The Night of the Flying Crab

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IN the future, it may be called the Galapagos of the Caribbean. That's after they find the flying hermit crabs. Right now it's just another island, seaward of Andros in the Bahamas. Not that the crabs there can fly yet, but some of them have been given a first shove in that direction.

This is not a tourist island. No bigger than a city block, it's normally deserted except for wildlife. But for a number of years, a naturalist I know took small groups to this island for outdoor-education programs. On the trip I took with him, the outdoors got some education as well.

It's not that he didn't do his best to make only a minor impact on the island's ecosystem. We carried our water in and our refuse out. On our excursions, we used small sailboats, so there were no oil slicks behind us. Like oversize barnacles, our modest shelters clung near the ocean's edge; they were pup tents of clear-plastic sheeting. Our naturalist wanted nothing to block out the lessons from the great outdoors, even when we'd turned in for the night.

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Scouting around the island, we found plenty of lessons in the making, including one beached football helmet and a flotilla of plastic bottles. As we explored, the naturalist made a special point of picking up one of the crabs. Actually, he made a special point of picking up whatever slithered or swam or shuffled by us. "And this little critter is our garbage collector," he said, gently poking at a hermit crab's borrowed housing. "He'll eat whatever he can get his claws on. Helps keep the balance of natur e."

About the size of an acorn, the "critter" seemed rather alone surrounded by our expedition - hardly something to keep me awake at nights.

At our first dinner, we ate heartily, despite the fact that the macaroni was cooked in sea water. The cook said we needed to conserve water and learn how to live off the land.

After dinner, we could hear scuttling noises in the bushes at the rim of the campfire circle. Hermit crabs were at work on the balance of nature and fallen scraps of our dinner. The land already knew how to live off us.

When I headed for my sleeping bag that evening, I noticed shells generously sprinkled on the sand nearby, but that was to be expected a few feet away from the sloshing ocean. I only hoped I had compensated sufficiently for high tide when I put up my tent.

In the morning, we rose at first light - an easy response from under a clear-plastic pup tent. For breakfast, there was oatmeal - cooked in sea water -or granola bars. Another easy choice. Before we left the island for a visit to a blue hole, I tucked a loosely wrapped half-eaten granola bar into my tent. This bar would get me through if dinner was seaweed au gratin.

As we sailed, manta and sting rays flew under our hulls like table tops dancing through a Disney movie. When we snorkled, I felt jealous of the angel fish and beaugregories; they needed none of the awkward equipment we sported. Emerging from the sea unto the reef around the blue hole, we looked like a remake of "Creature from the Black Lagoon."

The day filled us with sea imagery, and at dinner the cook filled us with our first fresh-water spaghetti. The over-salty food had made us drink too much of the precious water supply.

Sitting around the campfire, we recalled the fish we'd seen, especially the barracuda that had trailed us to the reef and glared like a stern schoolmaster at our antics. The naturalist told us our next trip was to a small Bahamian village. We'd visit a school and eat dinner (salt-water free) with some of his friends among the villagers. The conversations got quieter, and someone brought out a harmonica.

Soon I decided I was ready for bed. Bending down to crawl into my tent, I saw nearly five times as many shells next to my sleeping bag as there'd been before. Some were the size of my fist. I didn't have to ask if a wave had washed them there. They were propelling themselves - toward my half-eaten granola bar. I had two alternatives. Pitch the tent somewhere else, in the dark, facing a strong sea breeze. Or pitch the crabs out - one by one. I chose to relocate the crabs.

I can say with some authority that a hermit crab, if grabbed from behind, will withdraw into its shell for at least 30 seconds. If during this period you can give it a gentle toss 40 feet away, it will land undamaged near the granola wrapper that you have flipped there in advance for the crab's continued exploration.

During the half hour I spent clearing out the tent, I had the opportunity for an in-depth study of the temperament of the hermit crab. I developed fresh appreciation for what had happened to some shells we'd collected the previous day and displayed on a flat piece of driftwood. In the morning, the collection looked like a hermit-crab used-car lot. Crabs ready for bigger homes had moved into our shells and were making off with them. Clearly these were highly adaptable creatures.

As I lay in my tightly zippered sleeping bag, I pondered the possibility that on this night the path of nature might have been irrevokably altered. I know what they say about evolution. Creatures aren't supposed to choose what they become. But if the theory is right that some dinosaurs evolved into birds, who can prove they didn't get tired of lumbering around in the swamps? They wouldn't be the last creatures to entertain soaring hopes.

What if I'd given these crabs some sort of evolutionary boost by sailing them through the air? Suppose they began to try it on their own. I promised myself I would begin to check the scientific journals in 20 years or so. Among the speculations about why dinosaurs are extinct, there might be an article about the flying crabs of Saddleback Island.

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