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Albatross: Ocean navigators par excellence.

Albatross: Ocean navigators par excellence.

Albatross: Ocean navigators par excellence.

I’ve spent many an hour of the deck of fishing boats, hauling and emptying nets, sorting fish and filling fish boxes. I’ve always been amazed at how, as soon as we start hauling the net, seabirds appear from nowhere across an empty sea.  One of the joys of spending time at sea in the higher latitudes of the South Pacific, is watching albatross track across the ocean.  On a couple of occasions, I have gone out in small boats specifically to watch albatross. Off the Kaikoura, on New Zealand’s South Island, large numbers of albatross congregate

wandering albatross squabbling over food. © Colin Munro Photography www.colinmunrophotography.com
Wandering Albatross squabbling

Albatross are pretty much unmistakeable.  Huge seabirds that appear to soar effortlessly at sea, hardly moving so much as a wingtip. They belong to the family Diomedeidae, and like their relatives the petrels and shearwaters, they have distinctive tube-shaped nasal passages, which scientists believe help them find food at sea through a keen sense of smell.  Albatross are phenomenal travellers.  Individual birds will circumnavigate the earth, travelling as much as 500 miles in a day and often flying at a steady 50 miles an hour.  Once they are fledged, they remain at sea without ever touching land again for the next five or six years.  They are found in the North and South Pacific, and in the South Atlantic, but not the North Atlantic. Quite why they don’t occur in the North Atlantic is still a subject of debate amongst scientists. We know they used to occur there from fossil records. Short-tailed albatross, which are now confined to the North Pacific, bred as recently as are 400,000 years ago in Bermuda.  The current evidence suggests that a combination of factors may have been responsible.  The closing of the Central American Seaway, connecting the Atlantic with the Pacific between North and South America, approximately 2.5 million years ago, and a period of global warming and interglacial sea level rise of several metres (some scientists suggest as much as 20 metres rise in Bermuda).  The closure of the seaway effectively isolated the North Atlantic populations from others of the same species in the North Pacific, rendering smaller populations more vulnerable to extinction. It is also thought that sea level rise probably destroyed many nesting grounds.  At this point you may be thinking ‘They fly vast distances, why didn’t they simply spread north from the South Atlantic?’  Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  While they appear to fly effortlessly, albatross need wind to generate lift and to steer.  The sailors among you will be familiar with the doldrums, areas of ocean where only light winds or no wind at all occurs, and sailboats can be stuck for many days.  The doldrums, more properly known as the Inter-Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), forms a band that encircles the earth, extending roughly 5 degrees either side of the equator.  Here the north-easterly and south-easterly trade winds collide, resulting in still, slowly rising air that leaves the sails of trans-Atlantic yachts gently flapping. In you are a bird designed to soar on the wind, this is no use at all.  Albatross cannot sustain flight by flapping their enormous wings for long.  At roughly 10 degrees of latitude wide, the doldrums form a band around 600 nautical miles wide. This is too far for albatross to travel without the aid of wind, and so those born in the southern hemisphere will normally remain in the southern hemisphere all their lives.  Occasionally one does cross, perhaps during storm winds.  They are then trapped in the northern hemisphere.  The Bass rock, a small rocky remnant of ancient volcanos, off the east coast of Scotland, supports the largest colony of northern gannets in the World, but in May 1967 an unusual visitor nicknamed ‘Albert’ arrived. Albert was a black-browed albatross, a species that belongs in the southern hemisphere, more at home surfing the roaring 40s between New Zealand and Chile.  It’s thought that Albert was blown off course during a storm in 1967, and was then marooned in the northern hemisphere.  In subsequent years Albert was seen further north in the Shetland Isles, and in 2004 a black-browed albatross, believe to be Albert, took up residence among another gannet colony on the remote rocky outcrop of Sula Sgier.   In recent years black-browed albatross continue to occasionally turn up around the British coast.  In February 2019 one was spotted off Cornwall, while in July 2020 one was seen resting on cliffs amongst a gannet colony in Yorkshire.

