Stephen Bolwell is a photographer, painter and writer. His blog - 'Take a Picture - Save the Planet' deals with both serious and light hearted environmental issues; he has a background in wildlife documentary filmmaking for television and posts short wildlife clips on YouTube.
Given the many problems caused by humans to the various species living on Pacific Islands, their rapid decline seems inevitable, but to a degree this process was happening naturally, long before we showed up. Such losses and gains were, and still are, dependent upon many factors, but as a general rule, smaller islands exhibit a greater turn over than do larger islands; and the arrival of man has now pushed the losses to the level of a major extinction event, with both New Zealand and Hawaii exhibiting clear examples of the problem.
I mentioned Hawaii’s carnivorous caterpillars in a previous article, and do so again because they are such a great example of the unusual directions that evolution can take on islands largely isolated by distance. So far as we know, meat eating caterpillars occur only on the islands of Hawaii.
How plants and animals get to be on a remote island in the first place depends on several things: the size and topography of the island, and its position in relation to other nearby islands is important; as is the distance these islands are from major land areas that might act as starting points for new arrivals, and this is critical both to what will arrive and how frequently; any organism capable of parthenogenesis (the development of embryos without the need for fertilisation) will have a better chance of getting started than will animals that require both males and females for reproduction.
Each and every island has a unique story held in its geology. Consider Australasia – around a 100 million years ago this huge land mass separated from Godwana (which was at the time a supercontinent). The split from Antartica happened between 37 and 35 million years ago as it moved northward. The land that would eventually be New Zealand started moving away from the larger mass we now call Australia between 60 to 85 million years ago.
It is possible thatNZ once formed part of a drowned continent, but for the millions of years the two main islands have remained above water in one form or another, extensive changes have occurred — including climatic extremes which will have eliminated many life forms.
Initially, when New Zealand sat alongside Australia, both were set in the same sub-tropical waters and in consequence had similar floras, but as the two separated, the sea flooded into the rift between them and formed the Tasman Sea. In consequence the New Zealand flora became isolated and new species began to evolve.
For the last 55 million years N.Z. has held its current position at around 2,000 kilometres to the south-east of Australia and experiences a much cooler climate than it once did, but ironically it now appears to be moving slowly back.
Apart from a few marine mammals and a couple of bat species, no other mammals have survived on these islands;
and none managed to colonise successfully until the arrival of Polynesian settlers less than a thousand years ago; this was followed by a second wave of mammalian competitors that came along with Europeans when they began settling little more than 250 years ago, with dire consequences to the established native species.
Prior to the arrival of humans and their entourage of plants and animals, New Zealand had been populated by a very distinctive flora and fauna that developed in isolation of the many mammalian predators evolved elsewhere. A European botanist arriving for the first time might initially consider that they had landed on another planet, because the invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles and birds that fill the niches taken up by mammals elsewhere, are so extraordinary.
New Zealand has been around for some time, but the Hawaiian Islands were formed far more recently and exclusively by volcanic activity — they quite literally erupted from the depths of the mid-Pacific and are about as remote from any other land area as it is possible to be. The first island, Kaui, started to push above water around 5 to 6 million years ago and is now the most westerly island in the chain. To the east at the opposite end is the Big Island (Hawai’i), and at less than a million years of age is still volcanically active.
Hawai’i is not huge, but nevertheless, it is big in comparison with the other islands in the chain. At around 10,500 square kilometres it is larger than the rest of the Hawaiian Islands put together, making up more than 60% of their total landmass.
Once the islands were formed, the possibility of a new plant or animal arriving on these tiny specks in the Pacific Ocean became a lottery. Miss the islands by only one mile or by a thousand, and the result would be the same — oblivion. Small organisms produced in large numbers will have had the best chance of arriving, with spores, seeds and tiny creatures the most likely candidates to be carried successfully on mid-altitude air currents to land against the odds on distant islands, although most of course will have perished.
Some species might have arrived carried across the surface of the ocean on any material that could stay afloat long enough to make landfall, but again the attrition rate would have been high and the chances of success slim.
It was a long shot that birds would arrive on Hawaiian Islands at all, given the distances involved, but when it did happen they would most likely have been carried on mid-altitude air currents. It is quite possible that only one or a small number of finch species arrived to become the honey creepers that radiated out across the Islands filling different habitats as they evolved into the 56 species that have been recorded, 18 of which are now extinct.
Hawai’i is the third largest island in the Pacific after the North and South Islands of New Zealand. Each has a reputation for beautiful landscapes but all have experienced extraordinary losses of their unique flora and fauna.
When man arrived on Pacific Islands, most low altitude habitats were rapidly degraded and indigenous species either lost or pushed into rapid decline; but sadly many people fail to recognise the problem.
On islands where there are higher altitudes many indigenous species cling on, but invariably they are compromised in some way, in particular by introduced pests.
To the casual observer Pacific Islands appear idyllic and it might seem peevish to dwell upon their environmental problems, but the losses are impossible to ignore. The Hawaiian Islands exhibit one of the highest species extinction rates of recent time, with New Zealand running a close second.
A NEW ZEALAND STORY: When I first visited the Coromandel Peninsula – not far from where my family and I once lived on New Zealand’s North Island, the experience turned out to be very much different from expected. It was perhaps too hopeful to see expansive forests of native trees – there is a forest park here, but the ancient native forests have mostly been replaced by serried ranks of introduced commercial radiata pine along with open pasture, and this was a double disappointment.
Ironically, Pinus radiata does not grow well in its native habitat around Monterey in California, and do much better as plantation trees in a goldilocks zone that runs in a band around the Southern Hemisphere. Growing quickly in their ‘new environment’ they may be cropped in a little over 30 years. Such rapid development makes the wood almost useless unless pumped with unpleasant chemicals to preserve the timber from the elements. There is no shortage of Pinus radiata growing on the Coromandel, but at least the Peninsula’s agreeable coastline of beaches and cliffs is cloaked in native pohutukawa trees. Sadly, some trees are prone to suddenly die: this correlates directly with a tree’s growth spoiling somebodies cherished view.
The beauty of the Coromandel relies heavily on narrow bands of coastal pohutukawas. They are visually impressive trees, especially when viewed from the sea, hanging on cliff faces. Known as the New Zealand Christmas tree, they flower spectacularly from December into the New Year.
However, once up the beach and through the trees, we discovered the landscape changed rapidly to farmland not dissimilar to the countryside we had so recently left behind in Southern England.
Inland natural habitats quickly begin to deteriorate and when you’ve moved to the opposite side of the world with the expectation of great natural beauty, it is disappointing to find environments trashed and the native flora and fauna seriously depleted.
Where did all the trees go?
When Captain Cook first sailed along the Huaraki Gulf off the Coromandel Peninsula he wasn’t just mapping the coastline, there was also an expectation that his expedition might find trees suitable for providing masts and spars to the British navy. The 20th and 21st day of November 1769 were days of discovery as Cook’s party took two longboats on an historic journey up the Waihou River. Cook mentions massive trees on the river banks in his journal, these later identified as kahikatea or ‘white pine’, Dacrycarpus dacrydioides. The party rowed ashore and measured a large specimen that ran to 89 feet (about 27 metres) to its first branch and at six feet from the ground, the trees girth was 19 feet 8 inches (almost 6 metres).
Later, the publication of Cook’s journal would bring major changes to the Hauraki area; within 25 years the region would be rapidly colonised by Europeans; the trees that Cook had written about felled, the surrounding lands drained and most of the natural forests replaced by farmland.
Few kahikateas trees survive today as large as the one that Cook described, and on first reading his account I wondered if the tree that had been measured was in fact a kauri. Kauris grow to become magnificent trees, and at that time there would have been no shortage of them. Left to themselves they might stand for thousands of years and reach a spectacular girth; younger trees were so clean and straight they quickly became a favoured choice as ship’s masts, although at the time Cook had not yet come across one. The diameter of the tree he described in his journal would have been around 190 centimetres and as there is a kahikatea still standing in Pirongia Forest (close to where we were living) measuring around 220 centimetres in diameter, the comparative figures make sense – the confusion existing in my mind because it is almost impossible to find kahikateas of this size and age still standing for comparison.
When we lived on the slopes of Pirongia Mountain, visiting friends would plant native trees on our land, amongst them kahikateas – which rewarded us by looking completely dead for several years – it’s just the way they are. This species was largely cleared from the once boggy surrounding lowlands of the Waikato as the wetland forest were converted almost exclusively to pasture.
In some places, the occasional kahikata had been left standing on pasture to provide shade for livestock, but a few years ago it was suggested that cattle gathering in this manner might spread facial eczema, and for that reason many of the remaining trees were felled. On the school run I’d mourn their smoking carcasses piled and burning for days. Removing them I think was a mistake – shade for livestock is essential during the hot summer months, but as any farmer might be inclined to ask – what do I know?
Certainly I was keen to see the trees back, as 98% of kahikatea forests are now lost, and without a reversal of policy in both drainage and land use the situation is unlikely to change. Some consider it immoral to return pasture back to natural habitat – a mind set that unfairly labels many New Zealanders as incapable of making a living from anything unless it can be shorn, milked or eaten.
When we arrived in 2002 there was no national Forest programme in place. Decisions were made regionally and grand old native trees were still being cut, even though outside of conservation areas there were very few mature native forests left. A Maori visitor told me that an old relative of his was busy felling an extensive area of native trees – he said, ‘There’s no point in arguing with the old B… He wants them gone. What can you do eh?’ A neighbour who had recently bought a large area of farmland close by told me that he had the right to cut a percentage of his remaining native trees, even though the previous owner had pretty much taken out most of what had been left standing. Essentially, the land had been asset stripped, and indiscriminately sprayed with herbicide, killing areas of natural bush, and generally poorly maintained. It was then sold on as real estate values rose. A win, win situation as land prices rarely go down.
On arriving in New Zealand I thought it odd that there was a general acceptance native flora and fauna could only be preserved by fencing it off… shouldn’t the natural world be on the outside of the fence? The alternative was to place New Zealand’s unique natural wonders on small offshore islands after all of the troublesome mammalian introductions, such as stoats and rats, had been exterminated by mass poisoning. In fairness this has proven to be an essential short term measure, so inundated has the country become with introduced pests. Certainly, New Zealanders can’t be faulted over their good intentions when it comes to pest control, but there is no excuse for the continued decimation of native habitats as agriculture continues to expand into areas that are borderline as regards economic return.
All of the seedlings that I planted were sourced locally – it took a couple of years to discover the particular preferences of pukatea – surprisingly they did not do well in the wettest areas close to the stream, perhaps because light was a limiting factor, but they did grow effectively at the top of the gully on retired pasture.
There was once a woodmill close to our bush, and by the time of our tenure most of the important old trees had been logged out.
The steep gully slope, close to where our house was sited, was supported by fairly mature kamahai and towhai trees which had only remained standing because their wood was quite useless – I was told by a local that had the trees been good firewood, they would have been felled long ago. In other places where there were no larger trees growing, the gully would occasionally slip away in wet weather. It really doesn’t make sense to cut mature trees on steep slopes and yet this is an activity that continues around the world, with often shocking consequences.
The presence of the trees also provided a roost for a couple of pairs of native pigeon, big birds and the only species surviving in New Zealand with a crop big enough to swallow seeds from the larger tree species that had mostly been lost from our tract of bush.
Stock animals would wander down to the stream and surrounding bush, but we put a stop to that. After a couple of years without grazing, large numbers of seedlings began to grow in the understory, carried in as seeds and excreted onto the forest floor by our welcome avian visitors.
The dense mass of seedlings growing in open spaces in the understory will eventually sort themselves out by competing with one another, but it could be a hundred years before the winners crowd the losers out. As new generations of people come to live in the house they will experience different stages of the forest as time passes, and in two or three hundred years the habitat will begin to get really interesting – but only if we humans stops messing things up as effectively as we presently are.
Hopefully, little pockets of forest like this will survive undisturbed elsewhere, until eventually much larger forests develop to full maturity. Native forests perform various important functions – in particular they provide habitats for other native species; and will also lock up carbon and slow the present increase in land temperatures. All we really need to do is allow them to exist without interference by keeping stock animals out and avoid the temptation to rush in and chop mature trees selectively. This requires a very different mindset from the short sighted approach we presently exhibit…. who knows, it could happen, but I’m not holding my breath.
When researching native trees I was concerned to discover that almost none of the original buildings in our local town had been preserved… Obviously a case of local indifference… but sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing – it soon became apparent that there was a good reason for the lack of historically significant structures – most of the buildings had been made from kahikatea timber – a wood that rots out very quickly. Local Maori would have known this, but probably nobody thought to ask them as they were often in conflict with the first European settlers, and might have been disinclined to offer useful information. The wood did however have one thing going for it – no discernible scent, and this proved ideal for the making of boxes for the transportation of butter.
On the Coromandel the large scale plunder of kauri forests started in earnest back in the 1830s. It was commonly referred to as an ‘industry’, although the almost complete destruction of a unique ecosystem might more correctly be described as a tragedy, but it was correct in one sense in that the destruction was on an industrial scale. By the end of the 19th Century 75% of the forests had been felled, yet the rate of cutting would increase for a while. In the end it would take little more than a hundred years to destroy forests that had been in existence for perhaps 20 million years.
Many tree species had been logged out in our bush, and I re-established them over an eight year period between 2002 and 2010, including several kauris planted on forest margins, previously sheep pasture. Kauri have recently suffered from a disease known as dieback for which there is presently no cure, and there can be no harm in having small stands of these trees in out of the way places as an insurance for the future.
