I was looking anxiously at the road, nearly half way from Goulien’s village to Michel Hervé Julien’s bird sanctuary where I have been studying kittiwakes for over a month now. September 1990 and I accepted the offer to keep an eye on the reserve while Pierre – the curator of the site- and his wife Cat went off for a well deserved holiday. The place was closed now, kids back to school and my only job was to keep an eye so late tourists wouldn’t trespass or that the Ouessant sheeps (Ushant dwarf sheep, black or white) were OK. The phone would ring the odd time, but not that often. I was waiting for Sergio who I had told in a letter that he could come and visit. It was a bit lonely to say the least and I was missing my friend. I told him I had a surprise, and that he should come for the week. Sergio was just back from India with his parents and that tribe of natural born travelers never turned down an adventure. He left a message, hardly audible on the sanctuary’s office answer machine. “ cccreeech… ‘ot your letter… Creeech… sounds good, I’ll be there in a couple of days!”. So I was waiting, looking at the road towards Goulien, anxiously.
Sergio finally arrived, debonair, walking towards the house; being just dropped off by a kind motorist after thumbing 170 km trip from our home place. We shared our summer stories, drank a little and played darts, even turning the dart game into a drinking game as the cabinet was full of interesting liquors and other alcohols. The problem with darts and drinks is the more you miss your target, the more you have to drink and so forth so let’s say… I won that one.
“ – So what is the big surprise anyway?” asked a slightly tired and slurred Sergio.
“- We are going to Banneg!” I replied excited!
“- What? Banneg? The forbidden Island?”
“- Yes, the very one! Jean Pierre organised us to tag along with JP Cuiandre, the scientist from Brest, we are going to ring Storm Petrels! What do you say?”.
“- Hell yeah! But I thought no one was allowed there?”.
“- The access isn’t, but JP is, for his studies, and we will be his guests to help!”
“- When are we going?”
“- Tomorrow morning; the bus will be at 10 am at the end of the road, then we’ll have a stop in Douarnenez and a connection for Brest. There we’ll just have to wait for a bit and we’ll be in Le Conquet , Konk-Leon, where we’ll take the boat! Well, one of the boats, I’ll explain later!”
“- Best go to bed early so” said Sergio.
We arrived in Doaurnenez before lunch time and our connection wasn’t for another couple of hours. Sergio mentioned that we should go to the local supermarket to buy some Pastis. You know, to be nice like; people of the sea like drinking Pastis, that aniseed alcohol from the south of France, mysteriously popular in every harbour of the Armorican coast.
“- I guess you’re right!” I said, “it would be rude not to!”. No one wants to arrive with empty hands.
It was my first time in Brest, nicknamed by the Bretons “The draft city” as it had been completely leveled during the Second World War and rebuilt hastingly on the model of an American town, East Street and West Avenue kind of thing. The problem was that western and south western winds, common in these parts of Brittany, could not be stopped. We hopped on our last bus bound for Le Conquet and were greeted by JP who showed us our rooms in his Mother’s house, facing the harbour and the Atlantic Ocean. We were there finally.
JP got us up early that morning, and we didn’t have to be asked twice for breakfast Mrs C. prepared; baguette, butter and apple compote accompanied by a pint size bowl of strong black coffee. We had to catch the “Fromveur” boat, latest of the Penn are Bed Ferry Company. Fully white at the time, the ship was robust, resilient to the elements, and performed very well in tough weather. Built in Lorient in 1977, the “Fromveur” was majestic; named after the strongest sea current in Europe between Banneg and Ushant, the ship was a working lifeline for the Islanders. We loaded our gear, potatoes, pasta and about 100 litres of drinking water we sat on. We were heading for Molène Island, Molenez, where fisherman José Calloc’h would wait, ready to bring us to Banneg, the last isle before Ouessant. “ See Molène and you’ll see your pain, see Ouessant and you’ll see your blood” the old guys from the sea used to say; there is one for each of the “Ponant Islands” around Brittany, the Islands of the sunset, well thirteen in Brittany still inhabited… That should give you enough shivers when you think about it!
We disembarked on the pier of Molène, waiting for José Calloc’h, the fisherman. Banneg was way too small for the Ferry to drop us there, full of treacherous rocks so he was our go to guy. He knew from a small age, all the currents and hidden rocks, given each and every one of them a terrible name in Breton from his ancestors; “The Swine”, “The Pile of Plates” or “The Toad””; He didn’t ask for much and JP briefed us quickly.
