Tag Archives: Hawaii

The Down Side of Remote Pacific Islands – The Disappearing Species of Hawai’i.

The Hawaiian Islands were formed in the middle of the Pacific Ocean by tumultuous volcanic activity – this is still happening and is presently centred on the Big Island, Hawai’i. Mt Kilauea on the south-east side of this island remains active and has been spewing lava almost continuously since 1984. Put simply, Hawaii is moving steadily over a hot spot that lies beneath the Pacific Plate.

To the west and more central to the island is the volcanic mass of Mauna Loa which rises just short of 13,700 feet; it has erupted only twice since 1950: once in 1975 for a day, and again in 1984 for three weeks. At the moment things are quiet, but it is still considered the most active volcano of recent time, having erupted 33 times since its first historical eruption in 1833. Not far away to the north across a saddle of lava stands the sister peak of Mauna Kea – presently dormant it rises to nearly 14,000 feet above sea level and I was fortunate enough to travel up it quite recently – this sounds impressive, but getting there is a doddle because you can drive more or less all the way. It is however the toughest road journey anywhere in the world should you choose to do it on a bicycle!

Of greater interest perhaps is that the slopes of these impressive volcanoes provide a variety of habitats entirely determined by changes in altitude. The most obvious way to experience climatic change is to travel from the equator to polar regions, which takes time and money, but there is an alternative: go to Hawai’i and ascend either Mauna Loa or Mauna Kea and experience similar changes over a much shorter distance.

A good start: photographing a green turtle on the local beach.

A few weeks ago my friend David Barlow and I did exactly this, driving from sea level to within a few feet of the summit of Mauna Kea, on the way rising through a variety of different habitat types to arrive above the tree line in a very short journey time: from a tropical beach to a stark arid landscape in a matter of hours, experiencing changes that were both marked and abrupt –  and I was able to make a visual record of species before we returned to sea level in less than twelve hours without rushing about.

The first bird of the day showed up during breakfast – a member of a flock that was picking off grass seeds on the lawn behind our apartment. Introduced from South America in the 1960s this attractive bird is now well established.

We then took a short walk to the beach and along the track saw a red cardinal in a non-native acacia tree. This bird was introduced to the islands in the late 1920’s from the Eastern States of North America; it has a formidable beak essentially for seed eater, but this colourful creature will take insects and other small animals, putting it into direct competition with native birds, or would, if there were any about! Almost nothing endemic exists at sea level apart from the occasional sea bird – a shocking situation that usually passes without comment. Few people realise the birds they see are recent introductions, and no tourist operator would break the mood by broadcasting that at lower altitudes, the most commonly seen creatures are as alien to these islands as snow at Christmas.

The yellow-billed cardinal is also common, it was introduced from South America in the early 1970s and is spreading. These birds occur mostly at lower altitudes, but have been seen more recently at around 6,000 feet where they come into contact with endemic species; this causes not only straight competition, but the possibility of spreading diseases such as bird malaria which the natives have no tolerance of.

Continuing on to the beach we came across a beautiful but nevertheless non-native tree under which a silver eye was feeding two fledgling youngsters. I know this bird well because it was often in our New Zealand garden, although it originates from the opposite end of the Pacific; the NZ version arrived from Australia sometime during the 19th Century, and this version is from Japan.

A Japanese white eye Zosterops japonicus feeding its young.

The Hawai’i white eye was introduced in the late 1920s; it is an agreeable song bird and an absolute sweetie, but like the yellow-billed cardinal, has spread to higher altitudes where it too competes with native birds. White-eyes are opportunistic feeders and as nectar makes up part of their diet this puts it in direct competition with native honeycreepers that have evolved on the Hawaiian Islands and can be found nowhere else.  Back in its homeland this is a delightful bird, but on Hawai’i it is becoming a problem.

One animal that seems to be everywhere at lower altitudes is the Indian mongoose, particularly where there is broken lava flow that provides this efficient little predator with ideal hiding places. This seems an odd choice for an introduction because the Hawaiian Islands have many delicate ecosystems that until recently were totally devoid of mammalian predators.

This less than ideal newcomer was introduced in the 1880s to take on the rat population so prevalent on sugar plantations. As rats are nocturnal and the mongoose diurnal the two seldom met, and together worked around the clock consuming Hawai’i’s native birds – in particular the ground nesters. It is claimed that the mongoose is responsible for the elimination of at least 6 native species from these Islands.

