Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Merry Christmas, One and All!

Tess and Willow would like to wish everyone a very MERRY CHRISTMAS and a HAPPY NEW YEAR!

And here is something that you don't see very often - a Christmas Booby!

Friday, 18 December 2009

The Agony and the Ecstasy

  • Darwin's Arch, the Galapagos Islands

You may have realised by now that I don’t consider myself particularly attractive. I might rate myself slightly higher than a pair of dog’s bollocks, but not by much. I suspect that I am being a tad harsh on myself, but no one is ever going to mistake me for Claudia Schiffer or Elizabeth Hurley. And that is when I am looking at my best. Just imagine the horror that is me after I have been diving. Now, if you have never been diving, you probably have the completely wrong idea of how it works. You probably imagine some gorgeous girlie in a skin tight wetsuit whose boobies (finally, I am actually referring to those belonging to a lady rather than a bird of the feathered kind) are trying to break free from their neoprene embrace. You are probably imagining sparkling, crystal clear water, teeming with an ever-shifting rainbow of fish, with friendly turtles paddling lazily by and dolphins leaping, swirling and flashing by with the grace of a ballet dancer and the effort of a cat swishing its tail.

This is all very lovely, but it just a fantasy. The reality is oh so different. You would think that the waters surrounding the Galapagos, smack bang on the equator, would be lovely and warm. Well, this is just not the case. Cold water currents stream up from the South, all the way from the Antarctic. This is great news for the life on and around the islands, since it brings with it oodles of nutrients needed to feed the food chains. It is also great news for divers in terms of the animals that they will see when submerged in this watery wonderland, but it is not good news on the looks front. No skimpy wetsuits for this wimpy diver. Instead, I opt for the weezel and the drysuit. For those not in the know, a weezel is essentially a sleeping bag with arms and legs. I personally think that we should all own one – it could go a long way to saving the planet and combating global warming. Who needs to heat a house when one can wear a weezel? The only snag for all us girls is an accessibility issue; let’s just say that we would be trading an inconvenient truth for an inconvenient pee. Since a wet weezel is never a good thing, one then has to don a drysuit. This is essentially a large bag with arms and legs. There are seals (no, not the barking, fishy breath kind) at the wrists to prevent water entering there and another seal around the neck. Getting one’s head through this neck seal is about as much fun as poking needles in your eyes, whilst getting it off again is as much fun as poking needles in your eyes whilst sticking pins under your fingernails. If things are not looking good as one enters the water, they look even worse when one exits it. Your hair will be sticking up in all directions leaving you looking like a crazed hedgehog while the snot that has been building up in your mask now escapes its confines and plasters itself all over your face. It is not easy to discretely wipe away half a pint of snot – trust me, I know.

  • Mr. DBM is OK

Now that I have thoroughly put you off from ever venturing into the wetter two thirds of our planet, I shall try to show you why I would ever put myself through this. So, let’s head on down under into the deep blue depths of the Pacific Ocean. Diving in the Galapagos is all about the big things. There is no pretty reef teeming with a myriad of colourful, sparkly fish darting in and out of waving anemones and spiky corals. Since the currents around these islands can be pretty strong, the first thing you have to do once submerged is find a nice spot to wedge yourself into. There are lots of rocks around, so you would think that this would be pretty easy. But trust me, you might want to check that spot you are about to put your hand down on or that hole you are about to wedge you rear end into. You might end up sitting on one of these:

Or putting your hand on one of these:

I think that it is fairly obvious why you would not want to poke your rear end into an eel’s lair, what with all the sharp pointy teeth, but the fish doesn’t look so bad, does it? Well, to be honest I would go with the eel if I had to make a choice. They tend to be fairly shy and will usually just disappear into a hole when you approach. The fish, on the other hand, is a scorpionfish. It just happens to have a series of sharp spines that run along its back. Not only will these give you a nasty jab, but they are also loaded with venom that make these fish some of the most deadly animals on earth. To make matters worse, they are masters of camouflage and can be very tricky to spot if you are not looking very carefully.

