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

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

Short-beaked common dolphins

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

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

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

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

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

Common Dolphin breaching

Common Dolphin breaching

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vanuatu: straddling the centuries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

A small boy watches the ceremonial dancers perform.

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

References:

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

 

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

www.colinmunrophotography.com

www.colinmunroimages.com

www.500px.com/colin85

 

The Kimberley

Saltwater crocodile basking on rocks, Hunter River, Kimberley

Thung Wua Laen Beach, Chumphon, Thailand, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis, Scotland and St. Peter Port, Guernsey, Channel Islands and various other places.

It felt strange to be writing this account in the sweltering humidity of Thailand’s rainy season after the ferocious, dessicating heat of the Kimberley. Equally, it felt odd in the cool, fresh breeze off Papa Westray in the Orkney islands. This blog was written in no one location, rather it was added to in over a dozen places; from Thailand to the Shetland Islands down to the British Channel Islands via the Outer Hebrides and the Isles of Scilly, Devon and finally completed in Barcelona. Mostly it was done in the evening, at sea, after we had everyone back onboard, briefings completed, daily reports sent and plans for the following day in place. So it was written in very short bursts – ten minutes one night, fifteen the next. As a consequence, completion has taken rather longer than initially intended. This piecemeal approach also resulted in what was written one night rarely flowing easily into the next day’s segment. I eventually became rather frustrated with hits and so decided to cut most of the text. The Kimberley has a unique, harsh beauty and so I have largely allowed the images to speak for themselves.

The Kimberley covers over 163,000 square miles of Northwestern Australia. It is hot, rugged and sparsely populated.  A vast area of sandstone plateau dissected by river gorges.  To many it is known as Australia’s last great wilderness. Over three times the size of England, yet with a resident population of between 35-50,000 (many leave during the wet season). To put that in context that’s a quarter to a third of the population of the Isle of Wight. It is not an area of the World teaming with wildlife, the climate and land are too severe to support life in great number.  Spinifex carpets the land, with occasional boabs ((Adansonia gregorii) and pandanus where water courses run.  The mammals that make their home in the Kimberley are mostly difficult to see, largely being nocturnal (such as northern quolls) or crepuscular (e.g. rock wallabies). But wildlife there is, especially close to water, where eagles, egrets, herons, brahminy kites, water monitors and, of course, saltwater crocodiles are found.

Saltwater crocodile, Hunter River, Kimberley

Saltwater crocodile, Hunter River, Kimberley

 

Saltwater crocodile basking on rocks, Hunter River, Kimberley

Saltwater crocodile basking on rocks, Hunter River, Kimberley

A saltwater crocodile basks on a rock, its jaws gaping, at the end of a small creek along the Hunter River.  Although this pose may look aggressive, the primary purpose is to cool the crocodile’s brain.  Whilst the croc lies in the sun its body warms.  The optimum body temperature for crocodillians is between 30 and 33 degrees centigrade.  As with most animals, the brain is sensitive to overheating.  Evaporation from the lining of the mouth cools the crocodile’s head whilst the more massive body warms.

A saltwater crocodile cruises slowly along the surface, Hunter River, Western Australia.

A saltwater crocodile cruises slowly along the surface, Hunter River, Western Australia.

At high water, as the above of exposed mudflat and rock diminishes, crocs are more likely to be seen cruising slowly on the surface.

massive rock buttresses line the Hunter River gorge.

massive rock buttresses line the Hunter River gorge.

The Horizontal Falls, seen from the air.

The Horizontal Falls, seen from the air 

The Horizontal Falls have been described as “One of the greatest wonders of the natural world” by Sir David Attenborough no less. A man who has seen a fair few natural wonders in his time.  Viewing the falls, even on neap tides, it’s hard to disagree with Sir David.  On a spring tide the tidal range in the Kimberley can be up to 10 metres.  This tidal ebb and flow is forced through two narrow gaps in the McLarty mountain ranges.  This can result in a drop of several metres at each falls, as water rushes through with tremendous force.

The King George Falls, King George River, Western Australia

The King George Falls, King George River, Western Australia

At around 40 metres in height,the King George Falls are the highest in Western Australia.  There are in fact two waterfalls, side by side on the King george River, separated by a giant rock buttress.

CalSky170721adeleIsland01CR

Brown boobies in flight.

A beach stone curlew, Careening Bay

A beach stone curlew, Careening Bay

Beach stone curlews, also known as thick-knees, are large, heavily built waders that feed on crabs and other marine invertebrates.  They prefer isolated beaches for nesting, such as Careening Bay, where this one was photographed.

Mertens’ water monitor (Varanus martensi) is a fairly large monitor, up to a metre in length, found throughout much of Northern Australia.  It feeds mostly on frogs, fish, crabs, small mammals, birds eggs and insects, pretty much anything they can catch.  They are rarely found far from water.  I photographed this one on a low ledge near the base of The King George Falls.   We glimpsed it gliding along as we nosed a Zodiac  up to the waterfall.  Like many other Australian carnivores, Mertens’ water monitors appear to have suffered a decline in numbers in areas to which cane toads have spread.  Toxicity tests indicate that water monitors are highly susceptible to cane toad toxins (Smith and Phillips, 2006).

A Merton's water monitor, Varanus merteni,

A Merton’s water monitor, Varanus merteni,

Each year in early July, humpback whales arrive off the Kimberley coast having migrated from their Antarctic feeding grounds to calve here.  Recent estimates suggest that between  28,000 and 34,000 humpbacks will visit the Kimberley coast between June and September annually. This is believed to be close to their pre-whaling levels; hunting for humpbacks ceased in this region in 1963.

A humpback whale cruises along the surface.  Adele Island, Northwest Australia.

A humpback whale cruises along the surface. Adele Island, Northwest Australia.

CalSky170721adeleIsland06CR

The humpbacks of the Kimberley

References

Smith, J.G., and Phillips, B.L. (2006).
Toxic tucker: the potential impact of cane toads on Australian reptiles. Pacific Conservation Biology 12, 40-49.

Rees Dart Valley Track Mount Aspiring National Park

The views above Rees Saddle are well worth the hike to get there.. Rees Dart Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, Southern Alps, new Zealand. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

The Rees and Dart Valley tracks run through some of the most spectacular scenery in New Zealand’s Southern Alps, and indeed, the Southern Hemisphere.

Rees Dart Valley, Mount Aspiring National Park, Southern Alps, New Zealand, copyright Colin Munro Photography

Rees Dart Valley, Mount Aspiring National Park

In late January this year I was fortunate enough to spend some time in the Mount Aspiring National Park in the south-west of New Zealand’s South Island.  After sampling the crazy, hedonistic atmosphere of Queenstown for a couple of days I was more than ready to leave and head on to wild landscapes, leaving wild party-town behind.  I had planned to fit in a multi-day hike but did not want to be walking with a crowd.  The Rees Dart Track was recommended to me by a couple of friends: It was reasonably strenuous, far less busy than the Great Walks routes, fitted in with my available time constraints and – rather importantly, did not require booking weeks or months in advance as many of the more popular walks did.  It was also only a couple of hours drive from my then base of Queenstown and (and this is what clinched it for me) apparently spectacularly scenic.  Regarding the last point, I was certainly not disappointed, it is an incredibly beautiful, awe-inspiring area.

