The Selvagems, shearwaters, and surviving shipwreck

Up to 20,000 Cory’s Shearwaters, oceanic birds with 1.25m wingspans, were breed on the Selvagem Islands, 280 km south of Madeira. Big, meaty birds, the squabs were traditionally harvested and salted for food. Monks on Skellig Michael similarly harvested gannet squabs from Small Skellig, writes Damien Enright

The Selvagems, shearwaters, and surviving shipwreck

Most readers won’t have heard of the Portuguese Selvagem Islands, far flung, bird rich, extinct volcanoes in the Atlantic between Madeira (280 km) and the Canaries (165 km).

In 1981, I was living on La Gomera in the Canaries when my brother, on Tenerife, told me he would be sailing from there to Madeira with friends, and passing close to the Selvagems. I begged a passage aboard.

There were five of us, a South African doctor, his teenage son, us two and my brother’s portly English friend. The purpose of my journey was to persuade the yacht captain to land me on Selvagem Grande, the home or migration way-stage for tens of thousands of Cory’s and North Atlantic little shearwaters, Madeiran, Bulwer’s and white-faced storm-petrels, an exotic gull, Berthelot’s Pipit, snails and an endemic gecko.

How geckos reached those isolated, rarely visited islands was a mystery. They must have arrived long enough ago to evolve into a distinct species, but the islands had only been discovered in 1438; perhaps some colonising geckos had been on the first boat to arrive. Brown rats had, also, at some stage, arrived too, destructive emigrants, taking a toll on the birds.

Indigenous too were some interesting plants that had been exploited over the centuries, one as the base for red paint, another as a source of soda ash used in glass making (as was glasswort, found in our own salt marshes).

Boat loads of plump shearwater squabs, sources of valuable food and downy feathers, were annually harvested by Madeiran sailors, just as the Skellig Michael monks annually harvested gannet squabs.

I didn’t know that a family lived on Selvagem Grande, ardent ornithologists that had built a house there, and lived in isolation. The entire land mass of the two groups of islets, 9 km. apart, is 2.73 km2 . There is little fresh water and reefs and currents around them make landing difficult and dangerous.

The Zino family was British, already settled in Madeira from 1830. Alec Zino, a businessman who died in 2004, is a hero in the world of ornithology, having ‘rediscovered’ a beautiful bird, declared extinct. At his behest, they were reached by shepherds, abseiling 300ft over a 2,000 ft drop and named Zino’s petrel in his honour. When, in 1991, cats killed 10 adult birds, then about a quarter of the world population, he managed to get legal protection for the colony.

It was largely due to the Zino family that the Selvagem bird colonies, already depleted, were no longer devastated annually and that the islands were, this year, designated a World Heritage Site.

In the event, I never got to land on the Selvagems, and never got to see the birds from nearer than a mile away. I did, however, survive shipwreck while experiencing weather I never before or since encountered.

We had spent from dawn sailing on a sun-blessed ocean, not a living thing, other than a few birds and a single, drifting turtle, to be seen. At twilight, the captain said we’d sail on and, when we sighted the distant lighthouse on Selvagem Grande, put down a sea anchor and wait for dawn to approach. But, even as we went to our berths, a darkness of dense opacity began to engulf us and monstrous swells rose from the deep bosom of the ocean.

I slept soundly until, sometime in the small hours, I woke to a banging on deck above me, and my brother’s voice shouting, “All hands on deck!”.

By good fortune, he’d felt the call of nature and gone on deck to answer it. There, in air black as octopus ink soup, he’d spotted darker shapes against the surrounding darkness. The captain, on watch, hadn’t seen them. Now, standing on deck, we all together caught glimpses here, then there, when the swells lifted our craft so high we could no longer even see the bottoms of the troughs below us. All sound was muffled, all movement slow.

The half glimpsed shapes could not be the islands; these would be marked by the Selvagem Grande light. What then? Fishing boats, a silent, deep-sea ghost fleet, with no lights? Whales? “We’ll reverse the way we came...” the captain whispered.

The engine sputtered. No one spoke. It coughed into life. We reversed. Before long, the shapes were gone behind us. We put out a sea anchor. As the sun rose, we saw where we had been. In all the Atlantic vastness, we had steered into a corridor 80 metres wide between the shark-toothed isles.

Later, a small plane, labelled Portuguese Lighthouse Service, flew over us, going to fix the light.

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