GLOUCESTER — It happens about 90 percent of the time. Maybe even more. But it’s not 100 percent of the time, and this whole thing still seems so improbable — even after six years — that captain Heath Ellis says exactly nothing about the sea gull to his passengers for the first 71 minutes of the cruise.
But Ellis definitely has his eye on the sky, at the hundreds of gulls flying around the harbor, wondering if one of them is Polly Five Toes.
Ellis calls him that because he’s missing one of the three toes on his right foot. He’s a glaucous gull, and he lives in a noisy colony of gulls on Ten Pound Island in Gloucester Harbor, and he and Ellis are . . .
Well, it’s kind of hard to say what they are. Perhaps the easiest explanation is to say that they are friends.
Ellis is the 37-year-old captain of the Thomas E. Lannon, a 65-foot schooner his family built in Essex in 1997 — named for his great-grandfather — that he uses to take tourists on sightseeing cruises around Gloucester.
The sea gull BFF thing started in 2013, during one of those sails, when a gull landed on the back of the ship. Ellis tossed him some crackers, and the gull took off.
The next cruise, the sea gull returned. Ellis could tell he was the same one on account of the missing toe. Ellis tossed him some more crackers. This time the sea gull ate the crackers but did not take off. He hung around.
By the end of the week, the gull was eating the crackers right out of Ellis’s hand. They continued this routine that entire sailing season.
The next year, when the Lannon’s sails were raised again in the spring, not only did the gull return, but he allowed Ellis to pick him up. Last year, after four years of hand-holding, Ellis taught him what seemed like the inevitable trick: to stand on his shoulder like a parrot. Which Polly does, willingly, except for the times when he decides he’d prefer to stand on Ellis’s head.
It has become such a regular thing that this season Ellis worked Polly into the marketing for the Thomas E. Lannon. On the back of the brochure is a photo of Ellis holding Polly on his arm, “his wild, ‘trained’ seagull” who “likes to visit us when we’re underway.” They also sell Polly stuffed animals in the gift shop.
But it is all done very softly, with no promises, because “this is a wild sea gull we’re talking about here,” Ellis says. Most of the guests don’t know anything about the gull when they buy a ticket, which was the case on a recent evening as the passengers enjoyed a pleasant night in the harbor and Ellis steered the ship while keeping one eye out for Polly.
Often, the gull arrives as soon as the crew raises the sails, which they did just as they passed Pavilion Beach and the platform that holds the city’s famed “Greasy Pole.” But there was no sign of Polly, and Ellis continued answering the passengers’ questions about the ship and the sights.
Other times, the bird appears as they pass Ten Pound Island, but as the ship sailed past the tiny island this day, there was still no sign of Polly.
The winds were very light, and Ellis inched the Lannon along the shores of Eastern Point, slowly making his way back toward the dock when all of a sudden, at precisely 7:11 p.m., along came Polly.
He landed on the transom, and in a well-rehearsed motion, Ellis reached back, picked him up, and moved him onto his shoulder. It happened in seconds, as did the reaction from the passengers, who were suddenly crowded around Ellis, cameras out, firing off questions as they tried to figure out what was going on.
Ellis fed the bird a packet of oyster crackers as he told the story of his unlikely friendship with Polly.
“He’s getting picky,” Ellis says. “If you feed him a cracker that’s split in half, he’ll spit it out.”
Which is exactly what he did, as he sat on Ellis’s left shoulder and gave off the impression that he had nowhere else to be.
“It’s kind of weird and kind of confusing because it’s a wild bird,” says Mikel Donati, an 8-year-old from Essex, after he got a chance to feed Polly.
It only gets weirder and more confusing because after Polly flies off, Ellis, who has a gravelly voice and a laid-back manner, casually mentions that he’s “working a sequel.”
Another gull has just started to make regular visits to the Lannon, not as frequently as Polly, but this bird is unique and impossible to miss — it is missing an entire foot.
“I call him Peg Leg Pete,” Ellis explains, and almost on cue, Peg Leg Pete arrives on the transom, where he has learned to use a brass cleat to balance on his peg leg.
“We’ll see what we can get him to do,” Ellis says as he tosses Pete a few crackers. “Maybe we need to make him a prosthetic.”Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.