Rikki Tikki Tavi appears just about everywhere including the back of the barbecue on our deck.

I could continue working through a list of all the beautiful plants, butterflies and birds around where we are staying that are clearly non-natives, but if I did, we wouldn’t get much beyond the car park  so it has to be onward and upward. 

David and I began our drive to altitude by crossing the island using Route 200, or the Saddle Road as it is commonly known. This runs between the two volcanic masses of Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, and as regards native species, we saw nothing until we got to around 6,000 feet.

Along the Saddle Road in the many areas that have experienced recent lava flows, plants are now re-establishing, a situation that has been repeated itself many times on Hawai’i.

At these higher altitudes in national park areas, plants appear very different from the exotic introductions commonplace at sea level. There were similarities to my New Zealand experience, with many native plants carrying smaller, more subtle flowers that many of us ignore in preference to bigger blousier forms that are easily introduced…. But what the heck, people just love dressing up their islands the way they decorate their Christmas trees  with exotic colourful tat that makes them feel more cheerful. Perhaps if we were better informed we might be inclined to consider our native plants more sympathetically, but the chances are… we  probably wouldn’t.

Pink Knotweed Perssicaria capitatum has small flowers, but isn’t a native, having arrived from Asia.

It is tempting to suggest species evolving on islands are delicate, but the reality is, most are well adapted to their surroundings, otherwise they wouldn’t have survived.  It is only when rapid changes occur that natives are found wanting, as was the case when Homo sapiens arrived on the Islands  adaptation through natural selection simply couldn’t equip the natives quickly enough to allow them to compete successfully with the many introduced pests they encountered.

Once up on the hill a mossy forest of native trees adds something quite hopeful to the stark surrounding landscape.

Just before turning off to Moana Loa we stopped to visit Hairy Hill on the opposite side of the road. It was a gentle walk up the old cinder cone that rises just a couple of hundred feet, providing enough height to survive a more recent lava flow that obliterated the flora of the surrounding area; what remains is a reservoir for native plants and trees, and amongst them there is a pleasant ambiance to the small isolated mossy forest that exists near the top, although moss is not be a surprise here because the area is often swathed in dank mists, imbibing the open lava flow below with a certain atmosphere – and it is no wonder that such places have spiritual significance for native people.

Looking down from Pu’u Huluhulu or Hairy Hill. This is a Kapuka, an older volcanic hill surrounded by a more recent lava flow.
I was surprised when a turkey crossed my path near the top of the Hairy Hill a bird very much out of place here.

On the opposite side of the road John Burns Way leads us up towards the summit of Mauna Kea. We stopped just short of the point where the tree line changed abruptly into a high altitude desert to emerge from cloud cover into bright sunlight. I pulled the car off the road at 9,000 feet so that we might acclimatise to the altitude; but had an ulterior motive: I’d hoped to photograph native birds in the area, but this would depend entirely on finding plants carrying nectar filled flowers to attract them in, otherwise we could search all afternoon and perhaps see birds only fleetingly. There is little to be gained by chasing wildlife about – if there was nothing to draw birds in to where I could stand quietly, the chances of getting worthwhile images was slim.

Common Mullien is everywhere.


We start searching on foot and it is at once clear that a great many unwanted plants have been introduced here, some accidentally; and eliminating them is likely to be an ongoing problem for park authorities. In fact, the weeds are so numerous and producing such copious amounts of seed, it might be a case of ‘know your enemy’ and prioritise those that are competing most harmfully with native species.

There was no shortage of Common Mullien Verbascum thapsus, originally brought to North America by settlers from Europe for medicinal purposes. It has now reached Hawaii and doing well at altitude on Mauna Kea.

David time lapses clouds as they roll up between the two volcanic peaks; every half an hour the top of Mauna Loa is revealed then disappears again, we however remain just above the cloud-line in full sunshine.

This volcanic mass we are on is the tallest mountain on the planet, but not recognised as such because the height of a land mass is always taken from sea level to provide a standard for the measurement of altitude. However, if Mauna Kea was measured from the ocean floor it rises to around 33,000 feet and there is nothing on Earth that will match it  – apart from the peak we can see across the saddle in front of us  that of Mauna Loa, which is around a 100 feet short of the volcano we are standing on.

