The canal looks cold, muddy, uninviting. It’s cold, with a chill easterly wind that tugs insistently at the post-industrial landscape. I’m struck by the absence of life. Just a few trees, including a magnificent Weeping Willow, trailing its branches a uniform handspan above the rippled water. The canal in winter is seemingly lifeless as lifeless as the heavy industry it used to serve. Now the area is surrounded by office blocks that look out onto the grey-brown strip of water and a sea of concrete that confines the water.
Then, as I look over the rippling water’s surface, a corner of eye peripheral movement intrudes my thoughts. A dark shape, turning; it’s no longer there, diving out of sight. I wait, watching the wind-chopped brown water as the wind pushes against my coat. When it appears again, twenty feet away from the last place, I see a black, primeval looking, reptile head; a Cormorant, a sea-raven.
It bobs on the surface for a moment, head tracking left to right and back, then a dolphin-dive, an arching twist of articulated spine and it’s gone. An expanding concentric circle of ripples spreading outwards like a radar signal. And then, obscured by the wavelets, it fades.
I wait, involuntarily compelled to hold by breath with the underwater bird.
13 seconds later, a black shape breaks surface, appearing like a conjuror’s assistant on the other side of the stage. Unsuccessful hunt or a snack consumed under the water, I can’t tell. A moment to look around and then back under the rippling surface. Ten seconds this time.
The water is wet tea-bag brown, murky and uninviting. Not a power on Earth would possess me to put even a toe in. It’s beyond my human-bound imagination to place myself under the water, groping blindly in the hazy darkness, searching for food. To my limited senses, the canal looks barren, devoid of sustenance, yet the cormorant must be fishing for a purpose. Fish, small eels, ferreted out as the bird translates between surface and depth.
I’ve seen a cormorant swim in clearer water; water suitable for a fair-weather swimmer like me. In the Mediterranean one year, I was snorkelling along a sandy channel between rocky outcrops when a dark shape flashed into my periphery. My primal caveman brain jumped with fear as a lurching fear of the unknown gripped my gut. And then relief, and wonder, as I saw a cormorant swim effortlessly past me, writhing through the water, streamlined, svelte, like a fish-seeking underwater missile. I twisted and watched it disappear, a two second vignette of a creature much better adapted to its environment than my primate form. An image seared into my memory.
Here on the canal, the cormorant seems out of place, away from its normal salt-water hunting ground, a sea bird trying something new, or taking up a new niche? I don’t see any evidence of a successful hunt, so perhaps this sea-raven won’t loiter long, or perhaps I’m just not seeing the results of its underwater foraging.
The sea raven of myth and legend is a messenger, bringing warnings from the hidden faerie-folk to hardy fishermen, telling them that bad weather is coming. As the grey clouds scud across the canal, I too can see that bad weather is coming.
I hope the cormorant finds a meal.