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The flying fish of Nzema

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The flying fish constitute the family Exocoetidae, which contains over 50 species. They are gliders rather than true flyers, although a Japanese film crew recorded one specimen taking to the air for forty-five seconds, which is pretty good for a fish. They are found in warm and temperate waters all over the world, including the Gulf of Guinea.

After we finished watching the newly hatched sea turtles begin their lives in the ocean, we walked over to the Visitor’s Center for our whale-watching excursion. We were greeted by one the center’s employees, a young man named Evan, and together we began heading eastward along the beach. We walked past Fort Appollonia, which was built by the British in the seventeenth century.

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View of Fort Appollonia from the Gulf of Guinea. The southwest bastion, visible on the left-hand side of the picture, contained the dungeon for slaves destined for the Middle Passage.

After walking over a mile, we reached our destination, and Evan showed us our hired craft: a simple dugout canoe, of the kind the locals have been using here for centuries, equipped with a small outboard motor. Good enough. I saw a tall, gray-haired fellow leaning up against the side of the boat. I knew by his body language that he was the owner, so I strode up to him and proffered my hand, saying ”Hi, my name is Pat.”

The old man looked away, muttering “No English. French.”

“He doesn’t speak English,” Evan told me. “He only speaks French, and our native language.”

“Comment-vous appelez vous?” I inquired. The old man stared at me blankly.

“Actually, he doesn’t speak French, either,” Evan helpfully explained.

Ooookay. Let’s try this again. “Wu fre wu den?” I asked, and this time the old man smiled and accepted my outstretched hand. “Ye fre me Kojo,” he replied.

“Ye fre me Kweku,” I told him.

We piled into the boat and the two mates pushed the craft into the waves and hopped in and we were off. The pitch of this thing was astonishing, at least to a landlubber like me. The prow of the boat was going up at least six feet in the air every time we hit a wave, followed by a resounding smack as we hit the water. But once we got past the zone of wave action, it was smooth sailing.

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The first mate stood astride the gunwales, scanning the horizon for whales.

We stopped long enough to haul in a trap full of spiny lobsters.

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Out of the corner of my eye I caught a glimpse of something blue and sparkling, a burst of azure glitter skimming over the waves. My first thought, absurd as it was, was that it must be a hummingbird (there are no hummingbirds in Africa, never mind the fact that hummingbirds are not in the habit of going out to sea). Then I realized what it was: a flying fish. There were entire schools of them, soaring over the water like airborne jewels. Both Daniel and my wife tried to take pictures, but I knew that some moments in life cannot be photographed.

We didn’t see any whales. After an hour and a half, we beached the boat and hauled it up onshore.

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Afterwards I was mobbed by a gang of young hooligans who demanded to have their picture taken with the big hairy obruni.

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