Before leaving Queenstown, I checked in at the Department of Conservation’s office to pick up a map, tickets for the huts and some advice on the condition of the track.  I learned that the normal circular route up the Rees valley then back down the Dart Valley was not possible at that time.  The Dart Valley part of the track had been blocked by avalanches the previous winter, making the route to Chinaman’s Car Park (the standard end point) impassable.  Blasting to clear it was happening but was not yet complete.

Completing the 46 kilometre drive north to Glenorchy took me far longer than the expected hour.  It was hard not to stop every few miles in order to get out and photograph yet another stunning view over Lake Wakatipu and the Thompson, Livingstone, Ailsa and Humboldt mountain ranges beyond.  Arriving at Mrs Wooley’s General Store, I drove in to Mrs Woolly’s Campsite directly behind, pitched my tent and settled in for the evening.  Mrs Woolly’s store is exactly what one might expect from a store located in rural New Zealand belonging to someone called ‘Mrs Woolly’; constructed from rough wooden planks and packed full of wholesome goodies.  Two teenage girls served behind the counter (Mrs Woolly’s daughters I convinced myself). I imaged Mrs Woolly as a kindly-faced elderly lady with wire-rimmed glasses and a white pinafore over a long black dress; a kind-of antipodean ‘grandma Walton’.  I tried hard not to think that ‘Mrs Woolly’ might be the creation of some bright young advertising executive in Queenstown or Auckland.

My planned early morning start didn’t happen.  For various reasons I found myself completing the drive back to Queenstown and returning to Glenorchy mid-afternoon.  By the time I finally set off for the Rees Valley and the start of the track it was well after 2pm. I drove my little hire car as far as the track would allow; to the track starting point at Muddy Creek Car Park.  There I grabbed a quick bite of bread and cheese from the food supplies I had, locked the remains of the bread loaf securely in the cars boot (a bad decision as I would later find out) shouldered my pack and set off walking around 4pm, much later than I had originally hoped.  The forecast was not great. A weather warning was in place with strong winds and heavy rain forecast, but – on the bright side – it wasn’t raining…  yet.

The walk along the Rees River valley from Muddy Creek Car Park to past Lennox Falls. Rees Dart Track, Mount Aspiring National Park. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

The walk along the Rees River valley from Muddy Creek Car Park to past Lennox Falls.

By six in the evening I was stomping through the waterlogged meadows that bordered the braided, meandering river as it flowed along the wide glacier-carved valley, walking directly in to the wind-driven rain.  Every so often the track would head up in to the steep sided valley walls.  Here the path was far drier but slower as one clambered over or under fallen trees.  As the rainfall became heavier the steep muddy track became ever more slippery.  To my surprise, as I negotiated my way along the narrow track, I suddenly came upon a tiny one-man tent erected in the shelter of the shallowest of depressions in the rock face that bordered the upslope side of the track.  I was impressed at the ingenuity in pitching a tent on mud-covered rock in what was no more than a 3 or 4 foot deep undercut in the cliff.  This was the first (and only sign of others) on the track I encountered that evening.  I was to meet very colourful character who occupied the tent the next day, but for now I tramped on.  Eventually I abandoned it in favour of a direct route through the meadows, fast becoming a calf deep bog.  There are poles marking the preferred route across the valley floor but, as the wind increased, they became trickier to spot in the driving rain.  I leaned in to the gale-force wind, my jacket hood pulled low and the collar high so only my eyes and nose were exposed to the needle like rain drops, and plodded through what now resembled paddy fields more than grass meadows.  I reckoned I was carrying a few extra pounds with the mud that filled my boots and encased my legs to mid-thigh after numerous plunges in to troughs hidden beneath the water’s surface.  I thought about the warm sunshine and gentle, cooling breeze that had lulled me in to a false optimism at the start of my hike only a few hours earlier. The same question went around in my head: where the hell I was going to pitch my tent that night.  It was 20km from the car park to Shelter Rock Hut, 7km from the park boundary which I had still to reach, but continuing to walk after dark seemed like a pretty dumb idea.

A couple of suspension bridge (swing bridge in NZ) must be crossed before the track enters Mount Aspiring National Park . Rees Dart Track, New Zealand. copyright Colin Munro Photography

A suspension bridge (swing bridge in NZ) must be crossed before the track enters Mount Aspiring National Park

 

No sense wasting material building these bridges any wider than necessary must be the thinking I guess.

No sense wasting material building the bridge any wider than necessary must be the thinking I guess.

 

Sandflies, attracted no doubt by the CO2 from my breathe and the smell of octenol compounds in my sweat, congregate across the mesh ventilation patches of my tent as the sun rises.

Sandflies, attracted no doubt by the CO2 from my breathe and the smell of octenol compounds in my sweat, congregate across the mesh ventilation patches of my tent as the sun rises.

When I finally reached the park boundary the sky was already darkening.  The track climbed out of the valley floor up in to the trees.  The park boundary sign estimated a further 3-4 hours walking to Shelter Rock Hut, that would be 3-4 hours in very dark conditions, under the trees with heavy cloud cover, along a slippery, muddy footpath with possible steep drops at the edge of the track.  Maybe not tonight I though.  The alternative was to pitch my tent for the night.  I found a raised clearing in the trees; slightly drier than the surround land but with a soft carpet of sphagnum moss.  I watched the surrounding trees sway and creak in the wind but decided that chancing a tree fall on me while I slept was a risk worth taking given the alternative option of pitching on open, boggy ground where, if my tent didn’t blow away, I’d probably find myself lying in several inches of water.   Despite my tent almost blowing flat at times, and the ominous creaking of nearby trees, I fell asleep quickly and slept until the early hours.  I awake around 3a.m. to a persistent scratching noise.  Something was trying to get in to my tent. I thought about the empty tin from the cold chilli con carne I had eaten before crawling in to my sleeping bag, now tucked under the awning of the tent.  Okay, so something was feasting on the scraps in the tin – but no, the noise was inside the tent.  I was a little more awake now.  In fact, the scratching was on the outside of my sleeping back, and I could feel small footsteps on my shoulder.  Fumbling for my torch I discovered a mouse had somehow got into my tent (quite how remains a mystery, the tent was zipped fast and no holes were later discovered).  Extracting a very athletic and clearly terrified mouse from a small tent crammed with soggy clothes is no easy feat. After several minutes of trying to corner an animal that that appeared capable of leaping many times its own body length and changed direction far faster than I was capable of, it finally discovered the (now unzipped) tent door and leap to freedom.

A highly athletic mouse in mid-leap in my tent around 3a.m.  It proved just as hard to photograph as it was to catch.

A highly athletic mouse in mid-leap in my tent around 3a.m. It proved just as hard to photograph as it was to catch.

