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Friday, July 8, 2011

Above and Beyond the Call of Duty

Seagulls are about the most irritating birds known to mankind.

Back in the mid-1970's I spent four years in U.S. Coast Guard...most of that time was spent doing search and rescue stuff at the Umpqua River Lifeboat Station out of Winchester Bay, Oregon.  Two and half years into that mission an opportunity arose where I could become part of the very first ANT Team...(Aides to Navigation Team)...operating out of Charleston, Oregon.  After some pondering, in 1976 I decided to take the offer and within a few weeks I mustered away from Winchester Bay and settled into my new job of helping build and establish this new concept of an aides to navigation team.  As best as I can make out, I may have been the very first person selected for this team...or at the very least one of first two...We eventually ended up with a crew of about six.

ANT Coos Bay Station
This new ANT team was responsible for all the navigational aides for over a 200 mile stretch along the Oregon coast from Depoe Bay to Brookings and included maintenance of an array of lights, ranges, buoys, beacons, small boat warning indicators, and most fun of all...three lighthouses.  It required a lot of travel and I even spent two weeks at Governors Island in New York City at the CG Training center for some in depth technical training on exactly how to maintain all that high tech gadgetry.  Unfortunately, one thing they did not train us for was how to deal with seagulls.

There was this time we had to change out the batteries for a channel marker light/beacon in the middle of, if I remember correctly, the Newport estuary about a hundred miles or so up the coast from Charleston.  This was no easy task as this particular light was located well out into the channel atop a 40 foot tall flat bed tower.  These batteries were about the same size and weight as a large car battery but only produced 1.5 volts as opposed to 12 volts.  Because of their size and low voltage, they retained a long service life, but had to be hooked up in a series so as generate enough voltage to the work the beacon light.  Each light as I remember took around 8 or 9 of these batteries.

Well, we had to haul all that stuff up the coast along with our Monarch service boat, then load it all, and motor a couple miles out to the tower.  There were three of us assigned to this particular task on that day.  Our plan was for two of us, me and one of the other guys, to climb to the platform 40 feet above the water and lower a rope.  The third member was to then tie off each battery, one at a time, and we would then pull them up by hand.  They were quite heavy by the way and it was a difficult chore to do this eight or nine times.

Well, as we began our climb to the top we noticed an unusually large number of seagulls gathering around us...circling and squawking.  When we reached the top we discovered a pair of juvenile gulls sitting on a nest atop the battery box.  I never thought about it before then, but I guess I never knew seagulls built nests like that...even so, it was quite large as were the juvenile gulls.  They were about the goofiest looking things I've ever seen...all fluffed up and dirty gray in color.

Apparently momma gull and poppa gull didn't take kindly to us being there and they began to dive bomb us with very menacing swoops coming quite close to our heads.  It sounds funny, but it was actually quite dangerous being so high up on a small platform one could easily lose balance and take a tumble, plus once we started hauling those heavy batteries up, we could not let go of the rope without placing our partner below in jeopardy.  When we got too close to the nest, they would attack us even more...and the hundreds of other gulls swarming around us made for one very loud and precarious situation.

The only way we could haul the batteries up was for one guy to stand guard and wave his coat at the attacking seagulls to keep them at bay.  In time we finally did get all the batteries up to the platform...only now we had to replace the old ones.  No easy task as the nest was on top of the box...and the two juvenile gulls got rather agitated once we approached them and began to strike out at us if we got to close and momma and poppa got even more agitated.

Apparently gulls are protected by some federal law or something for some reason...I can't imagine why...there are millions of them...about half of which by then were swarming around us...and they were not to be injured or molested...but we had to change out those batteries or this rather important navigational aide would go dead in a matter of days.  We radioed the Newport Coast Guard station and informed them of our situation.

After the laughter at the Newport Station died down, we were told to move the nest without disturbing the juvenile gulls as best as we could.  Now we were laughing as they clearly didn't understand the situation as we were experiencing it.  Oh well...not for us to wonder why...but for us to do or die...or some cliche-ish thing like that anyway.

By this time our third crew member had climbed up to see what all the fuss was about.  And being the highly trained Coast Guard sailors we were, we formulated a plan.  While one stood guard and waved a coat at any attacking gulls from the air, the other two were to slowing slide the nest off the box...it did not go well.

Mom and pop gull got really agitated which only further agitated the little gulls in the nest and they began to strike out at us...they got sharp little beaks...and they started to flap around like the devil was after them.  Both fell off the nest, one flopping around so violently, he fell off the platform and landed in the water 40 feet below...so much for the not to be molested thing.  The other ended up sulking in a corner...which suited us just fine.

We hurriedly disconnected the old batteries...reconnected the new set and tested the hook up...all the while being protected by the flailing coat overhead.  With that completed...our third member climbed back down to the boat, and we lowered...one by one...the old batteries.  We replaced the nest and captured the one remaining juvenile gull by throwing the coat over him and replaced him back in the nest.  Then came the scariest part of the ordeal...we had to climb back down that tower all the while having hundreds of gulls swarming and diving at us. Having successfully completed that maneuver, we made a hasty retreat.

I've always thought we should have been rewarded some kind of medal or something for performance under fire above and beyond the call of duty for what we went through...at least some kind of commendation for valor.  Alas, all we got were mere chuckles, chortles, and down right laughter once we returned to home base and relived the events of the day with the rest of our crew....Oh...and by the way...that one juvenile who fell off the platform...he was last seen swimming away none the worse for the wear...I'm sure he fathered many dozens of other obnoxious seagulls in his days...telling them all about the time he had to fight off those two legged intruders who threatened his home...I bet he even got a medal for it.

Keith

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