Salvins albatross taking off from the sea. © Colin Munro Photography www.colinmunrophotography.com
Salvins albatross taking off from the sea.

This is still a very rare occurrence. The majority of albatross spend years at sea, traversing tens of thousands of miles, then successfully navigate back to the same colony. Wandering albatross, in particular, are famed for the vast distances they cover and their navigation abilities. Because raising chicks is such a long and demanding process for albatross, in most species the adults will breed only every second year, the intervening time being known as their sabbatical year.  One study published in Nature (Weimerskirch Et al., 2015) found that some birds breeding in the Crozet and Kerguelen Islands (remote Antarctic and sub-Antarctic Island groups) will circumnavigate Antarctica twice or even three times, covering up to 120,000 kilometres during this sabbatical year, before returning to these remote specks of land in the Southern and Indian Oceans.  The short answer is we really don’t know how albatross navigate so precisely. Sensitivity to the Earth’s magnetic fields has been suggested, but other studies have shown that disrupting these fields (by attaching tiny magnets to birds’ heads) make no difference to their ability to navigate. Using their sense of smell to detect traces of gases or compounds is another possibility.  Albatross are tubenoses, they have distinctive tubular nostrils believed to help funnel smells as an aid to foraging. Studies have shown that wandering albatross are able to detect and follow faint food smells from at least 20 kilometres away. The olfactory bulbs, the part of the forebrain that processes information on smell, makes up around 37% of the brain space of albatross, so this sense is obviously hugely important in their interpretation of the world around them. Where smells are faint and patchy, albatross will fly upwind in zigzag patterns, presumably working out where the odours are strongest. Recent research is providing growing evidence that ocean-going seabirds may rely not on magnetic patterns but olfactory, or smell cues, and may be producing brain, odour maps of the oceans, possibly similar to our nautical charts of ocean currents, to successfully navigate across thousands of miles of empty ocean and return home.

Gabrielle A. Nevitt, Marcel Losekoot, Henri Weimerskirch. Evidence for olfactory search in wandering albatross, Diomedea exulans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Mar 2008, 105 (12) 4576-4581; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0709047105

Anna Gagliardo, Joël Bried, Paolo Lambardi, Paolo Luschi, Martin Wikelski, Francesco Bonadonna. Oceanic navigation in Cory’s shearwaters: evidence for a crucial role of olfactory cues for homing after displacement. Journal of Experimental Biology 2013 216: 2798-2805; doi: 10.1242/jeb.085738

J. Mardon, A. P. Nesterova, J. Traugott, S. M. Saunders, F. Bonadonna. Insight of scent: experimental evidence of olfactory capabilities in the wandering albatross (Diomedea exulans). Journal of Experimental Biology 2010 213: 558-563; doi: 10.1242/jeb.032979

Reynolds Andrew M., Cecere Jacopo G., Paiva Vitor H., Ramos Jaime A. and Focardi Stefano 2015Pelagic seabird flight patterns are consistent with a reliance on olfactory maps for oceanic navigation. Proc. R. Soc. B.28220150468 https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2015.0468

Weimerskirch H, Delord K, Guitteaud A, Phillips RA, Pinet P. Extreme variation in migration strategies between and within wandering albatross populations during their sabbatical year, and their fitness consequences. Sci Rep. 2015;5:8853. Published 2015 Mar 9. doi:10.1038/srep08853

Travel Photography Tips: Tip Number 1

Travel Photography Tips: Tip Number 1

A series of Travel Photography Tips that will help you improve your photography for free. This is numero uno!

Note. I generally do not post the same material in my blog and my website. However, as this is the first of a series of article on photography tips and improving your travel photography, I am sharing it here and on my website www.colinmunrophotography.com. Future artciles will feature on my website.

One of the things you learn over the years as a photographer, is that how-to guides, magazine articles and manufacturers advertising don’t always tell you everything you need to know about photography. Don’t get me wrong. These are often excellent sources of information and you will learn a huge amount by reading them, but a camera manufacturer is not going to tell you that you don’t need the latest camera (or that their competitors also work well). Similarly, many magazines are primarily dependent on advertising, so promoting the latest camera models is going to be a large part of their content. My intention is that this will be a series of unbiased articles to learn help you learn travel photography.

