Saturday, June 23, 2012

The real Captain Morgan

As I’m currently in Panama and have somewhat of an obsession about pirates, so perhaps it’s time to tell you about the REAL Captain Morgan.

Despite what the rum companies would have you think Harry, or Henry Morgan (1635 –1688) was not a handsome debonair sea hunk, but a fat, squat, redheaded welshman. He apparently looked more like Simon Pegg rather than Johnny Depp. One thing the rum company has right though is Morgan’s flamboyant red pirate coat, as Morgan used to wear a red silk, gold buttoned coat when recruiting pirate crews,  to look successful and wealthy, and hence to attract the most ambitious and ruthless teams.

Morgan  was from a relatively wealthy  welsh family, who had lands outside of Cardiff, and headed to Hispaniola (the Dominican Republic) as a somewhat ambitious and feisty young man to take part in Oliver Cromwell’s initiative to take over the Caribbean from the wicked (as far as Cromwell was concerned) Catholics. The attempt to take over Hispaniola failed, but the later invasion of Jamaica was successful, and that’s where Morgan lived for many years. He was politically well connected, with his uncle being made Lt Governor of Jamaica, and the upwardly mobile Morgan married his cousin, who was the daughter of said dignitary.

He took part in several privateer (officially sanctioned piracy) expeditions – despite having orders to control piracy, the Governor of Jamaica was an ambitious and greedy man, who used pirates effectively as a guerilla navy to protect Jamaica, and to also line his pockets with gold. Seeing Morgan’s worth, the Governor  recruited him to lead several expeditions to Cuba, some successful, some not so. Morgan’s most successful expedition was to Porto Bello in Panama, which was inspired by Morgan’s substantial debts, to which he led a fleet of 10 ships to make a land-based attack. The target was protected by three well-armed and intimidating Spanish fort. The first, Morgan’s crew sneaked up on at night, and they took it over by surprise, without much of a fight. The second, was more or a battle to take, but take it they did. The third simply surrendered. Morgan’s men then took the city, and occupied it for several months, looting it and ransoming the population. A Spanish fleet was dispatched to retake the city, but Morgan’s crew ambushed the fleet as it passed through a narrow passage, and defeated it. In total, Morgan gathered 200,000 pieces of eight in booty. The governor of Panama wrote to Morgan asking him how on earth he managed to capture the city, and sent him an emerald ring and begged him not to attack Panama again.

The Governor of Jamaica received an official reprimand for Morgan’s attack. The Governor lied and said that he had only commissioned Morgan to attack Spanish ships, and not the city. But nonetheless, sent Morgan on several more expeditions, some unsuccessful (including one night when Morgan’s crew got drunk and accidentally blew up his brand new , fancy flagship) some successful, and he as eventually put in control of all of Jamaica’s naval vessels.

Despite the plea of the Governor of Panama, Morgan decided to attack again, this time heading for Panama City, one of the wealthiest cities in the new world. By the time of the attack, Morgan was essentially leading a team of very experienced marines, and easily defeated the troops defending Panama City, with a series of cunning ambushes. However, there were slim pickings on the booty front, most of the city’s wealth being evacuated by ship prior to the raid. Morgan tortured citizens to find whatever slim pickings that remained, and the city was set on fire. After the raid, Panama City was effectively move to a new location and rebuilt – some ruins of the original city remain at Panamá Viejo.

On returning to Jamaica Morgan found himself in trouble as the raid broke a newly-signed peace treaty with Spain. He was arrested and shipped to London, effectively to be a political scapegoat. The lucky bastard was however found not guilty, relations with Spain deteriorated, and Morgan was knighted, and promoted to Lt Governor of Jamaica. Eventually, Sir Henry Morgan was replaced as Governor, the authorities in London growing concerned about the level of independence and unruliness the colony was displaying. In this retirement, Morgan indulged in his favorite hobbies: drinking and getting into trouble. He died in 1688 from liver failure (mot likely), ‘dropsie’ (congenital heart failure), or possibly TB.

