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Blue Shark

Blue Shark

An account of photographing blue sharks off Cornwall, Southwest Britain, a few years back, and a link to buying fine art prints of these amazing hunters of of the oceans at colinmunroimages.com.

On a clear July morning I stumbled out of my bunk (I was living on a boat at the time) at 5.30am, forced out my the insistent buzzing of my phone alarm. One hour, and one strong coffee later, I squeezed my dive bag into the back of Ritchie’s car and we were off. We had over a hundred miles to cover, and a boat to catch.

Blue shark swimming through clear blue water. Cornwall. © Colin Munro Images
A Blue shark, Prionace glauca, swims leisurely through clear blue water off Cornwall, UK.

Charles Hood runs the best, and most successful, blue shark snorkelling operation in the UK. His boat, a large rigid-hulled inflatable (RIB) operates out of Penzance, almost at southwesternmost extremity of the British mainland, so that’s where we were headed. The boat is a fast open boat, perfect for getting us 10 miles offshore quickly, but small and devoid of any shelter from the elements. So we changed in to wetsuits on the quayside, packed our camera gear in dry bags carefully padded with towels and sweatshirts for the bouncy ride out, and we were off.

Blue shark up close, off Cornwall. © Colin Munro Images
Blue sharks have often been called the most beautiful of all sharks. It’s easy to see why.

Each year blue sharks arrive off the coast of Southwest Britain, normally sometime in mid-June and remaining until mid-October. Blues are true oceanic sharks; they inhabit deep water, only infrequently venturing on to shallower, continental shelf waters. They are found in tropical and temperate oceans around the globe. However, in the tropics they tend to stay in deeper, cooler water but are often observed in surface waters in temperate seas. They feed on fast moving prey such as squid and schooling fish. Much of their feeding appears to be done in deeper waters. We know this partly from studies looking at gut contents, identifying the hard tissue remains of the prey species, and knowing where those prey species live, and partly from small data loggers, recording depth profiles, that are attached to sharks and then recovered at a later date. Below 100 metres, it seems they predate mostly on squid, in particular those belonging to the Histioteuthidae family, more commonly known as cock-eyed squid. Cock-eyed squid are bizzare creatures that inhabit the twilight zone of the oceans, so-called because their left eye is around twice the size of their right. Observations with deep water remotely operated vehichles (ROVs) have shown that they swim with the left eye facing upwards, and the right facing down. It’s believe the the huge left eye is used to pick up the faint sunlight coming from far above; the smaller right eye, staring into the depths, serves a quite different purpose. It picks up bioluminecent glows and flashes from prey (or predators below). But blue sharks are not fussy eaters. Studies off the coast of Brazil have found they eat large numbers of oilfish (a deepwater member of the mackerel family) but will also sometimes grab seabirds such as shearwaters. Those off Southern Brazil were found to be mostly scavenging on dead baleen whales. But I have digressed somewhat from our trip. Some ten nautical miles out Charles stopped the RIB and allowed us to drift. Sure we were a fair way from shore, and in pretty deep water, but still well within continental shelf depths, probably 50-70 metres, as we drifted. The 100 depth contour was still over 20 miles distant. So what tempted the blues, normally oceanic species, this close inshore? As we drifted Charles began to prepare the chum bag that hopefully would draw nearby sharks to our boat. A small hessian sack was filled with chunks of mackerel and mackerel guts, including some caught angling off the stern of his RIB. Tied just off the side of the RIB, a slick of fish oil drifted away down current. This is the clue to why blue sharks arrive in coastal waters of southern and western Britain. Mackerel also arrive around British coasts during the summer months, often found in huge shoals numbering thousands of fish. Like their deeper water relatives, the oilfish, mackerel are an oily fish, so a high energy food source for any predator fast enough to catch them. And the blue shark is just that; generally a sedate swimmer it can move with lighting bursts of speed.

Once our bag of chum was positioned, and final checks on cameras completed, all we then had to do was wait. Charles dug out his fishing rod and started supplementing our chum supply with a few extra mackerel. And we waited. There was no wind, and just a slight, rolling swell on the sea. The sun was hot and the sky a clear blue, so it was not extactly a hardship. The sun climbed to its zenith, then slowly fell westward as morning gave way to afternoon. We were woken from our torpor when, around 2pm, a group of three sunfish drifted close. Sunfish are odd-looking disc shaped fish. They feed on There was a flurry of activity as we grabbed cameras and donned fins, but they were skittish and disappeared in seconds. We settled back in to watching and waiting. At around 3.30pm Charles announced that we should start heading back to shore at 4pm. The minutes ticked by; 4pm arrived and still no blues. Charles apologised but, as we were well aware, there is never any guarantee with wildlife. He announced we would give it another 20 minutes. At 4.15 the first blue arrived. Rather than leap in immediately, we gave it time to settle and get used to the boat. A couple of minutes later a second arrived. Charles had been very clear on the safety aspect, wearing gloves, no shiny jewellery. The necessity for this was made abundantly clear when one of the sharks managed to grab to chum bag. Its razor sharp teeth ripped through it like paper, and bits of mackerel guts spilled out into the water. The bag was quickly quisked out of the sea and we gave it a minute for the cloud to disperse. Once Charles was confident the sharks were no longer likely to disappear immediatly, we, one by one, slowly slide over the side of the boat and in to the water.

Richie fires off a couple of snaps as a blue passes beneath him.

Once in the water I dipped my head to check all around me, then slowing finned away from the RIB. Once around 8 metres away I stoppped finning, and started checking around. I could clearly see my three companions at this stage, floating 5-10 metres away from me. Every so often a shark would cruise in, swimming below or between us, to to check out us or the RIB. The water was clear, visibility a good 15-20 metres, but the sun was now low in the sky. When the sun is overhead, and light hits the waters’ surface more or less perpendicular, then much of that light penetrates the surface; but late afternoon, when the sun is low and its rays hit the water at a shallow angle then most of that light bounces off the surface and it becomes markedly darker just below than above. My photographic problems were two-fold. The reduced light levels made focussing a little trickier, and when a blue shark came fast out of the expanse of blue water, the camera would struggle to pick up contrast and focus quickly. I fiddled with the settings, pre-focussed using my colleagues as targets, fired off test shots and again readjusted my settings. All the time keeping looking around me. A RIB, with its large surface area above the water, will drift with wind and tide, but a swimmer, around 90% below the water’s surface, will drift with the tide alone. So as I floated I was aware that the distance between was growing. This was not a concern; conditions were perfect and I knew Charles would be fully aware of our positions. On the contrary, it gave me space around me. As I drifted I also became aware that one of the sharks had become interested in me, and was moving with me, not steadily but zig-zagging. It would pass close, then swim off , to turn and pass close again.

A blue shark checks me out during our dive off Cornwall. © Colin Munro Images
A curious blue checks me out; maybe checking its reflection in my camera dome port?

This was not in a threatening or aggressive manner, but rather one of curiosity. A couple of times it would swim straight towards me, only to stop maybe 18 inches in front of me. Whether it was seeing reflections in the large glass dome port of my camera housing I am not sure. Whatever the reason it provided me with more perfect photo oportunities than I could have hoped for. Thirty minutes passed in what seemed like three, and Charles was recalling us to the RIB. We may have had to wait, but performace at the end far exceeded our expectations.

Fine Art Prints and Wall Art

I have made two of my images from this trip available as fine art prints and wall art. These are available to be purchased in a wide range of media and sizes directly from my Colin Munro Images website. media available include traditional giclée prints, stretched and flat mounted canvas, metal prints (dye directly infused on sheet aluminium) and acrylic, from 8 inches up to 48 inches across. My prints are produced by Bay Photo Labs in Santa Cruz, California. I choose bay Photo Labs for the excellence of their quality, with over 40 years providing printing services to professional photographers, their constant innovation, combining the latest technology and innovation with the finest traditional techniques, and their committment to the highest environmental standards using green technology. You can buy my prints directly here at www.colinmunroimages.com. If you are outside of North America, and would prefer a printer in your region, please contact me directly. I will be adding printers in Europe and S.E. Asia soon.

Pacific Harbour Lagoon at dawn

Pacific Harbour Lagoon at dawn

Pacific harbour Lagoon, Viti Levu, Fiji. The story behind one of my favourite images and a link to buy fine art prints and wall art of this image at colinmunroimages.com

Some of the photographs I am most pleased with come completely unexpectedly. I found myself in the tiny settlement of Pacific Harbour, on the south coast of Viti levu, Fiji’s largest island, not to take landscape photographs but to try and capture images of bull and tiger sharks with the nearby diving operation, Beqa Adventure Divers. The dives went ahead, and were very successful, the dive operation was extremely professional and I gained some excellent shots. But that story is not what this blog is about. This is about the shot below, and how it came be.

