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Photography in the digital age: what’s changed?

An old lady weaving pandanus leaves laughs as she works. Suau Island, Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Colin Munro Photography © Colin Munro
A school of Convict Surgeonfish graze a reef promontory, Nuie Island, South Pacific. © Colin Munro Colin Munro Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sustainability

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

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

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

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

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

Cruelty.

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

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

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

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

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

Sea Shepherd

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

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

Sustainability – wider aspects

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Short-beaked common dolphins

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

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

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

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

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

Common Dolphin breaching

Common Dolphin breaching

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vanuatu: straddling the centuries

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

A small boy watches the ceremonial dancers perform.

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

References:

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

 

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

www.colinmunrophotography.com

www.colinmunroimages.com

www.500px.com/colin85

 

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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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