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A race against the rising water

A black swan frantically tries to save her nest and eggs as the river water rises following torrential rains. Colin Munro Photography

A black swan tends her eggs in the nest she has constructed along the banks of the River Exe. Colin Munro Photography

A black swan tends her eggs in the nest she has constructed along the banks of the River Exe.


A black swan frantically tries to save her nest and eggs as the river water rises following torrential  rains. Colin Munro Photography

A black swan frantically tries to save her nest and eggs as the river water rises following torrential rains.

The human cost of the wettest summer in 100 years, lost income and damaged property, has been highin the Southwest.  The cost to wildlife has also been high.  The mute swans that gather on the River Exe in the centre of Exeter have failed to raise a single clutch this year.  At the end of September, an Austalian Black Swan (Cygnus atratus) attracted considerable interest as she tried to brood a small clutch of eggs along the riverbank.  The weather was warm, and drier than it had been for most of the summer.  perhaps she might be lucky.  However Sunday and Monday the 23rd and 24th were to test her to the limit.  Around 2am on the morning of the 23rd the rain becan to fall and the wind started to howl.  For more than 30 hours it rained, and as it rained the river rose.  By the early hours of the 24th she was already frantic, trying desperately to shore up her nest.  By 10am the nest was still there, but floating.  Although probably exhausted she moved incessantly, plucking reed blades of the bottom, trying vainly to build up her nest.  The eggs were still same, but became submerged when she sat on the nest.  She was engaged in a desperate race to raise the nest before the eggs lost too much heat. A black swan frantically tries to save her nest and eggs as the river water rises following torrential  rains. Colin Munro Photography

The black swan tries to move her eggs out of the water pooling in the centre of her nest as the river rises.

Although the rains had now stopped, at least temporarily, millions of gallons were still flowing down the river from high ground and so the river was continuing to rise. Passerby stopped to watch, and throw her bread, which is probably all she had time to eat since she had laid her eggs. No-one knew whether the eggs were fertile. She was the only black swan on the river all summer; tagging along at a safe distance with the larger mute swans that congregated along the quayside. But hybrids between mute and black swans were believed to have occurred in captivity. So it was just possible. And although the odds seemed against her, it was still possible her eggs main survive the flood.
This story will me expanded soon – and the whole story of the black swan and her nest will be told.
All images can be licenses from my Photoshelter website here Search black+swan

Drought and suffering in Garissa

Drought and suffering in Garissa

I last visited Garissa more than 30 years ago. It was a fairly wild journey to get there; three days waiting in Isiolo for an armed convoy to pass through, clambering on top of a load of grain sacks in the pitch dark early hours to join twenty-odd displaced Ethiopians, Kenyans and Somalis crouching precariously on an overloaded and ancient truck; hours spent standing alone in searing heat before being picked up by a passing Norwegian family working for VSO, then 90 long minutes hanging on the the cab rail on the back of a pickup driven by two crazy young Indian traders driving as if Somali shifta were on there tail (who knows maybe they were, few risked driving in this region without military escort at that time). I arrived in Garissa late afternoon, with still a couple of hours daylight remaining. I was young and brash then, I knew little of the politics of the region or the hardships of the local people; I was pissed because there was no beer in the town to be bought. I was coated in a layer of red desert dust and, after 10 hours on the back of open vehicles felt as dessicated as if I’d been in a drying oven. As far as I was concerned Garissa was just a transit point for me, one I hoped I wouldn’t be spending too much time in. I wandered past the truck stop, chatted to a few drivers and quickly ascertained that no-one was going anywhere soon, so I wandered to the end of town to pitch my tent. I was quickly disabused of this idea when a military truck pulled up and several soldiers informed me that it was too dangerous to camp out here. A little over an hour later I was sipping coffee sitting in my tent inside the military compound, surrounded by ten foot barb wire fences, surveying my supplies: coffee, margarine and some rather old bread. Jeez, this is going to be along night, I can’t even wander in to the local chai shops and chat to the truck drivers. As it happened I was quite wrong. I had barely finished my coffee when a young soldier walked up and announced that the camp commander wished to see me. This are going from bad to worse I thought; now I was about the get a dressing down for my stupidity and probably have my papers scrutinised in minute detail for errors. Not so! The commander was a young guy, no more than ten years older than me, from Nairobi; he appeared to feel as out of place here as I did and had seized upon the opportunity to discuss things other than the price of cattle or the latest incursions of shifta with someone from outside this dry and dusty world. I had a most entertaining evening learning about George Adamson’s encampment nearby (Kora, where George released lions was just a few miles away); Joy Adamson’s temper and temperatment and the problems cre3ated by lack of security in the region. A quite surreal touch was added when I first arrived at the commander’s lodge by a young Somali prisoner who was also in the building being questioned. He immediately began protesting that his handcuffs should be removed, as it was embarressing to be so shackled when a foreigner (especially a white person) was present.