 

Cooking porridge amidst clouds of sandflies as my boots and trousers dry. Rees Dart Track, New Zealand. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

Cooking porridge amidst clouds of sandflies as my boots and trousers dry. Actually ‘dry’ is a euphemism; more correctly I should say ‘become less saturated’.

The remaining hours of darkness passed uneventfully. By dawn the wind had died away to nothing and the rain ceased.  I lay in my sleeping bag watching sandflies form frenzied mobs on the other side of the mesh vents of my tent. Female sandflies (more properly west coast blackflies, Austrosimulium ungulatum) are attracted by the CO2 from exhaled breath; this would accumulate within my tent through the night.  They are also believed to be attracted to chemicals such as 1-octen-3-ol that also occurs in exhaled breath and in sweat.  Again this was something that abounded within my small tent and the soggy clothing within after by exertions of the previous evening.  All the flies congregating outside my tent were females.  I knew this because only the females are attracted in this manner.  The reason for their frantic pawing at the mesh vents, in a manner reminding me of the zombies in a George A. Romero movie, was their need to drink blood (my blood, specifically, at this moment in time).  If a female cannot obtain a blood meal she lays only a few eggs, but if she is successful then she may lay several batches of two to three hundred eggs.   Personally, I’m not too keen on helping produce more sandflies, and I had already been driven to distraction by the intense itching that is the after-effect of their dining on me.  So I lay in my sleeping bag, safe from their bloodthirsty attentions, for a little longer.  In many other parts of the World black fly species are the vectors for some pretty nasty diseases (e.g. river blindness through transmission of the nematode worm Onchocerca volvulus).  I wasn’t aware of any similar concerns in New Zealand, but even so I had no desire to be bitten more than absolutely necessary.

Sandflies try to reach me through the knee of my trousers as I cook breakfast. Fortunately the breadknife-like mouthparts cannot penetrate the material.

Sandflies try to reach me through the knee of my trousers as I cook breakfast. Fortunately the breadknife-like mouthparts cannot penetrate the material.

 

An inquisitive South Island robin, Petroica australis, inspects my tent, Rees Dart Track, Mount Aspiring National Park. Copyright Colin Munro Photography. www.colinmunrophotography.com

An inquisitive South Island robin, Petroica australis, inspects my tent. Until recently considered a sub-species of the New Zealand robin, recent (2006) studies of mitochondrial DNA have lead to the the North and South island populations now being regarded as distinct species.

Once up there was no incentive to hang around.  After a quick breakfast of porridge and coffee I packed up my tent, pushed my feet in to still sopping wet boots, shouldered my rucksack and headed on up the track.   The first part of the track within the park is a very pleasant hike through beech forest with a dense undergrowth of ferns. Sphagnum moss blanketed much of the forest floor whilst lichens hung from and encased the tree trunks and branches.  Occasional streams cascaded down the steep walls and, more often than not, I couldn’t resist the urge to dig out my camera and set up a few shots.  Thus it’s fair to say my progress was slow, but my intention was to make it no further than Shelter Rock Hut that day, so I had all day to cover 7 kilometres.  After an hour or so the forest came to an abrupt end, the track continuing through open meadows of tussock grass interspersed with Spaniard plants (Aciphylla species) or speargrass as they are sometimes known due to their stiff, erect, spear-like leaves which are sharp as razors and definitely to be avoided.  As the morning progressed, the sky cleared, and the walk became very pleasant.  Shortly before arriving at Shelter Rock Hut I met the first other people on the track.  Jesse and Alecia, a couple from Colorado, caught up with me as I took my time and stopped to take photographs (Jesse has his own blog on travel and living cheaply, noodlesandfish.com).  We walked the last couple of kilometres together.  As we arrived at the hut we were greeted by the wardens, with boiling water for a hot drink and a coal burning stove throwing out a radiant heat that filled the room. We settled in for the day with our fellow trampers: Craig, an Auckland geneticist and artist, his teenage son and his son’s friend, and our two wardens. We were joined later by the occupant of the tent I passed last night.  A fascinating guy who spent most of the year living out of his car, and the summer months tramping the tracks of Otago and Fiordland.  As it transpired, the following day was one of persistent rain and wind, so the day was spent drinking coffee, stoking to stove and swapping yarns.

I had intended to write and publish this as a complete article, as ever, time became squeezed with other projects and so I decided to publish this first part before too much time elapsed. In the words of those old ’60s TV cliffhangers ... to be continued.

A mountain stream cascades down the densely wooded valley slopes. Rees Dart Track, Mount Aspiring National Park. copyright Colin Munro Photography

A mountain stream cascades down the densely wooded valley slopes. Rees Dart Track, Mount Aspiring National Park

 

Below the tree line the slopes are covered in dense forest, mostly beech. Tree branches are often smothered in  a variety of lichens, testifying the moist climate that prevails here. Rees Dart Track, Mount Aspiring National Park. copyright Colin Munro Photography

Below the tree line the slopes are covered in dense forest, mostly beech. Tree branches are often smothered in a variety of lichens, testifying to the moist climate that prevails here.

 

Walking from Muddy Creek car Park to Shelter Rock Hut once the wooded valleys are left behind. Colin Munro

The slow slog up to Shelter Rock Hut. As in much of the Southern Alps, the tree line ends quite sharply, to be replaced by tussock grassland.

 

The views above Rees Saddle are well worth the hike to get there.. Rees Dart Track, Mount Aspiring National Park, Southern Alps, new Zealand. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

The views above Rees Saddle are well worth the hike to get there.

 

The welcome sight of Shelter Rock Hut as the rain clouds begin to gather.

The welcome sight of Shelter Rock Hut as the rain clouds begin to gather.

 

Jesse and Alecia, companions along part of the track, at one of the many stream crossings.

Jesse and Alecia, companions along part of the track, at one of the many stream crossings.

 

Snowy Creek plunges down the side of Mount Cumminham, north of Rees Saddle, en route to Dart Hut, Rees Dart Track. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

Snowy Creek plunges down the side of Mount Cumminham, north of Rees Saddle, en route to Dart Hut.

 

Trecking along Rees Dart Track, Mount Aspiring National Park. Colin Munro Photography

When the sun does shine in the mountains it is such a glorious place to be. Especially when you take your pack off!

 

Mounts Clarke and Cunningham loom over the Rees River, near Shelter Rock Hut, Rees Dart Track. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

Mount Clarke and Mount Cunningham loom over the Rees River, near Shelter Rock Hut.

 

The carnivorous plant Alpine sundew Drosera arcturi) is common in boggy areas.  It is found throughout the alpine and sub-alpine zones. Rees Dart Track,. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

The carnivorous plant Alpine sundew Drosera arcturi) is common in boggy areas. It is found throughout the alpine and sub-alpine zones.

 

On the higher slopes, heading towards Cascade Saddle; low, ground-overing shrubs producing red berries were common. I haven't managed to identify them (possibly Pentachondra?) so if anyone knows what they are?

On the higher slopes, heading towards Cascade Saddle; low, ground-overing shrubs producing red berries were common. I haven’t managed to identify them (possibly Pentachondra?) so if anyone knows what they are?