There are few big old trees standing now that haven’t been given names and that’s a bad sign. When people can remember the names of every big tree in a forest there’s probably an environmental crisis. Big trees on a grand scale can now only be found in conservation areas much reduced in area from their original forest size.
The double whammy for kauri on the Coromandel was the discovery of gold in the mid-1900s. Just when kauri seedlings were beginning to start another forest their top soil was blasted away in search of a metal considered far more precious than natural bio-diversity.
Extracting gold has in the past been a dirty process and has involved considerable changes to the landscape, with the use of a great deal of water and rather alarmingly, liquid mercury – the worst news imaginable not only for people but also the environment. Then in 1898 the cyanide process was trialed for the first time at Karangahake on the Peninsula. This involved using dilute sodium cyanide to dissolve and separate gold from its ore and is still in use today. Commonly, tailings ponds are utilised to allow for settling with the water then available for re-use, but now and again there have been breaches that can cause environmental problems, and the ponds themselves are not ideal places for sustaining wildlife. Mining companies however manage to put a positive spin on the use of cyanide, because cyanides do not cause cancer or build up in the food chain, neither do they persist in the environment as some pesticides do; eventually breaking down in sunlight.
However, when things go wrong, there is an obvious cause for concern, either from airborne hydrogen cyanide or the contamination of water supplies. That’s not to say that all goldmines are potential environmental disasters, but I wouldn’t want to live next to one. Gold, of course, has easily definable important industrial uses, but if we are going to keep most of it in vaults or under our beds, we might just as well leave it in the ground… What a ridiculously common sense idea.
Just a few hundred years ago the Coromandel was a great natural wonder. Maori certainly made their mark, but after the arrival of Europeans, things got worse. Logging, and later, the extraction of gold by blasting the land surface with water, was followed by chemical extractions that could seriously damage biological systems, and finally large areas of the peninsula have been converted to pasture. All of this has resulted in a wide scale environmental disaster that many chose to ignore, or at least fail to notice.
Now that things have settled down and the region expansively clothed in either pasture or monocultures of pine, so much of it looks just like a long distance relative of Britain, but in the past it has been so much more. Many people still love it, but historically little respect was given to its once unique and pristine environments. The Coromandel clearly missed out on the care that it more properly deserved and I don’t understand why people aren’t angry about it. The destruction happened recently and over a comparatively short time, nevertheless, many New Zealanders have no understanding of how their country once looked. And, if you point this out…”Well, what can you do? It’s the same everywhere isn’t it?” is a common response.
It is anathema now to suggest that we should be responsible for what happens around us; an attitude that makes almost anything more or less O.K.. But if natural environments are to survive in the years to come, ignoring all the stuff that we’d rather not think about isn’t the answer.
Clearing out the pests is just the start, the next stage will be to reinstate New Zealand’s forests. Maybe people refer to any natural area as ‘bush’ simply because there are so few mature trees left and so it is difficult to realistically call them ‘forests’. At least some recognition of this will be necessary before there will be any significant change.
If cameras had been around when Cook was exploring remote places unknown to Europeans, would pictures of magnificent forests have changed attitudes towards chopping them down… Probably not, because we have great pictures of Indonesian rain forest now and the wonderful plants and animals that live within them, but nothing much changes – presently, palm oil plantations take precedence over natural bio-diversity… It doesn’t make sense, but if there are still great forests with grand old trees standing within them, then it’s worth taking a picture, because one day there will be deniers who will try and tell us that they were never really there.
To follow: PART 2. The Downside of Pacific Islands – The Disappearing Species of Hawai’i.
When our friends David and Rosie said they wanted to fly over from the U.K. and visit us near Vancouver, my wife Jen and I didn’t think it a major leap to keep going west until we reached the Big Island of Hawai’i, well, it wasn’t for us… Jen hadn’t been well and needed a rest, and David has for a long time wanted to photograph volcanic activity. The Hawaiian Islands it seems have something for everybody.
Sadly, if your holiday is going to be a good one, you now need to book well in advance to ensure affordable flights and good accommodation; it was Rosie and Jen who organised everything a year before we started out – an alien concept to me as I can’t plan much beyond Tuesday and that’s only if I start thinking things through late on Monday night. If it were left up to me, the whole thing would have fallen to pieces, but it got done; our Hawaiian adventure was perched somewhere on a distant horizon… and I promptly forgot all about it.
Then, just before our friends set out for Canada I had an e-mail from David with new information, “Kilauea is clearing her throat” he wrote, “and if the fat lady really starts to sing it might affect our flights”. I started watching the news – it seemed that Pele the Goddess of volcanoes and fire was wreaking havoc on the south east of the Island we were about to visit.
Nothing however is quite what it seems, especially with news. The first camerawork I ever did for the B.B.C. was news, this at a time when news was more important than the people who presented it; but these days ‘news’ comes with a degree of spin as reporters no longer simply report, they also have to give an opinion.
It was true that after a quiet spell, Mt Kilauea was active again, or to be more precise, fissure 8 on the east rift zone was, but the situation was more localised than we had been led to believe. So, when we arrived at our apartment the sky was hazy, but otherwise we were unaffected by the activity on the other side of the island. Nothing was about to blow and the locals remained philosophical – news is only news it seems when it ends up somewhere else.
Our day usually started well, but around 10.00 a.m. the vog (volcanic smog/fog) began to build in the hills behind us until any remaining patches of blue sky disappeared. It was a bit like being in L.A. on a warm still day, when smog hangs around, but in this case it was the trade winds bringing vog around the bottom end of an island and running them up the west coast to our base in Kailua-Kona, but the pollution was continually shifting and dispersing on the wind and it wasn’t a huge problem.
Nobody was making a fuss where we were, but the international news was building the situation into an insurmountable problem and pretty soon people were cancelling their holidays here, much to the detriment of the local economy.
Tropical islands with stable governments, and agreeable climates attract multinational companies: they buy up beachfronts, plant palm trees, enhance beaches, and sometimes trash local environments to create the gated coastal communities that are now so popular with many holiday-makers, not so much for me though, because locals should be part of the experience, even when they are trying to sell you something. There is however more to consider than lean times for wealthy investors, small businesses that rely on tourism are also suffering.
Nobody can say for certain that a volcano won’t suddenly go off and wreak havoc across a whole island, but the science of the way Kilauea presently operates makes this unlikely. There have in the past been violent explosive events, but in recent time lava has tended to ooze rather than fly. The key is in the name, Kilauea means to spew or spread, and not ‘explode or boom’. Presently there are no major problems for those who are not directly in the path of lava flow, or immediately down wind of the plumes of noxious chemicals that volcanic activity produces especially when lava enters the sea.
Spare a thought then for the people losing their homes to lava on the south east of the island, although some locals on the west coast seem pretty unsympathetic, suggesting that anybody who choses to live on the slopes of an active volcano is asking for trouble, which may be true, but the disturbing rise in land prices across the Hawaiian Islands has largely been pushed up by property speculation; in consequence local people are stuck with buying what they can afford and those with the least money must suffer the consequences. It is a sad condemnation of the way the world operates by simply following the money; and presently there is no sign of change, in fact quite the opposite.
Despite problems for some, our visit to Hawai’i seemed fortuitous – clearly this was the right time and place to photograph volcanic activity, but as always, the better the situation gets the more likely authorities are to close down options in the interests of safety.
We decided to drive southwards around the island from Kailua-Kona to see how far we could get before the situation deteriorated, stopping for a picnic close to the South Point of the island, and soon discovered that this was a great place to get blown off the lava cliffs into the Pacific – all you had to do was stand up.
Viewed from our picnic site, the ocean appeared to be dragging itself away from the coast as the winds whipped across it. Things inevitably get rough here because trade winds coming down the west coast whip around the southern tip to meet the Kona winds running up in the opposite direction.
The Hawaiian Islands are a small blip on the surface of the Pacific, formed by volcanoes that at some stage in their lives pushed rapidly upwards on comparatively small land areas. Hawai’i supports the volcanic masses of both Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa thrusting up as they do to just two or three hundred feet short of 14,000 feet respectively. If measured from their base deep on the Pacific floor, both would rise considerably above Mount Everest and their weight is telling: Hawai’i is subsiding by about an inch every year because it is right over the hot spot where the lithosphere is both thermally weakened and heavily laden with lava.
The presence of these volcanic masses also disrupts air flow across this area of the Pacific, redefining the trade winds flowing around the Island and their power is something to be reckoned with. If Captain Cook had been able to avoid the winds that broke his mast when leaving Hawai’i he wouldn’t have returned to the Big Island and been killed by locals on Valentine’s Day 1779; instead, he would have continued on in search of a north west passage and history would have turned out differently. It is also a sobering thought, looking out to sea from the South Point, (which is just a few hundred miles south of the Tropic of Cancer), that the next landmass above water is the continent of Antarctica.
We continued on, driving around the southern part of ‘Hawaii Volcanoes National Park’, looking for an entry point to photograph native birds. The best park for this is to the east and presently closed due to a plant disease and it isn’t possible to go in unless you are with a group and have an official guide.
The vog in any case makes for very poor viewing conditions and it is impossible to make a good exposure of birds against such a bland colourless sky when it only produces images known in the trade as ‘pee holes in the snow’. As it happens, I saw nothing of interest and we continued on eastward towards the lava zone.
We know that getting close to the action from the ground is unlikely, although it is possible to drive along certain roads in the affected area, but it is illegal to stop. We later discover that a local has taken outsiders in to witness the activity first hand – all have since been arrested and face legal action.
As we don’t live in the restricted area there is no reason why we should be allowed to drive in. We’d like to take pictures that tell a story, but roads are breaking apart and some are now impassible whilst others have completely gone. There is also a danger from airborne gasses: it would be wrong to underestimate the dangers of carbon monoxide, which doesn’t warn of its lethal potential because it is odourless; there is also sulphur dioxide which may combine with water vapour in the air or, as it is presently doing, react with sea water to produce airborne sulphuric acid, which you really don’t want to be breathing, anymore than the micro glass particles that are also airborne in the area. On occasions it is easy to walk around a lava flow, but sometimes, especially when close to the source, the lava flows quickly and if you don’t know the lie of the land, it is literally lethal to put a foot wrong.
We continue as far as Na’alehu some thirty five miles outside of the restricted area, here there are people who have been evacuated out for safety reasons.
As I get out of the car my back goes rogue by the road and a woman working in a food van on the opposite side hurries over to check I’m O.K. – as if these people don’t have enough to worry about.
A few miles up the road homes are being lost to lava, but in Na’alehu life carries on much as usual and nobody is moaning. It’s a great example of the best of small town America, and a different side of life from the one that usually gets reported on world news.
Jen is resting over at the food van with a cup of coffee, Rosie remains in the car, and David and I set about getting information on the current situation from a man who’s house was destroyed by lava back in 2005, he has subsequently rebuilt, but it looks as if he might lose his house all over again.
His name is Gary Sliek and he’s recently moved out of the danger area; he shows us a picture of the first house as it was hit by a lava flow at 4.30 in the morning – it is burning intensely. The idea that your house on fire is a photo opportunity seems perverse, but what else can you do in the circumstances – it is almost a displacement activity and Gary is surprisingly philosophical about his loss.
Back when it happened, he remembers the lava reaching the house, with a release of methane the building quickly ignited and burnt until the roof came down to the ground and then went back up again supported on the bulging flow.
Gary has retreated to Na’alehu, working out of his van because his new house is now under threat, but there are no hard feelings. Like a lot of Americans Gary has an adventurous spirit, he doesn’t want to be trapped by a conventional life-style and makes a living photographing the volcanic activity that goes on around him – and does so with considerable skill. It might seem like madness to keep returning to an active lava zone, but clearly there is a thrill to living close, and recording the most fundamental destruction and creativity our planet has to offer.
Once above ground magma is defined as lava – its most prominent feature is that inevitably it is unstoppable. To get the best pictures, you need to be in the right place at the right time and Gary’s pictures make it clear that anything David and I might get in a couple of days would be inferior – we can’t match what Gary has done on the ground and it is clear that to achieve anything useful we need to get into the air.
The best option is to rent a helicopter as there are presently no heavy restrictions to stop us taking a look from the air, and we will need the doors off to get decent pictures.
Enquiries are made and pretty soon we have a flight booked forour last available day here on 4/6/18, when we take a drive across to Hilo International Airport for an afternoon flight from Paradise Helicopters, Our pilot Daniel Speller knows exactly what there is to see and we rely entirely upon his judgement as to how we might cover the three main areas we will visit.
It didn’t take long to fly to the source of the activity, but as we flew I was shocked to see that there was nothing natural about the land below us. Most of it had been plantation in one form or another for a couple of hundred years, eventually divided in places for housing, and holiday resorts, in particular along the coast. It is naive to think that visiting a tropical Island will demonstrate the best of the natural world; it’s never like that with commercial ventures mostly taking precedence. Nobody needs it anyway, because our children will all go and live on Mars! It’s the new big thing, although the surface of the red planet is about as hospitable as the lava flow we are about to witness and as welcoming as the complete desolation that lies ahead of us between the scudding clouds. Then on the surface a red raw gape in the distance suddeny appears and then disappears into another bank of cloud. Now I’m preoccupied with how many other helicopters might be up here, but this is suddenly forgotten as we come out the other side, to arrive almost over the raw churning rent.