At the time of writing Kilauea was very busy doing its thing.

To have two such massive features on an island that takes only a couple of hours to cross is remarkable. Everest is considered the highest mountain in the world at just over 29,000 feet it is part of the Himalayas – a mountain chain that pushed up like a rucked carpet when two continents collided: 50 million years ago the India plate started crashing into the Euro Asia plate and they continue to do so; but the Hawaiian peaks are perhaps even more impressive, thrusting as they do from the ocean floor driven entirely by the dynamism of volcanic activity.

Flowers of the Mamane tree Sophora chrysophylla.

It doesn’t take long to see a yellow flower, a member of the pea family, that is similar to the kowhai flower that I know from my time in New Zealand, which demonstrates that the relatedness of some plants can be clearly followed across the Pacific region, although how this member of the Sophora family arrived in Hawai’i remains a mystery.

I set up on a mamane tree and wait to see what visits.

The blooms I set up on hung from a mamane tree, a species integral to the upland forests of Hawai’i with flowers drooping down seductively from a canopy that can reach up to 50 feet. Unfortunately, the tree’s survival on the Hawaiian Islands has not been plain sailing: prior to and during the 1980s the upland slopes of Mauna Kea were ravaged by introduced grazers, and legal action was taken against the government at both local and federal level on behalf of two bird species. The resultant court case ended with a win for the endangered birds, in particular the Palila (Loxioides bailleui), a honeycreeper that relies heavily on Mamane tree seeds for food, as do  caterpillars of the Cydia moth which also feed on the young seeds of this tree and the birds in turn feed on them. Both bird and insect must avoid the mature seed coats because they are highly toxic, although these animals have developed a degree of tolerance to the alkaloid poisons that are present.  It appears the fauna remains just ahead of the flora in this evolutionary arms race and having gained the advantage, utilise the mamane seeds as an essential part of their diet.

As for the other battle – the legal one: on paper it was clearly a win for the birds and the environment, but in reality this wasn’t absolute. Soon after the judgement sheep and feral goats that for years had been decimating the upland forests were at last being removed, but the court order was never fully complied with until another court order was made in 2013 backing the protective measure, and renewing efforts to remove the pests that were pushing the Palila bird in particular to extinction. I am not certain of how successful this has been, but we at least didn’t see any alien grazers during our visit.

A tui in our New Zealand garden making use of nectar from a kowhia tree which carries one of the earliest blooms of spring. The birds beak is curved, and has co-evolved with the kowhia flowers to aid in pollination: pollen can be clearly seen on the upper side of the beak. This bird is of the honeyeater family and quite different from the honeycreepers of Hawaii, some of which have evolved similar beaks for the same nectar feeding purpose.

This is just one of a host of conservation issues that plague delicate island environments. Conservationists and volunteers do their best, but pest problems are frequently overwhelming, and there is usually a struggle for adequate funding.

The Sophora flowers blooming on Mauna Kea are as important to the native nectar feeding birds of Hawaii as the related kowhai flowers are to the tuis and bellbirds that regularly visited the trees we had planted in our New Zealand garden. Understanding such alliances is important and may prove instrumental in both protecting and bringing associated species together.

Certainly not the most exciting looking bird, but exciting for me…. I have no interest in ticking off birds, but as most of the park areas were closed due to the volcanic activity, the chance of seeing native birds was substantially reduced.

Back on the mountain I stood in the mid-day sun waiting… and it wasn’t long before a small bird came flying in to my chosen tree, but it was soon away with a dipping up and down flight that is probably peculiar to its species. I was pretty well set up by then and hopeful of a return visit – although this was not an entirely pleasurable experience, as standing in the sun at altitude with increased levels of UV will quickly sear exposed skin.

The bird made three further visits at approximately twenty to thirty minute intervals and remained completely untroubled by my presence. The little nectar feeder spent three or four minutes feeding on groups of flowers before flying off to presumably visit other flowers in the area; certainly it flew some distance beyond a point where I could see it, which suggested that it was feeding over a fairly wide range. 