Although Morgan is called one of the most famous pirates of the Caribbean, technically he wasn’t – he was a privateer as he had letters of marque and was given official commissions for the various raids he conducted by the Governor of Jamaica, and so was doing so with the British authorities (at least the colonial authorities) blessing. Effectively he was a “naval contractor”. Unlike my favourite pirate, “red legs” Greaves (see earlier post), Morgan was a thorough bastard, and regularly tortured civilians to get them to reveal where their valuables were hidden. Far from the handsome charming rogue on the rum bottles.
The real Captain Morgan

Friday, June 22, 2012

Who’s who at the International Whaling Commission (IWC)

Although I’ve said before that I’m not really allowed to talk about what goes on at the meeting I’m in, I can give you some background information about who’s who at the meeting. First of all, those on the side of conservation.

At the moment Australia are leading the forces of light. This started a couple of years ago, and has a lot to do with Pete Garret, once of the band Midnight Oil, becoming the Australian environment minister. Garrett was particularly enthusiastic to be engaged in the whaling issue, and although Australia has always been a very active player at the IWC, they had more government support thanks to Garrett. New Zealand used to be the conservation heroes, but have gone very quiet in recent years, mostly because of a more conservative government and lack of funds. The UK is pretty active, although is a more subtle way – their Commissioners Richard and Trevor used to be like the Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie of the Commission, being terribly polite, diplomatic, yet extremely sarcastic and very cutting. Sadly Richard has retired and the IWC meetings have got a lot less witty. Most of the European countries are pro-conservation, but these days the European nations have to have consensus and vote at international meetings as a block, and getting all of these countries to co-ordinate is, to say the least, a little difficult. Denmark is the problem child in Europe. Although a member of the European Union (in which killing whales and dolphins is banned), Denmark has dominion over Greenland and the Faeroes (part of Europe, but also separate, like the Puerto Rico and Samoa of Europe, but not as sunny, nor as good at sports), both of which have whaling/dolphin hunts. So, Denmark supports the hunts of marine mammals and is the sand in the ointment in the European delegation. Talking about the European countries I should highlight the Luxemburg delegation – they might be a small delegation, but they always know where the best restaurants and bars are. Various Latin American countries also work as a block: Chile, Argentina and Brazil are particularly active and passionate about whale conservation, and other Latin American countries try to back them up, although are often strapped for cash to send delegates to meetings.

Representing the dark side of the force, Japan is the main player, with Norway, Iceland (nb neither Iceland nor Norway are members of the European Union and so what I said above does not count for them), and Korea. A controversial aspect of the IWC is the number of small developing nations that have recently joined the IWC and vote with Japan on whaling issues. In 2010, a UK newspaper conducted a reporting ‘sting’ operating and filmed one of the delegates admitting having taken Japanese money in exchange for their vote at the IWC. The fact that the delegate in question was the vice-chair of the Commission caused huge scandal that year.

So where is  the US in this? Well the US is usually on the side of good, but it is a whaling nation (there is “aboriginal” whaling for bowhead whales in Alaska, as well as hunts for beluga and narwhals). Whenever it’s a year to discuss bowhead whale quotas, the US bends over backwards not to upset any whaling nations so they can get the bowhead whale quota for native Americans. Two years ago, the US led the charge to roll back the current whaling ban/moratorium in an extremely politically naïve attempt to “solve the whaling deadlock at the IWC once and for all”. The idea was that by allowing commercial whaling to resume, then the uncontrolled “scientific whaling” would stop. What the likely result would have been – commercial whaling with countries using “scientific whaling” to top up their quotas, and virtually no way to rein whaling in. Luckily the US initiative failed (thanks to the Latin American and European blocks), and the US commissioner who suggested this initiative has been “moved on”. Hopefully the US will be more conservation-focused this year, when it comes to the Commission meeting… let’s see.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood

Well, I'm sorry Mr Rogers, but it isn’t really. It’s grey and raining again, which somewhat matches my mood.

