“Bruce was really good about it. He told me several times I didn’t have to go back—I had enough information for my thesis,” says Ray Rainbolt. “But I wanted to. I wanted to try to finish the job.”
That’s a choice some people might not have made, especially if they were weak swimmers like Rainbolt, who’s studying for his master’s degree in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife.
You see, the night of April 29, 1994, far off the coast of east Africa, a 14-foot-boat Rainbolt was riding in sank. There he and a companion were, in the shark-infested waters of a huge lagoon clinging to a $5 life preserver he bought at G.I. Joe’s in Albany, Oregon.
He’d gone to Aldabra in the Republic of the Seychelles, a rugged, bone-dry atoll that’s uninhabited except for the staff of a small research station, to continue a project started by his major professor, OSU wildlife ecologist Bruce Coblentz, a specialist in the control of domestic animals gone wild.
The objective was to kill goats that are descendants of animals most likely released on Aldabra in the late 1800s. The environmental invaders were destroying the fragile native ecosystem. Aldabra is the home of a species of giant tortoise found only there, and an important nesting site for some rare Indian Ocean birds and for green sea turtles.
In the six months Rainbolt and Bruce Schoeberl, a research technician, had been at Aldabra they’d established a work pattern. They’d spend several days hunting goats on one of the narrow islands that circle the 70-square-mile lagoon in the center of the atoll, then get picked up by the small boat and return to the research station to rest and resupply.
“I’m not much of a mariner,” says Rainbolt. “I’d gone snorkeling for the first time two weeks earlier, trying to learn to control my fear of the water.”
They’d been out hunting for several days when their luck turned bad. The two research station employees who came to pick them up said they’d have to cross the lagoon on the evening tide. They loaded their gear, and goat meat to be given to the people of the Seychelles, into the boat and launched as the sun set.
“It was a clear, beautiful night,” Rainbolt remembers. “The bow was riding high, so the boatman sent the laborer to the front to hold it down. The winds were blowing hard. All of a sudden we hit a big wave. In a few seconds the water was in our laps.”
The Seychellois boatman and laborer swam away quickly, Rainbolt says. They were afraid the goat meat would attract the huge lemon, tiger, hammerhead and other species of sharks that feed in the lagoon.
“Bruce and I had worked all day. We were tired and hungry and the shore was just a black speck on the horizon,” says Rainbolt. Paddling for shore, they ranged from a couple of feet to 10 yards from each other, navigating by the stars.
“A couple of passing storms obscured the sky,” Rainbolt recalls. “But our biggest concern was that the tide would turn and we’d be flushed out to sea. The first half we talked a lot to take our minds off our predicaments. The second half we were too cold and tired. It’s funny what goes through your mind. I thought about death, about my parents getting a phone call. I never thought about the sharks. I had more pressing things to worry about.”
Near midnight their feet touched bottom. That was Friday. On Sunday, they were picked up and learned that the two workers had made it to shore and reached the station by crossing a channel at low tide.
“Everyone had given me zero chance,” says Rainbolt. “They thought I probably panicked and drowned Bruce, too.”
With their gear on the bottom of the lagoon, Rainbolt and Schoeberl returned to Oregon. Once back in the United States, Schoeberl had no desire to return to Aldabra.
But the following November Rainbolt went back to complete what the accident interrupted. This time he had a new assistant and “a really good life vest.”
He was stung by a scorpion, but overall his second stay on the atoll was considerably less adventurous.
“We eradicated remnant populations [of goats] from two smaller islands,” he says, “and they’re cleared forever unless someone transports more there. But we spent most of our time working on the big island, Grand Terre, and there are still goats.
“I don’t take pleasure in drawing blood, but it’s the only efficient way to get rid of the goats. Trapping isn’t feasible, and birth control is unrealistic, in my opinion. In the meantime, the place is being destroyed by animals that don’t belong there.
“It’s where your values are, and mine are toward the native biota. You can see goats all over the world. But there are flightless rails [birds] and giant tortoises and 17 species of plants found only on Aldabra. I think protecting them is important.”