Tip 1. Talk to people

Travel photography tips. Always try to establish a relationship with your subject. A mayna mother and dauther sell hand made bead necklaces and bracelets near the catholic cathedral, La Antigua, Guatemala. Colin Munro Photography
AA Mayna mother and dauther sell hand made bead necklaces and bracelets in La Antigua, Guatemala. I chatted to this lady for about 10 minutes (impressive as my Spanish is almost non-existent!) before taking this photograph. Many vendors tout in the nearby square, but this lady was more shy, and stayed back in the shadows. Her daughter was super shy, but her mum wanted her in the picture as well, so after a little persuading she joined her. Ethnic Mayans make up around 50% of Guatemala’s population. I left with some great photos and a couple of rather nice bracelets.

I work quite a lot in the travel industry, so I often guide tour groups and see a great many more groups as I go. I have to say quite clearly, one of my pet hates is seeing tourists, or photographers, taking photographs of local people without asking, or even communicating with them at all. To me it is the ultimate in dehumanising and objectifying people, and it is hugely disrespectful. When we travel within different cultures it is, in my view, essential that we show respect and try to engage whenever possible. This is a win-win scenario, because most times people will be pleased by this, and your experience will be enriched. You will learn more, you may see more and you will probably end up with much better photographs.

Photographs are not simply…

Here’s a picture of a foreign lady I took when I was in Nicaragua. She looked kinda interesting so I snapped a picture‘.

They mean so much more if you can make a connection. Photography is often described as painting with light; and it adds so much more if you can paint a story, make an emotional connection.

This is Maria; she travels to the square every afternoon to sell woven hats to tourists. The hats are made by her mother and aunt; each one takes about two hours to make..’.

You can see, the first is disconnected, remote; the second is personal, it contains a small vignette of someone’s life. A life probably very different from your own. Of course the second costs more. It takes time, and a degree of courage to talk to a stranger. Who knows, they may reject you, they may try to scam you, they may refuse to let you take their picture, then what? Maybe you’re left silently cursing that you hadn’t simply taken the snap without asking, but in a World with millions more pictures then there are people on this planet, what would be the value of that disconnected snap? A few years ago, travelling in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Colombia, I walked around our camp in the evening. As I walked towards a clearing with a viewpoint I came upon a kogi couple. Kogis are one of the four ethnic tribes surviving in the mountains of Colombia. They are small, mostly around five foot, incredibly handsome people with long jet black and chiselled aristocratic features. They are almost always dressed entirely in white, in simple cotton and wool tunics. I had seen quite a few kogi while we had been walking, they had been polite but distant. This couple had a classic pose; the woman sitting on a rock, gazing in silence out across the foothills way below us as the sun edged towards the horizon, the man standing by her side, a rifle casually slung across his shoulder. I walked towards them, smiled and, gesturing to communicate, asked if I could take a photograph. The man shook his head, so I smiled, waved and walked away. Of course I could have taken the photograph before they saw me, then apologised, but I would always have known that was how I got the photograph.

Travel Photography Tips.  A local fisherman throws his cast net to catch small fish at low tide. Phuket, Thailand. Colin Munro Photography
Tariq, a local fisherman casts his net at low tide. He is trying to catch small fish that gather in the shallows. Some fishermen will use these as bait for larger fish, but Tariq’s catch will help feed his family. There is an art to throwing a weighted cast net. Tariq makes it look easy, but that’s the skill of the fisherman. Tariq was initially a little nervous, and probably rather suspicious, of this farang (foreigner) wading out a couple of hundred metres to talk to him, but after he realised I was genuinely interested in learning how he fished, he took great pleasure in showing me his catch and explaining, though signs and gestures, how he cooked them.