But I’ve been quiet for a couple of days so I thought I’d post a little description of life here. The hotel the large and somewhat characterless. The rather nice pool is unfortunately useless a lot of the time because of almost constant thunderstorms.  All the floors are made of marble, which bearing in mind the near constant rain, means that guests are constantly sliding and falling ingraciously  on their butts. But the hotel does have the distinction of hosting the Panamanian football (soccer) team and their wives/girlfriends – the latter being extremely glamorous and anatomically highly improbable. There is a little bar/sushi restaurant in the lobby which is a favourite hanging out spot. I’m slowly working my way through their impressive selection of martinis, whilst we catch up on various football games (Congratulations England on beating Sweden ! That’s going to cause a rift between two branches of my family for certain). The time that can be spent in the sushi bar is however limited by their near polar air conditioning – there are lots of bad geek jokes about “winter is coming”, but the delegates from Alaska can be found there nearly all the time as they find it quite balmy.

Immediately outside the hotel door we have the “mola mola” shop – selling traditional Panamanian  hand sewn quilts. A traditional shop run by a little enthusiastic, exuberant jewish lady from New York (I know this because she mentions it every time I go in there). Several friends who I know who collect animal-oriented items will luck out with gifts from trip thanks to the mola shop – no cows or sheep so far though.

Behind this shop is the internet café, which is next to the Moulin Rouge strip club which offers girls “and rooms”. There is a running joke that this is where the Austrian delegation is housed there, due to them managing to pick hotels when the IWC was in Japan and Korea, that turned out to be love motels/brothels. Next to the strip club, is the tattoo parlour and next to that, and above the rubber/leather lingerie shop is the cutest little vegetarian restaurant. For $3 you can get a slap-up meal  of wholeseome veggie fare. The also hold classes in the back of the shop – so it’s very worthy all round.

The vegetarian restaurant situated above the sex shop

Past the big jumbotron TV screen (which is a great place to watch football games featuring Panama- the streets get filled with locals watching in rapt awe and the community atmosphere is amazing) and a  block to the east is the “ismuth” brew pub. The delegates from the whale and dolphin conservation society and in the hotel right next door, which makes it a very convenient meeting place. They only brew four of their own beers, most of which are rather on the light side for me, but the “amber” and “dark” are quite tasty. They have a good selection of imported beers too. The location next to the brew pub is uncharacteristically  close to the meeting venue for the WDCS crowd. They’re usually located several miles away, often in a nice B&B,but far enough away that they have to trek several miles carrying papers and computers every day in usually hot, humid conditions, up hills both ways, at the crack of dawn, but we don’t hear them complain do we (best said in a northern English accent)?

Two other places of note: El Patio, a Mexican restaurant with an eclectic range of decorations from tacky angels, to whips, to flower pots, to an impressive range of day of the dead figurines, so that it looks  a little  like a set  in “the corpse bride”. Decent Mexican food, but some of the largest margueritas I’ve ever had the pleasure to drink. Next to that is a Mediterranean restaurant, which has to be one of the best I’ve been to for a while. Very friendly to our high vegetarian quotient group, with on of the best crème brulees I’ve ever tasted (and I’ve tasted a lot) , and an excellent wine menu.  But one of the best things are the big comfy, swivel chairs. They are like the Captain’s chair in Star Trek. Ridiculously comfy, and great to decadently slump in after a bottle or two of good wine & food.

The restaurant: El Patio

It’s getting close to meeting time, so I should signoff. Adios amigos.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Those who can't ...

