet flirtatiousness she has clearly possessed in all of the six decades since she turned fourteen.

And he replies, open, gallant and equally flirtatious

‘so you have had an easy time of it, for here I am!’

There are lots of other sorts of taking here too, a French creole, a modern rap and Rasta speak, neither of which I can follow or repeat, but I can let the feel of those kinds of talk wash around me and leave a little water mark.

Finding things out here is a pleasure too. People want you to know about their island. In the fish market yesterday I met Ishmael: greying at the temples and rather dashing. We began a discussion of the relative merits of being English or Dominican, both finally agreeing that to be Dominican was overall the better thing. When I said I wanted to know about fisheries on the island he whisked upstairs to an office where Harold, a very senior person in the fisheries department, cancelled his appointments and spent an hour answering my questions.

I found out how the ecology and marine geography of the island mesh with history, economics and culture to shape the lives of the islands fishermen.

“Small islands like Dominica”, Harold told me, “fish very efficiently. We don’t have any waste. Nothing is thrown back, there is no by catch. Everything is caught, brought to shore and sold or even eaten on the same day.”

Compared with the millions of tons of fish thrown away, the turtles, seabirds, cetaceans killed by the big scale fisheries of other countries Dominica is a model of good practice.

In Dominica no one can afford huge hydraulic winches and the other heavy duty gear that goes with big gill nets and longlines of miles in length. The poorest people fish inshore with a net that perhaps twenty people pull out into a bay and haul back. Everyone gets a share even if they don’t own the net. This type of fishery is still a big cohesive factor binding communities together and providing a livelihood for those who have no other source of income, women, the very young, the very old, the landless. A small boat with two people can put fish traps down in water as deep as sixty meters and bring enough fish to take to market or feed a family. More prosperous fishermen who can afford a boat big enough to get out five or ten miles from shore also fish on a manageable scale: using hooks and lines, out at dawn, back by tea time, sold out by supper and then home. Nothing wasted, nothing caught that you didn’t mean to.

And there’s another factor that makes Dominican fisheries safe as well as efficient. Even those fishermen with boats and outboards don’t go out to sea for days on end, and they are hardly ever out at night

“The women are the anchor here,” Harold told me with a smile, ” Dominican fishermen like to come home to their wives at night”

Like the flash of fish in a dark net, the ‘hundred cran of the silver darlins’ of Ewan McCols famous folk song, Harold’s words shone for me, in the dim office over the fish market. They lit up the things I had seen – the loop of a net in bay,  a battered row boat loaded with fish traps, two figures and the outline of a hull zooming to the horizon at dawn  – allowing me to understand some of  the meaning of the pictures on my camera and get a sense of the pattern of the lives I’d glimpsed. Another silver lining to my cloud.


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