So this is not a recipe for 100% success. It will not work every time. But when it does work the photographs will be far more valuable. One of the problems with this approach is the tendency of people to pose for the camera. Rather than asking then not to, which sometimes offends and sometimes results in stiff looking ‘natural’ poses, I find the best way is go along with it, take the posed shots, and keep talking. Often they will relax and forget about the camera, allowing you to take the images you want.

Buy the damn souvenirs!

Travel Photography Tips. An old lady laughs as she weaves pandanus leaves. Suau Island, Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea. Colin Munro Photography
An old lady laughs as she weaves pandanus leaves when we share a joke, Suau Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea.

I know many photographers are reluctant to pay for photographs. They sometimes feel it contributes towards ‘commodifying things’ or somehow ‘ripping off’ tourists. I have a different take on this. very often the thing we want to take back most from an exotic trip are those special images. Those unique images of local engaged in their normal activities, so different from those back home. And that is why we pay thousands of dollars (euros, pounds, renminbi) to airlines, coach companies, hotels and tour guides, to get us there; and yet we resent parting with cash to the most essential, and often poorest, link in that chain, the photographic subject. I have a different take. They have something I want, therefore I am happy to trade. While I don’t actively encourage directly parting with cash for photographs – simply because in some places it can be ill-judged and have you surrounded by children or youths wanting their photograph taken – I do always aim to trade where possible. So where that person is selling souvenirs I will buy the hat, the leather bracelet, maybe the T shirt; we’ve all got family or friends we can offload them on if we don’t personally have space in our lives for it. For one thing, by buying one of their products you have already broken the ice, you’ve established a relationship – albeit brief – with that person. Crucially, you are not a tourist looking down on the attractions (for their perspective) you are now on an equal level. If you ask for a photograph at this point they are far more likely to be receptive, and you’ve contributed to the local economy, right at grassroots level where your dollar, peso or baht will have the biggest impact.

One to One Photography Tuition

I’ve been running one to one photography tuition for quite a few years now. Currently I’m running online one to one tuition Worldwide. Many people find it is the easiest and the faster way for them to learn photography skills. Instruction starts from your current level of understanding. It progresses at the optimal speed for you to learn, and it’s flexible. Sessions can be arranged when you are free. By targeting exactly what you want to learn, and teaching at the correct pace for you, it can also be the most cost effective way to learn. Online photography tuition gives you freedom to learn from your own home, anywhere in the World.

This article is also published on my main website here

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Cuernos del Paine, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.

Cuernos del Paine, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile.

The Cordillera Paine is a cluster of mountain ranges on the edge of the South Patagonia Ice Cap. A small extension of the Andes way down in the far south of Chile. Bounded to the west by Grey glacier, Lago (lake) Nordenskjol to the south and Lagos Dickenson and Paine to the north, the cordillera lies almost completely with the Torres del Paine National Park, 1,800 square kilometres of breathtaking wilderness. The centrepeice of the park are three immense granite towers that dominate the landscape, Los Cuernos del Paine. The name literally translates as the blue horns: cuernos the Spanish for horns and Paine (pronounced pie-nay) meaning blue in the language of the indigenous Tehuelche peoples. The Tehuelche (also known as Aónikenk) is a collective name for the indigenous peoples inhabiting Patagonia prior to the arrival of the Spanish. The few remaining are now mostly found close to the southern Argentina-Chile borders.

Cuernos Del Paine, Torres del Paine, buy Fine Art Prints. Colin Munro Photography
Cuernos del Paine, Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia. The first of my art prints for sale.

The three towers, torre sud, torres central and torre norte, have drawn many climbers over the years. In the austral summer of 1962-63, an Italian team and a British raced to be the first to climb the central tower. The seven man British team, lead by Barry Paige, had already been climbing there for several weeks when the Italian team arrived . The Italian team included the great alpinist Armando Aste, while while the British team was a mix of experience and then rising stars. A race to reach the top first ensued; a race won by the brits, in part through Don Whillans idea to erect a temporary hut high on the mountain, sheltering them from the ferocious wind. The tower was first summited by Chris Bonington and Don Whillans, then both still in their 20s, and famously barely on speaking terms at the beginning of the climb, after a fall-out on an earlier expedition.