Those who can, do. Those who can't teach” - I so want to smack George Bernard Shaw upside the head around the head for that line, and I will probably write again about why this quote enfuriates me so. But why I am posting today is because a few weeks ago I read a letter in the Washington Post that used the quote, along with a diatribe about how teachers are a bunch of useless whiners, and basically wrote off the entire profession. In his letter you could see that he was the sort of person who blamed his teachers for his failings to achieve, rather than his lack of effort. Almost as if the teacher is supposed to simply just fill the student’s head with knowledge, with no effort on the student’s part. I see this all the time. Students who don't go to class, study for exams the night before, don't had in work that was requested, blaming the teacher for being a poor teacher, rather than admitting to their own laziness and/or failings. A professor can be brilliant, but if you don't come to class or watch movies / Facebook throughout class, don't read anything they provide, then all the brilliance in the world can't help. What are they supposed to do - implant knowledge by telepathy. One of my grad students reminded me the other day of this adage: “teachers don't give grades, students earn them”. This is something a lot of students  seem to have forgotten in an age where may have over inflated senses of entitlement.

Here’s a little anecdote. I had a student who I caught watching a Kung Fu movie in class on one of the few times that he did attend - in fact he was so engrossed that he didn't notice me standing behind him. Unsurprisingly the student didn't get the "A" he "needed" in order to go to medical school, and came to me at the end of the semester begging extra credit. I refused and threw him out my office. I probably got a lousy evaluation both officially and on ratemyprofessor for that one. But the student was seriously offended and shocked that I did not give him the “A” he thought he should have. In my day, I certainly slacked off in certain classes, but I didn’t blame my teacher when I was a slacker and didn’t get an A grade, it was my own damn fault for not spending enough time studying and spending too much time in the bar. It seems to me that we are more and more coming to a stage where “Those who can, do. Those who can’t blame someone else.”

A dummy’s guide to the IWC

As I mentioned, at the moment I’m at the International Whaling Commission (IWC) scientific committee meeting in Panama. Although I’m sworn to secrecy about what is being discussed in the meeting itself (at least until it’s over), I can tell you about some of the issues that are hot topics.

But first, what the hell is the IWC?   

In 1931, as the result of declining whale stocks, which ultimately threatened the sustainability of the whaling industry, whalers come together and wrote and signed the Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. In 1946, this was built on and superseded by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. This later treaty allowed for the setting up of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which is currently considered to be the international organization that has authority over multi-and inter-national decisions on whale-related issues.

Bearing in mind that this treaty and organisation was set up by whalers to ensure a sustainable whale-hunting industry, and it was one of the first wildlife resource management treaties written just after the Second World War, the structure of, and language in, the treaty is somewhat dated. However, the IWC was also one of the first international treaty organizations in which science was supposed to play a major role, and specifically set up a scientific committee to provide science (allegedly)-based advice for the management of whales.

 Although the members of the IWC at the beginning were all active whaling countries, at the moment, about half of the nearly IWC member nations are advocates for whaling, whereas slightly over half (a tiny majority) are advocates for whale conservation/ against whaling. I’m a scientific delegate for one of the latter countries. But more about the make-up of the IWC at a later date.

 In the early 1970s, there was a lot of public concern about whales and dolphins, in particular the numerous species that had been brought to the brink of extinction by commercial whaling (there was at one point only an estimated 3000 blue whales left in the world) – in the US the government passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, and at the same time, the United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm called for a 10-year ban or moratorium on commercial whaling. However, it took another decade for the IWC to eventually introduce such a ban, which came into effect in 1986, and still stands. However, approximately 30,000 whales have been killed since the ban came into effect, with Norway, Japan, and Iceland having hunted whales despite this commercial whaling ban.

 Norwegian whaling

When the whaling moratorium was enacted, Norway put in a reservation against the ban, which is perfectly legal for countries to do if they don’t want to be bound by one or more tenets of a treaty that they disagree with, although being signed up to the rest of the treaty. Therefore, Norway is not bound by the ban and can legally hunt whales commercially, which they have done since 1993. Recently Norwegian whalers have taken 600-700 Northern minke whales a year completely legally, although in the past few years the Norwegian government has called for an increase in the quota to over 1,000 whales a year.