I have always retained fond memories of Garissa, despite seeing little of the town. Garissa appears to have expanded enormously in that time; tarmac road have appeared and multi-storey buildings. But life is now probably harder than ever. Security is still a problem, twin grenade attacks on a local restuarant and the local prison occured in the town just four days ago, but that is not the main problem. Northern Kenya is in the grip of the worst drought in half a century. Displaced pastoralist tribespeople live in makeshift huts around the periphery of the town. Cattle, the sole income for many, are dying in their hundreds, thousands of families are now dependant on food aid, children no longer go to school as families move in search of water. In the attention-deficit disorded media world, such slow grinding misery rarely makes the news, yet the drought goes on. There are however, projects working to change this situation. One of the best seems to be the Tana River Drought Recovery Project, managed by Kenya’s Red Cross (Facebook album)

More information at dowser.org

Colin

Sex and death in the seagrass

A common or European cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis, trapped in monofilament bottom set nets, Brixham Harbour. Each year nets are set around seagrass beds (Zostera marina) where cuttlefish come in to breed. Colin Munro Photography
A common or European cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis, trapped in monofilament bottom set nets, Brixham Harbour.  Each year nets are set around seagrass beds (Zostera marina) where cuttlefish come in to breed. Colin Munro Photography

A common or European cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis, trapped in monofilament bottom set nets, Brixham Harbour. Each year nets are set around seagrass beds (Zostera marina) where cuttlefish come in to breed. Image No. MBI000305.

Intelligent life. Few divers who have ever encountered an octopus or cuttlefish underwater cannot have been struck by a sense of an alien intelligence staring hard at them, assessing whether you are friend or foe and what you are likely to do next. That cephalopods (octopi, cuttlefish, squid and their kin) are bright has now become common knowledge; yet this is still something that sits uneasily with their molluscan nature. Great apes, whales and dolphins are easier to accept; they are mammals and so not that distantly related to us. But cephalopods? They are not even vertebrates; first cousins to slugs, snails and slipper limpets. Their blood is greeny-blue not red as the oxygen carrying molecule is copper-based rather than the iron-based haemoglobin in all mammals. They really are shape-shifting aliens from inner space. And yet, when a cuttlefish rises out of the sand or seagrass to hover in front of you, you get a real sense of cogs turning and a logical decision-making process taking place. That may, of course simply be down their binocular vision; we tend to almost intuitively associate this with intelligence (it is designed, after all, to assess distance, form mental 3D images of the World and judge when and how to strike at prey). That there is real intelligence behind those eyes is most elegantly demonstrated by the octopus, which has joined the elite group of animals that have demonstrated the use of tools to manipulate their environment in the wild. The veined octopus has recently been filmed collecting and stacking discarded coconut shells halves to use as a shelter. So far it is the only invertebrate to do so.