Sunrise over Pacific Harbour Lagoon, Viti Levu, Fiji. Fine art print for sale.
Sunrise over the Pacific Harbour Lagoon, Viti Levu, Fiji

After dinner the previous evening I had retired to my room to begin preparing my camera equipment. For every professional photographer this is a ritualistic affair, and especially so for underwater photographers where one un-noticed hair across an ‘o’ ring seal, or one grain of sand lurking in the shadows of a machined seal groove can not only result in you gaining no images whatsoever, it is also likely to spell the death of your very expensive camera and lens, rendering irretreivably seizing delicate mechanisms and shorting multiple electronic circuits. By the same token, the camera is controlled by a series of sealed buttons, levers and gears, all precisely aligned to facilitate operation through the metal housing. A millimetre misalignment in setup, and one can find oneself frantically operating a control at a crucial moment … with nothing happening and no way to resolve the problem underwater. So cleaning, assembling and checking camera systems becomes a quasi-religious ritual. Once finally satisfied with my endevours, I retired for an early night. Adrenaline was coursing in my veins however, so despite the previous days long road journey I woke early. Through the glass doors of my room I could see it was still dark, with just a slight reddish tinge low in the sky. But I was wide awake and the pre-dawn was filled with sound; frogs, insects and birds I did not recognise croaked, chirped and called, irresistibly beconing me out. So I dressed quickly, grabbed my land camera, my first digital SLR (my underwater camera was still a film camera back then, the iconic Nikon F4). I checked the settings and battery power and headed out. Padding across the dew laden grass I arrived at the edge of the lagoon in only a couple of minutes. I could see mudskippers perched on the roots of mangroves, plopping into the water below as soon as I approached. At that point I had no clear idea what I wanted to photograph. As this was planned as purely a diving trip I did not have a suitable lens for capturing small mudskippers or any shy wildlife with me. It was more about enjoying the early morning and having a camera with me, just in case. As I stood at the water’s edge, watching mudskippers and fiddler crabs feeding on the soft mud, I could also see the sky change. The sky above me lightened to a deep cyan, while just above the silhoutted mangroves and palms it turned deep burned orange while whispy clouds stood out deep gunmetal blue. And all this was reflected in the still lagoon waters. I took shot after shot. Every minute the sky would look quite different from the previous. Back then digital SLRs did not have the electronics to to produce noise free images at high ISOs, so I was shooting at ISO 125 to keep the images clean and faithful. To compensate in the low light I was shooting with the lens wide open at a 50th of a second, stabilising myself against a tree. I remained there for what seemed like an hour but was in fact no more than 20 minutes; the sun comes up fast in the tropics. As the sun cleared the trees I headed back to my room and the breakfast.

The rest of the day was a frenzy of activity. The shark dives can wait for another blog, except to say that I did indeed flood the housing of my underwater video (but not my stills camera) through some carelessly missed specs of grit in the seal. Only the third time in my life I have done that after around a thousand dives. So my video camera became a beautifully machine piece of Sony engineering reduced to scrap metal and glass. It was almost a week later I was finally able to download and start to go through the images I took at dawn. Although many were extraordinarly beautiful, the one shown here, for me, was the stand out. I photograph dawns and sunsets rather a lot, and often in quite remote and magnificent locations, but I have never since observed a dawn quite like that morning.

Fine Art Prints and Wall Art

If you like the image of Pacific harbour Dawn, it is available to purchase in a wide range of media and sizes directly from my website. These include as traditional giclée prints, stretched and flat mounted canvas, metal prints (dye directly infused on sheet aluminium) and acrylic, from 8 inches up to 48 inches across. My prints are produced by Bay Photo Labs in Santa Cruz, California. I choose bay Photo Labs for the excellence of their quality, with over 40 years providing printing services to professional photographers, their constant innovation, combining the latest technology and innovation with the finest traditional techniques, and their committment to the highest environmental standards using green technology. You can buy my prints directly here at www.colinmunroimages.com. If you are outside of North America, and would prefer a printer in your region, please contact me directly. I will be adding printers in Europe and S.E. Asia soon.

And the shark dive? Okay, here’s one image.

Tiger shark, Beqa Lagoon, Fiji.

Photography Fundamentals: Image Exposure, Shutter Speed and Aperture.

A beginners explanation of the key elements of a camera; how the relationship between shutter speed and aperture size determine exposure, and the relationship between stops and exposure value (EV).

For pretty much any photographic image, there are two features it must have. Firstly it must be in focus, at least somewhere in the image, and secondly, it must be correctly exposed.  Okay, okay, I know there are lots of ‘arty’ images out there that don’t conform to either, but for most of us in the real world, those are the rules.  I’m going to leave focus aside for the moment and concentrate on exposure: what we mean by this, how we achieve it, how we control it and modify it.  Now of course, if you leave your camera on auto, it will do a pretty decent job for you.  But that’s not very satisfying, and it’s not very creative.  It’s a bit like buying a painting; it may look great on you wall but it doesn’t make you feel like a painter.  So if we want to be photographers, not just a ‘guy (or girl) with a camera’ pressing the shutter button, then we need to have some understanding of what is actually going on inside the camera in order to take the ‘autopilot’ off, and take control ourselves.  The second consideration is, if you want to produce a standard image with textbook ‘correct’ exposure then leave it on auto and your camera will do that for you, at least most of the time. However, if you want to create something more interesting, more individual, then you need more control over how the camera captures the image, and that requires you to take the wheel yourself.

One of the biggest problems nowadays, for people new to photography, is that cameras are so damn sophisticated.  There are so many controls, settings, menus and sub-menus that it can feel like learning to drive in a fighter jet.  Just where do you start to take control?  in order to help understanding, let’s pare back our camera to its simplest form.  Every camera, whether it is the latest top-of-the-range, full-frame, mirrorless, or an 1839 Daguerreotype, is fundamentally a light-tight box with a hole (the aperture) on one side to allow some light in, and some light sensitive material on the opposite side, and a means of blocking the from light reaching the light sensitive material (the shutter) .

The light-path between the aperture and the light sensitive material is periodically unblocked (the shutter opened) allowing light to reach reach the light sensitive material. This material is then altered in some way by the light, and this begins the process of creating an image. What exactly that material is, has changed many times.  The 19th century Daguerreotype used copper plate coated with silver; early 20th century cameras mostly used glass plates coated with silver salts; then of course film took over; and now we have solid-state sensors that convert light in to electrical signals, but the the basic design is exactly the same.

So we talk about ‘exposing’ the plate, or film, or sensor, to light in order to create an image.  I’ll stick with sensors from this point, as that is what we use now. The amount of light hitting the sensor determines the lightness of the image.  The more light hitting the sensor, the lighter the images, the less light, the darker the image.  We talk about images being correctly, under- or overexposed.  By underexposed we mean that the mid-tones are too dark and we start to lose detail in the shadows.

Underexposed image of a tokay gecko on a wall

By overexposed the mid-tones are too bright and we start to lose detail in the highlights.

Overexposed image of a tokay gecko on wall

So we control the degree of exposure primarily by controlling the amount of light hitting the sensor, and we do this in two ways.  We can vary the length of time that the sensor is exposed to light (i.e. the duration the shutter is open) and we can vary the size of the aperture allowing light to reach the sensor.  So let’s look at those mechanisms in turn.

Shutter speed

The shutter is a pair of metal curtains, located in front of the sensor.  They act to block light passing through the aperture from reaching the sensor, except for the period the shutter is opened.  This is the same mechanism used in film cameras. However, today most mirrorless cameras, and some DSLRs, have an electronic shutter, where the sensor is switched on and off to produce a similar effect.

The duration the shutter is open is known as the shutter speed.  There are a range standard shutter speeds we see on most modern cameras, e.g. 1 second, 1/2 second, 1/4 second, 1/8 second, 1/15 second, 1/30 second, 1/60 second, 125 second, 1/250 second, and so on.  You will notice that each is (with minor exceptions) half the duration of the previous one.  Half a second allows in half as much light as a one second shutter speed; 1/125 allows in twice as much light as 1/250 of second. So changing from one ‘standard’ shutter speed to the next nearest either halves or doubles the amount of light hitting the sensor, depending on the direction of change.  Having or doubling the amount of light reaching the sensor is known as changing it by one stop.  Understanding the concept of stops (and exposure equivalent values, which I will explain further on) is fundamental to photography.

Aperture size

We also have a second means of regulating the amount of light reaching the sensor; we can change this by changing the size of the aperture. If we make the aperture twice as large, then twice as much light will hit the sensor (if the shutter is open for the same duration) if we make it half as large it will allow half as much light to reach the sensor.  This is preety self evident, I’m sure.  And this modifying the aperture by halving or doubling is known as changing it by …. one stop. Whilst the shutter speed values are pretty intuitive, aperture values are not.  They are known as f stops, and commonly values range between f2.8 and f22 (sometimes f1.4 – f32).  These f stops also change in standard increments, but at first glance they are quite meaningless: f2.8, f4, f5.6, f8, f11, f16, f22.  Even more puzzling, the largest number denotes the smallest aperture.  The simplified answer for this is that the f value is not a physical measure of the diameter of the aperture, it is a ratio between the focal length of the lens and the aperture: f value = focal length/aperture diameter.  From a practical stance, none of this theory matters to the photographer.  What does matter is knowing that each f stop allows in half or twice as much light the next full stop to the left or right, and that the smaller the number, the greater the aperture diameter, the greater the amount of light reaching the sensor.  Most modern cameras work on a click-stop principle.