 

Snowy Creek cascades down near Rees Saddle. Rees Dart Track. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

Snowy Creek cascades down near Rees Saddle.

© Colin Munro 2017

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Christmas in Abu Qir – a wander through Egypt’s backstreets

Street performers entertain children in Abu Qir's backstreets. Colin Munro Photography
Street performers entertain children in Abu Qir's backstreets

Street performers entertain children in Abu Qir\’s backstreets

Christmas in Abu Qir
A little over ten years ago I spent Christmas in the small Egyptian seaport of Abu Qir. This was not a planned stopover, even in summer Abu Qir is not on any tourist route. Abu Qir is a freight and naval port situated at the end of a spindly headland jutting out into the Eastern Basin of the Mediterranean. Nitrogenous fertiliser production is the main industry in Abu Qir. Within the harbour it is stored in vast warehouses awaiting shipping. Fertiliser dust lines the trucks and blows into all crevices along the quays. After any time spent there it fills the tread in your boots; when the wind blow a light dusting coats most surfaces. Winter rains easily penetrate the warehouses and wash across the roads. On contact with water the fertiliser, presumably ammonium nitrate, decomposes to release ammonia fumes powerful enough to make you catch your breath and set your eyes streaming. This may be one factor in the lack of tourists or tourism infrastructure. Grain is a major import here. All day long one can watch trucks pull up beneath a large hopper. A fountain of grain cascades into the truck from on high whilst the hapless driver, or driver’s mate, stands beneath it and levels out the accumulating pile with a broom. This has to be one of the worst jobs in the world. With only a rag tied around his nose and mouth he is mostly obscured within a blizzard of wheat dust and chafe. Standing a hundred metres or so away the dust filled my nose and I couldn’t help but wonder how much of his lungs remain functional.

A dusty boulevard leads away from the port, becomes a tarmac road and soon after hooks up with the Trans-African Highway, the artery running across the top of Africa. Some twenty odd kilometres to the West, in its International Highway coastal detour, it skirts Alexandria, then joins the Trans-African Highway proper (TAH1 to be precise) heading endlessly West to finally hit the buffers at Dakar, over 8000 kilometres distant. To the East the route is much shorter. The Highway threads its way along the narrow strips of land that separate the Mediterranean proper from the coastal lagoons of the Nile Delta to Port Said on the Eastern bank. The intrepid can continue a further 240 kilometres along the edge of the Sinai Peninsula, before being stopped at the barricade at the Rafah border crossing into the West Bank. This is currently closed by Egypt, apparently under pressure from Israel.

Abu Qir is a small spike off this grand conduit linking most of the great cities of North Africa. The area is growing in significance with the current development of the Abu Qir gas field but the small town remains mostly unaffected. The main boulevard is wide and rather elegant, if pot-holed. In late December the sun still blazed, but every now and then the town was hit by sudden downpours that created great lakes over a foot deep, spanning road and pavement. Despite the inconvenience of having to carefully pick your way through these waterways the street was still bustling with people. Once the rain subsided sheets of polythene would be whipped back to reveal wooden stalls creaking under the weight of vast piles of aubergines, oranges, bananas, broad beans, tomatoes, courgettes, carrots, peppers and potatoes. Most of Egypt’s agricultural land is located in the fertile and well irrigated Delta region, and Abu Qir’s market stalls are testament to the productivity of the region. Though the Delta is not without problems, since the construction of the Aswan dams upstream the fertility has declined as fewer nutrients flow into the lower reaches of the Nile; pumping ground water to supply the growing urban population has lead to salt water intrusion rendering some land unusable for crop growing whilst urban sprawl is rapidly reducing the land available for cultivation. Perhaps the greatest threat to the region is global warming. Much of the delta is less than two metres above sea level. Current predictions suggest the area would suffer a double whammy: extensive loss of cultivated and developed land through sea level rise and increasing groundwater salinity, exacerbated by reduced freshwater inputs due to increased evaporation. Yet as I waded across a stretch of rainwater-flooded road, reduced freshwater inputs seemed a rather distant concern, but perhaps gave an indication of what future conditions may look like as the Mediterranean starts to encroach.

I had arrived in Abu Qir to work based on a local boat. Being a naval port they were rather touchy about cameras. Any found were confiscated, and wandering around the port with a camera would undoubtedly invite the attention of the military police. Although I have no interest in naval secrets I suspect that would cut little ice. Getting my camera aboard the boat was relatively straightforward. I simply gave it to my local taxi driver, who kept it beneath his jacket while we were searched. A wise move I thought as I hauled out my bags and watched the sentries carefully going through their contents at the roadside.

Stormy weather meant we spent a lot of time sitting in port, and so I was able venture out into the local town. However, getting my camera out with me was slightly trickier. As I was simply walking in to the local town I had to walk past the guards without the assistance of a trusted local. I did, however, have baggy trousers and a set of juggling balls. With juggling balls stuffed in my trouser pockets and digital SLR and zoom lens tucked in the front of my underpants I sauntered, as casually as possible given my attire, slowly towards the port gate. I walked slowly, partly because a faster pace required me to waddle, suggesting I had an incontinence problem, and partly because any sudden movement was likely to send my camera crashing to the ground down my trouser leg. With a big grin and a ‘kaif halak?’ I passed the guards my passport and jacket, which I had draped over my arm to conceal my odd appearance. This immediately drew attention to the bulges in my trousers and a request to empty my pockets. I withdrew the juggling balls being careful not to dislodge anything else which, naturally, led to requests for a demonstration. A twenty second flourish, a few handshakes and I was allowed on my way without further inspection.

The main boulevard, Abo Qeer, has a relaxed and rather timeless feel. There are of course trucks rolling to and from the port, and aged taxis that will take you to Alexandria much faster than any sane person would wish to travel on that road. But there is almost as much non-motorised transport. A popular means of transport by locals is horse-drawn cabs. These are marvellously inventive crosses between Victorian ‘Clarence’ carriages, gypsy caravans and buggies with jacked-up suspension. They are frequently drawn by horses so skinny they appear all but two-dimensional. Horses, mules or donkeys pulling carts loaded with cauliflowers, car axles or boisterous kids clip-clop past almost as frequently as internal combustion powered vehicles. They may exist, but I found no supermarkets, no Ronald MacDonald, no KFC, no chain stores, no glitzy glass and strip-lighting shop fronts. Indeed mains lighting was strictly limited; most shops lit only by kerosene lanterns and shopkeepers smiles. Scattered amongst the fruit and vegetable stalls were the obligatory chai and coffee houses, where groups of men stared seriously at backgammon boards or puffed on shisha pipes filled with fruit and molasses soaked tobacco and watched the World go by. If one ventures away from the main road the look of the town changes abruptly. Turn west and you enter a maze of narrow alleyways between tall tenements. Flocks of small chocolate-fleeced sheep wander about, often venturing into the open-fronted butchers’ shops where freshly skinned carcasses of their brethren hang from great meat hooks. As I wandered these alleyways I came across a street performer. Forty or fifty young children sat in doorways or hung from first floor windows, watching wide-eyed from between lines of washing. The act consisted of a showman, his younger assistant, a small dog and a spiked, steel triple hoop rigged on a stand in the centre of the alley. It was far too interesting an event to miss, but taking pictures in such situations is never easy. You do not want to offend anyone; nor do you want to detract from the main event. From experience I knew that pulling out a large camera was likely to have most of the children turn there attention away from the performers and focus on the westerner with the camera. A scrum of children shouting ‘take my picture’, leaving the show with no audience, was most definitely not what I wanted. I sat down in a doorway some distance back and waited for the initial curiosity to subside. I then casually took out my camera from under my jacket and sat it on my lap without looking at it. With minimal props the showman knew just how to work an audience; pacing slowly and deliberately back and fore he prepped the dog, which it seemed would be the star performer. All the while his sidekick beat out a roll on a small side drum. After a few minutes I was able to catch the showman’s eye. I lightly tapped the top of my camera and looked at him enquiringly. He gave a slight nod then turned his attention back to his canine protégé. Dressed in dapper brown trousers and waistcoat, with a rather dashing red scarf around its waist, the little white dog bounced into the centre of the street. Upon a slight hand gesture from the showman it rose onto its hind legs and tottered around to the beat of the drum. The drum beat increased in vigour and the audience clapped in time as the tiny dancer jigged to the beat in a slightly unbalanced manner, not altogether unlike a slightly tipsy girl dancing in way-too-high stilettos. To a round of applause the showman swept his star performer into his arms and carried him to the side where he carefully wrapped him in a damp blanket to cool off.