Cuttlefish breeding. The seagrass beds of South Devon have long been a favourite dive habitat of mine. They provide gentle, sunlit dives where one can float along in the hope of encountering a pipefish, mating sea hares and, at the right time of year, cuttlefish arriving to lay eggs. Watching a female cuttlefish lay eggs is a fascinating experience. Each pointed black egg is attached to a tuft of seagrass or weed one at a time. The female will hover before it, then after a few minutes contemplation will move forward to firmly grasp the stem with her tentacles and pull it towards her. After a minute she draws back again, to reveal a new shiny, pointed black eggs bound to the stem by a band extending out of the egg case. This process with continue for over an hour, until the stem is wrapped in what resembles a bunch of black, pointed grapes.

A common or European cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis, trapped in monofilament bottom set nets, Brixham Harbour.  Each year nets are set around seagrass beds (Zostera marina) where cuttlefish come in to breed. Colin Munro Photography.

A female common or European cuttlefish, Sepia officinalis, trapped in monofilament bottom set nets, Brixham Harbour. A male hovers nearby and will eventually also be entangled. Other males hover in the background. Image No. MBI000270.

While the eggs are laid a gang of males hover in attendance. When cuttlefish mate the male transfers the spermatophores (sperm packages) to within the females buccal cavity, using his modified fourth arm (the hectcotylus). The hectocotylus is then used to break open the spermatophores, releasing the sperm which is then temporarily stored within the female’s buccal cavity. If she subsequently mates with another male it will direct jets of water into her buccal cavity to attempt to flush out earlier sperm deposits. Consequently the most recent mate will hover above her, warding off other males that will hang around, to ensure that it is his genetic material that is passed on rather than that of his upstart rivals.

Cuttlefish in nets. Cuttlefish are, of course, a valuable catch for fishermen. They are caught in trawls out at sea and also in set nets deployed around their inshore breeding grounds. Cuttlefish grow quickly and most die shortly after breeding, so those caught after they have laid their eggs will not have any real effect on future populations. Unfortunately however, nets are often laid around the edges of breeding grounds such as seagrass nets, thus cuttlefish are caught not only when leaving the breeding ground but also when arriving, before they breed. The nets do not kill them, but they are often quite badly damaged as they twist and the fine line cuts into their flesh. Indeed I often wonder how they can be sold after their flesh is so ripped up. If a female is caught then inevitably a number of males arriving will hang around her until they too are caught. A trapped female may remain their for up to twelve hours before the nets are hauled, so the potential for catching large numbers of breeding cuttlefish is quite high. So far, this practice does not seem to have noticeably affected local cuttlefish populations. It is nonetheless rather disconcerting to watch such lovely animals twisting and turning for hours on end.

Update. In the past couple of years I, and other local divers, have seen notably fewer cuttefish hanging around in the shallow bays of South Devon during the breeding season.  This may simply be due to factors like the lousy weather we’ve had during the past couple of summers; it may also be due to the almost impenetrable ring of nets set on the edge of these bays.

Images. All the images in this blog are available to license.  You can search all my online stock images at my www.colinmunroimages.com  Cuttlefish images, Sepia officinalis images, fishing images, stock images.

The fishermen of M’bour

M'bour, Senegal. Fishermen haul a small fishing pirogue (wooden canoe) up on to the beach at sunset.  Image MBI000739

M’bour, Senegal. Fishermen haul a small fishing pirogue (wooden canoe) up on to the beach at sunset.

In November 2008 I spent two weeks living in M’bour, a dusty transit stop and fishing port halfway between Dakar and the Gambia. I spent this time getting to know the fishermen, going to sea with them, learning how they worked, the risks they took travelling up to 20 miles offshore in leaky open canoes without so much as a compass to guide them. I learned how they spent days at sea in tiny canoes, sleeping in the bottom of them, risking storms or being swept out to sea. As there canoes have no lights they also run the risk of being mown down by trawlers at night. Many do lose their lives each year, but economic pressures are causing a growing number of young men to turn to fishing. This brings its own problems; the fishery is almost completely unregulated but anecdotal reports suggest this is having a significant impact on stocks of some species.  Robust data is hard to come by, given the unregulated nature of this fishery, but the Senegalese Directorate of Marine Fisheries estimated that in 2004 a little over 6000 such canoes were operating along the coast of Senegal.  The main species caught are small sardinella (Sardinella aurita and S. maderenis) and horse mackerel (Trachurus trachurus). In 2008 the fishery off M’bour and nearby Joal Fadiouth was considered over-exploited (source FAO,Fisheries Circular No. 1033, 2008).