A modern lens showing the aperture wide open

A lens showing the aperture stopped down to smallest size

So that the size of the aperture, rather than smoothly variable from smallest to largest, changes in a series of steps.  So when we change aperture on our camera, either by rotating a ring on the lens or, more commonly nowadays, a dial on the camera body, we feel a series or positive clicks.  These steps correspond to the f stop values listed above, plus (on modern cameras) 1/3 of a stop intervals.  So, for example, on our camera we might find f values of F2.8, f3.2, f3.5, F4, f4.5, f5, f5.6. The figures in bold are full stops, the figures in lighter text are 1/3 and 2/3s of a stop up or down.  The beautiful symmetry of the stop system is this.  Say for example, our image is correctly exposed at a combination of shutter speed 1/250th and aperture size f8.  If nothing else changes, then we know that if we change the aperture to f11 (one stop smaller) then the image will be underexposed by one stop. Equally, if we change the shutter speed to 1/500th, the image will be underexposed by one stop.  If we change the shutter speed to 1/500, and simultaneously change the aperture to f5.6, then the exposure stays exactly the same, because the former acts to half the amount of light reaching the sensor, and the latter acts to double the amount of light, thus the combined effect is that the total amount of light reaching the sensor is exactly the same.  The obvious questions are: why have two separate mechanisms to achieve the same control over the amount of light, and why would one alter two controls in order to produce exactly the same exposure.  There are several considerations here, and to detail them all would distract from the main purpose of this blog, so I’ll most of those for a future blog.  However, a key consideration is motion blur. If we have an aperture of fixed size, we can still achieve correct exposure by changing the shutter duration; this is in fact, exactly how a pinhole camera works.  The problem comes with photographing moving objects. The faster a subject is moving, the faster the shutter speed needs to be in order to freeze the motion and stop the subject appearing blurred.  This explains how, in some pinhole camera photographs, streets can appear empty of people or vehicles. because the aperture is so tiny, the shutter speeds often need to be very long (many seconds).  Fast moving objects move across the aperture too fast to register on the image. But even modern DSLRs, if we set the shutter speed too slow, then a fast moving object (e.g. a bird in flight or a sports player) becomes blurred in the image produced.

Exposure Values

The final concept I want to talk about here is Exposure Value (EV or sometimes Ev). As explained above, different combinations of shutter speeds and aperture sizes will still produce the same image exposure. Exposure values assign one value to all the combinations that produce the same exposure.  In practical terms, exposure values are mostly interchangeable with stops.  Underexposing an image by one EV is the same as underexposing by one stop.  We tend to refer to stops when taking about shutter speed of aperture.  When we want to vary exposure in automatic or semi-automatic modes (not something I’m covering here) then we start to refer to EV and vary it using the Exposure Compensation button; but that’s all for another blog.

What I’ve missed out

In order to keep things fairly simple, I haven’t talked at all about the third factor in what is often called the exposure triangle, namely ISO.  That will be the subject of another blog soon.

My gecko house-mates: noisy tokays, third eyes and superpowers

My gecko house-mates: noisy tokays, third eyes and superpowers

I have a lodger.  To be more precise I have at least two lodgers. They are tokay geckos. Living where I currently do, in semi-rural southern Thailand, tokay (sometimes spelled tockay) geckos are pretty much everywhere, and they let you know it.  Each evening I hear their calls echoing across the tracks that lead to my house. ‘Tok-kaaay ……tokaaay’ booms in the darkness, sounding more like a demented parrot than a shy lizard.  Among lizards, geckos are well known for being the noisy buggers.

A pair of Tockay geckos watch and wait for the sun to set before leaving the safety of their shelter under a house roof. Phuket, Thailand. © Colin Munro Images

A pair of Tokay geckos, the larger male above, watch and wait for the sun to set before leaving the safety of their shelter under my house roof.

Most reptiles are fairly quiet, maybe the angry hiss if you disturb them, but otherwise you don’t hear them much. Geckos are the loud guys at the party, and they achieve this by having true vocal chords. We’ve known geckos have vocal chords for a long time, since 1839 in fact, when the German physician and anatomist Friedrich Gustav Jakob Henle published the monograph:  Vergleichend-Anatomische Beschreibung des Kehlkopfs: Mit Besonderer Berücksichtigung des Kehlkopfs der Reptilien (Comparative anatomical description of the larynx: With special consideration of the larynx of the reptiles).  For the biologists among you, this is the self-same Henle that the ‘loop of Henle’ within our kidneys is named after.  Although primitive compared to mammals or birds, the larynx, vocal chords and associated structures found in geckos are quite sophisticated compared to other reptiles.  This adds not only volume to their calls, but also allows a wide range of sounds to be made, with specialised warning calls and mating calls.  The loud, two syllable ‘Tok-kay’ bellow from tokays is produced by the male, aimed at attractive females with his authoritative, manly voice and simultaneously deterring male competitors with his .auth … you get the idea.  Where I live I clearly hear ‘Tok-kaay’ when my resident male tokay advertises his presence. But other people here something different. Many people here ‘Gek-koh’; indeed, this vocalisation is the reason behind its scientific name, Gekko gecko.  Now this may be partly that we interpret sounds differently, but there is more to it than that.  Recent studies have shown not only considerable range in sounds emitted by tokays, but that there appears to be significant regional variation (Yu et al., 2011). Simply put, tokay geckos have local accents. So maybe my southerner tokays really do say ‘tok-kay’ while those rough northerners say ‘gek-ko’.  I’m sure there’s a research paper in there for someone.

As geckos go, tokays are big. A full grown male can be 30cm (12 inches) long.  The largest known gecko, Leach’s giant gecko, can grow to about 36cm (14 inches) long, so tokays are not that far behind.  But more than that, they are quite beautiful (which you’d find hard to say about Leach’s giant gecko).  The ones here are light blue-grey and covered in vivid orange-red spots, complete with huge dark green eyes.  Two colour morphs are known; to the north and east of their range tokays have black rather than red spots. Currently only two subspecies have been identified; the common or garden tokay: Gekko gecko gecko, which occurs all the way from India to Southern China (and incidentally includes red and black spotted morphs) and the rather elusive Gekko gecko azhari, described by Mertens in 1955 and known only from Bangladesh.  Once more genetic studies are completed it may be that we find that tokays are really a ‘species complex’ rather than a single species.

Tokays have yet another unusual feature, a rudimentary third eye (known as a pariental eye) on the top of their heads.  Pariental eyes are found in a great many creatures: many reptiles and amphibians and some fish species (but not in birds or mammals). It does not form an image, like the paired visible eyes, but is sensitive to changes in light levels. The pariental eye is essential an outgrowth of the pineal gland, a small endocrine gland deep within the brain.  The pineal gland is especially known for producing melatonin, the hormone, many of you will know, responsible for regulating sleep patterns (and sometimes sold as a supplement to counteract jet-lag or insomnia). The pariental eye, via the pineal gland, is thought to regulate circadian rhythm (day-night sleep cycle) and seasonal rhythms in activity, by reacting to changing light levels.  Although we do not have a pariental eye, we do have a pineal gland, indeed almost all vertebrates do, and it preforms the same functions in us, letting our bodies know when to sleep and when to wake up, as it does in tokays and other reptiles.  The difference appears to be that we get our visual cues to light levels through our paired eyes.  Which then begs the obvious question; so… er geckos, and monitors, and frogs have paired eyes as well; so why do they need to growth a third eye in order to monitor light levels?  It’s a tricky question.  It turns out that maybe the pariental eye isn’t just about providing information on light levels to regulate sleep patterns.  Numerous studies from the mid-1970s on have shown that, in many different lizards, the pariental eye is directly involved in regulating behaviour related to thermoregulation. Lizards are cold-blooded (ectotherms, to use the scientific term). That means they cannot internally regulate their body temperature; they take on the temperature of their environment.  Consequently, in order to keep their body temperature within the range where their muscles will work well and the body’s chemical reactions occur at the correct rate, they must adopt specific behaviour patterns.  Basking in sunlight to warm up, moving to shade to cool down.  Well it turns out that without the information from the pariental eye, lizards don’t do that; their behaviour becomes a little more random.  For tokays it’s a little different. They are nocturnal, so they can’t really move to bask in sunshine to warm up … or move to shade to cool down. In fact, they are known as thigmothermic, which is a fancy way of saying they warm up or cool down by touching warmer or cooler surfaces. An interesting observation is that the two major groups in which pariental ‘third’ eyes are never found are birds and mammals.  Of course the other key feature these two share is that they are warm blooded (endotherms: they regulate their internal temperatures irrespective of external temperate). Recent studies of fossil evidence tend to suggest that, in the predecessors of modern mammals, the pariental eye disappeared around about the same time as warm-bloodedness evolved. (Benoit et al. 2016)   As luck would have it, the disappearance of a third eye is fairly easy to identify in the fossil record as the connecting nerves fibres pass through a small hole at the top of the skull. So it would seem, for reasons still not fully understood, the real need for a third eye is to allow cold-blooded animals to thermoregulate.

Tokay gecko on vertical wall © Colin Munro

With seemingly no effort, a tokay gecko sticks like glue to a vertical vertical wall

I’ve digressed quite a long way for geckos though, so let’s move back to them. Probably the ‘superpower’ that geckos are most famous for is the ability to run up, and cling to, smooth sheer surfaces.  Apart from my tokays, I have many house geckos living, surprise-surprise, in my house.   If you’re going to be picky, these are spiny-tailed house geckos (Hemidactylus frenatus).  They’re mostly pretty unobtrusive fellas. They eat a fair few mosquitoes, so that’s always a good thing, if fact they eat most things smaller than themselves, including juvenile house geckos.