Japanese “scientific” whaling


Japan eventually signed up to the whaling ban after international political pressure. However, they still hunt whales due to a loophole in the treaty that allows whales to be killed for scientific research. The number and species of whales that can be taken is “as the Contracting Government thinks fit” and so they can basically make up their own quotas.  The treaty calls for the carcasses whales caught in such a way to then be used after scientific samples were taken so that whale products would not be wasted. Effectively, however, this means that after blubber, stomach and some other tissue samples are taken, meat from the whales caught for “scientific research” are sold in markets. So for all intents and purposes this is commercial whaling but avoiding the inconvenience of quotas and controls, but hidden under a veneer of “scientific research”. This is, unsurprisingly highly controversial, and has been heavily criticized by scientists, including the majority of scientists in the IWC’s own scientific committee, with the “research” being criticized as being too simplistic and with major biases, that the sample sizes (the number of whales take) not being scientifically justified being but rather based on whale meat market needs, and also that the data could be gathered by non-lethal methods.

To give the scale of this type of whaling in one recent year (2007) Japan currently took 208 northern minke whales, 100 sei whales, 50 Bryde’s whales and 3 sperm whales in the North Pacific. Although up close to a thousand Antarctic minke whales were also taken in the Southern Ocean, in recent years closer to 500 whales a year have been taken.  From 2008, they also added a small number of endangered fin whales (10) to their hunt in Antarctic.  Between 1986 and 2007, 11,389 whales were taken for “scientific research” by the Japanese government. The hunt in Antarctica is particularly controversial as Antarctic waters were designated as a whale sanctuary (where commercial whaling is banned) by the IWC. But as the Japanese government points out, they are not commercially whaling, they are conducting scientific research …

The Structure of the IWC

There are two parts to the IWC meetings, which are held every year. In the first half of the meeting the Scientific Committee meets. This committee is made up of approximately 400 scientists who are either invited because of their expertise or who are designated by IWC member countries. The number of scientists attending often depends on the location e.g. in Ulsan, South Korea (the Scranton, PA or Trenton, NJ, or Sheffield (UK) of South Korea) there were only about 200 scientists, but when it was held in Sorrento, Italy, nearly 600 scientists felt a need to attend the 2-3 week meeting situated on the coast of the Bay of Naples (and very nice it was too). Over the duration of the scientific committee meeting a report is pulled together, which is normally 300-500 pages long.  This is then summarized. The summary is summarized again (to 20 or so pages) and this second summary is read at the second part of the meeting -  where they effectively  get a summary, of a summary, of a summary.

The second part of the IWC meeting is for the “Commissioners” and their aides. The Commissioners are representatives of the IWC member nations and usually politicians or civil servants, (although some are also scientists). (The dress code changes substantially between the two meetings, going usually from shorts, Hawaiian shirts and sandals, to suits and ties). Depending often on the stance of the particular country toward whales, the Commissioner might be from a fisheries department, or a conservation department. The decisions made by the Commissioners are typically politically in nature, and although the Commission is supposed to base its decision on science, many of the Commissioners are not scientists, don’t get the science, and their statements can be purely political, often illogical, sometimes bemusing, and occasionally insane.

Travel karma

I am quite stoical about travelling – I seem to have the best and worst of luck. I frequently have delayed planes, lost luggage, missed connections and other issues, but everything works out eventually. I have pretty equal good luck too: waived extra baggage charges, connections delayed just long enough so I can catch them and best of all, upgrades. Whenever something goes wrong, I just try to keep calm because it probably means that on my next flight I’ll be sipping champagne in first class for free. My worst experiences were probably when my plane was taking off (in the Philippines) and an engine burst into flames. The plane suddenly thumped back onto the tarmac, and we had to sit around for a whole day waiting. But on the good karma side we were told that had the explosion happened much higher in altitude, the plane would have crashed and we probably would all have died. The second incident was after I had scored a free week’s holiday on the island of Saba (I did have to give a lecture to a community group, but a week’s paid excursion to a Caribbean in exchange for an hour talk was a pretty sweet deal). On the way back however, a hurricane hit and I took the last plane out of the airport. The flight was pretty bumpy, the worst turbulence I had ever experienced, and although I was having palpitations I assumed everything was OK as the pilot had said nothing. As we landed and taxied in, and the pilot had announced that we were there he accidentally left the intercom on and we heard him swear and said “I thought we weren’t going to make that one”.