Fishing canoe,  or pirogue, being lanched off beach on wooden rollers, M'bour,  Senegal.  Image MBI000628

Our fishing canoe, or pirogue, being lanched off beach on wooden rollers, M’bour, Senegal.

 Now fully laden, our ancient outboard is securely fastened with bailing twine. Note the well balanced ice box perched toward the stern of the canoe.

M'bour, Senegal. Two Senegalese fishermen head out to sea in a small pirogue (traditional wooden canoe).  Image MBI000909.

M’bour, Senegal. Two Senegalese fishermen head out to sea in a small pirogue (traditional wooden canoe).

I spent a day at sea on one of these tiny boats. Simply making it through the surf was quite an acheivement; the boat had no ballast and was so top heavy, due to ourselves and the large box of ice we were carrying, that we appeared in imminet danger of capsizing. Fortunately we shipped quite a lot of water quite quickly during a rather shaky lauching. This few inches of seawater inside our boat at least gave us some stability by providing some ballast, albeit not a recommended way of doing so. Powered by an ancient 15hp outboard engine attached by bailing twine and duck tape, we headed out to sea for about three hours, by which time I estimated we were about fifteen miles offshore. For the first 30 minutes or so we saw a few other boats, but they quickly dispensed in differing directions and we were along. We had set off in a grey haze that quickly enveloped the land and turned the sun in to a nothing more than a lighter glow in the haze. Both sea and sky were otherwise quite featureless.  I watched with growing alarm as the sky changed; growing dark and heavy, and a stiffening breeze spring up.  Maybe two hours out we came upon a similar canoe, drifting aimlessly as their similarly ancient outboard engine had died.  To its crew’s consternation our boat skipper offered not to towed them to back to port but to a point where they ‘had a better chance of being spotted’ by a home-bound canoe.  So for half and hour or so we towed them further out to sea (or at least it seemed that direction to me) before leaving them to anchor on what appeared an equally featureless spot of grey sea as the one where we picked them up.  We never saw them again; I rather hope this indicated that they had indeed been towed ashore.

Our unhappy fishermen drop anchor and start their wait for a passing vessel after we tow them to a ‘better’ location.

At one point Pape, the boat’s owner, asked me which direction I thought M’bour lay.  With no visual clues to guide me I based my guess on the heading I thought we had set off on.  Apparently I was almost 180 degrees out.  I asked Pape how he could tell, with no compass or electronic aids; the wind direction he informed me.  So, I enquired cautiously, does it always blow from the same direction this time of year?  No, he cheerfully informed me, sometimes we get lost.  I rather wished I hadn’t asked.

Eventually we arrived at the fishing grounds.  What exactly identified them as ‘the fishing grounds’ I have no idea.  Hooks were baited with little, frozen prawns from our icebox and handlines set.  A small stove was fired up in the middle of the canoe and sugary tea the colour and consistency of stockholm tar brewed.  A cup was passed around from which we all took small sips; more than would most likely have resulted in irreversible damage to my intestines.  This was supplemented by joints also passed around.  Tea, reefers and small amounts of rice and peanut porridge (gosi) were pretty much all the crew had to survive on apart from whatever they caught.   Around two hours passed, in which time we had caught maybe a dozen fish, mostly sardinella, horse mackerel and a few bigeye grunt (Brachydeuterus auritus).  Barely enough to feed us at sea, let alone provide a wage for all three fishermen.  Around four in the afternoon, by which time the chop on the sea had risen significantly and little whitecaps had started to appear, we finally decided to head back inshore.  Much to my relief, Pape’s sense of direction proved accurate.