A spiny-tailed house gecko pounces on, and starts to devour, a smaller house gecko that carelessly strayed too close. © Colin Munro

A spiny-tailed house gecko pounces on, and starts to devour, a smaller house gecko that carelessly strayed too close.

But they’re quiet and generally well-behaved lodgers, apart from leaving lots of gecko crap on the floor for me to sweep up every morning.  I mostly see them running across walls, or across my windows chasing prey and squabbling with each other.  They cut an eerie form when caught in the light, on the outside of frosted windows.

A spiny-tailed house gecko waits and watches on the outside of the frosted glass in my kitchen window © Colin Munro

A spiny-tailed house gecko waits and watches on the outside of the frosted glass in my kitchen window

There have been various theories advanced over the years as to how exactly geckos achieve this.  From suction pads to Van der Waals forces (intermolecular forces created by fluctuating polarisations of nearby particles as a consequence of quantum dynamics …. can you tell I’m out of my depth here?).  Each toe is covered in rows of wrinkled skin forming parallel ridges (like they’ve stayed in the bath too long); these in turn are covered in tiny spatula-like bristles (lamellae).  Capillary action (think of two sheets of glass stuck together with a thin film of water between) between these spatula-like surfaces and the walls is believed to part of the answer. Van der Waals forces (description above, I’m not repeating it) is also thought to play a part. However, recent studies suggest that actually the major force is electrostatic, and that is what primarily allows to gecko to cling to impossible surfaces (Izadi, Stewart and Penlidis, 2014).  So currently, our best guess is it’s a combination of things that give the geckos their ‘superpower’. Whether this is the definitive answer, or whether someone will come up with new evidence for a different explanation, time will tell.  One thing we do know is that it is pretty impressive. Researchers William Stewart and Timothy Higham, of University of California, Riverside, found that tokay geckos were in a league of their own here.  In lab experiments where they attached pulley weights to tokays that climbed up an acrylic sheet, they found that it took up to 20 times their bodyweight before they started to slip.  That’s the equivalent of an 80kg ((~180lb) man gripping on to vertical acrylic, with a saloon car strapped to his back.  This is real Marvel superhero territory.  But even more extraordinary still, the researchers found that the grip remained just as strong in dead geckos.  So when I look at geckos on my wall, and they seem to be hanging on with no physical effort whatsoever, well that’s probably true.  So next time you see a tokay gecko looking striking with blue-green skin and bright orange-red spots remember, that’s it’s superhero costume it’s wearing.

All text and photographs © Colin Munro

References.

Benoit, J., Abdala, F., Manger, P.R., and Rubidge, B.S. 2016. The sixth sense in mammalian forerunners: Variability of
the parietal foramen and the evolution of the pineal eye in South African Permo-Triassic eutheriodont therapsids. Acta Palaeontologica Polonica 61 (4): 777–789.

Stewart, W.H. and Higham, T.E. 2014. Passively stuck: death does not affect gecko adhesion strength. Biol. Lett. 10:20140701. http://doi.org/10.1098/rsbl.2014.0701

X. Yu, Y. Peng, A. Aowphol, L. Ding, S.E. Brauth & Y.-Z. Tang (2011).  Geographic variation in the advertisement calls of Gekko gecko in relation to variations in morphological features: implications for regional population differentiation. Ethology Ecology & Evolution, 23:3, 211-228, DOI: 10.1080/03949370.2011.566581

The important things in life, Ukuleles and Fine Art prints

The important things in life, Ukuleles and Fine Art prints

These are definitely interesting times we are living through.

https://www.colinmunroimages.com fine art prints for sale

A screenshot from my new gallery of fine art prints for sale

Nurses, doctors, refuse collectors, food delivery drivers, supermarket cashiers and many others are working harder and longer then ever, while most of the rest of us pace the house, flick through facebook or netflix, or stare wistfully out of the window.  And it’s been a real learning curve for me, not least in reminding me who the really essential workers in society are: the nurses, the doctors, the care-workers, the supermarket workers, the bin men. Not, alas, the marine biologists, the expedition ship guides or the photographers.  Which leaves me with rather a lot of time on my hands.  So all those tasks I’ve been putting off for weeks, months, or even years in some cases, well …. now I don’t really have an excuse anymore.  So, after my third cup of coffee, and having checked emails one last time (you just don’t know … so much could have happened in the last four minutes) I finally applied myself to the list in front of me.  Number one was …

1.Learn Thai

Well, currently living in Thailand it kinda makes sense.  Now I hold my hand up and freely admit I have no aptitude for languages whatsoever.  At school I was booted out of French class at the first opportunity.  In latter years I’ve tried to learn Spanish.  It’s a pretty cool language and it’s the main language in so many countries that I like to spend time in.  For around four years now I’ve subscribed to online courses, watched youtube videos and poured over my Spanish phrase book, and still …. still, words fail me after ‘Dos cervezas por favor’.  But, I am currently in Thailand, so a little more Thai than ‘Sawatdi kraap’ might be useful.  So Thai it is.  Fortunately I found this great youtube series of videos ‘Learn Thai – Thai in 3 minutes‘. Each lesson is exactly three minutes long, so even my bird-like attention span can cope.  Three minutes and boom! I’ve ticked numero uno off my list for today.

Seriously! I am not making this shit up.

2. Learn to play the ukulele

This is hard.  I have even less musical ability than I have aptitude with languages. Which is  a great disappointment to me, as I love music.  Throughout my life I have struggled with this dis-ability, convincing myself there had to be at least one instrument that was simple enough the even I could play a tune on it.  Pandering to this delusion, I am now the proud owner of several harmonicas and two ukuleles, none of which I can play.  So with time on my hands and few neighbours to annoy, I have been forcing my stubby fingers to develop muscle memory for simple chords like A, A minor, G7 whilst startling local cats with my attempts to strum (‘startling cats’ what a great name for a band…).

Why is it so damn difficult? There are only four strings.

3. Updating my website and selling some art prints

Okay you knew there had to be a sales pitch in here somewhere, and here it is.  Working at sea much of the year is a fantastic opportunity to see some wonderful, remote places and provides great photo opportunities.   The price I pay is lousy internet.  This is often eye-wateringly expensive satellite internet where speed is measured in single digit kilobytes per second, or brief pit-stops in quirky port cafes (one of my favourites being Spooky Boogies in Lyttleton, New Zealand.  Lyttleton is sort of New Zealand’s land that time forgot, and Spooky Boogies is every bit as quirky as it sounds, great music played on vinyl and a wifi password of ‘F–k you baby’ last time I was there).  But I digress.  Anyway, the end result is that luxuries like updating my website simply don’t happen.  So now, like everyone else, I am sitting at home with mostly working internet and plenty of time on my hands.  So if you check out colinmunroimages.com you will find lots of new images added to my galleries.  There is also an embryonic Basic Photography Course in development, possibly some video (not me playing uke, I hasten to add) but most importantly there is now a fully fledged Prints for Sale Gallery up and running.  For many photographers, the bane of their lives is that images that look great on screen do not necessarily print that well (for reasons relating to differing media, differing screen settings and differences between transmitted and reflected light that I will not bore you with now). So what I have done is poured over thousands of images, selected a little over 20 of my favourite ones, and tweaked each one to ensure it prints really well.  I say 20 something as I am continually adding to the gallery.  Currently, you can buy these prints as traditional canvas wraps on a wooden frame; stretched canvas on wooden frames; flat-mounted canvas on rigid gatorboard; metal prints on aluminium sheet or acrylic mounted on metal.  Most prints are available from 8 x 8 inches (20 x 20 cm) up 30 x 40 inches (76 x 102 cm) some even larger. These prints can be ordered directly from my website. Simply visit the Buy Art Prints Gallery, click on the image you chose, them follow the choices.

An example screenshot from my Art Prints Gallery. The image can be zoomed in for a close check. Purchasing is as simple as clicking the ‘BUY PHOTO’ button.

Selecting ‘BUY PHOTO’ will take you to a side bar menu where you can specify media (canvas wrap, acrylic on metal etc.) and print dimensions

Before completing the purchase, you have the option to adjust the crop of the print, seeing exactly how much will be visible on your chosen media.

I have chosen Bay Photo Labs near Santa Cruz , California, to create and deliver all these prints. Bay Photo Labs have been in operation for over 40 years and have a terrific reputation as a pro photo lab delivering excellent quality.  They are also a Certified Green Business and part of the Monterey Bay Area Green Business Programme, actively working to reduce their impacts on the environment. They ship both throughout the US and internationally.  Depending on interest, I may set up a duplicate gallery offering printing from the UK to facilitate faster shipping to Europe. For the moment, only this gallery offers purchase of large prints.  This is because many of the images I have uploaded in other galleries have not been uploaded as large enough files for good quality large prints.  However, I am working through these files and gradually replacing ones suitable for prints with full size images.  Of course, if you are outside of the USA or Europe, and you would like to purchase a print of any image you see on my website, simply contact me by email using the ‘contact me’ form on my website (make sure you identify the print by description, gallery, title or even a screen grab).  That applies to images that are within my Buy Art Prints Gallery and to ones that are in other galleries. So why not check it out?