Oh yes, that’s right, I am supposed to be showing you why you might want to go diving, not just giving you more reasons not to go. So, you have found a nice comfy crevice, sans any previous occupant, to wedge yourself into and you are now ready to sit back and enjoy the view. And what a view it is. The front of the reef is a bit like an oceanic freeway and if you perch yourself here, you will see all manner of creatures parading past.

  • There are big schools of fish, such as these yellow snapper
  • and these big-eyed silverfish (no, I have no idea what they are really called, I just made that name up).

  • You can just sit back, relax and watch rush hour on the reef.

If you are lucky, some of the more inquisitive creatures may even come to check you out. This friendly little chap came right on up to me, posed for the camera and then buggered off, only to return a few minutes later with his equally inquisitive mate. I guess they were wondering what the huge, monstrous bubbling bulk could possibly be.

Whilst you are ensconced in your little hidey hole, you can also check out some of your neighbours. This odd couple seemed very happy to hang out together. The long skinny one is a large trumpet fish, he must have been around two feet long, and his sidekick is a yellow finned spotted cod (OK, OK, so I made that name up as well – my fish ID is not so good).

Here is a little school of butterfly fish gilding gracefully by.

Towards the end of the dive, the inevitable signal will be given. It is time to face the current and swim out into The Blue. This is when things start getting a little bit tricky. Not only am I somewhat unfit and lacking in the muscle department, not only do I have the bulk of all my dive gear, but I also have my camera, which is in a huge housing to stop it from getting wet and is attached to a large extension on the end of which is perched a large strobe. This is not helping me maintain a nice streamlined profile and my progress away from the reef is slow. Go back to the dolphins, all grace and no effort. Me, I am the complete opposite of that – a lumbering blob blowing like a steam train, busy going nowhere fast. Still, with much effort and determination, I did make it into The Blue and wow, was it ever worth it.

Out of nowhere a huge wall of fish looms before you and before you know it, you have been enveloped in its swirling, twirling embrace. There are no points of reference out in The Blue and you are free to move in all directions in this three dimensional space. As the vortex of fish spins around you, you lose track of where you are and you get lost in the fish, lost in the blue. Next thing you know, you start sinking. Next thing you know, you are surrounded by these:

Hammerheads. These are what I was here to see. The schooling hammerheads of the Galapagos. Of course, as soon as I mention the word shark, you are all swimming madly for the surface, shouting for the boat, the soundtrack to Jaws thumping through your head, visions of blood billowing through the water. But really, these sharks are probably less dangerous than my cat. Oh, I know that potentially they could bite my head off, which I don’t think my cat can, but I have dived with hundreds of sharks with never a drop of blood being drawn. I cannot say that about either of my cats. Did you know that more people are injured by chairs than by sharks, and yet how many of you run from a room screaming when you see a chair? This hammerhead is a scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna lewini) and it spends its day circling close to shore in large schools. It is only at night that it leaves for the open ocean to hunt small fish, squid and octopus. The characteristic shape of its head is not for comic relief, but is an adaptation that enhances the shark’s chances of finding food. By having the eyes so far apart, it has 360 degree vision and by having its nostrils widely spaced enhances its already stupendous sense of smell. They also have sensory pores along the front of the hammer that allows them to detect electrical impulses from their prey. By sweeping their heads back and forth, a hammerhead can detect an electrical signal of less than one billionth of a volt. These creatures are superbly adapted to their environment and I think they should be admired and appreciated for the magnificent creatures that they are. So, for all of you supping on your shark fin soup or popping your shark cartilage pills, please stop. These gorgeous creatures are disappearing from our oceans at an alarming rate and most people just don’t seem to care – well, they aren’t all cute and cuddly like a panda, are they? And I would like to point out to anyone out there who is buying shark cartilage pills that there is absolutely no scientific evidence what-so-ever to back any claims that they have medicinal qualities or any health benefits. I shall step down off of my soapbox now and get back to the Galapagos.