The magma is clearly visible bubbling in the fire beneath us and I begin taking pictures. Rather prosaically it is called ‘ fissure 8 on the east rift zone’, which is presently the most active point of magma release from the slopes of Kilauea and it’s totally impressive, constantly coughing and spitting red fury; and in contrast to the steady flow of lava that oozes from the side of this angry gash, as if a punch drunk fighter has been smashed in the face, hit the deck, and is now dribbling spittle and blood from an hideously swollen mouth, but the brutality here is on a very different scale; and had it been night time we would have picked out the glow of the lava as it slid away from the newly developing cone.
I had set a 100 – 400mm lens on my camera because I wanted close ups, but was surprised now at how close we were getting as Daniel banked the helicopter almost over the vent, avoiding a plume of dark smoke issuing from one side, the clarity was exceptional as he continued to bank in my favour, until the rent came into view full frame. It occurred to me that if I released my seat belt now, I might easily tumble into the fiery work of the Goddess Pele – the others commented on the heat, but for some reason I didn’t feel it.
Our seating positions were organised according to body weight in order to balance the aircraft; Rosie sat centre front and I was positioned on the opposite side to the pilot. At times, I seemed to be almost hanging out – it was a tight squeeze, but we didn’t get the buffeting that David and Jen were experiencing in the back. If I refrained from poking my lens too far out, the shaking familiar to a helicopter with its doors off was manageable for pictures, although when I did lean out to pull a little extra into frame the camera felt as if it might be whipped from my hands: for this reason everything we carried was attached to us, because losing an item into the tail rotor might be fatal. For the steadiest pictures, it made sense to stay within the confines of the aircraft canopy and for most of the time I managed to do so; things were easier still when using a smaller camera for the wide shots.
Jen was on the opposite side at the back and Daniel moved the aircraft into position so that she might also get a view and take photos of the fissure, and despite the turbulence she managed a series of good pictures.
Daniel repeated the process positioning the helicopter to allow for further photo opportunities and then flew on a short distance to the north west to see the now quieter volcanic cone Pu’u ‘O’o which had until recently been responsible for much continuous activity in the area since 1983. In the last 10 years this and the summit crater were the most active regions, but more recently some 20 fissures have opened up along the east rift zone.
This summit crater was active earlier in the year, but is presently quiet, the lava that once filled it is no longer there and the same is the case for the contents of Pu’u’O’o. If this lava were now flowing from the newly formed fissure 8, it would account for only about 2% of what has gone missing. Volcanologists are naturally concerned. “Where can it be?” I hear Daniel say over the headphones – I think it was a rhetorical question, but I’m far too busy to respond by suggesting that it might well be in our bathroom; more likely it is moving east and relates to the activity of the fissures on the east rift zone.
We bank once again, but this time follow the lava flow which conveniently for us has reached the sea today, throwing up clouds of toxic steam and gas, although my pictures of the event don’t seem especially dramatic.
The lava has entered the sea in the lower Puna district and it was a surprise to see how close some houses are to the flow but so far escaped – it is a bit of a lottery – I notice a couple burning. Getting home insurance here is of course impossible and it’s sobering to witness the loss.
As I am writing this, it is clear we returned to the airport without event, exhilarated, but with bad hair; wealthier in experience but not so much in pocket – it is as if we had poured our dollars directly into the volcano which in a sense we had, but without doubt, it had been worth it. Others hoping to make a later flight would not be so lucky as conditions were beginning to deteriorate.
The ground plan of the area we photographed has changed quite a bit since our flight: beach-side holiday resorts have completely disappeared and Kapoho Bay has pretty much filled with lava. There has been more activity from fissure 8 in the last month, more than during the whole of the active period of Pu’u ‘O’o that lasted nearly 35 years. The 8th fissure is now building a more substantial cone and lava is spewing higher than when we were there. It is time perhaps for the new fissure to be given an unpronounceable name! More than 30 billion gallons of lava have been thrown out of it over the last month and this has completely changed the shape of the island.
In reality we don’t have much control when nature confronts us so directly, although essentially it is indifferent and doesn’t target us specifically. What is certain is that we are powerless to do anything other than observe and record the extraordinary changes that are taking place here; and what a humbling experience it is to witness first-hand, this, the most fundamental process of creation.
‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’.
What the Dickens does that mean?… Well, it was ‘the best of times’ when I found myself on an Scottish island amongst thousands of nesting gannets totally indifferent to being photographed, allowing a wide angle lens to be placed almost under their beaks and in focus from here to ‘almost’ infinity – taking infinity to be that strange little 8 lying on its side at the far end of the focusing ring, otherwise known as a lemniscate.
‘The worst of times’ had already happened a month and a half earlier, at the opposite end of Britain. I managed to get myself dumped off on a very different sort of island to photograph a colony of sandwich terns; and the process hadn’t been easy, although the birds were at least co-operating by not moving, and this probably wasn’t a big plus for a movie, but worked well for stills – you can’ have everything. Their lack of mobility however could be forgiven – the birds were sitting on eggs. The two main problems at this location were: a limited working time – to avoid disturbing the birds; and from a photographic perspective: a limited depth of field, because I had to work from a distance using a telephoto lens, which made focusing critical.
The gannets it turned out would get photographed on a sunnier day, against the intensity of a cerulean blue sky that spread expansively over an indigo sea. The gannets were nesting on Bass Rock, spilling in numbers both down and across a huge outcrop that had thrust up to form a volcanic plug sometime during the Carboniferous Period. This plug is all that remains now of the volcano itself, exposed dramatically above the water’s surface it provided a variety of photo opportunities. At the time I might have thought the day arranged specifically for me – but that would be pushing it: by great good fortune and a look at the weather forecast, the light and setting proved spectacular on this particular day – I’d just got lucky. On another day, on the North sea off the East Coast of Scotland the outcome might have been very different.
The sandwich terns on the other hand were photographed nesting on a flat stoney beach which had to be viewed with a very different perspective providing little more than a letter box of a picture – a photo opportunity that would prove very much different from the gannet experience.
At the time, the terns appeared to be sited at the more benign location, set as it was, on a small island in a sheltered environment on the South coast of England. But oddly, it was this colony that faced the greater danger.
The gannet’s nest site was a challenging outcrop exposed to the worst vagaries of The North Sea, but these are tough birds and they cope. The tern colony on the other hand was set on a low lying beach in Langstone Harbour, which seems a far easier proposition, but the reality is that the terns birds can be flooded out by a single high tide. It has happened before: such an event is disastrous for both eggs and chicks, and might even turn out to be problematic for the longterm survival of the whole colony.
My luck seemed to be going the same way as the the terns might in the very near future – they seemed to be only just above the high tide line, and for the first ten minutes I didn’t manage an usable shot. Where do you set focus on birds that are nesting thirty metres away on a slightly raised but essentially flat beach. I was also uncomfortable crouched as I was in the tidal zone with my rear end almost in the water, looking out from a slit in my rapidly erected and flooding hide. Should I focus the telephoto lens on the tern front row, the second row, or the third? A logistical nightmare that wouldn’t be a problem when I later worked the gannets close in with a wide angle lens. Here I had no alternative but to use a long lens which afforded minimal depth of field (that’s what can be held in focus from front to back), when attempting close ups of the sitting terns.
And I wouldn’t be thinking about any of this, if I hadn’t opened a couple of boxes of 35mm slides out of curiosity, when tidying my office. These were tiny reminders of adventures from the past – images that had been made almost as an afterthought back in 1993.
The sandwich terns were taken on the afternoon of 27th May when a conservation organisation allowed me 40 minutes on tern island. I had been set down from a small boat , leaving just enough time to put my hide up, film the colony, and get off without bothering the birds. They were sitting on eggs, which is a sensitive phase that usually I avoid, because nesting birds on an open beach are vulnerable, and I was anxious not to put them because there were black-headed gulls just waiting for an opportunity to move in on a tasty warm egg.
The gulls were also a problem because they kept messing up my shot by landing in the foreground, placing themselves between me and the terns. It was tricky, but I managed enough shots for a film sequence, before grabbing a few stills. The sky was overcast, but fortuitously bright; with very little in the way of wind to vibrate the camera or spook the birds, and they remained largely indifferent to my presence. After a very short time I was clambering back into the boat that had returned to collect me. As the vessel moved steadily away, the birds receded into the distance, and very soon became indistinguishable from the pebbles on the beach.
On the gannet outing there was more time to take pictures, and despite there being a film crew present, our party made very little disturbance. We moved with great care, hugging the slim pathways between colony members, the birds largely ignoring us. None were snappy, which was fortunate because much of the time I was working well within pecking distance and given their density it was impossible to stay beyond the beak range of a great many birds wherever you were on the island.
I filmed both the gannets and the programme presenter Chris Packham over a morning and an afternoon on 5th July. Working with friends I was given plenty of time to take stills pictures, and during the course of the day shot several hours of video. I suggested that we might hold a cassette back because there was so much material, but our director wouldn’t hear of it. All the tapes will now most likely be in landfill as production and T.V. companies can’t log and shelve everything – the alternatives back then were to either reuse the tapes, or simply dump them.
The only problem with Bass Rock was getting the gear and ourselves on and off the island. The skill of the boatmen who calmly made this possible, can’t be underestimated as there were both currents and a swells to deal with. The real problems start when you want to get off of a rocky island, because you wouldn’t be on it in the first place unless the weather was fair. Once in place there is a tendency to grab the opportunity to stay for as long as possible, but as the day progresses, the weather can turn nasty and decrease your chances of getting off safely. To a lesser extent this happened that day, with the boat rising and dropping several feet as we synchronised handing over the gear and then followed as if we were joining a carnival ride whist it was fully operating – timing was everything – anything that went into the water now would almost certainly be lost forever.
During 1993 I was busy working on a variety of projects and usually didn’t have time to look at my stills when they arrived back from processing. The images were in any case usually grabbed at the last moment, as I never worked primarily as a stills photographer. My technique was rather ad hoc, usually I took shots by balancing my stills camera on top of the cine, which was at least set on a tripod and everything was done very quickly. Usually, there was little time to take stills after filming was completed and I didn’t expect to achieve much in the way of usable material, consequently, many of my transparencies were never looked at.
Back in the 1990s, when I wasn’t working, I was playing with my children. Stills photography was essentially a by-product of the job, and to my mind didn’t feature prominently in my life, although I carried a camera as frequently as some people would wear a watch, and would record rather than notice the passage of time. Now, nearly 25 years on, my old transparencies are bringing back happy memories – the idea that you should never look back must always be tempered by whether you can remember doing anything interesting.
In the early 1990s, there wasn’t a lot of money in taking stills pictures, unless you really worked hard at it to the exclusion of everything else. When you did send your originals off to a magazine for publication, they would often dutifully scratch or lose them, usually with great distain, as if it was a publishers duty to be incompetent. Sometimes they would pay a fee for the use of a picture, but usually this barely covered the price of the film stock – it was insulting, and a total waste of time; so I never sent out pictures even when requested to do so, and when ‘the book of the film’ went into production my pictures were, in most cases… never there.
So it was that only a few of my slides made it out of their boxes. I’d hold one up to the light for a squint and check for correct exposure… then put them away again. Were they in focus? How would I ever know without projecting them? It now seems a pity to have waited so long to bring them to light, because even by old film standards the results turned out better than expected.
I must admit to have really enjoyed working on this series. It was the first time I’d used video on a project for television – at the time a great deal was being shot on magnetic tape. Previously I’d always worked with 16mm film, and must acknowledge the delight that comes from filming and editing programmes in this medium, but back then video provided some advantages that are still with us today when utilising digital photography.
One advantage of video tape and modern digital systems is that they capture more information than film is capable of in low light conditions. The first video shots I took on the series were on a dank miserable day in the New Forest – there was very little light and it rained almost continuously, so it was a surprise to me that these autumnal scenes and close ups displayed such good exposure and colour saturation. If I had been working on film, I doubt that I would have taken the camera out of its bag because the results would have been so poor.
I grew up with film, but am now a great advocate of electronic systems.For years I dragged myself through the dark ages of emulsions carried on celluloid until, with the 21t Century, came improvements in digital photography that continue to the present day. With such advances, only a person with their feet set firmly in concrete, would go back and preferentially use film. Nostalgia is exactly what the word says – it has nothing to do with progress.
Having said that, a film negative might in the end last longer in storage than a digital image – only time will tell. Part of the problem lies in the rapidity with which storage methods are changing rather than the image itself. You might record a really great picture, but with technology now moving so fast, there will in future be limited options to view it.
There is then a positive side to old methods, not only can film capture historically significant events and retain them, it can also provide old data to compare how things were in the past with how they are now and by extrapolation, how they will be in the future.
When videoing the gannets on Bass Rock back in 1993, I was told there were 18,000 gannets nesting on the island, but suspect that I ,or somebody else misinterpreted that figure by a factor of ten. The correct number is more likely to have been 180,000, because the number today runs at about 150,000 birds and I can’t imagine squeezing 162,000 more into the available space that I experienced on my first and only visit. Whatever the case this location now has the largest colony of nesting gannets in the Northern Hemisphere and that’s impressive.
This kind of colonial behaviour provides a good opportunity to note any changes in bird numbers over time by comparing old pictures with new; and technology is always improving the possibilities. Drones for example, might now fly directly overhead to provide more carefully standardised comparisons, and should be achievable without causing disturbance to the birds and at very little cost.
Animals that we wrongly term ‘from the lower orders’, insects for example, have populations that may fluctuate considerably from one year to another; and the same is true for many amphibians – their populations often rebounding very quickly because individuals can produce large numbers of offspring.
However, for animals that reproduce more slowly, the story is different: birds and mammals do not usually show such rapid fluctuations, although it is important to note that there are times when populations might rapidly change in line with predator prey relationships and strategies. It is nevertheless ironic that we have now hit upon photographic techniques that in future might record some animal populations more accurately at a time when so many of them are in rapid decline; this is almost exclusively down to our insatiable desire to utilise more of the Planet’s surface, whilst increasing human populations beyond reason.