Returning to centre stage the build up for the finale commenced. Two flaming torches were produced with a theatrical flourish and used to light three similar-looking torch heads within the metal hoops. As I gazed at the flaming hoops I realized they were actually bicycle wheel rims bolted on to the tubular stand for a fan or similar. The inward pointing spikes were six-inch nails punched through the spoke holes. For a moment I though the diminutive pooch might be expected to leap through the fiery ring, hence the dampening blanket, but as the ring was raised to at least three times his height I dismissed that idea. Surely that would be a feat beyond even a dancing dog? The showman paced back and fore in front of the hoops, the drum roll intensified, the dog watched from beneath his blanket. I was impressed, not only was the showman going to leap through a flaming spiked hoop it appeared his shoulders would only just fit through, such was his confidence he had not even bothered to remove the bulky denim jacket or heavy boots he was wearing. With his young audience worked up into a frenzy of anticipation, he stood fifteen paces back from the ring and gave a nod. At this his young accomplice un-slung his drum, walked smartly to the centre of the street broke into a run and performed a perfect dive through the ring of fire. The crowd burst into spontaneous cheering, the performers bowed graciously and a collecting box was passed around. I dug a handful of piastres from my pocket as the box reached me, took a few pictures when asked to and showed the results in the cameras’ LCD screen to a chorus of giggles and screams. After congratulating the performers and thanking them for their indulgence I decided it was time to wander on.

Sperm whales

A sperm whale raises its tail flukes as it begins a dive. Colin Munro Photography

I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed of around 24 knots, and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship.” So wrote Owen Chase, First Mate, in his 1821 account of the sinking of the whaling ship the Essex.

A sperm whale raises its tail flukes as it begins a dive. Colin Munro Photography

A sperm whale raises its tail flukes as it begins a dive.

The whale in question was a cachalot, or sperm whale.  Probably the best known whale; the whale in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (which was actually based on the sinking of the Essex). The sperm whale, Physeter macrocephalus, is the largest toothed whale, and indeed the largest toothed predator that has ever lived.  Males average 16 metres in length and over 40 tonnes in weight (females are significantly smaller); some may exceed 20 metres and 50 tonnes.  They are the sole extant (living) species in the family Physeteridae, though fossils of several extinct species have been found.  Sperm whales look like no other whale; their massive head and relatively tiny lower jaw coupled with their huge size renders them unmistakable when seen underwater.  However that is not how they are commonly seen.  The best view most of us get of a sperm whale is of them resting almost motionless on the surface, between dives, with only the top of their back and their blowhole visible, followed by the rise of the tail flukes as it descends beneath the surface.

The blow hole and wrinkled skin of a sperm whale resting on the surface. Colin Munro Photography

The blow hole and wrinkled skin of a sperm whale resting on the surface

As sperm whales are air breathing mammals it is tempting to think of them as animals that live at the surface, diving occasionally to hunt.  Not so.  When feeding they will spend 8-10 minutes on the surface breathing, replenishing their oxygen supplies.  In contrast they will spend 35-50 minutes underwater searching for prey.

The low, bushy, forward-directed, blow of a sperm whale is almost unmistakable. Colin Munro Photography

The low, bushy, forward-directed, blow of a sperm whale is almost unmistakable

Studies indicate that sperm whales will spend 70-95% of their time in these foraging cycles so, in terms of where they spend most of their time, these are creatures that inhabit the ocean depths and surface only briefly to breathe.

Unlike most other great whales, the sperm whale does not venture into polar waters to feed, preferring tropical and temperate seas (adult males will venture in to high latitudes).  But even in the tropics it inhabits a cold world.  At a thousand metres depth, well within the normal foraging range of sperm whales, the temperature is only 4-8 degrees centigrade.  It is also a world of almost total darkness.  At 200 metres depth, even in the open ocean the light levels are less than 1/1000th of those at the surface.  At a thousand metres one enters the aphotic zone (the midnight zone) where no sunlight penetrates.  But that does not mean it is a world devoid of light.  It is a world full of bioluminescence. Light produced by chemical reactions within living organisms.  It has been estimated that that 90% of the animals that live below 1000 metres are capable of bioluminecence; glowing, flashing or pulsing green, red, but or white.  This includes many of the prey species of sperm whales. Although they do also consume fish, cephalopods (octopus, cuttlefish and squid) are by far the greatest portion of their diet.  Famously they predate on giant squid and the even larger colossal squid (which may be longer than a full grown sperm whale and is the largest known invertebrate) but they also consume a wide variety of other cephalopod species.  This includes the wonderfully named vampire squid (Vampyroteuthis infernalis is its scientific name, which translates as ‘vampire squid from hell).  Neither a vampire nor a squid it occupies a cephalopod Order all of its own, the Vampyromorphida.

There are a few spots in the oceans renowned for sperm whale sightings.  These are mostly along the edges of underwater canyons and steep drop-offs, where shallow coastal seabeds plunge sharply to hundreds or thousands of metres.  Off the Kaikoura peninsula of New Zealand is possibly the best known area, followed by the Azores islands (where volcanic seamounts rise up from deep water).  The images of mine in this blog were all take off Vesteralen, northern Norway, where a complex of deep canyons direct the seabed offshore from the Lofoten Islands and Vesteralen archipelago. It appears sperm whales hunt along these canyons, thus time spent cruising along the margins of the canyons is often rewarded by sightings of sperm whales as these surface between foraging dives to expel carbon dioxide and replenish their oxygen supplies.

 

 

 

Shortfin makos, the fastest shark of all.

