The Lesser Antilles aboard Sea Cloud Feb 15—22, 2010

Posted by Barry Lyon

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Barry Lyon

Barry Lyon's passion for the outdoors and birding has its roots in his childhood in southern California. During his teenage years, he attended several VENT/ABA youth birdin...

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This was our fourth Lesser Antilles Cruise aboard the Sea Cloud, and, according to Victor Emanuel, the "best ever." In pondering the trip highlights, it would be easy to simply recite some of the birds we saw, but we had so many special moments that selecting a favorite bird, a favorite island, or even a favorite memory seems pointless. From start to finish, our trip was filled with highlights and new experiences. Visiting the Lesser Antilles is a treat under any circumstances, but seeing these islands from the decks of one of the world’s most renowned sailing vessels was extraordinary.

Cruising from port to port, island by island, we gained perspectives (and attention!) that would have been otherwise impossible had we attempted this endeavor any other way. While birding was obviously an overriding theme, our conception of this trip included the "full travel experience" where participants also gained exposure to some of the non-birding aspects of the islands. Visitation to the five major islands was the foundation on which we constructed our itinerary, but this region, replete with so much variety, begs for exploration on a deeper level. To complement our staff of birding experts, we were joined by Peter Zika, a superb botanist, and John Harrison, a first-rate historian. In reviewing our experiences, we "aced" this trip in four major regards:

1) The Setting – Collectively, all the islands were beautiful, while on an individual basis, each island possessed characteristics that set it apart from the next. Among our lasting impressions are the rainforest and national botanic garden of St. Vincent; the sprawling forest preserves and Pitons of St. Lucia; the coastline and Chateau du Buc of Martinique; the emerald forests of Dominica; and the impressive Guadeloupe National Park and botanical gardens of Valombreuse on Guadeloupe.

2) The Sea Cloud – Is there a finer, more renowned sailing vessel in the world than Sea Cloud? Despite the natural attraction of a trip to the Lesser Antilles, it was the opportunity to travel aboard such a historic and one-of-a-kind vessel on a nature tour that was the real reason most of us were there. Highlights included our "Sails" presentation by Captain Burgman on our first morning at sea; Captains Welcome and Farewell dinners; tour of the "Historic" rooms; Captain's account of the Sea Cloud's colorful history; inter-island cruises; and, of course, the remarkable meeting at sea between Sea Cloud and Sea Cloud II.

3) The Program – Supplementing our birding-based activities were historical and cultural tours for those desiring a more relaxed pace, and fascinating lectures by Peter and John. Peter, a polished presenter with a sense of humor to match his knowledge, enlightened us to the fascinating world of tropical botany. John, meanwhile, demonstrated his own voluminous knowledge and skills as a speaker on three different occasions, with talks on Columbus, pirates, and the Atlantic slave trade. Not to be overlooked, very special thanks are due Weecha Crawford, a fellow passenger and a retired geology professor who delivered a highly informative presentation on the geology of the Lesser Antilles.

4) The Birding – Island ecosystems being what they are, one does not come to these kinds of places and expect to see a whopping number of birds. However, one can be assured that what is seen is virtually assured of being special. The four species of parrots we successfully sought provided the premier sightings of the trip for many, but the hummingbirds were almost of equal allure. Throw in the diversity of pigeons, doves, cuckoos, swifts, flycatchers, woodpeckers, vireos, wrens, thrushes, thrashers, tremblers, warblers, tanagers, finches, and orioles and it becomes easier to appreciate the unique qualities of island biogeography on display in the Caribbean region. For another perspective, the percentage of birds that are endemic (not found elsewhere) to the region on one level or another is remarkably high, and the numbers bear this out. The 73 species of birds we recorded on this trip might not seem like a lot, but of those, 11 were endemic to specific islands, 26 were endemic to the Lesser Antilles, and 36 were endemic to the Caribbean region as a whole! And these figures do not even address island subspecies. There aren't many other places around the world where these kinds of ratios apply.

This was a fabulous trip in every way. Beyond the points I've listed, it was also the wonderful people with whom we shared our experiences that made this trip so rich. Whether seeing life birds, cruising on a sun-illuminated afternoon at sea, or simply taking in the joys of time aboard Sea Cloud, we hope, more than all else, that you had fun.