After a storm, a young pelican washed up on the beach of the holiday lodge I was working at on Lake Tanganyika, Tanzania. Separated from his parents and unused to fending for himself, he built a nest in the sand by the dining area. Everyone at the resort became his replacement flock.
When he was about a year old, I started teaching him to fish because he didn’t have his colony to show him how. I had to go out fishing for him anyway, and I thought that if I brought him with me I might awaken some of his natural fishing instincts, and he might start doing it on his own.
My wife Kerry and I would fish in our kayak most afternoons and, one day, I brought him on board with us. He weighed more than 10 kilos — we had nicknamed him Big Bird — but the kayak was perfectly stable.
The whole time we were out he would drag his beak in the water and duck his head under the surface to search for fish. When I caught something, he was keen to get it in his mouth as quickly as possible. Often I caught fish that were much too big for him but he would try and take them from me anyway. He could manage to eat a 12in fish but some of mine were double that size — sometimes I had to wrestle them from him to prevent him from choking.
It took about three weeks for Big Bird to catch his first fish. I was really happy for him. Even if he didn’t succeed often, it was great to see him trying. He wasn’t always focused, though. He regularly misbehaved, normally when Kerry was with me. This was typical when he was around a woman; he’d get a bit mischievous and try to grasp her head in his bill and generally be a nuisance. If he managed really to upset Kerry, she would swim ashore and he would steal her seat.
I enjoyed having him with me for the companionship. We would go out about an hour before sunset, just when the colours of the mountains and the lake were coming alive. It was a beautiful time of day, and to be out there on a kayak with a huge pelican perched on my shoulder was quite special.
I’m sure it was the highlight of his day, too. He knew when it was time to go fishing and would head to the beach and sit on the kayak waiting for me. If I didn’t turn up, he’d come up to my office wondering where I was.
Big Bird couldn’t fly when he arrived so I tried to teach him how to do that as well. I would run along the beach waving my arms up and down and he would just follow me, flapping his wings. Then he started doing some very short flights. He was completely out of control and made some terrible landings, but he did get better. Now he can roam quite far. Once he learns to catch thermal columns, which will be the next big step, he will be able to fly much further.
I now live in Australia and I was definitely sad to leave him. On the day I left, I paddled away from the lodge, heading south on the lake. He was there as I was getting into the kayak, wanting to get on board with me. He probably thought I was just heading off for a bit of fishing. He had to be held back until I was out of sight, otherwise he would have joined me.
Big Bird’s got the easy life where he lives; he’s looked after by everyone at the resort. By now, he probably thinks he’s a human! But I think it’s important that he learns to live independently. Sooner or later, he will realise that, if he wants to expand his diet, he’ll have to catch more of his own food. He still fishes and he’s flying much higher than he used to. I hope that, one day, he will be able to fly back to his colony and find himself a mate.
Portrait by Katrin Koenning
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