“- José is a good guy, he doesn’t take any money, but while we do the 30 minutes between Molène and Banneg, he likes if we share a bottle of red wine with him. They are right there, a pack of “Cambras” ¼ ‘s. We must all have one, no matter how early it is, we must all have one OK?”
“- Yeah, we can manage that” said Sergio and myself while looking at each other.
“- Another thing, there is no radio on the island, nothing actually, just a shack. If we are in trouble, we raise a flag; the poll is outside the house; red flag we are in trouble, white flag we need to get picked up when we’re done. José will check every evening and morning to see if we are OK. If there is a problem, raise the red flag on the mast and Jo will come and get us. It’s quite simple really, all good?”
“-All good” we said while Sergio offered a glass of Pastis to JP.
“-Ok !” JP Said… “Now I think I left the red flag behind though” while knocking it back. “It’ll be fine”!
It was 9:30 in the morning and we were on our way, with a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon in each hand that could remove the paint of José’s boat had we spilled any. Which was unlikely to happen.
We unloaded our small cargo and made way to the shack nearby. The Island of Banneg is merely 1×1 kilometres and not very high. We could see the damage that had been done during the previous winter’s storm where the sea trounced through from south west to North east… There was little left beforehand, now just nothing.
Carrying the water from José’s boat was the hardest, even though our “house” wasn’t too far, in fact nothing was too far on Banneg. The door was never closed for obvious reasons and seemed bigger on the inside. There were shelves around the “kitchen” area, a big wooden table in the middle. Amongst all the memorabilia gathered by and for the dark humoured attention of other scientists, I noticed a human skull, covered with a yellow motorcycle helmet with an inscription on top: “Mujahideen of Banneg”. I asked JP what that was all about.
“- It’s the other guys, they get bored. Assholes! You see, it is not unusual to find human remains on the Island, from many wars and sunken boats, the currents will always bring them back here. Speaking of which, if you could go around the shores and gather a bit of wood for tonight’s dinner would be great!”
“- will do!” And we were off, gathering drifting wood and mussels for dinner.
In order to work with Manx Shearwater and Storm Petrel chicks, we had to do it during the day laying nets at night. That meant that you have to eat early and sleep very little. We lit the fire with the bits of wood we’ve found, adding sticks of dry kelp. It works by the way, but it smells like hell. Or maybe Hell was where we were, or at least nearby according to local legends; looking at the Kéréon Lighthouse, one of “The Hells”, built on invisible rocks from here to Ouessant. Men Tensel – the angry stone- started to flash her lights. We were alone, on the doorstep of a portal between history, legends and fading reality…
During the day, we painted numbers on rocks where chicks were resting. The “Petrel” parents, from the Albatros family, were gone nearly a hundred miles gathering food so we did the unpleasant thing of sticking our arms inside the burrow. The chicks were weighed, measured and ringed, a little bite maybe but we knew no rats had made it there. The night was full of incredible noises. It sounded like babies or lost souls crying for help; I knew about it, read about it, I was prepared, yet, no wonder the seaweed harvesters who built our temporary home used to be scared. “An ankoú” bringing back the “Anaon” from below and above! Death and spirits…
For three days and three nights, we stayed on Banneg. Sleeping for fours at a time; coffee and Irish Cream to stay awake by the nets at night, we caught the weirdest of migrators like that Wryneck ( tiny woodpecker) probably travelling from Cornwall to North Africa. We lived off potatoes boiled on the beach, mussels gathered on the rocks and the odd Garfish, easy to catch on the “bao”. It makes a good soup and all you need when marooned. We were just about out of water when José came to pick us up, and I have very little memories of that crossing back, apart from being dirty and tired, sitting inside a fogged up “Fromveur” on empty Jerry Cans of water, sipping on our last touch of Pastis before heading back to “The Cap”.
JP said to me:
“- Can you drive a boat?”
“- Yes I can, I did a bit of that in The Golfe”
“- Ok, I might need you on a project in a couple of weeks!”
I thought I was dreaming, and a few weeks later, I found myself on a boat off the cliffs of Groix Island – if you see Groix, you’ll see your cross- I laughed at myself. I was to work with him for a few weeks, on mussels colonisation and the rare Gooseneck Barnacles habitat. The poaching and fight against crazy Spaniards. That’s right, I did that, but that is a story for another time…
Keep Well and Eat Happy