The good news is that despite declining fish stocks the gannets on Bass Rock appear to be holding their own; which runs contrary to much that is happening in the natural world. Perhaps the best way to deal with present events is, at ‘the worst of times’, to react quickly to remedy a bad situation, whilst viewing more positively ‘the best of times’ fully celebrating the ups when they occur.
The success of a single colony of seabirds is certainly cause for celebration, and I consider myself fortunate to have witnessed this impressive natural wonder, moving as it is in the right direction against a general tide of bad environmental news to become the world’s largest gannet colony.
During the summer dragonflies arrive to fly over our garden in numbers – they simply come to feed on insects – taking a break from the hassles that life throws at them when they are hanging around their breeding pond. I have counted as many as a dozen at any one time doing circuits and bumps, and none could truly be described as resident… But, as soon as our new pond was filled with water, a male instantly took to patrolling and hovering in front of me as I worked; the insistence that this was now his territory was encouraging.
Later that day a couple of females of the same species arrived; and with a metallic rattle of wings seemed held by the glimmering surface as if drawn by a magnet. Soon they began laying eggs, which was impressive for a pond that was only a day and a half old. Clearly, when you get things right nature quickly lets you know.
Darners are large dragonflies so named because their abdomens are long and thin; which must have suggested to somebody in the past that they looked like darning needles.
At first the females laid their eggs in the water, with their abdomens partially submerged, but when the pond was about three weeks old and summer was turning to fall they began laying in the grooves of log bark above the waterline. I wondered if they had perhaps lost their senses, but then considered they might be enhancing the chances of their eggs hatching as water temepratures began to drop and warmer conditions prevailed above the waterline during daylight hours.
Within a few days it came onto rain heavily which is to be expected on Canada’s west coast at this time of year and soon the logs at the ponds edge were partially submerged. Millions of years of evolution has selected for the most exacting behaviours, but maybe I am making a naturalist’s observation here that won’t hold up under more careful scrutiny – there’s a science project here for somebody – I’ve seen successful Phd’s start out on flimsier grounds.
The arrival of my first ‘true’ bugs.
Within a couple of weeks I saw two water boatmen fly in: one landed on the water and dived down before quickly returning to the surface; it took off at once but dropped straight back through the silver mirror as if this extraordinary insect couldn’t quite believe its luck. Over the same period half a dozen pond skaters also showed up and were soon busy feeding on insects unlucky enough to have fallen onto the water’s surface.
Much of the photography that I do is exacting, but if the situation allows I prefer to work quickly, which is often necessary when photographing wildlife. Sitting around waiting for stuff to happen is a waste of time; so, usually I set my camera up on a tripod and get busy doing other things until something does.
This water boatman was removed from the pond using a net and then photographed in a small plastic salad box (left outdoors to collect rainwater to benefit indoor plants). The container has developed a film of algae across its base and various bits of vegetable material have fallen in, providing a background that looks very natural.
I used a more than five year old Canon 60D digital camera, with a favoured 55mm Micro-NIKKOR lens – this purchased secondhand in the mid-1970s when I first started filming wildlife for the B.B.C.. For many years it travelled around the world with me surviving everything from the fine dust of deserts, to the humidity of tropical forests. It has never been taken to bits to be cleaned and is as good today as when I bought it.
Some of these early lenses are said to be better optically than many made today – I won’t make that claim, but without doubt they are tougher. I used a conversion ring bought for less than $10 to attach the NIKKOR micro lens to my Canon: but don’t attach any non-standard lenses to your camera until you have checked that doing so will not cause damage – in particular to the metering system.
If there are no obstructions and the lens fits easily there should be no problems, but it is important not to suddenly flood the camera’s sensor with light as this may cause irrepairable damage.
Old Nikon lenses prior to1959 won’t fit on new Nikon cameras let alone Canon cameras, but F mount lenses made after 1959 will attach to new 35 mm SLR Nikon bodies. I can therefore fit my old Nikon lenses to my Nikon D5200 or to my SLR Canon cameras although I don’t expect to achieve either automatic metering or focus. I often set apertures and speeds manually, so this isn’t a problem as I’ve been looking through cameras for many years now, and can guess settings fairly accurately without using a metre and still get things in focus by twiddling a focus ring.
I utilized a small four and a quarter inch (11cm) square bathroom tile mirror to reflect sunlight back onto the bug. Lying on the ground, supported on my elbows, I took a deep breath and snapped several pictures, holding the camera in my right hand, because the mirror was in my left. Two elbows and a torso can make a fairly stable tripod for speeds faster than 1/60th second, but you really shouldn’t expect pin sharp images when doing macro or telephoto work without a tripod. Focus was made by simply moving my head and camera backwards and forwards, having already preselected a point of focus my turning the lens ring. When using a tripod I have a mount (pictured below) that allows the camera to be moved back and forth along two straight bars; this looks very professional, but I rarely attach it for stills photography, preferring instead to push the back leg of my tripod with my foot which achieves a similar result and often more quickly. Sometimes working fast is of the essence and it really doesn’t matter how you get the job done.
I spent twenty minutes on the project, taking perhaps a dozen pictures, two of which have been reproduced in this article. The water boatman was soon returned to the pond, presumably now believing in God, and busy converting other water boatmen to his beliefs as they arrive on a daily basis. But, so far, he is the only one to have seen that special light that shone from above; as for the others – well, they just think they have.
Under the circumstances, the pictures I took were reasonable, demonstrating that it is possible to get good close ups without great expenditure. The main reason I started my career with macro photography was, that in the early days, I couldn’t afford the quality telephoto lenses necessary to take good pictures of animals inclined to keep their distance. Everybody has to start somewhere, but once you get the hang of it, most photography is a piece of cake – just as long as you put the time in to practice – in my case that would be around 40 years. And the other thing… if set to automatic modern cameras do almost everything for you – so, what’s not to like?
The large darner dragonflies
that arrived almost as soon as the pond was filled, were I thought, best photographed using a long lens around 400mm., at the shortest point I could make the thing focus; I set my working distance a little beyond to give some focusing leeway, and was just far enough away to avoid disturbing my subject, providing I moved slowly.
Many manufacturers produce close up (macro or micro) lenses that are set around 100mm or less, but at these focal lengths it is necessary to get very close to a subject (as was the case with the water boatman). But most flying predatory insects have well developed eyes sensitive to visual disturbance; and dragonflies are near the top of the list.
I used a 100-400mm Canon zoom for all the dragonfly pictures but one; and common to many upmarket telephoto zooms, this is a bulky, heavy and expensive item. Using cheaper lenses usually involves compromise, and may involve a loss of definition at the long end of the zoom, which is frequently down to the lenses inability to stabalize a moving object at a distance.
On a fixed 400mm lens, a sight made from an old wire coat hanger can be looped around the lens hood to quickly target a subject, but when using a zoom, I find it just as easy to locate subjects using the 100mm wide end and crash zoom in to the full 400mm. Even the excellent Canon zoom has issues when fully zoomed in – although the updated 100-400mm US II has superior stabilizing capabilities and regarded as a better lens. However, the problem is less noticeable on the older lens when framing small animals that are close, and better still when they are hardly moving, a situation that is improved by always using a tripod.
Under extreme circumstances, expensive gear usually produces better results – for example, the provision of an extra stop to open the lens up when working in low light conditions and still maintain image quality; this a plus for many photographers, but such additions don’t come cheap. The good news is that there are many less expensive cameras without all the bells and whistles that can still produce good results under optimal conditions.
Photography essentially boils down to three things: the focal length of a lens, the framing of an image… and finally, making a correct exposure. Assume for arguments sake that the focal length of the lens is fixed and that most of us can frame an image (although this isn’t a given), the only thing left to consider is, how best to achieve the exposure. And that’s a tricky because different shutter speeds and apertures will produce different results: a slow shutter speed will provide motion blur on a moving object for example, and the lenses aperture will affect the crispness of an image as well as how much of the subject is in focus from front to back.
There is a simple relationship between shutter speed and lens aperture for making an exposure – it’s a wedding of compromise: because the amount of light needed for an exposure is an constant, an increase in shutter speed inevitably requires a reduction of lens apeture and visa versa. These blocks of time and aperture are conveniently equal on your camera set up and so changing a setting is simple, although many people prefer to rely entirely on fully automatic settings, but because the various combinations are capable of such different results, it is helpful to understand which works best for the picture you want to achieve.
It is also important to recognize that different lenses have different focal lengths and each of these changes the look and perspective of a picture, with none of them exactly duplicating the way we see things with our eyes. Photography relies to a large extent upon illusion, utilizing the brain’s habit of rejigging what we see to make sense of the outside world, essentially tapping into our innate ability to recognize the familiar.
It was fun for a moment to claim a compromise of the wedded couple, shutter speed and lens aperture, but there is a third consideration that makes this match into a love triangle – the new variable is a change of emulsion speed (when film is used), or an increase in sensor sensitivity with a digital camera, with the result that pictures may be taken in lower levels of light. There is however, no such thing as a free lunch – faster emulsions produce grainier images; and now that film emulsions have been superceded by camera sensors, the grain has been replaced by another form of degradation termed ‘noise’. Having said that, the technological advances of digital cameras has progressed so rapidly in recent years, that some can now produce very good pictures in extremely low light.
I’ve left the best bit till last –
there’s one thing in particular that is crucial to the way a macro picture will look and that is ‘depth of field’, which is especially important to the wildlife pictures I’ve taken here. When a lens is stopped down to make the aperture smaller, ‘depth of field’ increases. Put simply, ‘depth of field’ is everything that is in focus from front to back either side of the exact point you choose to most critically focus. A lot of other stuff matters as well, for example – the focal length of the lens, and how close you are to the subject… but these things often cloud the issue and no matter what you hear, the key thing to remember is that you can’t defy physics.
If you take a picture from the same position and from the same distance, the ‘depth of field’, both with a wide angle and then a telephoto lens, remains the same. What happens is, a wide angle lens magnifies the subject less than a telephoto lens, and consequently more of the image appears to be in focus. Because I’ve never read a book on photography or taken a lesson on the subject, it took me seven years to figure this out; and believe me, what you work out for yourself, rather than accept from others without question, leaves less room for doubt. Most of the differences we notice relate to the lenses that we use and the distance we use them at.
A lot of people like to use low f stop numbers to create a very narrow ‘depth of field’; because doing so concentrates interest on just one region of the picture. For example a portrait photographer might use an 80mm lens, (often regarded as the best focal length to most naturally render a human head and shoulders), and focus on the eyes whilst opening the lens aperture up to maximum – this creates a very shallow depth of field, drawing attention to the eyes, by throwing quite a lot else out of focus – in particular the background, making for a very stylized kind of picture. Focus is therefore critical when using wide open apertures on all but the widest angle lenses, and getting eyes perfectly in focus might mean the even the tip of a nose won’t be sharp, especially if your subject is a regular Pinocchio.
I mention this to highlight that there are many different ways to take photographs and perhaps because a lot of my film career has featured small animals, I have moved in the opposite direction to this portrait photography style, using macro lenses and stopping them down to f16, f22 and f32 to achieve the greater depth of field I can. Sometimes this requires more light than nature can provide and I have in the past used artificial cold light in a studio situation (because many insects aren’t so much troubled by light as by heat), although I prefer when I can to use only natural light and mirrors. Optimally the lens is giving its best results around f8 to f11, but when taking macro pictures I usually consider a greater depth of field to be my priority.
So, how are things changed by using a longer lens, a 400mm, which is relevant here because all of the dragonfly pictures taken in this article – bar one – were taken at this focal length. Put simply, the depth of field seems narrower than it does on a wider lens, but we’ve been through this and it’s just an illusion, but on the 400 mm lens the depth of field does becomes more critical when taking a close up of an egg laying dragonfly at a slight distance. This in contrast to the picture of the resting dragonfly I took on my Lumix camera (on the vine) which has better focus throughout because I was using a wide angle lens setting and and very close to the subject. i.e. a matter of inches rather than of feet as is the case with the telephoto pictures, this changes the perspective and makes a very different kind of picture.
Likewise the picture of the small water boatman taken on a 55mm macro lens works quite well because the lens is close and I’ve also managed the ‘depth of field’ by keeping the bugs body surface running along the same plane and thus narrowed ‘depth of field’ required to hold focus, but once this has been done focus once again becomes critical and there is no room for error.
This picture was taken on f16 at 1/125 Sec. I selected midway long the body as my point of critical focus which allows most of the probing abdomen of the egg laying dragonfly to remain in focus, but the front end of the head is just beginning to lose it.
This picture was also taken at f16 at 1/125 Sec, but this time I have brought my critical focusing point forward – the head is in focus now, but the abdomen is going slightly out. The first picture is the nicer frame, but the second might be regarded as technically better… but of course, it also depends on how the picture is viewed. Blow the top picture up full frame as a page illustration and you might notice the head going soft, but used as a smaller picture it might well be considered the better image.
I am not against ‘happy accidents’, but it makes more sense to try to understand how best to deal with depth of field for your specific needs. Some photographers are less bothered about achieving this wide ranging depth of field and what I might chuck out they will feature – it’s a matter of taste. And if you just want to achieve a really crisp well lit image, then there’s always flash photography. Used correctly you won’t know the difference they tell you… Well, yes you will. I’ve never travelled down the ‘Chocolate Box School of Photography’ route, but many have, and their success rate is higher than mine. Everything in the end is a matter of opinion – it just depends on how you want to present your view of the world, using the artfulness of photography. There are really no right or wrong ways to take a picture – and if you are trying something different and it works… this has to be a plus.
