I climbed out of bed when my alarm sounded at 5:20 am this morning, but I had already been awake for at least an hour. Ordinarily this kind of pre-dawn insomnia can be attributed to the three little people of the feline persuasion with whom my wife and I live. But this morning it was my own restless mind that was keeping me awake. I kept envisioning an endless expanse of rolling waves under a gray sky. This vision was no metaphor. I believed that what I was seeing, or at least a close approximation thereof, existed in the real world, and I was trying to imagine what it must be like to feel as comfortable there as I do in my own home.
The reason for my early morning musings was simple; I would be spending much of my day with five beings who do feel right at home in an endless expanse of waves. Nearly six weeks ago these amazing creatures had been separated from their home. Blown from the sea by a windstorm, they were found on the sandy shore where they faced starvation, predation and all of the other dangers present to an animal removed from its element. But their story did not end on the beach. Instead of death, they encountered compassion, and through long hours of diligent care their health and strength were restored. My job today was to give them the last piece of their life that was still missing, and before noon “freedom” would be added to their list of things that had been restored.
Less than two hours after my alarm sounded, I was in heavy traffic on I-5 South in Seattle. Five boxes were secured in the bed of the truck that I was driving, a canopy keeping the boxes’ occupants safe from wind and noise. After driving for three hours, I made one stop out of necessity; my early morning insomnia had turned into late morning somnolence, and I needed a little caffeine to ensure that my passengers and I arrived safely at our destination. The last hour of the trip went by quickly, and I am not certain whether to attribute my increased alertness to the warm beverage I purchased or the excitement at nearing my destination. When I arrived and opened the back of the truck I discovered that my passengers were feeling much more alert as well. They had been still when I checked on them during my pit stop, but now they were scratching and jostling around inside their boxes with apparent excitement. I can safely say that their excitement had nothing to do with caffeinated beverages. The more likely cause of their stimulation was the sound of crashing waves and the smell of salt air. They were nearly home.
The sky was as gray as I had envisioned earlier in the morning, and a steady drizzle was falling. I had come prepared with rain gear and hip waders, but my passengers would need no such special protection. I somehow managed to pick up all five boxes at once, and I carried them up and over a large sand dune and down to the beach below. I was facing a large, crescent-shaped bay. The eastern end of the bay was being pounded by six-foot waves, but the western edge was sheltered from the Pacific Ocean by an enormous sand and rock breakwater. I chose to release my charges there, as much for my own safety as theirs.
I opened a box to reveal a very alert and anxious Northern Fulmar. As I lifted the bird from his transport box and carried him out into the water he made no attempt to bite. In fact, so focused was he on the expanse of water before him, it was as if I wasn’t even there. I had seen this animal almost daily for the past several weeks, but as he left my hand and settled onto the water I realized that I had really only seen a part of who he is. This point was driven home as the fulmar opened his wings and began to run on the surface of the water, lifting off and soaring low over the waves with a grace reminiscent of his much larger cousin the albatross.
One by one I opened each of the four remaining boxes and carried the fulmars they contained to the water. All of the birds were gripped with the same excitement, and all took flight very soon after hitting the water’s surface. Three of them made wide, arcing flights that brought them up over the beach, before turning into the wind and flying far out into the bay. It was difficult to track the five gray bodies against the gray water and sky as they moved farther from shore, but when I last saw them they were heading west beyond the northern tip of the breakwater. There was nothing in that direction but open sky and endless ocean. I reflected again on my mental exercise from earlier in the morning, and I thought of the change I had just witnessed in the fulmars. I smiled as I thought about them shedding the stress of captivity with every mile they put between themselves and the shore. I hoped that they would feel as at peace making their journey seaward as I would making my journey back to my own home.