Wayne Davis is a pilot who looks for fish. Like an osprey, he stares down from above, eyeing the water for movement, shape, contrast. This summer will be his 50th season as a fish spotter.
But Wayne doesn’t look for just any fish. In all these decades, he has looked for swordfish, giant bluefin tuna and great white sharks. It’s a helluva trio by which to earn your living. The bulk of his career, from 1973 to 2014, was flying for harpoon boats, known as stickboats, in the swordfish and giant tuna fisheries in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank. Wayne would find the fish, then guide the boat toward them. The job involved a lot of communication between the plane and the boat. The harpoon fishery is an old one and tends to invoke the classic image of a Nantucket whaler poised in the bow, lance in hand, ready to throw.
Since 2014, he has shifted from the commercial harvest of fish to science. Wayne now flies the Cape Cod shoreline, often right down the beach, looking for great whites. He photographs them for population studies for the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy Program.
A few years back, I flew with Wayne to better understand what he does. I met him at the airport in Chatham, Massachusetts. When we squeezed into the plane, the tiny cockpit seemed to grow around Wayne’s body like a peapod. The two seats are arranged fore and aft. “Don’t touch the pedals on the floor back there,” he said. I wasn’t planning on touching anything. I was planning on sitting tight.
Wayne’s plane left the factory May 9, 1969. “The same day and year I got back from Vietnam,” he said. “That’s got to be a good omen.” The plane, a Citabria, has a single prop and Dacron skin. It doesn’t have a wheel, but is steered with a stick. For an autopilot, Wayne uses a bungee cord. The Citabria is a stunt plane. (Citabria spelled backward reads airbatic.) It’s the kind of plane that does flips and midair stalls and drops from the sky like a falcon. Knowing this somehow made me uneasy. Spotter pilots like these planes because they are inexpensive and can carry a lot of fuel for their size; plus, they can go slow if needed, down to 60 knots.
Within a few minutes of takeoff, we were over the shoals and rips of Monomoy, a long sandspit that sticks out from the elbow of Cape Cod. I saw seals on the sand, gulls flying. “There’s a white shark,” Davis said through his mouthpiece. I looked down. The fish was cruising over a sand flat, looking for a seal to eat. I had never seen a white shark in the wild — my mind reeled.
Wayne has seen more white sharks in the western Atlantic than almost anybody. Most of these fish are right off the beach, within a stone’s throw of shore. A white shark to Wayne is about as exciting as a red-tailed hawk in his backyard. Still, he has a job to do. “You ready?” he asked. I wasn’t sure what I was ready for.
As I was enjoying my white shark reverie, Davis made the signature move of a fish spotter: He dropped a wing. The plane went into a hard port turn. My breakfast — two hard-boiled eggs and a muffin — slid to port. My mouth went dry. It really does feel like an amusement park ride, the one you get on and wish, after the ride has started, you didn’t.
After a few circles, Wayne asked how I was doing. I lied and said fine. Then he opened the window. A 65-knot gale poured through the opening and hit me square. I squirmed in my seat. This is nothing like boat motion, I thought. I make a living on boats, but this was totally different. With the window open, a huge amount of noise came in — engine noise, wind noise. Everything was amplified. Get ahold of yourself. Breathe. This is what this guy does, thousands of these turns. Wayne closed the window (thankfully), and we flew out to sea, toward the horizon.
Wayne is something of a bohemian and a vagabond. I don’t think he gets bogged down too easily with life. During the 50 years he has flown, he’s lived some of the time in a tent, a camper, a motel or an airplane hangar. His current summer cabin on the Cape is spartan. He gets his water from a garden hose. “I’m the only person who would want to live there,” he says. Wayne is comfortable in small spaces, yet he loves the panoramic view from 900 feet up, looking down at the waves. “I love to fly.”
Wayne flies as if it were the most habitual thing in the world to do. He watches the water, looking for life as if he is taking a midday stroll. I spent five hours in the air with Wayne, a mere jaunt to him. We saw giant tuna, great whites, blue sharks, basking sharks, an ocean sunfish, a school of sand eels being corralled by humpback and minke whales, a school of bluefish and striped bass, and a school of menhaden. Out near the edge of the Nantucket Shoals, we saw a bull sperm whale. Wayne dropped a wing and took some photos. “You don’t normally see them up inside like this,” he said. “Usually they are deep, out past the edge.”
