Pirate Attacks and Boobies

As we drew closer to the island, it became clear that the black haze hovering over Isla Isabel wasn’t smoke or clouds, but an insanely dense flock of frigate birds. A few minutes later, Linus spotted a spout in the distance, and Alex began to lose his cool as two 20 foot whales surfaced just 100 feet off our bow. Alex is constantly afraid an Ahabian encounter will send Saltbreaker down to the depths. We pulled unscathed into the collapsed and flooded caldera of a dormant volcano on the southern coast and dropped the hook, having sailed 90 miles anchor-to-anchor from Mazatlan. This is when the pirate attacks began.

Due to their awkward feet, frigate birds have the ridiculous inability to take off from a horizontal surface. For a seabird that travels thousands of miles, this means they can’t even land in the water to rest, being forced to stay aloft for weeks at a time till they find something to perch on. If that’s not crazy enough, it turns out that frigate birds feed almost exclusively on fish; they cruise inches above the forbidden sea surface dipping their beaks in the water every so often to scoop up surface bait. When they can’t pull enough fish out of the ocean themselves, they resort to theft. In a desperate struggle for food, frigates will attack any bird with a recent meal in it’s stomach, nipping at their feet and forcing them to regurgitate their catch out of fright (we would learn later that scaring birds till they puke is actually pretty easy to do). The frigate birds get a free lunch, and for their poor morals, are also known as “pirate birds”. We watched as a thousand sky pirates stole whatever they could in an epic battle above the boat.



The entire island of Isla Isabel is a bird sanctuary, and the largest breeding ground for frigate birds in Mexico. Dinghying to shore, we found easily 10 times as many birds resting in trees on the island as there were in the sky, bringing a conservative estimate of the frigate population up to 10,000. The frigates took up every available branch, as long as it was more than a couple feet off the ground so they could take off again. Trying to attract a mate, the males sat with inflated red gullets, drumming them with their beaks in a bizarre show of manliness. In the middle of a clearing, we found one frigate sitting still on the flat ground. Having lost a potentially fatal game of “hot lava”, he seemed to have accepted the fact that he may never fly again.

Little Drummer Bird

Little Drummer Bird

Hiking up a peak on the island, we walked right into the blue footed booby nesting ground. These guys were littered everywhere. Funnily enough they nest in pairs. It turns out boobies prefer to make their nests at the narrowest part of the trail directly between the cliff edge and fields of impassable brush. Whispering apologies, we inched around the nests, making several boobies vomit in the process, only to find hundreds of pairs boobies blocking the way ahead.


A Nice Pair

These guys know their feet are something special. When looking for a mate, they’ll lift up one brilliantly blue foot and flap it around a bit to show off before switching to the next foot, hopping around like that till they’re either accepted or rejected based on the blueness of their feet. The population on Isla Isabel seemed to be split 50-50 in their love or fear of humans. Like so many other things in life, I either made them want to dance or vomit.

Dancin' Feet

Dancin' Feet

We stayed two nights at Isabel, leaving in part to get Linus to the mainland to catch a flight back home, and in part to prevent Saltbreaker and her crew from taking on the off-white hue of bird shit which covered nearly every leaf and horizontal surface of the island.

Long hot showers were welcomed upon arrival in San Blas.

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11 Responses to Pirate Attacks and Boobies

  1. Jim says:

    Well. I learned something new today. Thanks for the lesson.

  2. Lisa Kleeman says:

    All that dancing and vomit, sounds like a bad Nags Head trip…

  3. Wally says:

    Man, you guys really got me. From the headline I figured you guys had been captured by a mean crew of pirates who threw you into their galley prison where you were forced to be slaves to beautiful voluptuous pirate woman.

    I guess your story is good as well.

  4. Erin says:

    What beautiful birds! (Even if what comes out of them isn’t too pretty…)

  5. Janis Denman says:

    I must admit I was afraid to read this post – not a fan of the “v” word. As usual, your story and pictures redeemed you!! Amazing!!

  6. Marc Abdou says:

    I feel bad for all pirates, both persons o pajaros, whom dare cross El Saltbreaker! Awesome post! Nos vemos en el sur después del Año Nuevo!

  7. Megg Demko says:

    Amazing! I love hearing your stories and seeing these beautiful pictures.

  8. Frances May says:

    Grandpa and I just read your newest and most amazing blog! Beautiful pictures and we are ever so happy that you left the island unscathed!

  9. Jens says:

    Bird sanctuary island

  10. Ellen Demko says:

    Great read! Humorous, educational and some great bird photos! Keep ’em coming, please.

  11. Adam Be says:

    Nick, This is all amazing!

    I was also pleasantly surprised too see your pictures of the blue footed booby, as my first university bio paper was about them…much like the title of your blog post, my roommate and i figured it would make for an attention grabbing poster presentation, not to mention a chance to be utterly immature in a science classroom.

    i suppose i haven’t been on here in a while, and that is only my loss. sounds like things are going swimmingly!

    i’m currently in Taiwan. Drop me a line sometime if u get a chance. especially if you’re approaching the area, or if you’re looking for a completely inexperienced deckhand! i may be on the move this summer!!!

    all my best to you and all the saltbreaker crew on your future adventures.


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