The Dry Salvages

By Vladimir Brezina

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… the ragged rock in the restless waters,
Waves wash over it, fogs conceal it;
On a halcyon day it is merely a monument,
In navigable weather it is always a seamark
To lay a course by: but in the sombre season
Or the sudden fury, is what it always was.

T.S. Eliot, The Dry Salvages

The Dry Salvages is the third of T.S. Eliot‘s Four Quartets, a landmark of 20th-century English poetry. In a prefatory note, Eliot tells us that the Dry Salvages are a group of isolated rocks offshore in the Atlantic Ocean, but in the body of the poem they are never  mentioned again by name. Rather, their symbolic reach expands immediately to encompass one of the larger themes of the poem, that of water as the eternal agent of birth and death. It might seem, therefore, that the Dry Salvages are a mythical place.

But they are real, and a couple of days ago we paddled out to see them.

Cape Ann
The SalvagesThe Dry Salvages are located in the Atlantic Ocean about two miles north-east of Rockport, on Cape Ann, Massachusetts. They are “dry” even at high tide, in contrast to an adjacent, lower reef, the Little Salvages, which are submerged at high tide.

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Even from the far distance, it was hard to miss the peculiar white peaks rising out of the ocean ahead of us. It almost seemed that we were somewhere in Patagonia, paddling toward a huge snow-covered mountain fifty miles off.

But even when we did reach them, the rocks remained imposing. At low water on a spring tide (as it then was), they towered over us, capped with dazzling white bird guano and surmounted by innumerable birds.

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The birds were mostly gulls and many, many cormorants. But at the very top of the rock there stood a beautiful solitary bird, white tinged with yellow, with a gray beak and legs and black-tipped wings, that we later identified (we think) as a Northern Gannet.

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Surf beat on the outlying rocks. And the rocks were just the right distance apart, with “interesting” water between them, for some fun rock gardeningIMGP5409 cropped smallIMGP5374 cropped small

Seals lounged on the rocks, frolicked in the water, and swam up almost to touch our boats.IMGP5522 cropped smallIMGP5454 cropped smallIMGP5546 cropped small

As might be expected with such dangerous rocks, around them are several wrecks. We came across one that was only partly submerged at low tide.

The blue sea and sky, surf-beaten offshore rocks, wrecks, birds, seals… Clearly, T.S. Eliot knew what he was about. Quite apart from their literary connotations, the Dry Salvages are a kayaker’s paradise!

(click on any photo to start slideshow)

And this was just one stop on our trip around Cape Ann—more to come!

59 responses to “The Dry Salvages

  1. This might be your best post in my reading, Vlad. Mysterious with bird guano and T.S. Elliot no less. I’ll go back to The Four Quartets soon.


  2. AH born and raised in Mass and adore the sea but never will you see me paddle out there :)

    I loved your post as it is apart of who I am a Sea Lover oh bird lover too


  3. This is just incredible! I live in Massachusetts and have never heard of The Dry Salvages. Heading off to read some T.S. Elliot…thank you for sharing this and I look forward to seeing more of Cape Ann through your lens!


  4. That is a serious amount of bird poop. I thought it was snow at first! Nice post.


    • Guano here is just a thin coating of the rocks. Nothing compared to some other places, where the guano makes up the rocks. From Wikipedia:

      “During the guano boom of the nineteenth century, the vast majority of seabird guano was harvested from Peruvian guano islands, but large quantities were also exported from the Caribbean, atolls in the Central Pacific, and islands off the coast of Namibia, Oman, Patagonia, and Baja California. At that time, massive deposits of guano existed on some islands, in some cases more than 50 m deep. In this context the United States passed the Guano Islands Act in 1856, which gave U.S. citizens discovering a source of guano on an unclaimed island exclusive rights to the deposits. Nine of these islands are still officially U.S. territories. Control over guano played a central role in the Chincha Islands War (1864–1866) between Spain and a Peruvian-Chilean alliance. Indentured workers from China played an important role in guano harvest…”

      Guano was clearly an important geopolitical strategic commodity at one time… :-)


  5. That’s Grey whale territory , did ya spy any ?


    • We were hoping! But no.

      But I gather that Gloucester is a big whale-watching port these days (friends who were there at the same time went whale-watching the previous day) with almost guaranteed sightings… don’t know if of Greys though…


  6. Really cool shots! Fabulous trip around Cape Ann.


  7. What a great adventure out to see the Dry Salvages.


  8. What a great post with photos so special ! :)


  9. Wonderful post on all fronts.


  10. yes, wonderful information and photos and fun!


  11. Very cool about the Dry Salvages! I enjoyed all the photos


  12. This post reveals a deft transformation from kayaker to littérateur.


  13. Beautiful photos! I, too, have lived in MA my whole life and never heard of the Dry Salvages. My first thought was “where there are seals…there are are sharks.” But maybe that’s only a bit farther south near Cape Cod.


    • On Cape Cod, where there are concentrations of seals, sharks have been sighted repeatedly in recently years. Elsewhere—there’s always a possibility, but what can you do? There are seals on every outlying rock, probably, from Massachusetts up to Canada. Hopefully the sharks have to divide their attention ;-)


  14. Steve Schwartzman sent on this post of yours, and I’m so glad he did! Poetry and nature, who can beat that?


    • And may I add: this kind of wonderful post is exactly what’s making it so hard for me to step away from the internet for a while, as I must so as to be a good hostess to arriving guests. But so glad to have found you: I’ve got you in my reader and look forward to coming by again!


    • Thanks for visiting (and signing up to follow our blog), Susan, and thank you, Steve! I can see why Steve sent you to this post—it’s very much in the spirit of the posts on your own lovely blog, to which we’ll have to return for a more careful reading! :-)


  15. That does look like a Gannet. Great photos!


  16. Great post! And yes, it looks like a Gannet. The sick bird may have been a grebe – there are several species. It sounds and looks like it was too far gone to help. Sometimes, when a bird (not a seabird) is stunned (e.g. by flying into a window) or temporarily sick, if it’s easy to catch, you can help by gently closing your hands around it & putting it in a quiet, dark place – like cardboard box with a towel in it. You can try droppers of water if it perks up, and release it in a safe area as soon as it looks able to fly again. I’ve had that experience with several birds over the years. But not sea birds! And of course many areas have wild animal rescue groups that can be called for advice.


  17. This is great post, with stunning photos, and rich of information.
    Thank you for sharing.


  18. Thanks so much for the information I may contact the group for the Sea Birds and be ready the next time I hated walking away.

    When you walk the beaches in 35 mph winter winds you have the place to yourself and come upon amazing things but this one was bad just sick over not knowing what to do I will have their number with me from this point on again thanks to both of you.



  19. Pingback: Weekly Photo Challenge: On Top, Take Two | Wind Against Current

  20. Phoenix Tears Healed

    great pictures, thanks for showing me where there were; seals have happy faces :)


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