Shortfin makos, the fastest shark of all.
A Mako shark make a half-hearted attempt to grab a cape petrel. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

A Mako shark make a half-hearted attempt to grab a cape petrel.

When one thinks of sharks one thinks of sleek, powerful predators that appear to cruise effortlessly but are capable of dazzling bursts of speed when they attack prey.  This image of the shark is exemplified by the shortfin mako.  We know makos are fast, but how fast?  Many sources will tell you it is capable of speeds of 74kmph or greater.  The truth is a little less dramatic.  We now know that around 35kmph is probably the maximum speed of any fish through water, and that makos are probably capable of speeds around 30kmph, which still puts them right up there among the ranks of the elite fish speed merchants, and around four times faster than any human (for a more detailed, scientific account you read my marine-bio-images.com blog XXX).  Makos are generally accepted as being the fastest of all sharks, and with that powerful, missile-like shape, they are definately built for speed.  I have yet to get in the water with a mako – it is one of my goals for this year.  In the meantime I have an unexpected surface encounter off Kaikoura to savour. Kaikoura, as many of you will know, is a small town on the north east coast of New Zealand’s South Island.  It is famous as one of the best places in the World for whale watching, especially sperm whales.  It also came the wider world’s attention in November 2016, when the region was struck by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake, cutting off road and rail links to the town, uplifting areas of seabed and causing a localised tsunami up to 7 metres in height. When we visited in February 2017, road connections were still disrupted and whale watching boats had difficulty operating due to sea level changes affecting there berthing alongside.  The town, highly dependent on tourism, was suffering markedly.  We were not there to look for whales though, we were looking for dolphin and albatross. Kaikoura may be most famous for whales, but it is also a fantastic place to see many species of albatross up close, and it was albatross and dolphin we were there to see.

Albatross squabble over food. Kaikoura, New Zealand. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

Albatross squabble over food. Kaikoura, New Zealand.

Whilst the big whales grab most of the international headlines, the sheer drama of seeing several species of albatross up close – really close – soaring, wheeling and plunging down to feed, is pretty hard to beat.  Nor was it just the albatrosses and giant petrels that noticed the food  in the water.  The scent of chum in the water attracted in predators from below also.  A dark triangular fin broke the surface and began weaving through the wary seabirds.  The shark was a juvenile mako, approximately 5-6ft (1.5-1.8m) long. Whilst clearly drawn towards us by the fish scraps in the water, it then became interested in the birds splashing around.

An albatross warily eyes the mako shark, whilst a westland petrel flaps away from the sharks path. Copyright Colin Munro Photography

An albatross warily eyes the mako shark, whilst a westland petrel flaps away from the sharks path.

The great albatrosses eyed the shark with a mixture of wariness and belligerence; with a wingspan probably exceeding the length of the shark they may have seemed a little large to tackle.  The smaller petrels were more anxious.  It made a grab for one cape petrel that did not move out of its path fast enough, but the attack seemed have hearted and the petrel skittered away easily enough.  There was probably enough fish remains floating in the water to keep the shark happy. Makos will occasionally take seabirds, but mostly feed on pelagic fish species such as mackerel, herring and anchovies.  Larger individuals have been found to have young seals and even common dolphins in their stomachs, as well as billfish such as marlin.  Common dolphins and marlin are both renowned for their speed, so whilst it is possible that these were injured individuals snapped up by the mako, it is also these fell prey to the makos lightening speed.

Graham, J. B., DeWar, H., Lai, N. C., Lowell, W. R., & Arce, S. M. (1990). Aspects of shark swimming performance determined using a large water tunnel. Journal of Experimental Biology, 151(1), 175-192.

Rabaul and Grove Island: shaped by volcanos

Two young boys playing in an old inner tube, Garove Island, Vitu Islands, Bismark Sea, Papua New Guinea. Colpyright Colin Munro

It has been quite a while since my last blog post.  During the past five months I have been travelling a lot, mostly with limited internet and often with limited time to write.  So a catch up is long overdue.  Since December 2016 I have been working in New Zealand, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, New Georgia, The Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, The Philippines, Ecuador, Colombia. I started writing this in Panama, as we passed through the Panama Canal in to the Atlantic.  Almost three weeks later I am now in the south of France, driving through the Medoc vineyards, and this blog is still not complete!  I use the excuse that time to write is generally limited to late nights in airport departure lounges or the odd hour snatched in cafes or bumpy coach journeys. However, I have run out of excuses so now must buckle down and finish the damn thing.  So here goes.

A local boy in a dugout canoe paddles by us. Garove Island, Vitu Islands, Bismark Sea, Papua New Guinea. Copyright Colin Munro

A local boy in a dugout canoe paddles by us. Garove Island, Vitu Islands, Bismark Sea, Papua New Guinea.

 

A significant chunk of February was spent in Papua New Guinea.  This was not a country I had visited before, nor one I knew a great deal about.  The little I did know was limited to snippets such as lurid tales of cannibals, penis-sheathed hill tribesmen, the rascals of Port Morsbey and the effects of mining on the country.

 

We arrived in Papua New Guinea at the port city of Rabaul. A recent Lonely Planet guidebook described Rabaul thus: ‘Walking the lonely streets of eastern Rabaul is like stepping into an apocalyptic film’.  Spending a day there I can understand what they meant.  Rabaul is something of a ghost town. In September, 1994, Mount Tavurvur erupted, burying much of Rabaul and Simpson Harbour under thousands of tons of ash.  The ash that rained down destroyed most of the buildings in Rabaul.  This was the second major eruption in living memory.  In 1937 Mount Tavurvur erupted and almost totally destroyed Rabaul.  These two eruptions, along with the continuing low level activity, have inhibited rebuilding and development, so although the fantastic natural harbour is still in use as a commercial port, the streets immediately beyond have an aura of post-apocalyptic desolation.  That being said, it is only a few blocks walk to the open air market.  When we arrived this was a pretty busy place, with bananas, peppers, sweet potato, and tobacco for sale.  Rabaul did not feel unsafe, nor unfriendly, simply down on its luck.  A couple of general stores were all that was open.  It did not seem like the sort of place that would have a café, let alone a restaurant.

 

Garove Island.

Our next port of call was Garove Island.  Garove island is essentially the exposed tip of Garove Volcano, a largely submarine volcano in the Bismarck Sea, some 40 miles north of New Britain Island.  The island itself is a shaped like a giant donut, some 7 nautical miles in diameter.  This ring of land is in fact the emerged rim of the volcano caldera.  A mile-wide breach in south side of this rim allows ship entry to the large body of sheltered water within, known as Johann Albrecht harbour (presumably named after Johan Albrecht de Mandelslo, the 17th Century German traveller – by accounts a rather colourful character – rather than Johnan Albrecht the Russian diplomat, Johan Albrecht the German theologian or even Johan Albrecht the 17th Century German prophet , but who knows; I have not been able to find any information detailing why the harbour is so named).

 

Two young boys playing in an old inner tube, Garove Island, Vitu Islands, Bismark Sea, Papua New Guinea. Colpyright Colin Munro

Two young boys playing in an old inner tube, Garove Island, Vitu Islands, Bismark Sea, Papua New Guinea.