Something about this bird might suggest a non-native immature white eye, but then the curve of the bill and the short tail makes me think it is a female or immature Hawai’i ‘Amakihi (Hemignathus virens virens) – not the rarest honeycreeper on Hawai’i  but nevertheless considered a distinct species for the island. This bird is also often confused with the Hawai’i Creeper (Oreomystis mana), but the creeper is rarer and does not feed so regularly on nectar. Hopefully, I might be forgiven for an uncertain identification of a bird I don’t regularly see. Even ornitholgist sometimes have trouble identifying these ‘little brown jobs’ and it might in the end come down to movement or behaviour… but most likely somebody will know from my pictures and I will soon be better informed.
Once I get to see the curve of the birds beak more clearly I feel confident that I have observed a native bird – a honey creeper with a beak adapted to feed from flowers, but still useful enough to dig out insects.

After a couple of hours acclimatisation we had achieved all that was possible and continued on to the summit. Almost at once we were on Mars, albeit a Mars with blue skies and genuine atmosphere; but the views were not as spectacular here as the Mars-scapes I’d previously seen near the summit of Haleakala which rises to just under 10,000 feet on the neighbouring island of Maui. From our vantage point we could at least see Haleakala coming and going some 35 miles away as clouds moved across the substantial peaks of both islands. Now close to  the 14,000 foot summit David framed the view and set his time lapse in motion.

David time lapsed cloud formations behind one of the Mauna Kea Observatory Telescopes with Haleakala on the island of Maui in the background – my still is rather a poor substitute.

I finished my photography fairly quickly – because wildlife opportunities are limited at this altitude – and was just admiring the view when David arrived with a young lady he had found, he left her with me and returned to his camera— the altitude had got the better of her, although her boyfriend had fared better and decided to walk back down to the visitors centre from where they had started out. David had agreed that we would drive his girlfriend down because of her condition. I sat her on the back seat of our car amongst the gear and told her how lucky I had been to photograph a honeyeater, but she seemed disinterested, obviously she wasn’t big on wildlife and so I stopped talking, at which point she shot out of the car and began projectile vomiting in a quite spectacular manner… I must admit that I did think about taking a photograph, but refrained from doing so.

The summit of Mauna Kea is not much further away, but I never made it up there, nor any other summit on any other mountain I have visited — it’s the kind of thing that can make you throw up, and I have no idea why people feel a need to do it.

Soon back in the car she began telling me how much better she was feeling. I smiled and nodded encouragingly and at once she took a turn for the worse and did it all over again. Hopefully it wasn’t the company she was keeping… more likely, having taken a meandering walk up in 40% less oxygen than there is at sea level and going that little bit further to the summit she had developed altitude sickness. It was clear that we needed to get her to a lower altitude as quickly as possible and so David’s time lapse came to an abrupt end and I was soon driving us towards the visitors centre considerably faster than when we had made our way up – thinking all the time that a four wheel drive would have now been quite useful. The dirt road had been rutted and tricky to negotiate on the ascent and I had driven slowly to look after the vehicle, but on the way down it was a different story.

Away in the distance Kilauea has a little spew.

 We were going quite fast — why wasn’t I sliding us off of the volcano? Then, it suddenly occurred to me — the grader I had noticed parked close by the visitors centre had been doing its job at an opportune moment and the track had been graded all the way to the top.

Half way to our destination, away in the distance Kilauea had a little spew of her own – signalling that tomorrow would be another murky VOG sky day, even on the other side of the island.

Hawai’i it seemed was presently troubled by one of  it’s little volcanic phases, but sadly the island also displays a good many environmental problems concerning the preservation of its endemic species… Nevertheless, even a true story should have a happy ending – so here it is. The girl and the volcano have stopped spewing now and both are doing fine.

Up above the clouds Mauna Kea is a Mars-scape but with atmosphere, where things can get very hot and very cold, but thankfully not to Martian extremes… because really, this is a very down to Earth sort of place.

There is also a moral to this story: a little bird recently told me that we all spend too much time obsessing over how beautiful things are, rather than how beautifully things fit together. Unfortunately, the latter requires far greater imagination and understanding than does the former, and more often than not, like many a good mixing of metaphors, we sometimes find ourselves on the right volcano, but chirping up the wrong tree. 

It wasn’t a great surprise that we didn’t see a Palila, but I have at least attempted a sketch.