Colin

colinmunroimages.com

 

 

Setting Sail

Setting Sail

Setting Sail.  Hoisting the sail on a traditional outrigger sailing canoe (a sailau) Dobu Island, D'Entrecaseaux Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. © Colin Munro Photography

Setting Sail. Hoisting the sail on a traditional outrigger sailing canoe (a sailau) Dobu Island, D’Entrecaseaux Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea

Sailing outrigger canoes, known as sailau in Paupua New Guinea, are still vital for trade, fishing and transportation between islands in Milne bay Province, PNG. The canoes are built locally out of mastwood trees (Calophyllum inophyllum) by expert boatbuilders, then traded. Mastwood (also known as Alexandrian laurel, Indian laurel and beach touringa) is found in coastal regions throughout Australasia and the Indo-Pacific.  As the name suggests it is often used in the construction of boat spars and hulls.

Unlike most sailing vessels (but shared with other Proa outriggers throughout the Pacific) sailau do not tack. Instead they swap ends, the bow becoming the stern (shunting) thus keeping the outrigger permanently to windward.

Sailau, a lug rigged outrigger canoe, or proa, Dobu Island, Milne Bay Province, PNG.

Sailau, a lug rigged outrigger canoe, or proa, Dobu Island, Milne Bay Province, PNG.

Sails are made out of whatever is available: tired old dacron sails traded with passing yachts, patches of plastic sheeting, old tarpaulins, often creating patchwork quilt effect. Sailau, use lug sails (four-cornered sails with the top spar attached across the mast). These sailau have what is known as a balanced lug. These rigs are extremely efficient and have the advantage that they require little standing rigging to support them. They also have the advantage that the shape and tension of the sail is far less important than on a bermudan rig, an important consideration considering the patchwork repairs.

Further reading:

Smaalders, M., and Kinch, J., 2003.  Canoes, subsistence, and conservation in Papua New Guinea’s Louisaide Archipelago. SPC Traditional Marine Resource Management and Knowledge Information Bulletin. 15. July 2003.

Photography in the digital age: what’s changed?

An old lady weaving pandanus leaves laughs as she works. Suau Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Colin Munro Photography © Colin Munro

A school of Convict Surgeonfish graze a reef promontory, Nuie Island, South Pacific. © Colin Munro Colin Munro Photography

A school of Convict Surgeonfish graze a reef promontory, Nuie Island, South Pacific. Photographing light coloured fish against blue water is one of many situations where you don’t want to use auto settings. Image taken with a Nikon D610 and Nikon 20mm in an Aquatica housing, while free-diving around Nuie Island, October, 2019.

When I was young, both the World and photography was much simpler. The changes that have occurred in the World would take more than a blog to describe, so I’ll stick to those that directly affect photography. Back in the 1980s photography was film, and cameras were electro-mechanical machines – and so fairly simple to understand how they worked.  In fact, I started out in underwater photography before ever seriously using a camera on land, and the camera I started with (a second-hand, mid-1970s vintage Nikonos III) was entirely mechanical, to all intents and purposes a slightly tweaked version of the Calypso-phot designed by the Belgian engineer Jean de Wouters for Jacques Cousteau’s La Spirotechnique  company.  Incredibly simple by modern standards, my Nikonos III had the great advantage that if the camera flooded during a dive, one simply took it apart – a very easy process – washed it with fresh water, left it to dry, and put it back together.  Good luck doing that with any modern camera!  A second advantage of my mechanical Nikonos was that taking pictures underwater wasn’t that easy, especially so in the dark, turbid waters of the Firth of Clyde where I was based at that time. That may be counter-intuitive, but if you actually wanted to make money from taking photographs, then you definitely did not want it to be something that could be done with little or no skill or training.  There was no light meter, so you had to base settings on experience.  Flash lighting ( a necessity in such waters) was manual only, so you needed to know the power of the flash, estimate the total light path distance and set your camera aperture accordingly.  Add to this that a film roll contained only 36 frames, and of course film could not be changed underwater.  Once the 36 frames were used up, that was it. Dive over.  The end result of this was that there were far fewer underwater images around in the early 1980s, and a pretty low percentage of these were actually useable.  Nowadays there are estimated to be around 6 Million active SCUBA divers Worldwide (Diving Equipment and Marketing Association, 2019) and a fair percentage of those are taking underwater photographs.

Many of the changes in underwater photography over the past few decades have been replicated on land. Cameras have changed from being (relatively) simple devices for creating images on film, to hugely sophisticated instruments that convert light to electrical charge and so create and store digital images.  A modern digital SLR will produce images that are sharper and contain far more detail than the best 35mm film images of just a few years ago. They are also created at a far greater rate.    A total of somewhere around 25 thousand million photographs were taken in 1980, a vast number that is true, but compare that with 2017. Around 1.2 Trillion photographs were uploaded in 2017.  Gizmodo estimates that 300 million photographs were uploaded on to Facebook alone in 2019.  This creates two immediate problems for any serious photographer. Firstly, almost all of the millions upon millions of images that are online can be viewed freely, so why should someone pay for your images?  Secondly, even if they want to pay for your images, how on earth do you get people to find them within this staggery vast array of pictures?  These are the key problems facing pretty much all photographers trying to sell images nowadays.

The problems do not end there. Most images are licensed through stock agencies to print companies, newspapers or magazines (e.g. a licence is granted to use the image for a limited period of time or set publication or print run).  Back in the 1980s this could generate a serious income.  But now, not only are there many, many more images to choose from, but the newspapers and magazines no longer make the same profit from advertising as they too have lost out to the online world.  Almost all newspapers nowadays lose money, so they are looking for the cheapest images possible much of the time.  It is not possible to come out with a scientifically robust figure, but from personal experience and talking to lots of friends and colleagues, I estimate that – for similar levels of effort – the income generated from stock image sales is between a 1/10th to 1/20th of 1980s levels.   That does not mean you cannot make money selling images through stock agencies (or directly) but it does mean you will need to work hard at it and are unlikely to make your fortune doing so.

A black and white edit of beach and skyline, One-foot-Island, Aitutaki, Cook Islands, Polynesia. Colin Munro Photography © Colin Munro

A black and white edit of beach and skyline, One-foot-Island, Aitutaki, Cook Islands, Polynesia. Monochrome for landscape is very much a personal preference. Generally it works better with high contrast images.  Nikon D610, Nikon 20mm, polarising filter. Aitutaki, October 2019.

One of the great things about modern DSLRs and mirrorless digital cameras is that they are incredibly powerful image-creating machines, with a huge array of setting controls, functions, custom-settings, menus and sub-menus that allow the photographer enormous control over the appearance of the final image.  But the awful thing about modern DSLRs and mirrorless is that they are incredibly powerful image-creating machines, with a huge array of settings and controls ……  so you get the idea.  Picking up a modern DSLR or mirrorless for the first time can be a very daunting experience.  Our cameras have never been better equipped to capture images that are incredibly faithful to real life or to create stunning artistic images, and yet the overwhelming majority are rarely used other than on auto mode. Fortunately, many people are motivated to get to grips with more of the full potential of the high tech piece of very expensive hardware they have paid good money for.  As a consequence many professionals, myself included at times, have made the shift across from solely taking photographs to teaching photography.

An old lady weaving pandanus leaves laughs as she works. Suau Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Colin Munro Photography © Colin Munro

An old lady weaving pandanus leaves laughs as she works. Suau Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. I prefer longer lenses for people shots.  It makes obtaining a shallow depth of field so much easier, but just as important, it provides some distance, so the subject is more likely to be behaving naturally rather than posing for the camera. Nikon D610 and Nikon 80-400mm 4.5-5.6D lens.

Teaching photography can be a rewarding process.  For one thing their is nothing like teaching any subject to make sure you really understand it yourself. Secondly, this is far from a static field.  The techniques I teach now have changed radically from those I taught  ten years ago, because cameras themselves have changed radically in that time.    Photography is a constant learning and re-learning process.  When digital photography began to supplant film based photography I deeply resented it.  Digital was precise, more automated; photochemical changes in silver halide crystals were not precise.  Film was ….. well, magic.   But the more I learned as a (initially) reluctant convert to digital, the more I appreciated that many of the skills I had learned in the previous 25 years were not redundant but actually quite transferrable and highly useful still in the digital era.  More than that, the limitations of my early mechanical cameras and the photographically challenging environment of the dark waters of Southwest Scotland meant that I was forced to really learn the basic principles of photography and how light behaved.  These basic principles still underpin photography using todays latest digital camera systems.

An Australian Flatback Turtle, Natator depressus, hauls itself up a deserted beach, Adele Island, Kimberley Coast, Northern Australia. © Colin Munro www.colinmunrophotography.com

An Australian Flatback Turtle, Natator depressus, hauls itself up a deserted beach, Adele Island, Kimberley Coast, Northern Australia. A wide-open lens helps isolate the subject from the background. A long lens allows nice tight shots without encroaching close on the subject and possibly disturbing her.  The arrival of a fallback on the beach was completely unexpected, but her slow progress across the sand to above the high water mark where her eggs would be laid allowed plenty of time for multiple shots to be taken.  I like this one because of the eye contact.  Nikon D610, Nikon 80-400 4-5.6D lens.

 

Despite all the advances, photography still remains the manipulation of light in order to obtain a sharp (mostly) and correctly exposed image on light sensitive media. The control we have in order to achieve that has expanded almost out of all recognition, but the fundamental variables: shutter duration, aperture size, ISO, lens properties and sensor dimensions are still fundamentally unchanged since the days of George Eastman’s Box Brownie developed 120 years ago.