The classic route to the top of torre central is known as the Bonington-Whillans Route. Armando Aste went on to complete the first climb of the South Tower (Torre Sur) shortly after.

Torres del Paine mountain peaks among dark, brooding clouds. Patagonia, Chile. Fine Art Print by Colin Munro Photography
Torres del Paine mountain peaks amongst ominous clouds

The Cordillera Paine is itself merely a spur of the Andes, the longest continental mountain range on Earth (the, underwater, mid-Atlantic ridge is longer). The Paine Massif that dominates the skyline within the park is formed from a huge laccolith (a subterranean sheet or dome of magma) which cooled to form granite. The ‘horns’ are composed of older, country rock metamorphosed by the heat from the underlying laccolith. In geological terms they are known as ‘roof pendants’. The highest peak, Cerro Paine Grande, is now believed to be 2,884 metres high, following an expedition in 2011 (Expedición Paine Grande Reloaded) by Camilo Rada Giacaman, Maria Paz Ibarra Letelier and Sebastián Irarrázabal, where the height was measured by GPS.

An iconic photo of a guanaco standing silhouetted against a backdrop of the Torres del paine mountains. Fine Art print of a guanaco. Colin Munro Photography
Guanaco, Lama guanicoe, Torres del Paine National Park

It is not simply climbers that are attracted to Torres del Paine. It is estimated that over 250,000 people visit the national park each year (this year of course being an exception). There are numerous day hikes along with the famous multi-day ‘W’ and ‘O’ route treks, and 120ok respectively. The park is also fantastic for wildlife. Andean condors, flightless Darwin’s rheas, and guanacos, the wild relatives of llamas, are frequently seen. Present, but harder to spot, are pumas, South American grey fox and the endangered south andean deer.

Fine Art Prints individually produced to your specifications

I have recently started producing fine art prints of a selection of my photographs. These are currently available as acrylic facemount prints and giclee fine art prints. These are only available from me, through my websites. You will not find them mass produced or in high street stores. These include the top photograph of Cuernos del paine. In the near future the image of Torres del Paine and the guanaco photograph directly above are also likely to become available. These photographs are individually printed to order, using carefully selected professional photography printers, on a range of archival quality art papers. The printing processes uses some of the best pigment inks available, ensuring maximum fidelity of colour, durability and longevity. If you are interested in purchasing a print of one of these photographs, check out the fine art prints section on my www.colinmunrophotography.com website here. Find out more about this print here.

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Buy Art Prints of my Photographs

Buy Art Prints of my Photographs

You can now buy art prints of my photographs direct from me through my website

I’ve been conducting something of a revamp of my www.colinmunrophotography.com website recently. It’s still a work in progress, but one thing I’m really pleased about is I have now added the ability to purchase some of my favourite photographs as fine art prints direct from my website.

Cuernos Del Paine, Torres del Paine, buy Art Prints. Colin Munro Photography
Cuernos del Paine, Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia. The first of my art prints for sale.

The first of these prints, Cuernos del Paine (the blue horns) peaks, in the Cordillera Paine range, Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, is now live here. The name Cuernos del Paine is derived from the Spanish for horns (Cuernos) and the indigenous Tehuelche or Aonikenk language for blue (Paine). The three ‘horns’ dominate the landscape in much of the National Park. They are granite pillars, often shrouded in cloud and dusted with snow as in this photograph. The South Tower was first climbed by the great Italian alpinist Armando Aste in 1963. In the same year English climbers Chris Bonnington and Don Whillans completed the first ascent of the central ‘horn’. I took this photograph during an expedition trip in March, 2018. It’s one of my favourite photographs from Chile. If you want to skip there rest you can find out about selecting and buying a print of this photograph here.

Each print is individually produced to your specifications

These are individually printed, using carefully selected professional photography printers, on a range of archival quality art papers. The printing processes uses some of the best pigment inks available, ensuring maximum fidelity of colour, durability and longevity. Because of this I did not want this to simply be an automatic click and purchase process. I want to be sure I am providing exactly the print you want. Each print will be unique, created and delivered to your specifications. So this process begins with a discussion. The page provides information about the image, and about the printing choices, in terms of papers, sizes and aspect ratios. If you are interested in purchasing a print of the photograph, the first step is to contact me (using the contact form on the page) and we can fine tune the print to exactly your specifications. Find out more about this print here.