I started the day with a little yellow bird that doesn’t belong, but didn’t manage to finish with the Palila – the yellow-headed bird that does – it was just too hopeful. Science has informed us quite thoroughly of what this rarity requires, and in that sense the tricky work has been done, but the will to save this beauty from extinction may simply not be there. And the way things are going – in the natural world at least – happy endings are increasingly difficult to find.



New Zealand and Hawaii. Remote Islands and Why Each One Is Different.

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.

To remain camouflaged, this carnivorous caterpillar Eupithecia ochrochloris has cut a notch into a fern leaf. It has caught and is eating an Hawaiian fruit fly. The fruit flies of Hawaii are themselves unusual varying greatly in form in comparison to the tiny fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster commonly seen elsewhere and used as research animals in laboratories. 
Eupithecia straurophragma

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. 

New Zealand has many beautiful beaches, but inland the environment is significantly different from the way it was before man arrived. From the seaward side bands of native and often non-native trees give the impression of a still wild place, but once through the trees, more often than not, you’ll find yourself standing on sheep or cow pasture.

It is possible that NZ 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.

This Weta is one of around 70 species that occur nowhere else but New Zealand. This individual found its way onto my neck in our NZ garden, and when I tried to brush it off, it slashed out with its rasping rear legs and drew blood.

A lot can happen in 55 million years and the fine detail will  always remain uncertain, but nevertheless there is clear evidence that a great many species have come and gone during that period with most of the present New Zealand species of recent origin.

Everything in this picture is native to New Zealand… but no doubt, some hawk-eyed individual will see something here that proves me  wrong.


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.

Tuatara Sphenodon punctatus– one of the ‘distinctives’  an ancient reptile that evolved in NZ. They appear to live forever and I’ve never seen one move.

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.

The North Island Kokako Callaeas wilsoni is also distinctive  and although its survival has been tenuous, isolated groups remain in only a few places on the North Island; the bird is mostly restricted to offshore islands where introduced mammalian pests have been eliminated and the birds then introduced as a conservation measure. Until fairly recently there was a South Island Kokako which had a reddish orange wattle  but this species is now thought to be extinct — the last definitive sighting was at Mt Aspiring National Park in 1967, but there are suggestions of more recent sitings and the species’ conservation status was moved from extinct to data deficient in 2013.
Waimea Falls – Kaui, Hawaii.


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.

 Recent lava flow features prominently on the Big Island Hawai’i in a way that it doesn’t on other Hawaiian Islands where lava is integral to the way the islands were formed but is no longer flowing. The older more established islands have moved on and consequently they no longer sit over the hot spot beneath the Pacific Plate responsible for volcanic eruptions.

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. 

Small creatures like shore crickets might have arrived carried on flotsam.

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.

This article links: The Down Side of Remote Pacific Islands – The Disappearing Species of New Zealand. and: The Down Side of Remote Pacific Islands – The Disappearing Species of Hawai’i.

Kilauea: Over the Volcano – Hawai’i Makes New Ground.

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. 

Way out in the middle of the Pacific a crustal plate has been moving across a volcaninc hot spot (which is stationary) at about three and a half inches a year forming this unique group of islands. Kaua'i the oldest at around 4 to 5 million years old and Hawai'i the youngest at around 300,000 years, this is presently the most active and has grown in the last few weeks as lava has been pouring into the sea. But there is also fresh activity to the west of the Big Island where Lo'ihi is slowly rising under the ocean. and it will probably show up above water in around 50,000 years.
Way out in the middle of the Pacific a crustal plate has been moving across a stationary volcanic hot spot at around three and a half inches a year to form a unique chain of islands. Kaua’i is the oldest at around 5 million years of age and Hawai’i the youngest at around 300,000 years: this is presently the most volcanically active and has grown in the last few weeks as lava has began to pour into the sea. There is also fresh activity to the south east of the Big Island as Lo’ihi slowly rises from the ocean floor and will probably break the water surface in around 50,000 years.

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.

P1350165Nothing 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.

On the eastern side of the island, looking into the hills from sea level, air pollution would build on days when the volcano was especially active over on the opposite side.
Looking into the hills from sea level on the western side of the island, air pollution would steadily build whenever volcanic activity became more intense.

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.

A beach on the east coast fails to disappoint despite a haze due the poorer air quality.
A beach on the east coast fails to disappoint despite the haze produced by the poorer air quality.