 

 

Unlike lagoons within coral atolls, this harbour is not shallow, most of it is over 100 metres deep.  Thus snorkelling (or SCUBA diving for that matter) is limited to the steep walls of the caldera or a small, shallow area on the east side on the harbour.  This shallow area lies between a little un-named island and the inner wall of Garove Island. A glance at a chart reveals that this island is, in fact, the tip of a rocky promontory projecting in to the caldera.  Apart from the island-forming tip, the rest of the promontory lies just a few metres below the surface.  This was where we chose to run our snorkelling operation.  As one might expect on such a small patch of shallow seabed surrounded by deep water, the coral present was quite limited.

Soft corals, Johann Albrecht harbour, Garove Island, Vitu Islands, Bismark Sea, Papua New Guinea. Copyright Colin Munro

Soft corals, Johann Albrecht harbour, Garove Island, Vitu Islands, Bismark Sea, Papua New Guinea.

There were quite a few soft corals and a few sponges though, so the area was interesting if not terribly diverse.  The presence of significant numbers of white people and two Zodiac inflatables piqued the curiosity of a couple of young local boys playing in the water nearby.  They were having fun splashing around in an old vehicle tire inner tube when they spotted us.  Wearing big grins, they paddled across to us, the older boy sculling with what looked like a small piece of driftwood. The younger towed a towed a little, hand-made wooden boat attached to a pole and string.  Quite what they made of us is hard to know.

Sponge, Garove Island, Papua New Guinea. Copyright Colin Munro

Sponge, Garove Island, Papua New Guinea

They spoke no English and we did not know what language they spoke (there are 840 extant languages listed for PNG; English is an official language but spoken only by a tiny percentage of the country’s population).  Thus our communication was limited to smiles, waves and thumbs ups, but that was okay.  Garove Island, with its lush vegetation, warm clear waters and (at least from our snapshot perspective) idyllic lifestyle seemed as far removed as could be from the dusty dreariness of Rabaul.  But of course snapshot impressions of tropical paradises all too often fail to capture underlying problems of poverty, lack of opportunity, and health problems, so I make the comparison cautiously.  Both Rabaul and Garove island have been shaped by volcanos.  Rabaul more recently and more catastrophically.  Garove is the visible remains of a stratovolcano (reports of most recent eruptions vary from tens of thousands of years to possibly only a few hundred years ago).

I finally finish this blog in a small cafe in Oban, in the West Highlands of Scotland.  I promise the next one will not take so long.

The basking shark

Large basking shark feeding
Large basking shark feeding

Large basking shark feeding

I clearly remember my first in-water encounter with a basking shark.  Quite a few years ago now, I had gone out specifically to try and video a basker underwater.  After a couple of hours we spotted a pair slowly circling a ball of plankton.  I slipped mask, fins and snorkel on and slid in to the water.  Basking sharks can be sometimes be wary and dive when one gets close, but these two seemed quite unconcerned by my presence.  I floated on the edge of the plankton ball and watched them circling.  As one approached out of the gloom I started to swim towards it.  Even through you know it’s quite harmless it is still a strange feeling watching a six metre long shark swimming straight towards you with its mouth wide open.  A mouth I could easily fit inside.  At the last moment the shark would alter course slightly and cruise past me.  The experience was similar to standing too close to the edge of the platform watching a train go past.  Again and again the sharks would circle and cruise past, sweeping by less than a metre from me.  Just me and two large sharks.  It was a mesmerising experience, but I could not help thinking ‘this is so easy!’ Little did I realise at the time quite how lucky my encounter was.  Several years and quite a few attempts would pass before I was able to repeat the experience.

The basking shark, Cetorhinus maximus, is the second largest fish in the World. Mature adults commonly reach between six and and seven metres in length, occasionally reaching around nine metres. Despite their massive size basking sharks are quite harmless. They are gentle filter feeders. During summer in the north-east Atlantic they can often be seen swimming close to the surface with their mouths gaping wide. A baskers’ gape can be over a metre top to bottom, so that’s pretty wide. As they swim forwards water is forced in to their mouths, passing across their gills where oxygen is extracted, and out through their large gill slits. This water flow serves a dual purpose. The arches between the gill slits are covered in long stiff bristles called gill rakers. These gill rakers sieve the water flow, retaining planktonic organisms. This is the food of basking sharks. In northern Atlantic waters they feed especially on copepods (planktonic crustaceans) particularly those of the genus Calanus, which occur in enormous numbers in the North Atlantic. Large numbers of such tiny creatures are required to sustain something as large as a basking shark.  Therefore baskers need to filter very large volumes of water.  It has been estimated that around 1.3 million litres of water will pass through the mouth and over the gill rakers of a large basking shark every hour.

Basking shark feeding, showing large gill slits the almost encircle its head

Basking shark feeding, showing large gill slits the almost encircle its head

In the North East Atlantic basking sharks start to appear off the tip of Cornwall (SW England) in early May.  This co-incides with what local fishermen call ‘May-water’, where the coastal seas turn green and turbid due to the seasonal population explosion of plankton.  Throughout the summer months sharks will move northwards through the Irish Sea and around the west coast of Ireland.  In the years immediately following WWII the author Gavin Maxwell ran a basking shark fishery from the island of Soay in the Inner Hebrides, exploiting this northward seasonal migration. The operation was beset with problems and drove him to the edge of bankruptcy.  Basking sharks were hunted by Norwegian and Irish boats also. Due to concern over dwindling numbers, the basking shark received full legal protection in  U.K. waters in 1998.  The last British shark fisherman, a larger than life character called Howard McCrindle, ceased operations a year earlier.  The basking shark is now protected throughout E.U. waters. In 2006 hunting also ended in Norwegian waters.

A basking shark swimming through plankton rich waters off Southwest England

A basking shark swimming through plankton rich waters off Southwest England

Despite their large size, relatively slow movement and surface feeding habits there is much that remains unknown about the life history of basking sharks. Each year the they appear in late spring, then disappear again at the end of September.  Where they go and how they live for the rest of the year has been a mystery, and remains so today, though we are starting to get tantalising clues as to the the answer.  Occasionally, basking sharks would be caught in trawl nets during the winter months.  Some of these were found to have shed their gill rakers, suggesting they were not feeding.  This lead to the theory that they became dormant in winter, hibernating on the seabed.  This theory had a certain plausibility to it.  Basking sharks have enormous oil-filled livers.  The liver can be 25% of the sharks body mass (the low density oil gives the shark buoyancy, allowing it to swim efficiently at the surface; it was also this high quality oil for which they were hunted). It was suggested that this enormous store of liver oil could sustain the shark for months without feeding. Recent research using data logging tags has begun to shed light on shark behaviour during the winter months.  The tags used detach after a predetermined time and float to the surface, where they transmit the data data to satellites. The data at the time of writing indicates that basking sharks are active all year round, but spent much of their time at considerable depth, 200 and 1,000 metres.  It also seems they are highly migratory.  One 5 metre female nicknamed ‘Banba’, was tagged off Malin Head, the most northerly point of Ireland, in the summer of 2012.  On the 13th December 2012 the tag popped off and was located by satellite – just west of the Cape Verde islands 5000km to the south.  The still sparse, but growing, body of evidence now suggests that – in the North East Atlantic move in to coastal waters from deep water in April or May.  As the water warms and daylight lengthens (and so plankton blooms) there is an erratic movement northwards.  At the end of the summer they return to deeper water, heading west away from the British isles and mail and Europe, and some probably heading south also.  So in reality we should maybe consider the basking shark as a deep water species that happens to congregate in shallow water during the summer months in pursuit of rich feeding.