I presently tend a mid-sized suburban garden just south of Vancouver; close to the coast and the U.S border, with the climate about as temperate as Canada has to offer. Rarely is the weather extreme and it rains fairly regularly. All things considered, not a bad place to tend a garden, but ours has one glaring oversight… it doesn’t have a water feature..
I’m fond of garden ponds and over the years have built several – mostly using concrete, which usually provides a sense of permanence; but the pond I am presently working on has been dug in soft sandy soil, where it is more practical to use a pond liner.
This will be the biggest pond I’ve installed so far, with a surface area of a little under 600 square feet, an area that is expansive in relation to the whole garden – a situation that provides one major advantage… it takes up space, reducing the amount of land that would otherwise need tending in a more traditional labour intensive way; and in addition, a larger pond that has both shallow and deeper water, where pond plants are plentiful, will stabilise as a viable eco-system more quickly than a smaller volume of water.
Using nature as a reference:
It’s good to have a natural pond in mind during construction, but there are no plans to build a miniature version of the wild. The intention is to steal ideas from nature, which, with the benefit of time, has worked things out pretty well.
There are many good reasons for creating garden ponds; they will certainly increase the bio-diversity of urban spaces and improve things by as much as a third.
The presence of water can be calming and my wife sees the value in that, but my interests are related more directly to wildlife photography, and a naturalistic pond will allow me to take pictures of plants and animals living in and around fresh water without having to travel more than a few metres from the house.
Build it and they will come –
‘They’ being wild animals… mostly small creatures such as amphibians and insects – in particular the ones that rely upon water as an integral part of their lifestyle needs. When flora an fauna are biologically committed to what you have on offer, it is difficult for a project to fail.
The difference between the pond that I am creating and many others is that I am committed to a natural look, and will use the skills I’ve learnt over the years to dress the area appropriately, so that it might double as a film set.
In summer it will be necessary to cut back weed growth, and during fall scoop leaves from the surface, but there won’t be the continual round of weeding, planting and mowing common to most land based garden areas.
I haven’t been slow to move the pond along during the autumn months, but will admit to digging the pond over a longer period of time, due to a troublesome back, and also because I have quite a lot else to do. However, it would be wrong to suggest that the process has involved a lot of hard work, because the soil here is light and sandy, although there has been quite a lot of it to move.
Had I started the project in our front garden, with its heavy underlying base of slipper clay and shallow top soil, I doubt I would have made much progress without a mechanical digger. The area I did chose could not have been more different, at the back end of the garden the soil is fortuitously sandy and runs to a considerable depth. On the down side, heavy machinery would have been difficult to operate here without crumbling or compressing the soil, especially with my lack of experience with a digger. But as most of us can work efficiently with a spade if we have the time, I didn’t see a problem and did my best to view this arduous process as very good exercise.
The selected site in the back garden dropped about a foot over its length and I used soil from the back end of the excavation to build banks up the front. This was essential because a pond on a slope is technically a river and the water will always end up somewhere else. A spirit level was therefore an essential tool, but I did little more than run a taught string from front to back and make regular checks to gauge where the future water level would be.
Before starting I had to get a permit to fell two trees – the remains of a long gone badly managed hedge, they were now a danger to my neighbours property, and situated on the southern border of our property, they cut out the light. To make a success of the project, both would have to go.
Overall, a garden pond doesn’t need to be very deep, but a better balance can be maintained if in some places it gets down to around a couple of feet in depth. This is best achieved near the centre and not at the edge. A gentle gradation from around the sides is far more natural, and important for a variety of reasons.
Water plants require different depths depending on their preferences – some will do best with just their roots in water – water buttercup for example; others such as water lilies and bogbean need to be totally submerged, and will push their leaves and flower stems up to the surface during the warmer months of the year.
The Yellow waterlily Nuphar polysepalum is a native water plant (although it may originate from the eastern side of North America). In contrast, many colourful water-lilies are introductions.
It is very important to exercise common sense in any garden where pets and children are spending time: if smaller children in particular are playing close by, a pond should always be covered with some form of supporting mesh.
When the dig is complete I am keen to move the process along as quickly as possible and sort out the surrounding garden. This will involve everything from new fencing covered with climbing plants (which will improve and soften reflections in the water), to organising the border areas as sympathetically as possible, with the back half of the garden given over to native flowering plants that will help draw in local wildlife.
Here the digging out is almost completed. The stump of one of the felled trees has been left to rot out naturally, and a bird nesting hole with an interior nest site has been created at the top. There are also slits for bats and a vine has been planted at the base to eventually cover the old trunk to make it more aesthetically pleasing. With the trees gone there is now enough light to maintain a healthy pond.
Another good reason for proving shallow slopes into the water is to create a place where insect and amphibian larvae can develop without high levels of predation; hungry fish in particular are a problem and won’t be introduced into our pond. This will also prevent the nitrification of water from fish poo, and reduce algal blooms. I appreciate that the temptation to introduce fish will be too great for some, but if the intention is to boost pond bio-diversity, goldfish, koi and any other large predators should be avoided.
Even though the pond base is sandy, and I’m using a quality 1 mm thick pond liner, every inch of the base and sides has to be sifted of stones. I start from the centre and work out and admittedly, this is a time consuming drag, but essential if the rubber base is to be protected. Done properly, it will improve the chances of the liner surviving for 25 years or more.
There was clearly a burn and bury here – probably when the house was built – to clear rubbish, and all had to be carefully removed as rusty nails and twisted shards of glass will puncture any pond liner.
When I started working on the inside of the house, I saved the old carpets to line the pond. I don’t like anything synthetic going onto soil, but a degraded carpet layer can be cleared if the pond is ever decommissioned and certainly it is more useful here than in landfill.
The liner in place, the pond was filled with water, allowing it’s weight to contour the rubber liner – aided by some judicious tugging to flatten out creases. Many people will empty a new pond after a few days and refill it, but that’s a terrible waste of water and quite unnecessary if you can live without fish. There is nothing much else to do once the liner is organised and I start getting plants in well before the pond was filled.
I had already installed a very small pond in our garden when we moved in, using a small piece of liner bought in the mid 1980s. It was a remnant from a larger pond installation, and has travelled around the word with me for a good many years to become part of many temporary sets during the filming of small animals. In its latest incarnation I’ve managed to grow on various small aquatic plants that can now be moved across into the newly completed pond.
It is a good idea to visit a local pond after a storm and remove small pieces of vegetation that have broken from the various water plants that live there, but it is necessary to get to them before the ducks do. It is unwise to bring plants in from a distance as what suits your area best will be growing locally, and it is very important not to introduce pest species. Almost anything you need can be bought from an aquarium shop, but who knows where it has come from? If a friendly neighbour is having a pond clear out, it is wise to make use of it. Where I live in Canada, garden ponds are less common than they perhaps should be; and where they do exist are often too ornamental and busy with goldfish to be very helpful to native wildlife.
There is a small hump at the edge of the pond that prevents garden run off; once over this the depression behind is filled with a layer of sandy base soil, this is then covered with layers of smooth stones. Finally, small plants are added to grow amongst them. This wet area at the front of the pond is essentially a pebble beach. But along the back and sides I have used mosses and ferns that are commonly found in the damp rainy conditions of our area, many of these have been grown on by placing fallen branches in shady areas of the garden. Each of us might use what is natural to our own area.
I try to make my mini-landscapes appear as realistic as possible. Over the years I have build a lot of sets that have been used to photograph small animals and I approach the pond decor with the same attention to detail, but with the understanding that in this case things need to be more permanent.
I begin to make use of the cut trunks from the felled trees by cutting cookies to walk on – none are placed on the liner itself, and all have a protective pad of thick rubber beneath them.
The job is certainly painstaking, because every stone that goes into the pond or comes into contact with the liner has to be hand selected.
Using sand and stones in this dipped peripheral area will reduce nitrogen run off into the water and help prevent algal blooms.
To make things look natural, larger stones need to be clumped together as if a stream or river had perhaps arranged them hundreds or even thousands of years ago – rather than somebody like me having done so yesterday.
At this point I am about half way to creating the illusion of a pond just a few days after the digging process has been completed. I will move the fallen branch temporarily and hack away at the ends to provide a more natural look. Obviously, sharp tools must never be used anywhere near the rubber liner.
Some might consider my efforts to be on the verge of theatre with a distinctly theme park feel ,which is true only up to a point, after the liner is installed everything above it is quite natural and many plants will creep across hard surfaces, especially where there is water, and as roots grow and interweave they will eventually hold the basic structure together.
Up and just over the hump that separates the land from the water I have used moist play pit sand to form a base, because it doesn’t contain much in the way of nutrients (especially if it has been washed thoroughly), which might otherwise flush into the pond. The liner forms the base of a gully that lips up along the backside to retain water and conditions moist, acting as a suitable substrate for more primitive plants – such as mosses and ferns, that might be grown there.
The stones are layered deep enough for the liner to be well covered, but they won’t stay in place if a raccoon or some other creature visits and decides to shift them around, but that’s true of any part of a garden that has been visited by any beast that arrives with the malicious intent of a masked marauder, as raccoons so often do. They are not always welcome, but I tolerate them.
Other than the wild animals drawn to the pond, I will be the only one walking along the cookies to micro manage the environment, so I won’t have to worry about guests falling in. This is presently be an illusion of the natural world, but the longer things are left to themselves, the more natural they will become; and increasingly provide a habitat for a great many animals, that although small, will play their part in this developing ecosystem.
It was no trouble to stash moss covered logs for a couple of years when the garden was shaded by the now felled trees. Repositioned close by the pond these mossy supports remain healthy because the pond overflows directly into the gully keeping things moist along the edge of the pond in the places where I didn’t cut back the liner. Most pond building advice suggests that you should trim the overlap, but I prefer to make use of it wherever possible. This peripheral area will remain mostly wet, but will require a little watering during the dryer months of the year – although this will be more of a spray than a thorough dousing.
Once the fences are covered in climbers, the background reflections in the pond will create a very natural feel and the sky reflected in the surface adds another dimension to this new environment.
The pond was finished before fall began to make its presence felt, and this is a good growing time. I begin moving plants from my small nursery pond as soon as I can, and achieve quite a lot in only a few days. The partially established water-plants quickly increase their root and leaf systems under the new conditions. If plants grow well without too much help, it is a sign that you’re getting things right.
Winter came early on November 3rd with an overnight snow flurry, bringing an abrupt end to the many insects that had survived though what has, up until now, been a mild fall.
I notice most people who give advice on pond construction are particular about giving lists of plant and animal species, but these details will depend very much on where you live. My pond is arranged around the local flora and fauna, and you might do the same.
If that is the case, you should be aiming to attract what is common close to where you live – if for example, a plant is local there will be other organisms that thrive in association with it. All you are essentially doing is creating a web of natural interactions and it isn’t necessary to know every detail to make this work. If you chose to be observant, expertise and those tricky Latin names will come with time – but this isn’t essential, especially if you don’t find it easy to remember cumbersome nomenclature – a system mostly used to convey precise details to others. It is however worth checking out your local invasive weed species in order to avoid introducing them.
Any animals that can fly will arrive of their own accord, but don’t introduce amphibian spawn or larvae unless you are sure of which species it belongs to. In my area the last thing I want to do is introduce alien bullfrogs which will eat most of the smaller native species; there is also a very real problem with amphibians of spreading disease, so it is essential to understand exactly what you are doing before you attempt a relocation.
The was the pond only a week or so after the liner was installed. A Wooden divider prevents the more fertile soil from the garden washing into the pond, but it cannot be seen from the opposite viewing side… I know – it sounds like a theme park without the carriages, but really it’s just gardening!
The best bit of the whole process for me, was when dragonflies of both sexes showed up and the females began laying eggs on water plants within the first two days of the pond being filled. When such things happen it is impressive and reminds us that nature can be extraordinarily persistent.
If you want to keep things like this, remember you still have to do a bit of micro weeding, but that should be fairly minimal – and if it goes a bit wilder – nature won’t mind.
Get it right and any of us might make a difference to the natural world. If you decide to build a pond of your own, don’t forget to record what you have achieve by taking pictures – you might influence others to follow your example. And remember, when something new and interesting shows up, it will be you that made it possible.
Please do not dig up or remove any plants from protected areas. Flora and fauna will usually establish naturally in your garden once you have provided a suitable habitat.
Next Time: My New Garden Pond – What Showed Up in the First Four Weeks: Dragonflies and Water Boatmen and the Best Way to Photograph Them.
On a recent trip to Belize, the mermaids – that would be my wife and daughter, sought out any excuse to immerse themselves in the Caribbean Sea; and my daughter’s desire to swim with a whale shark featured prominently on her list of reasons for our visit. It’s a rather hopeful wish on her part, but if you don’t think big there’s not much chance of experiencing anything out of the ordinary.
Alice had booked her place on an organised whale shark trip months in advance, and when the day arrives we all make the road trip to get her to the boat on time. Because our destination is some distance from our coastal base in Hopkins we are obliged to set off early in the morning, in darkness, before breakfast is served; this is a disappointment to me because I also have a list, but mine is of the things I no longer need to do – and missing breakfast isn’t on it.
I have never felt the need to swim alongside any kind of shark even when it is considered safe, and I won’t in any case be going into the water today because it would involve scuba diving – another thing on the list of things I don’t need to do. My wife Jen, can dive but she has been unwell and so it would be unwise for her to scuba; consequently, she will remain land based and keep me company.