The sun was setting when we finally reached M’bour, and there have been few occasions when I’ve been quite so pleased to step on to dry land.  Pape and his crew would probably go to sea again tomorrow, maybe staying out for one or two nights this time.  I thought that night of the meagre catch we returned with after a day at sea, of the broken down canoe we had come across and of the stories Pape had told me of getting caught in a storm and drifting helplessly for three days before sighting land.  Overfishing is a massive problem on the West coast of Africa.  Much of this problem is actually due to poorly regulated fishing by large trawlers from outside Senegal: Russian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese and European boats.  It has been estimated that a large trawler will, on one good day, catch as much as fifty pirogues will in a year.  Vessels are licensed by the Senegalese Government who argue that if they don’t sell licenses then neighbouring countries will; stocks may still suffer and Senegal will lose vauable revenue (Grégoire Allix, le Monde/Worldcrunch, 2011). What is a matter of concern about the long term effects of overfishing for us in the West can be a question of survival for some on the coast of Senegal.

M'bour, Senegal. Fifteen miles offshore a Senegalese fishermen hand lines for fish over a sand bank. Image MBI000908.

One of our crew handlines, delicately holding the line waiting patiently for a bite.

Fish salting pans, M'bour, Senegal. Image MBI000609.

Fish salting pans, M’bour, Senegal.

View more of my images of  Senegal and from other regions of the  World here at my Colin Munro Images website.

Sunrise, Navua River, Viti Levu, Fiji

Sunrise, Navua River, Viti Levu, Fiji

Sunrise over the Navua river near the mouth at Beqa Lagoon, Viti Levu, Fiji.  Image MBI000583

Sunrise over the Navua river near the mouth at Beqa Lagoon, Viti Levu, Fiji. Image MBI000583

A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to spend a little time on the islands of Fiji. This included a couple of days on the Navua river. I was there mostly to photograph bull and tiger sharks in Beqa Lagoon but the sheer beauty of the area was a real bonus. These shots were taken around 5am, just as the horizon began to lighten. It’s an incredibly tranquil place; the only sounds were the waking calls of a few parakeets and birds I did not recognise, plus the occasional ‘plop’ as a startled mudskipper dropped off a low hanging branch. I’ll be adding some of the Fiji landscapes to the prints for sale section of my website soon. if interested just email me.
As always my images are available to license. If you’d like to use one of my images please contact me

Sunrise and reflections, Navua river near the mouth at Beqa Lagoon, Viti Levu, Fiji.MBI000584

Sunrise and reflections, Navua river near the mouth at Beqa Lagoon, Viti Levu, Fiji.MBI000584

Spring is in the air. Seaslugs mating: Polycera faeroensis.

Spring is in the air. Seaslugs mating: Polycera faeroensis.

The seaslug, or nudibranch,  Polycera faeroensis mating.  Like all nudibranchs, Polycera faeroensis is a simultaneous hermaphrodite.

The seaslug, or nudibranch, Polycera faeroensis mating. Like all nudibranchs, Polycera faeroensis is a simultaneous hermaphrodite. Image MBI000678

Spring is in the air, the sea is getting warmer – slowly – and the birds and bees, and most things beneath the waves too. Polycera faeroensis is a very common seasulg in British waters, and although colourful is often overlooked due to its small size, large individuals are no more than 4.5 centimetrs long. Like all nudibranchs they are simultaneous hermaphrodites – possessing both male and female sex organs at the same time (sequential hermaphrodites have either only male or only female sex organs at any given time). Copulation works both ways (reciprocal copulation, as it is termed). As the sex organs always appear to be on the right side or their bodies, Polycera faeroensis nudibranchs copulate head to tail. The missionary position has not caught on in the nudibranch world. One might think this was already exciting enough for any mollusc, but some nudibranchs, (such as the related Palio dubia found around the northern Uk shores) add a touch of S & M to their sex lives. Unlike many nudibranchs, Palio dubia does not have a complete vaginal opening. Thus copulation occurs by hypodermic injection; the barbed penis (or penile cirrus as it is properly termed) simply punctures the body wall into its mating partner. Ouch!
As always my pics are available to license – if you’d like to use one just email me