So why am I talking about travel karma? Well, my friend Mel told us last night about her attempt to come to Panama. She was flying from northern Norway her ticket had her stopping in Oslo. She assumed that the plane in and out of Oslo would of course be in the same airport, but when she checked it turned out, that she had to hustle 100km to a different airport (anyone who has flown into the deceptively named “London” Stanstead will appreciate, not expecting a trip across a quarter of the country to get to Heathrow). When she got to airport number two, she was only in it briefly when they announced they were closing for the night and she had to wait outside – bearing in mind this was in Norway, the temperatures outside dropped to 8oC and she was dressed ready for tropical Panama. She then had to go through the US on the way to Panama (this was just a connecting flight I emphasize) and on presenting her Italian passport to immigration she was asked if she spoke Italian –  she said no. That led to her being pulled out of line and interrogated. The fact that she was an Italian national, who now lived in Norway, but who had a UK visa (she was doing her master’s degree in Scotland), was born and raised in Argentina, and was now heading to Panama to be a member of the Luxembourg delegation, well it was more than US immigration could deal with. They kept her for several hours asking for all sorts of documentation that no one in their right mind would be carrying (again, remember she was only in the US to pick up her connecting flight to Panama). In the end she was passed to a female immigration official and ended up showing her pictures of whales in Norway, either that convinced immigration that she wasn’t a terrorist or spy, or pictures of orcas and whales softened even the hardest hearted immigration official, and they finally let her through. This was not the worst immigration story that came out, however - one of my friends from Chile, was not only detained for a day when she tried to pick up a connecting flight from Europe to Chile, but US immigration wouldn’t let her through (she to this day does not know why) and sent her back to Europe; she had to buy a new flight from Europe to Chile (via Brazil) avoiding the US.

So if you thought that your flight was bad because you got delayed in Chicago for a couple of hours, think again.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Finding the chamber of secrets and football politics

So now in Panama City. An interesting, crowded place, basically one big development site where skyscrapers are being continuously built, but often not finished. This, apparently, is because Panama where South America drug money comes to be laundered via massive construction projects. I’m here to take part in the Scientific Committee meeting of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), specifically a small pre-meeting workshop on marine renewable energy and impact on whales and dolphins. I often get people say to me enjoy your conference when I say I’m heading off to the IWC,  but conference is to the IWC meeting as a toothy smile is to root canal surgery. It’s an international meeting, a big like a mini- Rio Summit, but not as friendly, or as constructive and all focused on whales and dolphins, usually arguing back and forth between conservation and whaling. What actually happens at the meeting is actually secret until the official report is released, so I can’t tell you actually what’s happening, on pain of, if not death, then at least a stern talking to.