Up at 5.30 a.m. we are soon driving southwards towards our destination – a dock in the village of Placencia, set at the end of a short peninsula that hugs the coastline for about 18 miles; but when we get there this turns out to be a very slow 18 miles – the entire road is plagued by speed humps set at regular intervals. There are various tourist hotel developments along the way, some have impressive gates, but these are mostly the sort of places we avoid because they are so out of keeping with their surroundings.
At the bottom end of the Peninsula the village of Placencia is altogether different – it is far more intimate than the impersonal hotels that we passed on the way; it is busy with local people and has several agreeable places to eat. A huge surprise though to pass an airport just before we arrive, which initially seems out of place. Until recently this destination must have been close to the back end of nowhere; but the holiday business is rapidly changing that.
I can’t think of a better way for the wealthy to avoid the speed bumps than to fly in; certainly it is the quickest way in. As a wealthy person once said to me, ‘I can always earn more money, but I can’t buy more time’… And I guess that’s fair enough, but above all else, what they are really interested in buying here is real estate… and lots of it.
It is a bright sunny morning and we arrive early enough to go for breakfast in a local cafe, although the waitress is quite unhelpful; there’s a lot we can’t have from the menu because it’s too early and she hasn’t had a chance to shop for fruit and vegetables; unfortunately she doesn’t explain this and we waste a lot of time asking for things that are unavailable. It’s as if we are taking part in an unfunny version of ‘The Monty Python’ cheese sketch. ‘Mango this’… No. ‘Banana that’… No. ‘A veggie omelette’…. No. ‘Orange juice”….Ummm… No… We eventually hit on a few things that the kitchen does have, mainly choices that revolve around cakes and pancakes, unhealthy stuff, but great when your earlier breakfast never happened.
Unfortunately, the food takes so long, we are made late by the waiting and should have left by the time it arrives. We gulp it down, and have trouble getting the bill because our waitress seems to be moving through ‘treacle time’. We finally pay up, dash to the nearby dock, and despite the delay make it in time.
Alice will be out at sea for several hours, leaving Jen and I plenty of time to drive back up the peninsula and take a look at the coastal environment. The eastern seaward side is mostly sandy beach of the type popular with holidaymakers – but there are also stretches of mangrove less favoured by tourists; nevertheless, mangrove is an essential habitat that acts as a nursery for creatures that will eventually live out their lives on nearby offshore reefs.
We then travel along the western inner arm to search out the mangrove that borders the narrow bay adjacent to the Caribbean. Clearly, the mangroves were once extensive here, but are now intermittent and are being overtaken by development.
Indifference to mangrove destruction doesn’t make sense, but it is a widespread problem. On October 8th 2001 Hurricane Iris hit this area and levelled around 95% of Placencia – a hurricane can do this almost anywhere, but when the weather is just bad rather than extreme, mangroves offer at least some protection to things that you hope might stay attached to the land when things get rough.
Mangrove destruction is now a common problem in warm coastal areas where holiday developments are becoming widespread and the suggestion that building resorts is good for local economies doesn’t always work out as well as it might. Often the process involves rapid changes to the coastlines, and essentially too much happens too quickly. When multinational companies are involved they often prefer to bring in their own workforce, leaving the locals with only the most poorly paid and menial tasks; and there is often a disinclination to train local people to provide them with better opportunities.
When developments are rapid and extensive, habitats that local people have relied upon for generations are often quickly degraded, and it isn’t greatly appreciated when wealthy outsiders (who don’t need the food) arrive to ‘sports’ fish valuable natural resources. When financial gains don’t filter through to people living in the area, resentment grows, and when much of the profit goes offshore there may be no longterm benefits to local communities. Few visitors choose to notice this problem because to do so would mean leaving the hotel to speak to locals who will furnish a broader picture – something almost unthinkable. Certainly there are dangerous places around the world, but it is irrational to be frightened of moving amongst locals in the places we visit – it’s madness to behave like prisoners locked in holiday complexes that provide everything we need but reality.
It would of course be wrong to imply there are no benefits to previously isolated communities when they are suddenly transformed by tourism, but it is noticeable – if you care to look – that many people remain in poverty while the profits go elsewhere. This results in a very one sided spin on the benefits that tourism can bring to poor communities. Clearly there are advantages when outside money is brought in, but the amount that filters through to local people is often meagre and many will see no benefits at all.
What nature provides in far away places is often taken as freely available and without consequences, but as holiday based economies continue to expand, it is increasingly evident that there can be no free lunch; someone local will be losing out to pay for the good fortune of the many visitors arriving from elsewhere, and investors will continue to make big bucks by exploiting environmentally sensitive areas.
If big hotels and cruise liners continue to feature in fragile environments and during the process they reduce air and water quality, it might be worth asking whether such problems outweight the often one-sided financial gains…
I know! who wants to think about this kind of thing when you’re on holiday, or fortunate enough to be on the right side of what is rapidly becoming a gaping economic divide; nonetheless this is a reality that can’t be ignored forever.
We saw the last 5 acre ‘investment opportunity’ (as it was described by one realtor) up for sale on a board in Placencia village. We could find no evidence to suggest that many here thought it necessary to retain the mangroves, and it appears that it won’t be long before most of this peninsula will be developed in one form or another, with this important habitat degraded or perhaps entirely lost… And who will remember once it has gone?
Much of the development along the coastal area where we are staying and where we started out this morning – in Hopkins – is paid for with American dollars and many who come to visit these newly developed areas are Americans.
From an environmental perspective mass development of coastal regions isn’t really a great idea. I love the Americas in particular, but feel as if I need a shower whenever I touch an American dollar. In common with nearly all the paper money you handle in warm countries it is often badly worn and it usually stinks. Perhaps the money itself is trying to tell us something.
Coastal Belize is much favoured by tourists from Texas and the village of Hopkins is about to be turned into a major tourist spot.
Presently the Belize road system is quite variable, with some sections very rough; the drive to Hopkins from Belize City Airport really isn’t much fun because you are always on the look out for potholes and speed humps. The last part of the journey up through the village is especially rough; at the time of writing it is no more than a dusty track peppered with potholes, but this is about to change as a new blacktop road is planned and by the time you are reading this, it might already be in place.
Many of the locals don’t feel comfortable with the new developments as they won’t themselves be seeing much in the way of profit from the upgrades. Despite the sudden influx of money, conditions for many have not, so far, greatly improved and many people’s lives may not change very much despite the fact that a holiday in Belize isn’t a cheap option. This kind of ‘progress’ where money flows in but nothing much changes on the street isn’t in any sense fair… But it is what it is.
Hopkins might still run along a dusty track, but every child has a place in school which must bode well for the future of Belize… if the whole country doesn’t eventually get bought up by outsiders.
All things considered, it isn’t difficult to understand why the money that is flowing into places like Hopkins and Placencia isn’t filtering through to the average person. Everything changes when markets go global and the consequences of such rapid development is the cause of much bad feeling.
An airport is soon to be built close by Hopkins and this along with the road upgrade, explains why land speculation has gone through the roof. It is a huge problem, because as outsiders speculate, local people are priced out of the market and suddenly out of the equation.
Back around Placencia we wander
along what remains of the mangrove, much of which is likely to disappear as holiday developments begin to pick up apace; but for the moment what remains of this habitat adds an air of mystery to the coastline, particularly from the seaward side, where you can’t help but wonder what lies beyond them.
It is a hot afternoon as Jen and I walk back to the dock to wait for Alice’s boat to re-appear on the horizon. There was a slight breeze this morning which caused a surface ripple across the water, but all is now still, allowing me to take pictures of seahorses amongst the seagrass just off the dock. In the past I’ve worked with captive seahorses in my studio for the B.B.C. which was much easier. Not so much for Jen though because she was the one looking after them. Keeping seahorses healthy in captivity can be labour intensive and requires considerable skill – so don’t even think about it!
Getting a clear shot in this natural setting is far less easy but it is at least ethical. With so much pressure on seahorse habitat now, and the annual trade (particularly in south-east Asia) in millions of these wonderful animals for their erroneous medicinal value, has pushed many of the 50 plus species that we presently know of into general decline.
It isn’t long before Alice’s dive group arrives back, but there is an air of gloom hanging over the boat. No whale sharks were seen and further research on our part suggests that there have been no reliable sightings by dive groups in local waters for at least two years. One whale shark diving concern recently changed the description of its outings because of this, while others are still trading as whale shark tours; it maybe that the only sharks around here are tour operators. When you dive in the sea, nothing is guaranteed, but to advertise a tour specifically using an animal’s name when there are no representatives in the area is nothing short of deceitful.
Alice’s loggerhead turtle pictures turned out rather well, but one in particular stands out because it could prove useful as a future means of identification. I have spent much of my photographic career trying to take pleasing pictures of wildlife and for most of my working life have made a living from it; but in truth, apart from making me feel I’ve achieved something personally… what is the use of it? There are plenty of good pictures of turtles, but one that provides reliable identification rather than just a pretty picture could prove far more consequential.
A simple picture from above shows the pattern of the plates or ‘scutes’ on the turtle’s shell, as well as the scales on top of the head; the number and shape of these can provide a reliable means of species identification and when combined with wear and tear body markings may also indicate particular individuals. Certainly when accompanied by a date and location, a record of these patterns can have considerable scientific value.
In the end, the natural wonders of Belize may prove to be a bit like its plumbing in that there are many things here that are resilient to being flushed away, but as the outside world brings with it greater expectations – and a flush of money besides, it may be that almost anything can be sent swirling down the pan. One must hope for better things for this beautiful place, but only time will tell.
Within half an hour, we are moving along an empty road, the sun now throwing the surrounding countryside into an intensity of colour that is seldom seen outside of the tropics. Driving westward, we move away from the coast into the interior, travelling across the entire country in just a couple of hours from our base in Hopkins to arrive at our destination – the Mayan ruins of Xuanantunich on the Mopan River, close by the Guatemala border.
My childhood was busy with stories of such places. At ten years of age I regularly imagined myself to be an Indiana Jones, although it could only have been an approximation because the intrepid archaeologist had not then been invented; whoever I thought I was cannot compare with the present reality of finally arriving at an authentic Mayan ruin where the levels of exhilaration are pushed beyond any fiction.
The archaeological site is only a few hundred metres from the ferry and there are a few people, mostly young backpackers, walking in along the road from the nearby town of San Ignacio. A few commercial outlets run along one side of the car park including a little gift shop selling Indian made items. It’s all pretty low key, but on our arrival there is a hell of a racket going on; my wife Jen, and daughter Alice are ignoring it as they lube up with insect repellant and sunscreen; I’m just keen to get moving because it is pushing towards mid-morning and getting hotter by the minute. The din is coming from close by the little shop, and I at once assume this to be a taped loop of howler monkey calls – it is quite deafening – certainly the loudest noise I’ve ever heard coming out of a monkey, but I don’t record it – this is so obviously a ploy to drag people in to buy trinkets, small things that will end up hidden away in the backs of a drawers that will be discovered by another generation during future tragic clear outs of the homes of the deceased.
Once on site and standing on the huge an impressive pyramid of stones know as El Castillo, I notice a guide who is taking a young couple around and I ask him about the monkey recordings. He is puzzled, and tells me that he doesn’t know of any recordings, but there are three troops of howlers roaming the area that sometimes kick up a fuss as they did this morning. At once I regret not recording all that wonderful howling. My wife on the other hand is delighted with my mistake because I really should have known better. She’s likes me to be wrong a couple of times a day and usually I can oblige.
There are a group of teenagers and a couple egged on by friends are running along the facade and jumping the regular gaps in the stonework. Suddenly one falls heavily, it is a girl – she pretends that it didn’t hurt, but really it must have. My daughter is puzzled by the behaviour – “It seems very disrespectful”, she says, “but they don’t seem to be aware of it”. If this were Stonehenge, they’d have been arrested by now and carried away in a van, but here, where direct access is allowed to the monument, some lose all sense of what is reasonable as they go about expanding their version of personal liberty, this to the irritation of almost everybody around them and it also puts the fabric of the ruin in danger. A great pity, because presently there is enormous freedom on site to wander wherever you want without restriction, but as more people begin behaving as if their brains have dropped out, things will inevitably change to protect both the idiots concerned and the monument. Rules will be imposed – areas will be cordoned off, and the whole place will begin to feel more like a museum than the magical experience that it presently is.
The pyramid El Castillo was probably in use as early as 800 A.D. it was constructed in two phases, and remains to this day very impressive, especially when you get close to the top. “You won’t get up there with all that gear”, my daughter says, which of course is like showing red rag to a bull (even if in the real world bulls don’t see red). Jen has already been defeated by the heat, she is feeling unwell, and has moved off without complaint to sit in the shade. Alice is already at the top; I am making my way there more slowly, taking pictures as I go and during the ascent begin to wonder how many have fallen from this huge pile of stones. In places the climb is steep and there is very little to grab on to, but once you get to the top the view is spectacular and well worth the risk – you can even see Guatemala – a broad white track indicates the border; and my daughter and I take in the scene as if we are looking down on a huge map.
As Alice climbs down. I stay up for a while and continue to take pictures. It isn’t long before I pass a couple of young men who have noticed a large iguana over the edge of the front facade. You really have to lean out to see it – it’s a monster and I imagine that its ancestors were living on these walls when Mayan rulers were making blood sacrifices of their slaves… and perhaps when things weren’t going so well… their local people. Making human sacrifices was considered a real problem solver when negotiating with the gods. According to a guide that I spoke to, a game was played here annually in the square below and the winning team were granted a short celebration before they were executed. This hardly seems fair and I have no idea if it really happened… but it makes a good story. At modern sporting events this custom might still prove popular with the fans. Any team losing to Manchester United for example, might feel inclined to look on the bright side, but in today’s world this old custom would prove impractical because as entertaining as it might seem, executing a whole team would be far too expensive.