Fine art print of orca at sunset

Fine art print of a male orca silhouetted at sunset.  Colin Munro Photography
Male Orca at sunset, New Zealand South Island, East of Stewart Island.

I’ve just added a new art print, a male orca (or killer whale) silhouetted at sunset, to my selection. You can buy this print from my website using the link above. You can also read about how I took this photograph, and the decision-making process in creating this look, in another of my blogs here.

All my art prints, and information about my photography tuition and workshops can be found on my main website: www.colinmunrophotography.com

Dusky Dolphins of New Zealand

Dusky Dolphins of New Zealand
A dusky dolphin performs a back-flip. kaikoura, New Zealand. 
© Colin Munro Photography
A dusky dolphin performs a back-flip beside our boat.

Dusky dolphins (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) are possibly the most playful, and certainly one of the most – if not the most – acrobatic of all dolphin species. An encounter with a pod of duskies is an experience that stays with you for a long time. I’ve been fortunate enough to see dusky dolphins on a number of occasions, always around New Zealand, although they are widely distributed in cooler, coastal waters in the southern hemisphere. Kaikoura Peninsula, in the south-eastern corner of South Island, is famous for the large numbers of cetaceans that are found there, including pods of dusky dolphins, and it is here that I have had the best interactions with duskies. Many dolphin species will interact with boats, with groups changing direction to bow-ride for a few minutes. When it happens, no matter how many times you may have witnessed dolphins bow-riding, it’s still an uplifting experience when it happens. But duskies are something else! They don’t simply bow-ride; when they decide to play with a passing vessel, it’s like the the acrobats from Circus Soleil have teamed up with a bunch of olympic gymnasts to put on a show for you. It is impossible to watch and not be convinced that they are performing simply for the pleasure of showing off and letting you know just how good they are. While travelling at speed a dolphin will fly 3 metres high, performing a back-flip, to tail-slap hard on the water’s surface. I’ve watched three dolphins leap high in the air, describing a perfect arc, each dolphin precisely following the path of the one less than a body’s length in front.

Dusky dolphins leaping, Kaikoura.
© Colin Munro photography
Synchronised leaps of dusky dolphins

There is also a tangible sense of competition between them. Groups of young male dolphins, five or six abreast, will suddenly sprint 50 metres, clearly racing one another.

dusky dolphins racing through the water, Kaikoura, New Zealand
Dusky dolphins race alongside our boat

Like many other species of cetacean, including sperm whales, dusky dolphins are attracted to Kaikoura because of the rich feeding in in deep water nearby. Kaikoura Canyon, a 60 kilometre long underwater trench, comes to with 1000 metres of the shore, but plunges steeply to up to 1.2 kilometres in places. Recent studies have shown that Kaikoura Canyon holds some of the greatest concentrations of biomass of deepwater species of anywhere in the World (De Leo, et al., 2010) with biomass concentrations up to 100 times greater than similar deepwater habitats. Within deeper waters, a phenomenon known as the DSL, or Deep Scattering layer occurs. This refers to the effect on the echo sounders used on ships to detect the depth of the seabed. A layer occurs mid-water that reflects the acoustic signal of these sounders. This reflection, or scattering, is caused by the gas-filled swim bladders of millions of fish, mostly types of lanternfish, the most abundant fish in the mesopelagic zone (the oceans between around 200-1000m depth, sometimes called the twilight zone). The layer also contains creatures such as squid and crustaceans, but they have no swim bladders, so do not contribute to the bounce of acoustic signals. This layer is where the dusky dolphins are feeding. This dense aggregation of fish, squid and mid-water crustaceans attracts predators, including the dolphins. This living layer is not static however, it undergoes a vertical migration of hundreds of metres every day, rising towards the surface at night, then descending back into the depths as the sun rises. Dusky dolphins feed in this layer at night. They are believed capable of diving to below 150 metres, but prefer to feed when the layer rises to within 130 metres of the surface (Benoit-Bird et al. 2004).