The passage to the chamber of secrets

Arriving at the venue, we discovered that the convention center being built around us. Just weeks ago, they were laying concrete on the floor of the main meeting room. All around us, there are people laying plaster and painting. The smell from the fumes is quite overpowering. To get to our meeting room, we were led through the construction site, and then through a series of twisting underground corridors, and there at the end was a tiny frozen room - like the Chamber of Secrets, where we would be holding the meeting. The aircon in the hotel seems to be permanently set at 40oF, which is making the Alaskan participants from Barrow feel at home, but means that the rest of us are shivering. It’s made worse because we have to keep leaving the building, and one moment we are hot, humid and sweating, the next damp and chilly – I am afeared I shall come down with consumption before the meeting is out.
Going on in the background at the moment, we have the world cup qualifiers and Euro 2014 football matches (soccer for Americans) going on. As an international meeting with lots of passionate Europeans in particular, there is an undercurrent of national rivalry over football, in addition to national rivalry with opinion about whaling or whale conservation. Korea and Japan (two the main whaling nations) did particularly well in their world cup qualifying matches and there were depressed murmurings as to whether this was an omen for things to come. However, Antigua and Barbuda, one of Japan’s chief hench-nations with respect to supporting whaling, lost to the US last night, so that improved morale. But it might mean that A&B is going to be even more grumpy and adversarial to the US for the next few days. Panama also won its match against Honduras, which even if you weren’t watching, you would instantly have been able to tell as all the cars in the city started honking their horns and there was widespread cheering and singing in the streets. Incidentally, the internet in Panama pretty much went down immediately after as the nation swarmed to facebook to celebrate, so I apologize to the two people I was bantering with at the time, for suddenly vanishing.

(PS the qualifying match between Brazil and Argentina caused some consternation, as both countries are usually big allies and staunchly pro-whale conservation/ anti-whaling, but luckily they drew 1:1 and so both are happy)

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Got my fedora, got my whip, let adventure begin ...

To be perfectly clear, yes I have both, I got the latter as a present from students who thought I needed one to fulfill the whole Indiana Jones image when traveling - although due to awkwardly trying to explain to an official why I had I whip on one field trip (not helped by catcalls from certain grad students), I don't take it with me traveling any more, despite it being a great prop.

So today, the morning was a bit of a disaster, the guide didn't appear and there was a big phone around to track him down. Eventually persuaded a local boat operator to go out to where he was staying and pick him up at his house. Having a guide was pretty important because today was a canoe trip through jungle, and a journey to what the locals called "the bat cave" (so I spent the morning with the campy 70s batman theme running in my head). I was a little nervous of having anything to do with a canoe, as last time I went canoeing, it capsized (twice) and as a result of all my belongings getting soaked, I lost a camera and iPhone, as well as my sense of humor and dignity. But all went well. We paddled down narrow rivers through mangrove forest and dark avenues if palm trees and ferns. It was a little like the (sadly already cancelled - didn't I say I was a curse to TV shows) show "The River", or maybe "Heart of Darkness". The highlight had to be passing under a two-toed sloth, narrowly avoiding being pooped on in slow motion. I love sloths by the way. They are amongst my favorite non-aquatic mammals the three toed sloth is slighted cuter than the 2-toed sloth in my opinion as they look like "the mystics" from the movie the Dark Crystal).


The bat cave was really interesting - packed with several species of bats as well as lots of amblypygids, or false whip scorpions, and spiders. Definitely not a place for people who hate creepy crawlies. The cave was flooded in parts, forcing us to wade through freezing cold water (more a thick solution of mud and bat poo in some parts), sometimes up to our necks. In one part of the cave, it was so deep that the guide suddenly disappeared underwater, waving his hand in the air. I tried to get some photos with a new underwater camera a friend gave me for my birthday, and I'll be interested to see if they come out (sadly due to a technical hitch I couldn't use it when snorkeling yesterday). Outside of the cave, by the way, were a bunch of tiny red tree frogs - quite frankly it would have made my day to see those, let alone bats and sloths.

 Whip scorpion

But adventure was not finished for the day. I headed off scuba diving, with a diving company called "La Buga" ( not pronounced La Bug-Ah Divers as I was emphatically informed). The location was an area where plantation boats used to moor in the early 1900s, and decades of anchors scraping the seabed had carved the underwater landscape. My dive buddy was Carlos, an ex-computer engineer who had made a fortune and then retired to run an Eco-B&B and be a dive bum for as long as he could. He told me that his girlfriend was a zoologist from the UK who worked on turtle conservation, and so we had a good old chat about dolphin hugging and marine critters.