A woman is passing and I tell her about the impressive lizard. I’ve already tempted fate by setting my tripod up on the edge of the ledge and leant out for a series of pictures, my balance is not as good as it once was and now I’m generally more careful incase things go wrong. Anyway, this pleasant middle aged lady also seems interested in getting a shot, and so after a brief discussion on the safest way to achieve this, I take her full weight by holding onto her left arm as she leans out to take her picture. And all I can think as I do this is, ‘If I let go she’s a goner’ – but I don’t do that… Why would anybody trust a complete stranger like this? “Trust me I’m a wildlife photographer…. That’s just like being a doctor isn’t it? – You know, a really reliable sort?… Maybe not.”
It’s very hot, but the day just goes on warming up, and by afternoon we pretty much have the place to ourselves – there are no mad dogs here just three English people out long past the mid-day. Noel Coward makes no mention of the extreme heat of afternoon in his song, probably because it doesn’t scan and would make no sense unless you experienced it, as we are doing today.
Late in the afternoon our wander around this wonderful square mile is complete and we begin to make our way back to the car. As we walk I check for the car keys that are no longer in my pocket. This is unusual. Sure, I lose my keys around the house, but never in a place like this, miles from anywhere. Usually I’m more careful. The site is now closed and Jen waits in the visitor’s centre while my daughter and I retrace my steps. Alice suggests that I visualise my journey like a child, which really isn’t my sort of thing, but it’s not bad advice; because as I get to the final location I remember upending myself to get a shot for an old American couple, with the ruins in the background – I’m certain my keys are there. I speed up a little in anticipation as the sun begins to dip over the stone facade. And sure enough there they aren’t… but moving 10 metres on along the terrace, there they are, lying on a step in an almost identical location, sparkling in what remains of the sunlight like Mayan treasure – although presently, they are of greater value to us than Mayan gold.
The lost keys! … my second mistake of the day. after the earlier monkey business I should once again have known better, but Jen doesn’t make a fuss as I might have have done had it been her or Alice who had lost them. Getting ‘it wrong’ twice in a day is enough, better still there is the relief of finding the very thing that starts the vehicle which is absolutely essential if we are to avoid being be stuck out here overnight.
Quite by co-incidence the day after returning home I met somebody who has also visited the Mayan ruin of Xuanantunich, but he also visited another site across the border in Guatemala where things had gone badly wrong and put our recent experience into perspective.
Quite by chance a National Geographic photographer was covering the ruin for a feature in the magazine and asked my acquaintance if he would tag along because he spoke the local language. There was nothing unusual about the visit; rather prosaically it had been organised by a local hotel, but late in the day as the sun was setting, the photographer became increasingly absorbed with his picture taking and neither of them noticed the party moving away to return to the vehicle that would take them away from of the site. The pair were left stranded in the forest with with only a small torch and a mobile phone to light their way as the light began rapidly fading. They stumbled about in the darkness for some time and my acquaintance eventually found a trail that led to the road. On arriving back at the hotel they were both covered in insect bites and scratched and bruised by their encounters in the forest.
The concern at night in tropical forest is always that you might step on a poisonous snake and this is not a wildly improbable scenario, but what most people worry about is the far less likely possibility of being attacked by a jaguar which can exert perhaps the strongest bite of all of the big cats – with their wide gape they will grab prey by the skull, and quickly pierce it with their impressive incisor teeth, but if this should happen, it would be all over before there was a chance to think much about it, and there’s consequently very little point in dwelling on such an unlikely scenario. Unfortunately, a tropical forest at night is so full of strange sounds, imagination quickly gets the better of you.
The Nat. Geo. photographer was apparently quite shaken up by his experience, which pleased me a little because I would sometimes come across one when filming for the B.B.C. in remote areas of the world. Stills photographers were usually carrying lighter gear than I was obliged to; and Nat Geo. photographers had more time and money to get the job done. The upside was that in some insect infested locations, the buget would limit my available work days and I would leave the Nat Geo photographer on site for perhaps another month. Sometimes it is just nice to be getting out of an extreme environment. There are many who imagine a job travelling as a wildlife photographer to be their ultimate dream, but when you are actually doing it and being eaten alive by insects, especially as night approaches, it’s a very different story; and if you are unlucky enough to get stuck out over night without being entirely prepared – it’s the ultimate nightmare.
I didn’t know at the time the keys went missing that the last ferry was supposed to be going at 4.00 p.m. otherwise I’d have been more concerned. We were now well past that time and would be departing later still because Alice had discovered a troop of howler monkeys (Alouatta) coming through the forest canopy on one side of the site just as we were about to leave.
I set up at the forest edge and although they are not calling, we can certainly hear them coming – gently rustling as they move through the trees stopping here and there to climb out along a branch to munch at the tips on fresh new leaves. It took about 20 minutes before they arrive at the edge of the clearing to reveal themselves from the dense foliage long enough for me to get a few shots. On the limits of exposure with the light now rapidly fading, I grab anything that I can, and what is most noticeable is that each monkey never allows itself to have fewer than three and often four points of contact with the tree; and when they stop to feed their tails invariably remain tightly wrapped around the main branch from which they are hanging.
It is a surprise to be getting the best pictures I’ve ever managed of Howler monkeys and Jen, who prefers to look on the positive side when my mood so often swings the other way, points out that if I hadn’t lost the keys we’d probably have left the site before the howlers swung through. Their presence suggests the surrounding forest isn’t as degraded as it initially appeared to be, and a few howler pictures will make it difficult to deny that they were once here should they disappear sometime in the future. It is good once in a while to end on a positive note – and nothing is more positive or interesting than a bit of monkey business.
When we arrive back at the ferry it is on the other side of the river and I’m thinking that it might have stopped running for the day. I wave from the bank in the hope that it is still operating. The ferryman is certainly there and he sets the thing in motion. It’s always a good day when your experiences run against the natural course of entropy, because now and again, things are just bound to go your way.
With thanks to Mario Lemoine for his interesting story.
During a recent visit to Belize with my wife and daughter, it was impossible not to appreciate the beauty of the flora and fauna of what many regard as a a sub-tropical paradise. “But, there is something missing”, said my wife, “and I’m not sure what it is”. I thought about this for while and if I had to put it down to one particular thing, then it would have to be a lack of primary forest.
Figures for deforestation are sketchy for Belize and what we believe sometimes depends on where the figures come from – certainly it would be disappointing if the generally accepted figure for loss really is running at 2% per annum.
There are also stories that give cause for more general concern. It is said, for example, that during the 1990s the Belize government granted unusually low logging concessions to a Malaysian company – rights were purchased for as little as 60 cents an acre… It defies belief that such a story could be true, although such indifference to a valuable national resource seems almost too ridiculous to make up.
When forest depletion figures are presented for tropical regions, the details are sometimes misleading. Many logging concerns are intent on getting into virgin forest where the real value lies in big old hardwood trees, which can now fetch astronomical prices. Companies that are cutting into these diminishing ecosystems are less inclined to bother with the lower value smaller trees growing back in secondary forests, i.e. places where trees have been logged in the past. The point is that it is essential to know exactly what kind of forest is being logged to truly understand the consequences. Foresters will sometimes say that for every tree they cut two more will be planted (I was told exactly this in relation to mahogany trees during our visit to Belize), but it doesn’t mean anything unless there are exact details on the age and size of the trees being felled. Replacing a 30 year old tree in a secondary forest with two replacement saplings is one thing, but hardly a replacement for a 300 hundred year old tree cut in primary forest? From an ecological perspective and in most other senses there is an enormous difference and we should all be concerned because the loss of forests containing mature old trees will have far reaching consequences.
A positive case is often made for selective logging rather than clearcut felling an area, with only certain trees taken out; but it is difficult to imagine how anybody could make this version of habitat destruction sound like a really good idea.
However, there are people in the conservation ‘game’ who claim that cutting out all of the large mahogany trees in an ecosystem makes no difference to the health of a forest, but how can they possibly suggest that? Maybe they simply take a walk in the forest, have a bit of a look around and decide that if you didn’t know the trees had been felled, then maybe you wouldn’t notice a difference despite the fact that mahogany trees, where they do remain in place, play a consequential part in their ecosystems. It should be obvious that the removal of a single prominent species, which other plants and animals inevitably rely upon, cannot be undertaken without consequences.
To log an area successfully requires the cutting through of logging roads and once they are in place they quickly become a magnet for illegal loggers. In particular, I have noticed (from the air), how quickly Malaysian rainforest disappears once it has been made accessible.
Felled trees can only leave a forest efficiently when tracks are extensively cut in. The felling process, no matter how selective, is always destructive; and the idea that taking out only the commercially valuable older trees can be achieved without changing the optimum natural functions of a forest is difficult to argue.
Visiting Coxcomb Wildlife Sanctuary in the Stann Creek District of south-central Belize was nothing short of delightful, even though logging would have been a feature here from the late 1930s through to 1988, when buildings previously owned by the logging company were taken over to form the park’s visitor centre. This should be a clue as to why so much of the surrounding forest is secondary and only recently regenerated. In fairness to any logging concern The Stan Creek District was seriously hit by Hurricane Hattie on October 31st 1961. Hattie is said to have taken out asmuch as 70% of the mahogany trees in the area and this is probably the main reason that logging came to an end – it is likely that there just weren’t enough big trees left standing to keep a commercial concern in business.
Whatever the reason for the loss, there were no extensive stands of original lowland forest apparent in any part of the park that we visited. But, this doesn’t mean the reserve isn’t an extremely important conservation area, in particular for the preservation of jaguar, essentially the reason that the park was set up in 1984. The regenerating forest still has enormous ecological value even if the surrounding habitat is a shadow of its former self, brought about by extensive logging and then almost complete destruction by Hurricane Hattie.
I must admit to being concerned when I see quotes about a secondary forest that has been around for perhaps only 30 years, when claims are made that the area has now completely regrown. This demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of tropical forest regeneration. Virgin forest that has been felled in recent time will not be just dandy again after the passing of a few decades and might never carry the same biodiversity again.
This white-collared manakin photographed in the bird heaven that is Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary likes to hang out in dense forest. It pings around like a pinball and will suddenly judder to a halt in display. This bird is completely nuts – it makes a loud noise exactly like marbles being bashed heavily together and remarkably it does this using its wings.
During our trip my daughter Alice was looking for adventure and could not resist the opportunity to zip line through tropical forest and rappel down a tumbling waterfall. She’ddone her research and discovered inMayflower Bocawina Park an adventure centre that could provide such opportunities only a short distance from our coastal base in Hopkins.While she was doing that, Jen and I took the opportunity to wanderthrough the park’s secondary forest.
When we first entered Mayflower Bocawina National Park I noticed a wide track that had been cut along the border of the reserve. On arrival at the ticket office I asked why the trees had been felled in this manner and was told this had been done to mark the park boundary, but I wasn’t convinced, boundaries of national parks rarely involve habitat destruction, in particularly because some tropical forest species prefer not to cross open ground.
I began looking for somebody who might provide a more likely explanation as to why a swathe of trees had been felled through the forest and eventually came across a man who was clearly knowledgable about the reserve and its wildlife; he worked in the park,but not for the park and told me that this was a government sanctioned forestry project. He said that a logging road was being cut through to the back of the reserve in order to remove valuable teak trees. I do not have a secondary source to confirm this, but it doesn’t sound impossible as I’ve witnessed trees being removed from protected forest habitats before, both in Malaysia and Central America – in some cases with official stamps that falsely claim that the trees have come from a sustainable source. I can’t say for certain that teak trees will be coming out of the forest here and even if they do it probably won’t be illegal. It is just that such a thing is not unusual, which is disturbing, because while many of us obsess over the potential loss of an animal species that we are fond of, we are less inclined to be quite so pro-active about the disappearance of the habitat our favoured animal lives in. The felling of any quality primary tropical or sub-tropical forest, legal or not, is disturbing and already hugely consequential in terms of world weather patterns, soil erosion and the damage it causes local economies, let alone the more obvious problems of habitat and species loss.
Primary forest is essential to the survival of complex ecosystems – it can for example provide a habitat that is a couple of degrees lower than nearby regenerating secondary forest. If all that is left to us by continually opening up the interior is a pale washed out version of the original then we should balance short term economic gain against long-term environmental consequences. Sadly, we may let this pass without fully knowing what has been lost because we are recording so little of the virgin forest’s biodiversity before it is gone. Doing the right thing usually runs second to making a fast buck, which is both shameful and morally unjustifiable.
If a species disappears from the forest and we aren’t there to witness it… didn’t even know that it existed… does it really matter? This is not a philosophical question. It of course matters and it also matters that in future people will remain poorly informed as to what has disappeared; more especially because we remain indifferent to many less glamourous species despite their ecological importance. We will be ignorant of what natural environments were once like – of what has been lost in the same way that few of us have any idea what it was like before the time of manufactured pesticides… ignorance is bliss, but this ‘not knowing’ comes at a price, and for life on Earth that price might be a heavy one. With this ever increasing loss of habitat and by association, loss of species, our own continued success is thrown into question because we are not independent of the system – we are part of it.
Whilst Alice ‘does her thing’, dipping through waterfalls and zipping through the forest canopy, Jen and I wander through the park. I grab shots of birds and butterflies as we walk towards yet another waterfall – a focal point that motivates us to keep going through the intense heat and high humidity of a muggy afternoon.