The Grind. Is campaigning for it to stop or condemning it on social media hypocritical?

Recently killed pilot whales at the end of a grind or grindadrap. Torshavn, Streymoy, Faroes.
  • The grind, or grindadrap, is a non-commercial, community based whale and dolphin drive in the Faroe Islands.  It is bloody, some say barbaric, affair.  Most notable among the groups campaigning for the grind to stop are the organisation Sea Shepherd.  Earlier this month, Sea Shepherd UK wrote to 16 cruise ship companies, asking them to stop visiting the Faroe Islands until the grind stops.

 

Recently killed pilot whales at the end of a grind or grindadrap. Torshavn,  Streymoy, Faroes.

Recently killed pilot whales at the end of a grind or grindadrap. Torshavn, Streymoy, Faroes, May, 2019.

 

The grind, or grindadrap, is a non-commercial, community based whale and dolphin drive in the Faroe Islands.  Around 840 pilot whales and white sided dolphins are killed every year.  This is done by local boats driving them in to designated beaches (there are 26 around the Faroe Islands. Grinds occur spontaneously, when pilot whale pods are sighted. It can only be initiated by sightings from land.  The whales are driven by small boats on to the beaches, where local people gather and kill the whales using a specially designed lance that severs the spinal chord.  The meat is not sold, but distributed equally and freely to all households in the Faroes.  It is bloody, some say barbaric, affair.  There are widespread calls in Europe and North America for it to be halted.  Most prominent among the groups opposing the grind is Sea Shepherd, who have an ongoing campaign, Operation Bloody Fjords, to stop or disrupt the grind.

I was in the middle of writing a completely different blog when the topic of the Grind started resurfacing on social media posts.  The post most frequently reposted, and commented upon, that I saw, was one from Sea Shepherd calling upon cruise ships to stop visiting the Faroe Islands until the Grind is stopped.  Published on the Sea Shepherd UK website, this has been shared on Facebook and other social media platforms, as widely reposted and commented upon, including by several friends and work colleagues.  In this, Sea Shepherd UK has written to 16 cruise ship companies (12th August 2019) calling on them postpone visits the Faroe Islands until the hunting of pilot whales and dolphins is stopped.

This is part of a larger campaign by Sea Shepherd UK, known as Operation Bloody Fjords, aimed at halting or disrupting the grind in the Faroes.  This is something I have given a fair bit of thought to and so, at the risk of alienating quite a few people, I decided to write this blog.

So to firstly declare my own interest in this matter. I consider myself a conservationist; for most of my professional career I worked as a freelance marine biologist/environmental consultant. I have a particular interest in the effects of fisheries on the marine environment, having worked for over 20 years collecting data on the effects of benthic mobile fishing gear on seabed marine life and habitats, and working to establish no fishing zones and monitoring their effectiveness.

Secondly, I work – as a self-employed contractor, on small cruise ships and have more than once been to the Faroes on such ships (though this is entirely a personal blog and represents solely my own views).

Thirdly, I have witnessed a grind, in 2018, and have talked to quite a few Faroese about it the grind and their views on the subject.

I should also add I am no fan of Sea Shepherd, or their founder Paul Watson. I consider them overly aggressive and confrontational with little or no science behind any of their activities, largely ineffective in terms of conservation, and that the prime (often sole) beneficiary of their activities are the finances of Sea Shepherd and their media profile.  Sea Shepherd also prominently bills itself as a conservation body, but nowhere in their letter to cruise companies, or on their website campaign information, do they mention conservation.  The most obvious reason for this is that the grind has no real impact on the conservation of pilot whales and their campaign has nothing to do with conservation. But more of that later.

I am genuinely conflicted regarding the grind.  There is no doubt that pilot whales and white-sided dolphins are highly intelligent social animals.   So I absolutely do not like to see them killed.  Reposting and commenting on social media is quick and easy. It requires little effort and, unfortunately, often little thought.  It can however have significant effect if done by a large number of people.  For me, the core questions are proportionality, effectiveness and comparison of the action I am considering condemning with my own actions.  We don’t want to spend our lives endlessly condemning things on social media to little effect, so it is a question of priorities – what is really important and what is not. Equally we should not be hypocritical: condemning things where our own personal deleterious impact is actually greater.  With the Faroese pilot whale and dolphin hunt I believe the key questions are, sustainability and cruelty, so I will attempt to address these before returning to the question asked at the top of this blog.

Sustainability

The number of pilot whales killed annually in the Faroes is around 840 – since detailed records began over 300 years ago, and around 640 per year (2000-2017).  All the science suggests this is a sustainable fishery.  The Central and N.E. Atlantic population of pilot whales is estimated over 750,000 (Buckland et. al, 1989) although figure is now quite old.  A more recent assessment of the Faroese pilot whale hunt (NAMMCO 2013) found that, for the grind to be sustainable, a population (in Faroese waters) of 50-80,000 pilot whales was required.  The current estimation puts the Faroese population at over 100,000.  Unless this is a significant overestimate, then the pilot whale hunt is sustainable, with around 0.1% being killed annually.  The most recent study (Pike, et al, 2019) looking at data between 1987 and 2015, indicates that the pilot whale population in the North East Atlantic is relatively stable during this period, with no long term trend of increasing or decreasing.

This is not something to be considered lightly – few British fisheries, for example, could be considered anything like as sustainable.  It is also one of the best regulated fisheries in the World. Each year every single whale or dolphin killed is recorded, along with location and species.  Very few other fisheries have such accurate records.

If one compares the pilot whales grind to fisheries in the UK (which I am very familiar with) or other developed countries:

1. it does not destroy the seabed habitat and all animals living there – unlike many of our fisheries where one hour of fishing will devastate a vast area of seabed, often for decades;

2. there is normally no bycatch; many other fisheries kill far more non-target than target species, which are simply dumped in the ocean.

Cruelty.

Cruelty is, almost by definition, a highly emotive issue, and not one easily quantified or compared.  However, think about this hypothetical question.

Before being born you are given two choices for your life:

  1. You will be born into captivity. You will be separated from your mother when still very young.  If male, you will be castrated before puberty.  You will never be allowed to live naturally, in a natural environment, forage naturally, eat a natural diet, live in natural family groups, mate and reproduce, care for your offspring.  You will be slaughtered when a few months old. Your natural lifespan would have been 15-20 years.
  2. You will be born in a total natural environment, surrounded by family members.  Your mother will care for you, and as you grow you will play, be protected, and learn from other family members. You will hunt, feed, socialise, reproduce and raise offspring in a family group in totally natural conditions. You may live 45-50 years, all in a completely natural environment.  Each year, there is a one in a thousand chance that you might be killed.

So if you had to choose one, which would you chose? I would be very surprised in anyone chose the first.  I suspect most people would consider the first a truly horrific fate.  Yet that is the fate of around 25 Million pigs – every single week – globally. That’s 1.5 thousand million pigs every year.  Pigs are also highly intelligent, long-lived, social animals. There is no scientific evidence that I am aware of that suggests that pigs are in any way less susceptible to experiencing pain, fear, loss or loneliness that are pilot whales, nor any rational reason why that should be so.  It is frequently said that ‘I can be against keeping farmed animals and against the grind.  That is perfectly true, but think of the scale.  If you accept that the life of a wild pilot whale is far preferable to the life imposed on most farmed pigs, then can you really argue that campaigning against the ‘cruelty’ imposed on around 640 pilot whales demands equal effort to campaigning against the greater individual cruelty imposed on 1.5 billion pigs?  The differences in scale of suffering are almost unimaginably vast.  Yet it is not the fate of farmed animals that gets the greatest high profile media attention, or the most reposts and comments on social media.  It is the killing of around 640 pilot whales in the Faroe Islands.  If the scale of campaigning was correlated to the scale of the suffering, then we should be reposting, commenting and campaigning over a million times for every single time we repost or campaign against pilot whales being killed in the Faroes.  But of course that does not happen, reality is closer to the converse.

There is another aspect to this.  For most people the Faroes are simply a group of small, remote islands somewhere in the North Atlantic.  To vilify them online, to call for tourists to not go there, costs us nothing.  We make zero personal sacrifice, but it makes us feel good, and righteous (something Sea Shepherd are well aware of). Conversely, giving up all farmed meat, campaigning against the meat farming industry would, for most of us, involve dramatic changes to our lifestyle and significant personal sacrifices.  So instead we take the easy option of targeting something that has no effect on our own lives.

Sea Shepherd

As Sea Shepherd is the organisation driving this campaign, it is worth examining their record and modus operandi.  I make no secret of the fact I am not terribly impressed by the group. A couple of illustrative examples may help explain this. Sea Shepherd was founded by Paul Watson after he was expelled from Greenpeace in 1977 for his ‘aggressive’ approach and distain for Greenpeace’s non-violent methods.  That following year (1978) he gave an interview broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Association (CBC) about the Canadian harp seal cull, claiming the profitability of the campaign was why Greenpeace campaigned against the cull: ‘Well it’s definitely because it’s easier to make money and because it’s easier to make a profit because there are over a thousand animals on the endangered species list, and the harp seal isn’t one of them’ stated Watson in the radio interview. He then added ‘and now we have a dozen people this year from Greenpeace California — I mean they’re coming from the highest standard of living region in North America — they’re traveling to the place with the lowest income per year on this continent telling them not to kill seals because they’re cute but not endangered species.’ A year later his new organisation, Sea Shepherd, began their direct action campaign against the Canadian seal cull, recruiting celebrities like Brigitte Bardot and Pierce Brosnan to pose next to baby seals on the ice for publicity purposes.