The dive was better than I expected. There was quite a diversity of fish, and lots of brightly colored soft corals. Sadly too deep to use my little underwater camera though. Carlos was obsessed by stingrays and insisted on chasing them whenever we saw them - had he not heard what happened to Steve Erwin? The most depressing thing that we saw on the dive were a number of lion fish. Although these fish look quite dramatic and pretty, in case you don't know, they are an invasive species that comes from the Indo-Pacific and were released into the Caribbean Sea by an aquarium. They are voracious predators and will eat anything they can find, but nothing in the Caribbean eats them. As a result, increasingly you can find coral reefs picked clean of fish except for a few obese lion fish and a small number of survivors. They are like the terminators of the fish world.

And talking of eating ... before I sign off, I'd just like to give a little praise for the delicatessen next to the hotel. This tiny little shop seriously gives Trader Joe's a run for it's money. My picnic brunch today was ciabatta and goat's cheese, and smoothie made with organic chocolate from locally grown cacao. The fact that I can munch on this while lazing in my hammock, chilling in a cool sea breeze ... well it doesn't get much better than this. 

Dolphins and doggies

So my job involves conducting research on dolphins, amongst other things, and today I went out to check a possible research site. The boat I was on, was the catamaran "chewbacca", skippered by Marcel - a German who had opinions on everything. It was quite entertaining to listen to him rant about how humanity was destroying the environment, how corrupt politicians were, the social complexities of life on a small island, and pretty much his entire life history. Diverting though it was for the length of a boat trip, I pity his poor wife. 

The dolphins, when we found them, were in a small bay surrounded by mangroves. there were perhaps 6 to 8 bottle nose dolphins in the group. When we arrived there were 6 speed boats surrounding the group. As soon as they moved, the boats sped after them. I have to hand it to Marcel, he approached the area just how a good dolphin- watching operator should. Dead slow, and let the dolphins come to him. Which they did. To me they seemed to be using the boat as a shield from the other vessels, and their behavior also changed - spending much more time at the surface. When being mobbed by boats, they seemed to be spending as much time underwater as possible. There was clearly a problem - there needs to some serious management of the dolphin-watching, and part of the plan is to set up some graduate students to watch the area, monitor the impacts of the boats on the dolphins, and ideally suggest controls or protective measures. One idea is to set up a pontoon at the edge of the bay, where boats can moor and tourists watch the dolphins from there. That would certainly do away with a lot of the disturbance, but the trouble is getting the tourists and operators to buy into the idea. 

 Dolphins getting harassed

Also checked outcome areas of coral too - actually in very good condition. I've been to many parts of the Caribbean where reefs have been pretty decimated by damage from boat anchors or clumsy tourists, siltation from costal development, or covered in algae thanks to extra nutrients from untreated sewage. But here was some of the best reef I've seen for some time. Probably because apart from a few small areas, there is little development. Most of the owned islands are owned by rich Americans that build just one big house, and leave most of the rest of the island untouched. As opposed to other parts of the Caribbean where every inch of coast has a hotel or pier on it. So that was something positive. Although, after snorkeling on the reefs, we kicked back and drank a couple of beers on the deck of the "chewbacca", so I was probably in a good mood in general.

One of the most adorable things I saw today was a little tri-colored Jack Russell terrier playing with a plastic bottle. It was on the end of a pier, and would throw the bottle into the water. After barking at it a bit, the dog then leapt off the pier (maybe a 6 foot drop), grabbed the bottle and then swam for land (about 40 feet away). After he dragged the bottle up the beach, he then went back onto the pier, and repeated the process again. It's like he was playing at being a lifeguard, pretending to be David Haaslehoff on Baywatch, but without all the slo-mo running. I've been craving a dog, and watching this little guy entertaining himself, just made me want one even more.

 Doggie Hasslehoff

Tomorrow, off canoeing and to do a little diving.