As we move along we see very few old trees, but there are many plants regenerating through scrubland that must once have been farmland; native species are now fighting their way back through cultivated forms such as banana and palm oil which are just about managing to hang on. It is also remarkable how resilient some animals are to living in environments that aren’t quite right for them, but that won’t be the case for everyspecies and a price will have tobe paid for the decrease in natural diversity that we have imposed.
If you ever get to travel through a tropical forest that has never been felled, then take the opportunity to make a photographic record of whatever you see because this might one day prove a useful record of potential losses. Unfortunately, I have returned to some rainforests areas only to discover that they have disappeared altogether. It’s always worth taking pictures of anything that seems interesting, especially if the time and place are carefully recorded. Now and again a good picture might turn out to be more important than it seems at the time… and who knows, one day it might help to save the Planet, or at the very least aid in species reintroduction – when we finally wake up to the dangers caused by the wanton destruction of valuable ecosystems.
I was recently on holiday in Belize with my wife Jen and daughter Alice, and as usual had nothing to do with selecting either our destination or how we would get there. Jen decided to travel United Airways because they had recently dragged a customer off of a flight to worldwide condemnation. She thought we might get a better deal in the wake of the bad publicity… and we did, along with great treatment from cabin staff, evidently trying to make amends. Our cabin attendant, said that the day before he had told passengers over the intercom, to raise their arms in the air, explaining that this would make it easier to drag them off. And to his surprise… still has a job!
It was Alice who chose our destination, one she thought might suit us all: she wanted a variety of adrenalin pumping adventures; her mother needed a relaxing beach holiday; and I hoped to quietly observe and photograph wildlife. With all of this in mind, she chose Hopkins – a village destination that runs along the coast, and this turned out to be a good choice.
Belize International Airport is about a third of the way down the country and Hopkins is another third of the way further south. The initial drive from the airport took about two and a half hours, this after three flights across North America, the first of which started late the previous evening in Vancouver. But at least we had moved from the low 50s to the low 90s ºF which was a bonus as far as I was concerned.
We didn’t want to be hanging around Belize City for too long because parts of it were clearly unsafe. But reading the advice sheet from the car hire company seemed likely to notch everything one step closer to hysteria. Belize sounded like a war zone… the car doors must be kept locked; no hitchhikers; no stopping anywhere other than public areas and no travelling at night unless you could guarantee stops were made in well lit areas… and of course, there could be absolutely no breaking down. Not so easy when your four-wheel drive smells of petrol and the pot holes in some of the roads just can’t wait to rip your tyres off… For us, ‘No breaking down’ seemed to be hopeful in the extreme.
The truth is rather more prosaic – the most dangerous thing about driving across Belize is the speed humps you encounter when entering any place of habitation. The first will give you a pounding because you won’t have met one quite like it before, and if the suspension and rear axle hold out, you certainly won’t make that mistake again – they need to be taken unbelievably slowly. There really isn’t a lot else to worry about because people are mostly friendly, especially those living in the small towns and communities that we pass through.
Drivers are often said to be unpredictable, but this isn’t the case either. What is more certain, is that when the road runs out and you find yourself on a dirt track, the ride is going to get rather bumpy.
For most people a holiday abroad involves staying in a resort that minimises contact with local people – everything you need is on site and tours are usually organised with the efficiency of a special needs outing.
We prefer to drive ourselves wherever we go and avoid the noisy idiots that are drawn to the sun as certainly as a red giant eats its planets; by doing this, we also throw off the constraints of other people’s time; and get to spread our spending money amongst the locals rather than ploughing our budget into multinational tourist concerns.
Into the Green:
Our second day was a rest day for Jen, she hung out close by the beach while Alice and I took a short drive to The Coxcomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary – established in 1886 it now runs to 120,000 acres of moist tropical forest and is most famous for preserving jaguars – there are said to be up to 80 breeding pairs living in the park, maybe some are moving through because that sounds like a lot of big cats for the area and as jaguars are mostly solitary, to describe them as pairs might also be confusing. After a bumpy six mile ride from the ticket office, along a rough old track we pass a sign that says jaguar crossing, which confirms we are at least going in the right direction, and soon after arrive at parkheadquarters.
O.K., so we didn’t see any jaguars – the last sighting occurred in mid-April 2017. Rather surprisingly, most are glimpsed during mid-afternoon, usually along river courses, probably because this is the time when tourists are likely to be around. The park opens at 7.30 a.m. and closes at 4.30 p.m. – not really the best period to see jaguars on the wander. There are organised night tours, but otherwise the park closes long before it gets dark, which is the time when jaguars are most active.
What we did see, were a great many smaller animals, particularly birds – there are some 300 species in the park and when you stop comparing them with large impressive cats, they are both interesting and often colourful. We saw a wide variety of them soon after our 8.00 a.m. arrival as we walked down the River Path to South Stann Creek, and at one point three different species of woodpecker were playing hide and seek around an old dead tree that towered above the secondary forest.
Close by the river we discovered a horse balls tree (Stemmadenia donnell-smithii), its boughs noticeably drooping with large fruits that were beginning to split, and several toucans flew out before I had a chance to photograph them.
Trees in flower or carrying ripe fruit are exactly what I look for when working tropical forest because this is a habitat that doesn’t reveal its precious jewels easily. Like the toucans, most animals are quickly away into the greenery – there are few occasions when wildlife will hang around to be photographed, especially anything that can fly and you have to take your chances when they occur.
With a horse balls tree in fruit and another tree in flower the situation proves attractive to a great many birds; and we are standing close by the river which opens up a whole new set of opportunities for wildlife.
My attention is drawn by a flash of yellow – an oriole has arrived to feed on flowers on trees along the opposite bank of the river; initially I think the bird is feeding on the attractive drooping frond like seeds, but closer observation tells a different story, it is feeding on flowers hidden beneath – just like the bird, I grab what I can. This food gathering goes on for longer than I could have hoped for and then a second individual joins the first. Unfortunately, the birds are only just in range of my lens. I don’t see the birds on any of my other visits, but I do get the opportunity to see at least five other species feeding on the fruits that I am mostly covering. And on an adjoining tree hummingbirds are sipping at flowers. 70% of my time in the park is spent working this location because the presence of attractive flowers and fruits suggest this to be my best option.
After a couple of hours, grabbing whatever I can Alice and I walk on to a nearby waterfall – it’s a bit of a hike when you are low on water and the temperature is pushing 100℉ along with high humidity. Physically it becomes a struggle, even Alice, who is very fit, appears exhausted and I look as if I’ve taken a shower in my clothes.
Early afternoon, we walk back to park headquarters to buy large bottles of water straight out of the fridge – these are extraordinarily revitalising in a way that warm water from your carry bottle just isn’t, especially when you have reached the point when you think you are about to fall down and die. A few minutes after the cold drink has hit our insides, we feel suddenly better and pretty soon we’re considering where to go next.
I cover up in the forest and suffer only a few insect bites. Alice wears repellant but picks up more bites than I do – a single trip into this forest is enough for her, but I make two more visits, one with Jen and another by myself. On this our first day in forest, Alice and I set off back to the car around mid-afternoon; it has become very hot and there is little activity. As we are coming along a trail we pass between two troops of howler monkeys at the time they start howling at one another – there is nothing remotely dangerous about the situation, but, if you haven’t heard them before, these wailing banshees will frighten the life out of you.
Into the Blue:
With only a 30 metre walk from our rooms to the dock pick up point, there were no travel time pressures at the start of our snorkelling day out.
We sped across the water for nearly an hour to our first site – an out to sea location where the water was deeper than ideal for me to take pictures, but at least provided the opportunity to see a variety of good sized fish swimming beneath us. The reef is more colourful than expected with little sign of bleaching, but sadly there are fewer fish than we had hoped for. The coral was varied with some impressively delicate forms that you just don’t see on reefs that have been trashed by fishing, or degraded by climate change.
Both Alice and Jen had the better of me because once in the water they both turn into mermaids, I on the other hand become a fishing weight and have to devote quite a bit of my time to just not drowning. This is especially the case today as the boat drops us on a reef well out to sea and then goes off to busy itself dumping divers into deeper water; you just have to get your head around the idea that you are a long way out with no land or boat in sight, this can be unnerving and if you can’t get past that, you probably shouldn’t go into the water.
The Belize Barrier Reef is part of a reef system that extends for more than 550 miles and it is well worth making the effort to see it – this is the most impressive off shore reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef of western Australia.
Our companions on the morning snorkel didn’t want to do more than half and hour in the water, citing age as the primary consideration, which rather put me out. If I am faced with a potential drowning event later in the swim, I like to at least get a good snorkel in before it starts to happen.
There was a strong current and I have difficulty keeping up with the others – they appear to move against the flow more easily than I do; this holds Alice back because she feels obliged to stay close. She tells me I lay too flat in the water – this, to a degree, because I’m concerned about flippering the coral. While I struggle to simply change direction my wife is out of sight, she might as well be swimming in another ocean for all we see of her. I have no real fear in the water which is probably down to poor judgement. I must by now have spent a great many hours snorkelling and have tried it both with and without floatation support and have no idea why I remain so rubbish at it.
In the afternoon our aged, but possibly not as old as me, ‘too many pancakes for breakfast’ Texan friends decide not to take another turn in the sea and are unceremoniously dumped on a nearby island, leaving Jen, Alice and I to make up the full party. The problem now is our guide; I thought he was there to intervene if I had problems in the water, but his role apparently, is to dive down and poke at things with a long pointy stick for no good reason I can think of. As soon are we are back at the surface, I tell him not to do this and I keep it brief because I don’t have a lot of spare air for an unnecessary chat. All I have seen in my viewfinder so far is the end of the guide’s pole and fish moving rapidly away. For all the effort I have to put in to line up a picture the whole thing becomes immensely frustrating. After he quite reasonably interprets my comment as a complaint he leaves me alone, which is great, because drown or no drown – I see far more without him.
The Desert… but not deserted Island.
Lunch is taken on a desert island, which sounds more exciting than it actually is – essentially this is a compacted sand tourist hang out. Our meal is chicken and rice and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but there is only so much of this I can comfortably eat, nevertheless great-tailed grackles come and join us because they aren’t so fussy.
In the afternoon we snorkel closer to shore; in shallower water we are only a foot or two above the corals and I have to work hard to avoid touching them. This is however an ideal depth for taking pictures and after an hour or so I am feeling very comfortable, and no longer thinking about how ill equipped I am to be in the water. If you can get past your land-based limitations, watching fish becomes hypnotic; with a greater density than air, water appears to slow down time for everything that slides through it.
Eventually we make our way into a sandy shallows flowing with seagrass – we are approaching the island beach that had been the dumping ground for our Texan party. When we first started out on our afternoon snorkel the island had seemed so very far away, and without a current working against me, I was surprised by how much I had seen and how far I had snorkelled without feeling exhausted.
Causes for Concern: land and sea.
Our first few days had provided me with a great many photo opportunities. My subjects weren’t in any way ground breaking, but you’d need to be very jaded to be unimpressed by the natural wonders that Belize has to offer.
There are however two areas of concern. The first is that all of the lowland forests I entered were generally degraded. The Coxcomb Wildlife Sanctuary site had, until 1988, been a logging concern – and this is not an unusual story: once trees have been felled, logging companies will sometimes return the land back to nature, and as wonderful as this is, it is a bit like putting the cart before the horse, or is it shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted? Or maybe shooting the horse and then shutting the stable door… Certainy one of those.
We should all be pleased to get things back to something like natural, but rarely is the original diversity achieved if there is no surrounding source to keep the eco-system intact. The occasions when natural environments are wrecked by humans, and then given over to conservation are numerous… until of course somebody finds a mineral present that we really can’t do without, or maybe the trees need selectively cutting again. Commercial expedience nearly always wins out, trumping the need for absolute conservation.
I wasn’t surprised that I couldn’t find large tracts of primary lowland forest – and have to accept that most people have no idea what that is, they are just pleased to be in a bit of forest where wildlife survives at all.
Secondary forest usually contains far fewer species than undisturbed forest, but hardly anybody notices and it is ironic, that for an opportunistic wildlife photographer, secondary forest offers certain advantages: it brings the birdlife that does manage to survive down from the upper reaches to a lower level of forest, essentially because there is nowhere else to go; creatures that no matter how colourful, we’d probably seldom see if they were living in the upper reaches of virgin forest. The draw back of secondary forest is that the grow back is often tightly packed and difficult to see through as young trees compete for available space and resources. Nevertheless, along trails where there is light, most of us will have a fair chance of seeing and photographing wildlife and with the right lenses achieve results.
The second concern is the obvious development of tourism along much of the coastline. This must throw into question how sea life in general, and the offshore reef in particular, will fair if development goes ahead at the rate that is currently planned. Our seas an oceans have so far absorbed a lot of our waste, but there are limits, and eventually we may destroy the very environments that the tourists have come to see.
In the second part of this story I take a more careful look at what is happening to natural forests and the outlook is not entirely positive. We should all be concerned, because any loss of biodiversity simply to provide short term commercial gain inevitably has far reaching consequences for all of us; and killing the goose that lays the golden egg is far from beneficial to local people who have managed, with low population levels, to live in harmony with their surroundings for thousands of years; something we have so far failed to do with our ‘advanced’ high density industrial lifestyles. It is as well to remember that there are presently no self-sufficient major cities, which throws into question what the term ‘civilised society’ really means.
With thanks to Jen and Alice for their pictures.
Next time ‘Belize: The Down Side – Deforestation’.
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