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.

In areas where larva has recently flowed, in this case across land between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea the landscape sometimes has an unworldy feel and may remain free of vegetation for many years and is largely depending upon altitude and weather conditions.
In areas where lava has recently flowed, in this case across the saddle between Mauna Loa and Mauna Kea, landscapes have become unworldly. Many will remain free of vegetation for years to come depending on altitude, weather conditions and proximity to unaffected natural areas.

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.

These guys are unlikely to be defeated by a bit of claggy air on the beach.
These guys are unlikely to be defeated by a bit of claggy air moving down our local beach.

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.

The wind was gusting so oddly here I was pleased when Jen stopped taking pictures on the cliff top.
The wind was gusting oddly at South Point. Jen had become tired of resting and started taking pictures… I was pleased when she stopped because she was standing close to the cliff edge.

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.

Down around the South Point of the Island is not an ideal place for a picnic, but we did it anyway.
Anywhere around the South Point seems less than ideal for a picnic.
Trees in the area seemed to be in a continual battle to stand up and in the end gave up.
Trees in the area continually battle against harsh winds and in the end appear to give up.

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.

Standing just above the cloud line on Mauna Kea just before the tree line runs out into volcanic ash at about 9,000 ft, is possible to look across the saddle to Mauna Loa, here just peaking above the clouds.
If you stand just above the cloud line on Mauna Kea at about 9,000 feet just before the tree line runs into cinders, it is possible to look across the saddle to Mauna Loa peeping above the clouds.

P1340834The 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.

A spotted dove I think in the forest - taken to demonstrate the vog skies that make bird photography impossible
A spotted dove (I think) in the forest – taken to demonstrate how vog skies can make bird photography pointless.

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. 

Edward Hopper should have painted in Na'alehu - it would have cheered him up a bit.
Edward Hopper could have painted in Na’alehu – the sky is appropriately dismal, but the people might have proven too cheerful for him as they don’t appear cowered by present adversities.


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 hangs out with coffee from the food van in Na'alehu.

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.

David speaks with Gary Sleik in A'alehu about the local volcanic activity.
David talking to Gary Sleik in Na’alehu about volcanic activity in the lava zone.

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.

Like water lava flows to the lowest point and high ground often preserves natural areas and if they are large enough to remain viable, will retain species to eventually recolonise the area.
Like water lava flows to the lowest point and high ground often preserves natural areas; if they are large enough to remain viable, species may eventually recolonise from these, but it takes many years.

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 for our 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.

The problem with flying over a volcano is that conditions are not always ideal for taking pictures.
The problem with flying over a volcano is that conditions are not always ideal for taking good photographs.

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.

IMG_0606The 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.  

Looking down into fissure 8, I seemed to be directly over it and if I had released my seat belt I am sure I would have tumbled straight in.
Looking down into fissure 8.

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.

Jen's wider picture of Fissure 8 puts the lava flow into context with its surroundings.
Jen’s wider picture of fissure  8 puts the lava flow into context with its surroundings.

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.

The previously active cone of Pu'u O'o and yes, I really have no idea how this is pronounced.
This, then is Pu’u ‘O’o – its crater floor collapsed on April 30th and the contents drained away. Two days later the summit lava lake began to drop and nobody is certain where that has gone.

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. 

A case of deja vu: once again I had that feeling that I might easily topple in.
Deja vu? Only a few minutes have passed and once again I have the feeling that I might easily topple into a crater, this one seems quieter but it remains active.

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.

Near the top of frame the sea fizzes creating a plume laden with sulphuric acid as larva hits the water and lower in the frame, houses are on fire.
Near the top of frame the sea fizzes creating a plume laden with sulphuric acid as lava hits the water; lower in the frame, houses are on fire.

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.

P1350031The 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.

arva flowing away from Fissure 8.
Lava flowing from Fissure 8.

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.


Hawaii: Green Sea Turtles – a glimpse of life at the edge of the oceans.

As a child I was fascinated by a sea turtle’s shell that stood in the fireplace of my grandparents house during the summer months of the year to hide a coal-dusted grate. I was small back then, and it seemed so big.

Then, when I went to school I learned more: sea turtles were often eaten by people in tropical coastal regions, and their subsistence lifestyles could be improved by selling turtle shells to travellers as tangible reminders of visits to exotic places.