As a final aside it is often written that basking sharks are toothless filter feeders. Basking sharks are filter feeders utilising gill rakers in a similar fashion to the baleen plates of great whales to trap small planktonic creatures but surprisingly they also teeth.  In fact they have hundreds of tiny, backward-pointing teeth.  What, if any, purpose these teeth serve is not known.  They may be a vestige from a more predatory ancestry; equally there may be more still to learn of the basking sharks feeding habits.

You can see more of my shark images here

The extraordinary life cycle of the lion’s mane jellyfish

Lion's mane jellyfish, Cyanea capillata, underwater clearly showing tentacles trailing in many directions. Colin Munro Photography

Jellyfish, or sea jellies as they are now often called (clearly they are not fish) are amongst the most ancient of multi-organ animals.  Fossils of jellyfish (or scyphozoans, to give them their scientific name) are found only rarely as they contain no hard structures within their bodies, which are 95% water.  However, under the right conditions fossils of soft bodied creatures will form; current fossil evidence suggests they first evolved at least 500 million years ago.

Lion's mane jellyfish, Cyanea capillata, underwater clearly showing tentacles trailing in many directions. Colin Munro Photography

The lion’s mane jellyfish, Cyanea capillata, is the largest known species. The bell of individuals in colder northern waters can reach two metres across.

The lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) common throughout the North Atlantic, epitomises this image of a large, slowly pulsing, gelatinous bell (or medusa) and long trailing tentacles that pack a powerful sting, but this is in fact only one stage of a complex life cycle.  Lion’s mane medusae begin to appear in April or May in the Northern Atlantic, but are quite tiny at that stage.  These jellies are voracious predators and grow rapidly through the summer.  By August the medusae are commonly one third to half a metre across, with trailing tentacles many metres long.  However there is considerable variability;  large specimens have been reported at over two metres across with tentacles up to 37 metres long, though these generally occur within the more northern parts  of their range.  As they grow large in late summer they will often drift, under the influence of wind and tides, in to sheltered bays where they may aggregate in large numbers. This is when sperm is release and egg fertilisation takes place.  In common with most scyphozoans (the taxonomic group to which jellyfish belong) the sexes are separate; lion’s mane jellies are either male or female.  Sperm is released from the mouth of male jellies and drifts in the current, some reaching female jellies, where the eggs are fertilised. Fertilised eggs are stored in the oral tentacles of the female, where thy develop in to tiny planulae larvae. Once fully developed the planulae larvae detach and, after drifting for a short time, settle on the seabed.  Here they metamorphose into a polyp, not dissimilar to tiny sea anemones or coral polyps (both of which are relatives of jellyfish).  These polyps then grow, taking on a layered appearance until they resemble a stack of wavy-edged pancakes.  Each one of these ‘pancake layers’ will then separate from the parent polyp, once again becoming free living and drifting with the currents.  The ‘pancakes’, more properly ephyra larvae, will grow throughout the summer into the giant lion’s mane jellies and the cycle is complete.  With a lifespan on only one year, during which they can grow to be as long (possibly even longer) than blue whale, lion’s mane jellies need to catch and consume considerable amount of prey.  Each trailing tentacle is packed full of vast numbers of stinging cells, known as nematocysts.  When touched these cells fire out a harpoon-like structure which pumps toxins in to the hapless victim (this is what causes the painful sting from jellyfish).  These toxins incapacitate the prey, which is then drawn up towards the mouth of the jellyfish.  A large lion’s mane may have over 1,000 tentacles trailing far behind them.  Many SCUBA divers in Scotland and Scandinavia have experienced the situation where, having completed their dive on a sunken wreck and returned to the buoy line they planned to ascent to the surface, only to look up and see numerous lion’s mane jellies strung out along the line.  As the current sweeps the jellies along so their tentacles catch on the buoy line, leaving the divers with the unpleasant prospect of ascending through thousands of jellyfish tentacles.

A diver warily watches a large lion's mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) drift past. Isle of Arran, West Scotland.

A diver warily watches a large lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) drift past. Isle of Arran, West Scotland.

Not every creature lives in fear of lion’s mane jellies however.  Leatherback turtles, the only species of marine turtle that can tolerate the cold waters these jellies inhabit, consume them with relish, apparently oblivious to the stinging tentacles.  Lion’s mane jellies can make up 80-100% of a leatherback’s diet.  When you consider that a full grown leatherback weighs up to 800kg and may consume up to its own weight in jellyfish daily (bear in mind jellyfish are 95% water) then that equates to pretty large numbers of jellyfish being eaten.

As summer wanes and autumn approaches the lion’s mane jellies begin to die.  This provides a feeding bonanza for many scavengers.  On the surface seabirds will peck away at the gelatinous bell, whilst those that sink are often torn to shreds by shore crabs (Carcinus meanus) and velvet swimming crabs (Necora puber).

Dying lion's mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) that has sunk to the seabed being eaten by a velvet swimming crab (Necora puber).

Dying lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) that has sunk to the seabed being eaten by a velvet swimming crab (Necora puber).

At the other end of the scale these deadly tentacles can provide refuge to some unlikely creatures.  Juvenile whiting (Gadus melangus) have long been known to swim underneath the bell of lion’s mane jellies, apparently unconcerned by the curtain of tentacles they weave between. In fact they have been observed to rush into the mane of tentacles when startled by predators.  A series of fascinating experiments by the Swedish zoologist Erik Dahl in the late 1950s showed that, compared to other fish species, juvenile whiting were able to adapt their movements such that even when surrounded by tentacles they rarely came in to contact with them.  Also, unlike other fish species, when they did brush against them it seemed to cause them little concern. Biopsies of the tissue of whiting where they had contacted tentacles showed that very few if any stinging nematocysts had fired into the fish’s body; this compared to hundreds per square millimetre for other fish species.  We still don’t understand the mechanism behind this protection. So does the lion’s mane get anything in return for the refuge afforded the young whiting?  Well another creature found on lion’s mane jellies is the tiny planktonic amphipod (a type of crustacean) Hyperia galba. Hyperia is, for the jellies, a rather irritating ectoparasite. It lives on the outside of the jellies’ bell, nibbling away at it.  Now whiting don’t appear to like the taste of lion’s mane jellies, instead they are rather partial to planktonic crustaceans; in particular (you’ve guessed this already) Hyperia galba.   It is these elegant little symbiotic collaborations that make nature so beautiful.

These, and many more of my images, can be found at colinmunroimages.com

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