Whilst out in the blue, you may also encounter smaller schools of rays, such as these eagle rays. These creatures are all elegance and grace as they glide through the water with a lazy flap of their “wings”. The contrast between their effortless loveliness and my strenuous grotesqueness is like night a day. It is like comparing an orchid with a potato or a diamond with a lump of coal. Underwater photography is quite a challenge and my photographs cannot do justice to this amazing place (and no, I am not “fishing” for compliments......). Nature leaves me awestruck with its beauty, its simplicity and its perfection. OK, so I have a big brain (let it go......) and opposable thumbs, but when I am their world I am as useless as a chocolate teapot or a screen door on a submarine. All I can do is take a deep breath, relax and immerse myself in this watery wonderland.

So, there you have it. You have seen the ugly side of diving, with all its hassles and headaches, but I hope you have also come to appreciate the beauty of the underwater realm and its serene splendour. The Agony of Diving, the Ecstasy of Nature.

  • A pair of mating trevallies, the dark male behind the lighter female.

I would like to finish by thanking all the crew aboard the MY Sky Dancer and if anyone has any questions please feel free to ask.

But most of all, I would like to thank my husband, Mr. DBM, for none of this would have been possible without him there to hold my hand, hold my camera gear and hold my hair back whilst puking my guts out at nearly all of the high altitude destinations on this trip.

There, I am done. This time last year, I was packing my things and preparing to fly back to Canada, right in the middle of a snow storm. One year later and I have finally finished my blogs from South America. What shall I write about now!?! Perhaps I shall have to head out on another adventure...........

Monday, 14 December 2009

Where the Giants Roam .......... Very Slowly.

In my last post, one of the ugly creatures of the Galapagos raised its unsightly head and snorted salt water all over the place. Since not all is cute and furry on these dry and desolate islands, I have a few more members of to introduce to you. The first is a close relative of the marine iguana and, to quote Charles Darwin, they are "ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath, and of a brownish-red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance." Now, Darwin is probably the world’s most famous biologist, but it seems to me that he was not much of an animal lover, unless we are talking about eating it - despite their hideous appearance, the land iguanas of the Galapagos are considered good food, apparently. I suppose if you have been stuck on a boat for months on end eating weevil infested biscuits, pretty much anything starts to taste good.

The Galapagos land iguana (Conolophus subcristatus) belongs to the same family as the marine iguana. It appears to wear a baggy overcoat in hues of yellows and orange that is ten sizes too large. Its snout is not as flattened as its sea faring cousin, due to the fact that the land iguana does not have to scrape seaweed off the surface of rocks and boulders. Instead, our saggy friend prefers to consume vegetation, in particular the prickly pear cactus. This is, of course, covered in very sharp spines, but the land iguana deals with these by rolling the vegetation around in their mouths to remove the spines. I guess the insides of their mouths are as tough as their scaly hides! They will also consume the odd insect and a touch of carrion. On this not so mouth watering diet they can reach lengths of four to five feet and can live to a ripe old age of 50 years.

Life on the Galapagos can be tough for a land iguana. Water is often scarce, but these lizards can satisfy much of their water needs by eating the prickly pear cactus. When it comes to mating, the males have to defend a territory and fight off other males that encroach too closely. The females tend to choose a male with a good territory and a nice burrow that has enough room to provide shelter from the blistering sun. No matter how nice the burrow, even if it has a suitable floor plan, is on a nice quiet cul-de-sac and has an ocean view (can you tell that I am house hunting at the moment?), the female does not hang around. She needs to find a suitable place to lay her eggs and to do this means finding fine, damp soil into which she can dig a deep burrow. Apparently, the female is very picky about where she is going to lay her eggs and some lizards will walk over 15 km, up into the crater of a volcano to find exactly the right conditions for her eggs.