My grandfather had been at sea for much of his life, which explained how one turtle carapace found its way to the then seafaring town of Southampton, England. No doubt many other shells made similar journeys, until a realisation dawned that sea turtles were suffering overexploitation and the importation of turtle products was made illegal.

Up until the 1960s travel to distant places was mostly undertaken by boat and at a far more leisurely pace than it is today by plane. Earlier in his life my grandfather had worked on passenger ships and learned around 130 ways to make a serviette more interesting - a tradition that continues on cruise ships today, although the preferred medium is now a towel. Last week, this turtle (made by Mani) was found crawling across a bed on a cruise ship rather than up a tropical beach. Each evening  out on the world's oceans thousands of white towels transform into ghostly creatures - an art form that is largely unrecognised, although it is often superior to the junk art that some cruise companies peddle to their passengers.*
Up until the 1960s travel to distant places was mostly undertaken by boat and at a far more leisurely pace than it is today by plane. Earlier in his life my grandfather had worked on passenger ships and learned around 130 ways to make a serviette more interesting – a tradition that continues on cruise ships today, although the preferred medium is now a towel. Last week, this turtle (made by Mani) was found crawling across a bed on a cruise ship rather than up a tropical beach. Each evening  out on the world’s oceans thousands of white towels transform into ghostly creatures – an art form that is largely unrecognised, although it is often superior to the junk art that some cruise companies peddle to their passengers.

By the time I was a teenager all sea turtles were in decline and the old shell in the grate was now something of an eye opener: if creatures that swam in the remoteness of the oceans faced possible extinction, then many other plants and animals more accessible to humans must surely suffer the same fate.

This turned out to be true, but sea turtles are especially vulnerable due to an evolutionary past that ties them to the land – if only for brief periods. This land based connection goes back a couple of hundred million years – then, around 120 million years ago they experienced a rapid evolutionary change that led to a lifestyle that confined them almost entirely to the sea.

In Hawaii a green sea turtle comes up for air to the delight of a group of holiday makers.
In Hawaii a green sea turtle comes up for air to the delight of a group of holiday makers.

Some sea turtle species occasionally haul out onto rocks to rest or sun bathe, but mostly they live beneath the waves. All however must come regularly to the surface to breathe, and females have a tie to the land that has never been broken – mature individuals must emerge onto sandy beaches to lay their eggs; this can occur several times during the nesting season, although once egg laying is completed a female might not return for two or three years.

Usually females arrive at night, and their egg laying habits are often predictable, which makes adult females and their eggs vulnerable to over-harvesting by humans. This land based contact has become a disaster for sea turtles, an unfortunate situation for creatures that have successfully negotiated the world’s oceans without much change in structure or lifestyle for millions of years.

In recent times sea turtles have been disappearing at an alarming rate. All of the seven species that inhabit the world’s oceans are declining in numbers, although in some places legal protection and concerted conservation efforts have slowed the process. Nevertheless, it is difficult to protect animals that range so widely, and care under one jurisdiction may not be as diligent or forthcoming as it is under another.

Like many others, my family has a fondness for tortoises and turtles and my sons first toy reflects this. Certainly this little guy is green, but it is probably the colour of the turtles flesh that is responsible for its name.
Like many others, my family has a fondness for tortoises and turtles and my sons first toy reflects this. Certainly this little guy is green, but it is probably the colour of the turtles flesh that is responsible for its name.

Seldom has so much research gone into a group of animals with so little return, although a great deal has been discovered in recent years. It is now known that temperatures within the nest decide the sex of emerging babies, and it is apparent that during infancy mortality is high – not only are hatchlings vulnerable travelling down the beach to get into the water but they also suffer heavy predation during the early years of life.

There is still much to learn about where young sea turtles go once they are at sea and how they navigate to wherever they need to be. Later in life, mature females will return to lay eggs on beaches, where many years earlier, they also started out. The problems of surviving to maturity seem insurmountable; predation and hits by boats take their toll, many are drowned when caught in fishing nets and all are vulnerable to pollution. It can take half a lifetime for a sea turtle to reach maturity and for those that make it, a life spanning more than a hundred years is a possibility. 