More recently (2010) Sea Shepherd hit the news again when their 24m racing trimaran the MY Ady Gil collided with a Japanese whaling support vessel the MV Shonan Maru 2. The bow of the Ady Gil was badly damaged and she sunk the following day.  Both parties blamed the other; the official inquiry found that both were at fault for the collision.  Paul Watson first blamed the Japanese vessel for the collision, then blamed the Ady Gils captain, Peter Bethune, after falling out with him. Sea Shepherd claimed that the Ady Gil sunk the following day as she took on water while being towed.  Peter Bethune subsequently claimed that Paul Watson had ordered him to deliberately scuttle the Ady Gil for publicity purposes, something Watson denied.  The owner of the MY Ady Gil (the millionaire animal rights supporter Ady Gil) then took legal action against Sea Shepherd and Watson under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. He won. The court in New York ruled that Sea Shepherd had indeed intentionally scuttled the vessel for publicity purposes and awarded compensation of half a million dollars.  In the ruling the Arbiter described Watson as ‘“highly evasive, internally contradictory, or at odds with his own prior written statements, and in certain areas simply lacking the basic indicia of genuineness that instinctively inspires confidence and trust.” She ruled that the order to scuttle her by opening the sea cocks came from Paul Watson and that the accounts given on the Whale Wars reality TV show were false and the sinking staged to maximise publicity.  Sea Shepherd tried to keep the court ruling secret from the public, but failed in this.  I described these two events as I think they well encapsulate the personality of Paul Watson and the aims of Sea Shepherd.  I have no doubt that many Sea Shepherd staff and volunteers are well meaning and honest, but the basic philosophy behind the organisation seems to be to generate conflict and drama and to maximise publicity and profits.  There is very little science behind their campaigns and not a great deal of evidence of their long term effectiveness; rather they often antagonise local people and entrench views to resist change.

Sustainability – wider aspects

In we consider the wider aspects of the sustainability argument, the comparison between the grind and meat farming is even more damning. One is totally unsustainable. It destroys huge amounts of the World’s natural resources, and is directly responsible for the extinction, or imminent extinction, of a great many species.  It is a major contributor to climate change and is a major polluter of land and waterways.  It is also one of the greatest threats to the survival of tens of millions of humans around the planet through the large scale use of antibiotics. And that one is not the killing 640 pilot whales each year.  Meat farming is one of the largest causes of deforestation and habitat destruction around the World.  It causes even greater habitat loss through the growing of crops specifically for animal feed.  Habitat loss and fragmentation are probably the biggest causes of species extinction globally.

As far as I know there is no evidence that the grind has any measurable long term environmental impact whatsoever, and the available evidence suggests it is quite sustainable.

Sea Shepherd UK has written to cruise companies asking them to cease visiting the Faroe Island until the grind is ended.  Sea Shepherd identifies itself as a conservation organisation.  It is pretty clear that, while the grind is bloody and upsetting for many to watch, it is not a conservation issue.  As someone involved in the cruise ship industry I am well aware that this is a far from perfect industry.  It does indeed have major environmental issues.  The amount and type of fuel burned by cruise ships is one.  But this is also a heavily regulated industry and one where all involved – especially those in the small ‘expedition ship’ more likely to visit the Faroes – are deeply concerned and very aware of the issues. These are regularly discussed and ways sought to reduce our plastics use, our carbon footprint and our impact on the environment in general.  One of, if not the biggest, impact is flying. You need to get your passengers to and from departure and arrival ports.  This is a problem for all cruise ships not exclusively operating in local waters, and a huge problem for the tourism and travel industry in general.  It is pretty indisputable that climate change is the biggest environmental threat to our planet at the moment.  Currently, civil aviation accounts for around 2.5% of all energy-related CO2 emissions, and 4-5% of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions.  However, emissions from air travel grew 40% between 1990 and 2010.  Air travel is predicted to grow at around 4% a year.  Even with improvements in technology and carbon trading (i.e. buying carbon credits from less polluting industries) there is a still a real disconnect between air travels targets for reductions in greenhouse gases required to have a realistic chance of keeping climate change to the 2o C rise target set as part of the IPPC’s Paris Agreement.  In most Western developed countries, flying is the biggest single contributor to our carbon footprint.  The UK’s carbon emissions are now (latest figures 2018) around 5.6 tonnes per person.  But for one return flight (economy class) from London to Perth, Australia releases around 5 tonnes of greenhouse emissions.  So one long haul flight a year can effectively double one’s impact on climate change.  That is a pretty sobering statistic.  So let’s return to Sea Shepherd UK’s call for cruise ship companies to boycott the Faroes.  Were Sea Shepherd really a conservation organisation one might think, when targeting a particular sector, they would look at that sector’s activities and choose the most environmentally damaging and attempt to persuade them to reduce or mitigate the damaging effects of that activity. So if the target industry is the cruise ship industry, then campaigning for a boycott of the Faroe Islands makes zero sense, in terms of conservation.  If, instead, the target is the marine environmental impacts of the Faroese islanders and Government, then targeting the grind makes zero sense in conservation terms.  Now that is not to say that there are that there are no significant conservation issues with Faroese fisheries.  There are; currently, and for some years, both cod and haddock stocks within Faroese waters are severely depleted, with cod stocks at historic lows, largely due to a combination of overfishing, over-capacity and poor regulation.  Now were Sea Shepherd really a marine conservation body, that would be valid issue to campaign on.  It probably would not command the same media attention though.

Sea Shepherd has a history of focussing on marine mammals, so what are the main threats to pilot whales in the NE Atlantic, and globally.  Undoubtedly one of the biggest threats is the amount of plastic waste in the oceans.  And not just to pilot whales but a great many other marine mammals and marine life in general. On June 1st 2018, a short fin pilot whale found floating off the coast of Thailand took five days to die.  Hours before it died it started vomiting up bits of plastic.  An autopsy found 80 plastic bags in its stomach.  In March 2019, a Cuvier’s beaked whale washed up dead on the Philippines coast; an autopsy found 40kg of plastic bags in its stomach.  In April 2019 a pregnant sperm whale washed up on the Sardinian coast and was found to have over 20 kg of plastic in its stomach.  In May a dead young sperm whale washed up on the coast of Italy; again its stomach was found to be full of plastic rubbish.  This is clearly the tip of the iceberg.  Undoubtedly many toothed whales (possibly the majority) will have plastic rubbish in their stomachs and be suffering sub-lethal effects.  Equally, many will die at sea and their plastic burden will go unrecorded.  Studies have shown that pilot whales have very high levels of mercury in their tissues.  Sea Shepherd use this as part of their argument to halt the grind.  A more conservation-minded approach might be to ask why they have such high levels of mercury contamination, and what can be done about it. The main sources of organic mercury (methylmercury) in the marine environment are anthropogenic; particularly coal burning power plants, chlorine production and gold mining.  The levels of organic mercury in pilot whales is among the highest recorded for marine mammals (although it is also high in polar bears, belugas, ring seals and many other top marine predators).  In pilot whales the concentrations are considered high enough to produce neurological changes in them, along with liver and kidney abnormalities and changes in lymphocytes affecting their ability to fight infections.  Yet another likely big impact on pilot whales (and many other cetaceans) is noise pollution from ship traffic and seismic survey activities.  Like most cetaceans, pilot whales rely on vocalisation for communication over distance, for navigation and for hunting.  Anthropogenic sources of marine noise, which have grown massively in the past hundred years (and which cruise ships contribute to) has been implicated in in many adverse effects on cetaceans, including displacement and avoidance behaviour, changes in vocalisation and mass strandings.  The above all have real, profound and sometimes catastrophic effects on pilot whale populations and much other marine life besides, yet Sea Shepherd campaigns focus on none of the above. Instead, they chose to focus on an activity for which there is no evidence that it has any significant effect on pilot whale populations, on other marine species or on the wider marine environment. But it is one that garners Sea Shepherd a great deal of publicity.  In my book that disqualifies them from being considered a marine conservation organisation.

The questions posed by this blog title was: is it hypocritical to campaign for the end of the grind or to criticise it on social media?  Ultimately that depends, I believe, on your own personal lifestyle.  If you eat farmed meat, if you use disposal plastics at all (recycling doesn’t count – most ‘recycled’ plastics are shipped to Third World countries of sit around in waste collection centres) if you travel by air at all, then the answer is ‘yes’ it is hypocritical, because your own negative impacts on the environment are almost certainly greater than those of the grind. I certainly do not meet that standard, which is one reason I would be very reluctant to criticise it.  The grind is likely to slowly die out as younger peoples attitudes change; less likely as long as outsiders aggressively condemn the Faroese over it. In my view criticising and supporting campaigns to stop the grind are, and best, simply a distraction.  They divert attention, time and energy away from environmental issues that are genuinely important, and the real threats to whale and dolphin populations.