Land iguanas, whose cracked and creviced skin drapes over their bodies like the folded and wrinkled lava flow that cover the islands themselves, are not abundant. Not only do they have to contend with the harshness of everyday island life, but they also have to endure the trials thrown their way by humans. In the past, they were hunted by humans for food and entertainment and now they face loss of habitat, loss of eggs to pigs, dogs, cats and rats and loss of food to goats. Happily, a small population was maintained on one of the smaller, uninhabited islands, and individuals from this population are now being used in a captive breeding program that is reintroducing these fascinating animals back into the wild.

We can now move on to the last of the land dwelling Galapagos creatures that are making a guest appearance on this blog – the giant tortoises (Geochelone nigra). I left them until last because I knew that they wouldn’t stray very far while they were waiting for their turn in the spotlight. These behemoths can only be found in the wild on the isolated islands of the Galapagos and the Seychelles. They belong to an ancient group of reptiles that appeared over 250 million years ago, but only made it to the Galapagos approximately one million years ago – well, they are tortoises, after all. How fast did you think they would get there? They are best known for their size, reaching weights of over 300kg (660lbs) and their longevity, living well into their second century. Harriet, the oldest recorded tortoise, died in 2006 at a ripe old age of approximately 175. I guess you lose count once you pass 100.

I am sure that many of you, as you have been reading these posts, have wondered where the name Galapagos came from. You haven’t? Oh well, I am going to tell you anyway. The shape of the shell of some of the islands tortoises reminded early Spanish explorers of a saddle known as a "gal├ípago" and so the archipelago got its name. The shape of the tortoises shells were also an important influence on the thought processes of Mr. Darwin. He was informed that the island’s inhabitants could distinguish which island they were on by the shape of the tortoises shell. As with the finches, it would appear that an ancestral tortoise arrived on one of the islands. Its descendents spread to the surrounding islands and they slowly adapted to life on their particular island. Some of the islands are wetter than others and have an abundance of grass and other low vegetation. These tortoises grew to larger sizes with a nicely domed shell. On the drier islands, the vegetation is sparser and the prickly pear cacti grow taller. The tortoises on these islands grew longer necks and shells that turn up at the front, allowing them to stretch up higher and higher to reach the succulent cacti on which they feed. There are now at least 12 recognised subspecies of Galapagos tortoises, 11 of which still survive.

Now, you would think that our slow moving friends here would be easy targets for a photographer, wouldn’t you? And yet, this was not actually the case. While they do move very slowly, with an average speed of around 0.3km/h, they are very determined and once they get going they don’t like to stop. It is not as though they need to stop and have a rest to get their breath back, is it? Another issue is the whole “I have had enough of this, now sod off and leave me alone” thing, which inevitably ends up with a photograph of a shell sans head. Once a tortoise has gone to shell, a bit of peace and quiet is required before the head will reappear. Now, this would be fine if it was just me and the tortoise, but, alas, the irksome tourists kept flouncing by. Just as my tortoise would start coming out of its shell, another tourist would stick her face right into its and announce to the world and George, her husband, that it really is very ugly and could he get a photo of her and the turtle. Grrrrr on so many levels. If looks could kill, the bodies would have been piling up on Santa Cruz that day.

The tortoises of the Galapagos used to roam the islands in the thousands. Today, many of the islands have lost all of their tortoises and they only survive in captivity. This precipitous decline in numbers can be attributed, once again, to humans. Before the islands were colonised they were regularly used by seafaring vessels as a base for restocking on food and water. The tortoises were considered an excellent source of fresh meat, since a tortoise can survive for over a year without food or water. According to Darwin, the young tortoises make very good soup and the breast plate roasted with the flesh on is very good. As a bonus, their diluted urine can be used as drinking water – how lovely, I am sure that it goes very well with weevils and land iguana, with a spot of booby. In more recent times, habitat loss and the introduction of feral animals have further depleted their numbers. There is now an active breeding program at the Darwin Research Centre, where the different subspecies are breed and their offspring are returned to their native islands once they are large enough to fend for themselves.

