As rainy season begins on the islands and the storm clouds begin to tower overhead, no one can resist the majesty of the tropical summer. When the humid sea breeze from the Atlantic Ocean converges with our very own sultry zephyr, rising columns of tropical atmosphere climb over the Everglades and set the stage for the almost daily performance of afternoon thunderstorms. Even an average storm can tower to over 40,000 feet, but because Florida is the thunderstorm and lighting capital of the world, some of our more dramatic thunderstorms can climb to 60,000 feet and rain down with violent consequences. Amongst this daily weather forge fired up by Mother Nature, there are riders of the storms that appear in an almost mystical but very magnificent form, and these storm-bringers are very special creatures that for centuries have been shrouded in dread and mystery.
Sailors have been God fearing and superstitious ever since the first oar touched the water and for very good reason. This is especially true during the summer months in southwest Florida. Anyone that was out on the water around 2:00 on Tuesday June 1, can testify to the strength, the suddenness, and the power of Mother Nature’s weather forge. Before that unforgettable squall, there was a warning riding on the sea breeze, circling low over Marco Bay, and signaling trouble.
On almost every sailing excursion, visiting passengers are looking for trouble. There is an old sailor’s proverb that states, “There is no such person as an atheist on a boat in a storm.” No truer statement will ever be heard.
Every passenger on every boat or ship is always looking for trouble. Floating on the water is not our natural environment so we always look for danger in every form. Superstition and science fiction creep into the conscious, and Hollywood scenarios become ever more plausible with every mile ventured offshore. In the winter months, passengers look down and into the water for trouble because when looking aloft the weather is fair and the skies are clear. In the winter, passengers are looking to the depths for danger in the form of killer sharks and other deadly denizens of the deep. Our seagoing guests of winter imagine Jaws lurking below the surface, along with dangerous jellyfish, stingrays, and even a giant squid ready to reach up and pull a boat and all aboard down into the deep for a fate too terrible to consider.
In the summer months however, when the afternoon clouds begin to gather, and the friendly skies become dark and stormy, anxious passengers will be looking aloft for the trouble above that truly is brewing. There are, however, the aforementioned riders of the storm that cannot fail to garner attention as their black figures soar before tempests that march out from the Everglades to conquer our coasts.
The dark, menacing, and soaring figures are always called upon whenever newcomers are gazing upward for trouble and finding much more than they want.
“What are those huge black birds circling overhead?” a nervous passenger will ask as they are glancing around and trying to calculate how long before they will be off the boat and into a safe harbor.
“Those are Frigate Birds,” is the ready response.
“They look like pterodactyls—the flying dinosaurs. Are we sure they are not giant vampire bats—they sure look like giant bats!” Is the answer followed by a nervous laugh as the anxious eyes are scanning the menacing and darkening clouds. This is when it is obvious to all aboard that every boat out on the water is racing the growing thunderstorm and rushing for a safe harbor.
“The official name is Magnificent Frigates,” the voice of calm must explain over the edge of panic as the first lighting strike spikes in the distance. “These are soaring birds with a six-foot wingspan. The bigger the storm, the more Frigate Birds we see. The old sailors called them Man-O-War birds or storm-bringers.”
This is when Magnificent Frigates come in quite handy as every captain should also be a morale officer and try to take the worry and stress away from worried passengers wishing that they were already ashore and away from every boat that ever was afloat.
“Do you notice that the frigates almost never flap their wings?” the seasoned voice of reason must explain and then ask calmly, “Can anyone venture a guess on how long a Frigate can stay in the air?
“12 hours,” is a common guess, followed by laughter that is more nervous.
“Longer,” is the practiced reply.
“Two days,” is the next answer.
“The Magnificent Frigate can fly and remain in the air for up to two months at a time,” is the true and amazing answer. “They can cross oceans and often do. They can perform hemispheric sleep – they can allow one-half of their brain to sleep while the other side remains active with soaring and navigation. The frigates we see today can easily have crossed oceans or possibly flown around the world. They dive and catch small fish while never landing in the water, and are also called pirate birds because they chase, raid, and dive on other birds to get their food. When a big storm approaches, as in a tropical storm or hurricane, the old sailors would look aloft and judge the severity of the upcoming tempest by the number of frigates circling together. Before Hurricane Irma, there were hundreds of frigates circling over Marco, Goodland, and the Isles of Capri.”
The true and amazing story of the Magnificent Frigates has always proven to be the best tonic for seagoing passengers looking for trouble and finding it when summertime in the tropics heats up in Mother Nature’s stormy forge.
Tom Williams is a Marco Islander. He is the author of two books: Lost and Found and Surrounded by Thunder—the Story of Darrell Loan and the Rocket Men. Both books are available on Kindle and Nook.