Short-beaked common dolphins: Cook Strait to Cape Pallister, New Zealand.

A short-beaked common dolphin,Delphinus delphis, off Cape Palliser, New Zealand.

Short-beaked common dolphins

A short-beaked common dolphin,Delphinus delphis, off Cape Palliser, New Zealand.

A short-beaked common dolphin,Delphinus delphis, off Cape Palliser, New Zealand.

Sometimes you have a particular shot in your mind’s eye long before it ever happens. This particular image, taken two days ago, of a common dolphin leaping clear as 50kt winds whipped sea spume off the wave tops, falls squarely in to that category for me. I had created a mental image of this shot several years ago, but it took time, patience and luck for it to become a reality.  The image I wanted required multiple factors to all fall in to place simultaneously.  The proximity of the dolphins, the low angle angle and quality of the light, the wind to be sufficiently high to create the breaking wave crests I wanted, and then a very large dollop of luck. This time I was very lucky. One dolphin approached us at exactly the right angle, and for a few seconds he was close enough for me to track him beneath the surface and gauge when he was about to breach.  So when he did my camera was already poised and focussed …. or then again maybe I just got a lucky shot.

A short-beaked Common Dolphin leaps clear in rough seas, off Cape Palliser, New Zealand.

A short-beaked Common Dolphin leaps clear in rough seas, off Cape Palliser, New Zealand.

Common Dolphin breaching

Common Dolphin breaching

 

The shots shown here were taken off Cape Palliser, as we emerged from Cook Strait, a narrow and notoriously stormy channel between the North and South Islands of New Zealand.

Fierce winds colliding with the steep-sided hills of Cape Palliser force sea spray over 50  metres into the air.

Fierce winds colliding with the steep-sided hills of Cape Palliser force sea spray over 50 metres into the air.

Off Cape Palliser, emerging from Cook Strait, New Zealand.

A royal albatross (Diomedea sp.) glides effortlessly as fierce winds spume off the wave tops. Cook Strait, New Zealand.

A royal albatross (Diomedea sp.) glides effortlessly as fierce winds spume off the wave tops. Between Cook Strait and Cape Palliser, New Zealand.

Cook Strait, with high wild and strong currents funnelling through the narrow gap that divides the two halves of New Zealand, has a deserved reputation as a treacherous area for sailors.  But the wild, virtually uninhabited coastline between Cook Strait and Cape Pallister, where at night not a single light will be visible, has a harsh beauty that is compelling.

Vanuatu: straddling the centuries

Men perform a traditional dance at a forest village, Malekula Island, Vanuatu. © Colin Munro Photography

Looking down on the neon signs and snaking traffic, from my condo, 13 floors up in the heart of Bangkok, some of the places in Southeast Asia I have visited recently seem not only geographically distant but separated in time also.  This is, of course merely an illusion, but a powerful one.  Dugout canoes, tribal dances and weaving pandas leaves to make hut roofs does not fit easily into a world where people commute by skytrain, discuss cryptocurrencies and every second video display promotes the latest smartphone model as the perfect ‘selfie’ solution.  Probably the greatest change that has occurred in communication with the developed world over the past three decades is the growth of the internet, which for many of us now drives our work and leisure activities and much of our interaction with other people.  In much of Melanesia, internet access is still slow, expensive and in many areas unavailable.  There are numerous factors behind this; probably the most significant is the lack of large population centres, making the laying of cables and associated infrastructure uneconomic for telecommunication companies.  However; almost everyone has a mobile ‘phone; by and large, landline networks have been bypassed for similar reasons to limiting internet.  In some areas things are changing rapidly, in others little changes.  Like elsewhere in the World there is a shift to urban living.  This means that some cities are growing rapidly, equally on small remote islands populations decline.  Simply put, there are few job opportunities there.  As a teenager your dream is to study or work in in Fiji, or New Zealand, or Australia.  Of those that are successful few will return.

Vanuatu (formerly the New Hebrides) is a sprawling chain of islands, 82 in total, lying in the South Pacific a little over 1700 kilometres East of Australia.  The archipelago is volcanic in origin; the islands forming a line, roughly north -south, The islands are exposed tips of three converging seabed ridges rising up from the surrounding seabed, several thousand metres deep. The most famous volcano in the region is Mount Yasur on Tanna, but there are in fact nine active volcanos in the chain (two are submarine volcanos).  At the time of my visit to Vanuatu (September 2017) increased volcanic activity on Ambae could be seen from our ship as we passed at night.  This lead, shortly after, to a full scale evacuation of all 8,000 inhabitants of the island.  Over a thousand kilometres separates the northernmost islands (Torres Islands) from the uninhabited islands of Mathew and Hunter, the southernmost tip of the chain.  Fairly rapid development is occurring in and around Port Vila, the capital.  Luxury apartments and hotels are springing up through foreign investment (mostly Chinese) aided no doubt by Vanuatu’s reputation as a tax haven (it has zero corporate tax).  I spent a little time discussing this with a Chinese developer and some Ni-Vanuatu (the term for inhabitants of Vanuatu).  The developer was agreed that zero tax was a bad thing, limiting Vanuatu’s ability to develop services and infrastructure but, perhaps understandably, was prepared to exploit it.

Men perform a traditional dance at a forest village, Malekula Island, Vanuatu. © Colin Munro Photography

Men perform a traditional dance at a forest village, Malekula Island, Vanuatu

Malekula Island is the second largest island in the Vanuatu chain.  With a population of only 23,00 (2009) there are said to be nearly 30 local languages spoken on the island.  In Vanuatu as a whole, over one hundred languages are spoken (138 according to a 2015 study by Francios et al)  however an English-based creole, Bislama, is the common language uniting villages and islands. The interior of Malekula is mountainous and heavily forested, with a scattering of villages.  Of the various cultural divisions on the island, the main (and best known) are the Small Nambas and Big Nambas.  Nambas are penis sheaths made from fibre and banana or pandanus leaves, and these two groups are differentiated by the shape and size of their penis sheaths (seriously!).  Given they’re all fairly big, muscular guys I wouldn’t risk making jokes about it.  Dancing is a big part of the culture (or kastom as it’s known) in Vanuatu, and especially in the more remote villages.  each village has its dancing ground. Custom dances are performed for such events as the grading of men and the circumcision of boys.  This is very much a grade-based hierarchical society.  It has been reported than the Nimangki societies of southern Malekula have 17 distinct grades (Reisenfield, 1950).

Village dancers perform at a sing-sing, Malekula Island, Vanuatu., South Pacific. Copyright Colin Munro.

Village dancers perform at a sing-sing, Malekula Island, Vanuatu.

It would be wrong to assume that these are villages untouched by western culture.  Nowadays traditional nambas are worn only during dance ceremonies.  Villagers are as likely to be seen in jeans and t shirts when going about their daily business.  Many of the local languages are also considered under threat (on Malekula and throughout Vanuatu).  Interestingly, this does not appear to be from the spears of English (or French) but from Bislama, the creole that developed out of English colonisation. This, presumably, is due to increased communication between villages. As tourism grows, and the internet becomes more accessible, things will undoubtedly start to change more quickly.  Vanuatus reputation as a tax haven also fuel this.  But for now it remains a strange mix of the old and the new.  It is a country where most people still live in forest villages, have no formal ‘job’ but live off the land, where there is no income tax, yet it is one of the very few countries in the World where one can buy citizenship using bitcoin.

A girl dances during a traditional dance at a forest village, Malekula Island, Vanuatu.. © Colin Munro Photography

A girl dances during a traditional dance at a forest village, Malekula Island, Vanuatu.

 

A girl dancer looks shyly at the camera. forest village sing-sing, Malekula island, Vanuatu. Copyright Colin Munro

A girl dancer looks shyly at the camera. forest village sing-sing, Malekula island, Vanuatu.

 

A drummer beats out a rhythm on hollow wooden statues, keeping the dancers in time. Malekula, Vanuatu. © Colin Munro Photography

A drummer, painted with charcoal, beats out a rhythm on hollow wooden statues. Malekula, Vanuatu.

 

A mother and baby watch a sing-sing performance at a forest village, Malekula Island, Vanuatu. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

A mother and baby watch a sing-sing performance at a forest village, Malekula Island, Vanuatu

 

A small boy watches ceremonial dancers perform at a Kastom (Custom) dance in a forest village, malekula, Vanuatu. © Colin Munro Photography

A small boy watches the ceremonial dancers perform.

 

Young children watch curiously as they sit on a dugout outrigger canoe, Tanna, Vanuatu. © Colin Munro Photography

Young children watch curiously as they sit on a dugout outrigger canoe, Tanna, Vanuatu.

 

Ash plains, fallout from previous eruptions, surround Mount Yasur volcano, Tanna, Vanuatu. © Colin Munro Photography

Ash plains, fallout from previous eruptions, surround Mount Yasur volcano, Tanna, Vanuatu

 

Molten lava explodes out of the vent within Mount Yasur volcano, Tanna, Vanuatu. © Colin Munro Photography

Molten lava explodes out of the vent within Mount Yasur volcano, Tanna, Vanuatu

References:

The megalith culture of Melanesia. Alphonse Reisenfield. E.J.Brill, 1950.

 

My photographs can be seen, and licensed, through the following websites.

www.colinmunrophotography.com

www.colinmunroimages.com

www.500px.com/colin85