The worst whale picture you’ll ever see

The worst whale picture you’ll ever see

Humpback whale swimming under a fishing vessel, Lyme Bay, Southwest England

Humpback whale swimming under a fishing vessel, Lyme Bay, Southwest England

I have just uploaded what is probably the worst whale picture you’ve ever seen, or are likely to. For a start it was taken with an old Nikonos III camera, without use of an additional hand held light meter. Those old Nik IIIs were purely mechanical, so no built in light meter; thus exposure was based on the ‘guesstimate then bracket like hell’ maxim. Secondly, it was taken with the only wide angle lens I owned back in those days, a cheap plastic supplementary lens of rather dubious sharpness. To be honest the lack of sharpness was not really an issue. I was shooting in turbid coastal waters, where horizontal visibility near the surface was between 8-10 metres (26-33 feet); pretty good for the area as it happens but lousy for shooting whales. On top of this strong winds had been blowing so the shallow coastal water was nicely loaded with suspended sediment lifted off the seabed. This made for a rather hazy 8-10 metres visibility. As if that weren’t enough, conditions were further complicated by this occurring around 7.30pm, so the sun was getting low and light levels below the surface were dropping like a stone. To cap it all I had no fast colour film with me (yes this was waaaay back in the pre-digital days). I had not gone diving to photograph whales. I knew the visibility was likely to be lousy so I had arrived armed with a set of extension tubes for macro-photography and several rolls of Fuji Velvia 50 slide film. This produces wonderful, detail and rich, saturated colours, But it is slow! Certainly useless for photographing something the size of a bus in turbid, low light conditions. Throwing everything out of my camera bag over the deck of our dive boat I fished out an old roll of 400 asa film. Now that was more like it; still going to struggle but at least there was a chance of a recognisable image now. Only problem was it was black and white negative film (so long ago I forget exactly what). Still, it was that or nothing. So I loaded it with shaking hands are rolled over the boats gunnel into the water. The slowest shutter speed available on Nik IIIs is a 30th sec, so I wound it right down and hoped for the best. Black and white negative film is more forgiving of poor exposure than slide, which was just as well really.

So I guess I was quite fortunate (and there was a lot of luck) to get any recognisable images at all. But apart from nostalgia, why hang on to them, and why publish them online? The pictures are nearly two decades old now and after all, I have lots of lousy quality pictures from years gone by. The main reason, apart from being able to waffle on about the difficulties of photographing large marine mammals in lousy conditions, is that, eighteen years on, as far as I am aware these remain the only underwater pictures taken of a humpback whale in British coastal waters. I can still remember my utter amazement as I peered over the boat’s rail into the water below, watching a dark shape slowly rise up. As it approached the surface not more than two metres from the boat I could clearly make out a long, white object. When it was around a metre below I suddenly realised I was staring at a massive white pectoral fin. ‘Bloody hell! It’s a humpback!’ I remember shouting (okay, it may have been slightly stronger than ‘bloody’). By the time it broke the surface I was already throwing dive gear together. I loaded my camera, threw my cylinder on and rolled over the gunnel faster than any time before or since, oblivious to what anyone else was doing. I settled on the bottom at around 10 metres. I peered around but he (or she) was nowhere in sight. What now? Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long. The humpback was intensely interested in the boats echo sounder transducer and kept returning to make passes under the hull. I floated up to mid-water and simply hung there, waiting for him to return then clicked away frantically changing aperture sizes as I did so.

A small population of humpbacks inhabits the Eastern Atlantic, migrating each year between their arctic feeding grounds and breeding grounds off Cape Verde. They are frequently spotted off the West coast of Ireland as they head North or south. This guy somehow made a wrong turn off Cornwall and headed East along the English Channel. After our memorable dive he was not seen again, as far as I know. Let’s hope he made back on track.

I continue to muddle away at underwater photography, so if anyone is tempted I shall be running a series of workshops from March 2010 onwards. More info at Colin Munro photography Main Index under Courses and Workshops

If anyone knows of other humpbacks photographed underwater around the UK I’d be most interested to learn about it.

Colin Munro 3rd February 2010.
Colinmunrophotography.com