Well, that is pretty much me done. I shall leave you with a couple more animals that at first glance might appear ugly, but if you take your time to really look at them .......... no really look ........... get closer ........... even closer. There, you see, they really are gorgeous, aren’t they? The first is a little lava lizard, Tropidurus albemarlensis. These gorgeous little guys are to be found skittering around all over the apparently dead and lifeless lava fields, scurrying away just before your foot meets rock, avoiding the very flat lizard between a rock and a hard place scenario. Once you got your eye in, you could find these lizards everywhere and each one seemed to have its own little colour scheme. This one has opted for the red and electric blue look, quite spectacular in its own little way.

The second is the Sally Lightfoot crab, Grapsus grapsus. These crabs dance around the rocks on their tiptoes, easy to see, but difficult to catch. As you walk across the black, desolate rocks, you will find a wave of brilliant orange and flashing red fanning out before you as these crabs skitter and scurry ahead of you, always one step ahead. It is said that they are named after a nineteenth century night club dancer, who captivated, teased and tantalised her audience with a swirling red and yellow dress. Hmmm, I am not entirely sure that I would want a crab named after me.

If anyone is interested, my Galapagos trip was on board the MV Flamingo I, one of the boats operated by Ecoventura. I can highly recommend them and my guide, Edwin. He may look like a bit of an idiot in this photo but, to be fair, he is explaining to us how the waved albatross has to exercise its wings as a juvenile before taking off to spend its life roaming the open ocean. If anyone would like any details about this trip or any of my other South American excursions, please feel free to email me and I would be more than happy to pass on any information that I can.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Welcome to Paradise!

Imagine soft morning light filtering through the curtains, dancing across your face. Imagine your bed gently swaying back and forth, rocking you lightly, and soothing your transition from sleep to the waking world. Imagine the dulcet tones of Robbie Williams' “Angels” whispering in your ear. And then a soft Spanish voice encourages you to.......

“Open your your eyes ......... Welcome ..... to ........ another day ........ in Paradise .............. the Galapagos ...........Islands.”

And so you pry your eyes open, you pull back the curtain and gaze across the shimmering blue sea, twinkling and winking, reflecting the gentle rays of the early morning sun. Then your eyes shift and come to rest on the nearest land and you wonder:

“What on earth is that man going on about? That looks more like hell than paradise to me!”

The land is parched and dry. The vegetation is sparse and struggling to survive in the harsh landscape that greets you. Waves crash down on the black tortured rock that lumbers up from the never ending pounding of the sea. The land rising from the sea is buckled and rippled, ribbons of rock that once flowed down the side of a mountain, now frozen in place, hard, brittle and sharp. There is no lush green vegetation here. No waterfalls with water playfully leaping and splashing down into turquoise pools of crystal clear water. There are no clouds of graceful butterflies flapping lazily through the air or birds of paradise displaying their feathered coats of endless colour. Oh no. The wind is whipping sand and grit over the rocky lunar landscape. Cacti are clinging on for dear life and the rocks are covered in repulsive reptiles that spit and sneeze. And the smell .............. well, that could have emanated from the bottom of Beelzebub himself. Now where is the paradise in that?

As with many things, perhaps the beauty of this place is in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps one has to scratch the surface and look for the beauty beneath its cracked and tortured skin.

Some beauty is immediately obvious. Just look at these gorgeous creatures. Your heart will just melt when you see their cute button noses, their soft, endearing faces with deep brown eyes into whose depths you could fall and drown. Don’t you just want to hug them, kiss them, squeeze them, stroke their silky smooth fur and then take one home to keep? My only advice is to make sure that you never, ever inhale through your nose too deeply while in the near vicinity of these guys because, despite their adorable, loveable looks, they stink to high heaven and have the foulest breath imaginable. And another word of warning, the males are rather territorial and like to sneak up on you when you are not looking. I might look all relaxed and happy in this photo (trust me, I do, even though my face is just a blur to you), but let’s just say that a couple of seconds later, there was a very large honk behind me and I was out of there in the wink of a sea lion's eye.