Books, Prints, Downloads and Mailing lists

If you enjoyed this article maybe consider subscribing to my blog. I will hopefully complete a book on ocean life in the coming months, you can learn more about it and follow its progress by subscribing to my mailing list here. The dolphin pictures shown here are available as fine art prints. These are available as stretched canvas, canvas wraps, flat canvas, dye-infused aluminium prints and acrylic on alumimium in a range of sizes and crops. They can be ordered directly from my website colinmunroimages.com. Default printing is my Bay Photos professional fine art printers in California. For orders from the UK, contact me directly and these can be supplied by Loxley professional printers in the UK. It can also be downloaded as a digital file, for private or commercial use, in a range of file sizes.

References

Benoit-Bird, Kelly & Würsig, Bernd & Mfadden, Cynthia. 2004. Dusky dolphin (Lagenorhynchus obscurus) foraging in two different habitats: Active acoustic detection of dolphins and their prey. Marine Mammal Science. 20. 215 – 231. 10.1111/j.1748-7692.2004.tb01152.x.

De Leo Fabio C., Smith Craig R., Rowden Ashley A., Bowden David A. and Clark Malcolm R., 2010. Submarine canyons: hotspots of benthic biomass and productivity in the deep sea. Proc. R. Soc. B.2772783–2792

Blue Shark

Blue Shark

An account of photographing blue sharks off Cornwall, Southwest Britain, a few years back, and a link to buying blue shark 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 fine art prints. buy fine art prints of a blue shark. Colin Munro Photography www.colinmunroimages.com
Blue shark, Prionace glauca. A female blue shark swimming close to the surface off Southwest Cornwall, UK. Blue sharks are easily recognisable by their slender form, long pectoral fins and vivid blue colour. Like many shark species they are counter-coloured, blue on their backs and white below. Blue sharks are found off Southwest Britain between July and October. For reasons that are still not fully understood it is most females that are seen in British waters. Female blue sharks can be recognised by the absence of of claspers on their belly; sexually mature female blues will often have prominent scars of their head, neck and back. These are mating scars causing by bites from the male blue shark during mating. Blue sharks are found in all major oceans, in temperate and tropical waters.

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

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.

How can I buy fine art photographs if I am not in North America?

I also use excellent printers in the UK, and Bangkok, Thailand. If you are in Europe or Asia, please email me with the photo code, the print style and the size, and I will arrange for it to be delivered from either UK or Bangkok. If you are elsewhere in the World, and would really like to buy one of my images as a fine art print, drop me an email and we’ll see what I can work out. (My www.colinmunrophotography.com site showcases my fine art photographic prints printed in the UK. You can also buy prints directly).

I am slowly moving my marine biology orientated blogs to my other blog site: www.marine-bio-images.com/blog. I may eventually remove them from this site. This article can now be found here.

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. A beginners guide to photography: Image Exposure, Shutter Speed and Aperture.

A beginners guide to photography, looking at 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) .

A beginners guide to photography, Photography Fundamentals.  Camera diagram showing aperture, sensor and light path. Colin Munro Photography
A camera is basically a light-tight box with an aperture at one end and light sensitive material at the other.

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. I’ve taken an image of mine of a tokay gecko and changed the exposure of it to illustrate this.

Beginners guide to photography. Photography Fundamentals. An example of an under-exposed image. Colin Munro Photography
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.

Beginners guide to pphotography. Photography fundamentals. An example of an over-exposed image. Colin Munro Photography
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.

Photography workshops, online classes, one-to-one tuition

This blog is an excerpt from my beginners photography teaching. You can learn more about my photography lessons, online and one-to-one tuition and photography workshops at my main website www.colinmunrophotography.com. During the current restrictions due to covid-19, I am mostly running online one to one teaching. The good news is that these can be accessed anywhere in the World. You can find out more about them here.

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