Wayne figures he has flown over a million miles and more than 20,000 hours. Almost none of this has been over land. Some of those hours were over the Pacific, where he flew for sword boats around the Channel Islands. Some were over the Liberian border in the Mediterranean, where he flew for a Tunisian purse seiner. But he has really covered Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine, all the ridges and basins and banks. “I think I’ve flown across every square inch of it,” said Davis, who is divorced, with no children.
Often the flights are long. He packs three meals and brings coffee and water. He pees in a tube that drains overboard. He’s often 100 miles offshore. If fog sets in, he flies above it for hours waiting for things to clear. “You need almost perfect conditions to see the fish,” he said. “Too many clouds, and it’s like looking down into a mirror. The water is often dark, and the fish are dark. It’s not easy to see them. But I don’t have better eyes than you. I’ve just learned how high I can fly to get that angle that cuts down glare.”
I asked Wayne how many tuna and swords he has seen. “I have no idea,” he said. “Thousands, tens of thousands.” He’s learned a lot about these fish and their habits in that time, where they are likely to show and when.
Wayne and I have worked together for years on a Block Island Sound pilot boat, taking harbor pilots to and from tankers and freighters. Between our on-board duties, we discuss the schooling behaviors of giant tuna and when swordfish come to the surface to sun. “You tend to see both fish at slack tide — or that’s when you want to be ready for them,” he said. “The other thing, never assume they will be in the same place twice.” But he has no absolutes and tends to speak of the ocean like the old generation of fishermen, with a touch of humility, leaning away from the science and toward the intangibles of the sea.
To keep flying year after year in a cockpit that a 13-foot Boston Whaler would dwarf, Wayne Davis is a believer in exercise and circulation. When the plane finally hit the tarmac, I almost stumbled my way to the car, my thighs and buttocks screaming like I had played three periods of hockey. In all his years flying, Wayne has stayed in shape. “I can’t imagine doing this without good circulation,” he said.
He has flown out of many small airports — Catalina, Sfax in Tunisia, Oak Bluffs, Chatham, Plymouth, Rockland. “I have run and biked and jogged everywhere I have stayed,” Wayne said. “Along with beers, girls and basketball.”
He has worked boat jobs much of his life, especially during winter when he isn’t flying. When he was drafted into the Army out of high school to fight in Vietnam, he was working on fishing boats out of Point Judith, Rhode Island, trawling for flounder and whiting. “When I got back home, I got right back on the boat I had left,” he said.
In Vietnam with the 26th Engineer Battalion, he took some shrapnel in his heel from a mortar attack. His time in southeast Asia helped foster his love for flying. “I was stationed between two bases,” he said. “I remember watching the jets taking off and landing. They were awesome.” He earned his pilot’s license soon after he returned to Rhode Island. He saw his first swordfish as a spotter in 1973.
Wayne looks far younger than 74. He is lean and agile. I’ve seen him move surefooted about the pilot boat in some pretty heavy weather. He gets around the boat as well as I do, and I’m a lot younger. Some of this is being in shape, and some if it is mindset and lifestyle.
I’ve rarely seen Wayne sit, except in the plane. At his home in Snug Harbor, Rhode Island, he and I will stand and talk for long periods. We stand over a chart, talking fish. We look at the photos he has taken through the years. We look at a swordfish photo from almost 40 years ago. “I figured I was seeing some cool stuff out there.”
His home is an artist’s abode. It has an energy to it. Everywhere you look are things from Wayne’s life. Photos, cutouts and wood carvings of sperm whales, white sharks, swordfish, tuna, hammerheads and whale sharks. It is filled with objects from the sea: scallop shells, clam shells, part of a thresher tail. Harpoons and tools. His mail lays next to a photo of manta rays. I think: This man has surrounded himself with the things he loves. “What’s your favorite fish? Your favorite whale?” I ask.
His answer is classic Wayne Davis. “Hell, I don’t have one,” he said. “They’re all just out there doing their thing.” He is old school New England: taciturn, undemonstrative, dispassionate. I don’t think there is another Wayne Davis out there. He’s one of a kind, but he wouldn’t want any of us to think that. Like the magnificent fish and mammals he flies over, he’s just out there doing his thing.