So, I think that we can all agree that the sea lions are very beautiful, if a little smelly. But is beauty so very important? This is just one of those many things in life that bugs me. Just the other day, Prince Charles was visiting Canada, with his wife Camilla. Now, how many times have you heard someone state that they don’t like her because she is ugly? How shallow is that? Since when should you judge someone based on how they look? How many of these people have ever actually met her, spoken to her or know anything about her? For all I know, she could be a thoroughly unpleasant person who eats kittens for breakfast and practices her golf swing using hamsters. On the other hand, she might be a genuinely lovely person. There is no way you can tell, based on her looks. I suppose the reason that judging people in this way bugs me so much is that I am not exactly one of the world’s beautiful people. I find it hard to believe that anyone is so vain and so shallow that they would ever contemplate joining (or attempting to join) this group, but then again, that might just be because I can’t.

Anyway, the whole point of this mini rant is to introduce one of my favourite animals found on the Galapagos. They are not exactly easy on the eye and there is no way that they would ever be accepted by www. (don’t bother going there, I just made it up). Even Darwin was struck by their ugliness:

“The black lava rocks on the beach are frequented by large, most disgusting, clumsy Lizards. They are as black as the porous rocks over which they crawl … I call them 'imps of darkness’. They assuredly well become the land they inhabit.”

He also said that they were “hideous-looking creatures, of a dirty black colour, stupid and sluggish in their movements."

A little bit harsh, perhaps, but, I am not going to dispute the fact that the marine iguanas have not been graced with good looks. However, they really are the most wonderfully fascinating creatures. OK, so they do lie around a lot in very large numbers and they do spit and sneeze and snort a lot, which appears to be quite disgusting, but there are very good reasons for these behaviours. The marine iguanas (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) of the Galapagos are the world’s only sea faring lizards. These amazing creatures feed on the green seaweed that coats the surface of the rocks that surround the islands. The smaller, younger lizards graze on the rocks closest to the surface, while the older, larger lizards forage further out and deeper down. Their blunt, flattened faces allow them to crop the green algae close to the rock’s surface and they can dive for up to thirty minutes. Actually, there is some evidence that they can stay submerged for even longer than this. Apparently a crew member of The Beagle submerged an iguana for an hour and when he pulled it out it was still alive. I am not sure such an experiment would meet standard operating procedures for animal care these days!

Marine iguanas are ectotherms (I could use the less technical term of cold blooded, but I am a biologist and I didn’t spend years of my life learning all this jargon to then not use it. Besides, cold blooded would imply that these lizards have cold blood, which is not necessarily true. What it really means is that their body temperature is dependent on external sources of heat, such as the sun). We can now see why they spend so much time lolling around cluttering up the beaches and rocks of the coastline. They are sunbathing, soaking up the sun’s heat in order to increase their internal body temperature. It also explains why they tend to huddle in large groups, since this helps them maintain their heat and it explains why they are often black, since this helps them absorb more of the sun’s thermal energy. Once they reach a certain temperature, off they trundle to take a quick dip in the salty brine and have a bite to eat. They cannot stay in the sea too long, since the water is cold and it soon sucks the heat from their bodies. Once back on shore, the basking lizards can often be seen snorting water from their nostrils over quite large distances. While this is not the most attractive feature of these creatures, it is their way of getting rid of the excess salt that builds up in their bodies.

As you can see from these photos, the marine iguanas can be quite variable in size and colour. The males tend to be more colourful during the breeding period and size will depend on which island the lizards are found and the availability of food. One island in particular, Espa├▒ola Island (formerly known as Hood Island), has lizards that are bright green and red. Quite conveniently for me, given the time of year that I am writing this, they are often called the Christmas iguanas. So, enjoy the photos and I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas! And please, don’t hold their looks against them, for the marine iguanas of the Galapagos are the most delightful of creatures whose biggest flaw is the fact that they are a definite tripping hazard as you wander around these fascinating and captivating islands.