A mature female green turtle might return to a beach once or several times during the egg laying season, others may come to just rest up for a night, but unlike T.V. shows where there is often additional lighting it is often difficult to pick a turtle out on a beach at night when it has been churned by the comings and goings of other females. If the urge can be resisted it is best not to photograph or video turtles during egg laying, although camera technology has improved to the point where additional lighting  may be unnecessary and a long shot without lighting is less likely to cause a disturbance. Mobile phones are a curse - not because turtles find it difficult to take calls when they are egg laying, but because mobiles are carried by people who photograph everything from lunch through to coffee and such people are unlikely to pass up a picture of a chance encounter with a chance encounter with a turtle, they will often have their devices set on automatic which means flash photography should be avoided. IN this situation it is best to leave turtles alone to get on with this essential part of their lives.
A mature female green turtle may return to a beach once or several times during the nesting season. Wildlife television programmes will often use lighting to record this activity because mostly it occurs at night, but in natural light it is difficult to pick a female out on a beach that has been churned by the comings and goings of many individuals. Because female sea turtles are easily disturbed when egg laying they are best left alone. However, low light camera technology has greatly improved in recent years and a long shot such as the one above, using only available light is unlikely to cause problems. Unfortunately, mobile phones can be a curse – this has nothing to do with turtles not picking up when they are egg laying and everything to do with those who see themselves as at the centre of the Universe… photographing everything from lunch to coffee. These people are unlikely to pass up a chance encounter with a turtle and will often get too close with their devices set on automatic – the resultant flash photography can seriously disturb egg laying females.   

I didn’t attempt to view sea turtles until I was in my 30s and it happened quite by accident… Sadly, this wasn’t a great success. I had gone to Costa Rica to film bats, taking with me a young freeloader who had attached himself to the B.B.C. by claiming special knowledge of the area I was visiting and with the promise of help in return for a ticket to paradise.

In this manner I got stuck with a guy who was clearly out to make a name for himself by journeying to remote places simply to write about them. There was, he said, only one place where we could be guaranteed to see one particular species of bat, which straight away sounded suspicious, coming from somebody who was either too busy catching up on his sleep or not feeling well enough to do anything at all. With limited time available to locate bats I allowed myself to be drawn into his scheme and rented a light aircraft and a pilot to fly us halfway across Costa Rica to a remote location on the Pacific Coast.

It wasn’t long before we were dropping down and bumping along a  remote airfield which had been cut into the forest, but during the flight it became clear that my helper had another agenda. He had begun talking excitedly about the beach at the end of the landing strip famous for its ‘arribada’ – a Spanish word that means arrival – in this case the arrival of female Eastern Pacific olive ridleys sea turtles, that were expected just prior to the full moon to lay their eggs’. Ridleys are not large turtles and were once far more common than they are today, but like their close relative the Kemp’s sea turtle, they have a habit of synchronising their visits as a single spectacular event.

A couple of scientists were working the area, otherwise there was nobody else about. Accommodation was limited and the turtles hadn’t so far shown up. I soon got busy searching the local forest for roosting bats and managed to find and film a couple of species without disturbing them, but the bats weren’t unusual and it was down to good fortune rather than any special knowledge provided by my helper who preferred to sleep through the day rather than search out bats.

The proboscis bat is a species of South and Central America; and in terms of markings these were the nicest I have seen, but in retrospect they didn't warrant the journey... and were, some might say, hardly a substitute for ridley sea turtles.
The proboscis bat is a species of South and Central America; and in terms of markings these were the nicest I have seen, but in retrospect they didn’t warrant the journey… and were, some might say, hardly a substitute for ridley sea turtles.

Another night passed without any sign of the turtles and I told my colleague that we would have to fly out the next day because there was filming to be done and time was limited, but he refused to leave, claiming he felt too rough to help move my gear back to the runway. Unfortunately, I had no alternative but to leave him to freeload off of the scientists because as far as I could tell, he had no visible means of support and certainly no way of paying for a flight out, for all I know he might still be there, buried in a shallow grave close by the turtle eggs… but more likely, he has done very well for himself as chances often do.

Sea turtles continued to eluded me for another thirty years until one day a green sea turtle popped its head out of the ocean while I was standing on a beach and I finally got my chance to photograph one in its natural habitat. 

In 2010, with my wife and daughter, I encountered green turtles in the surf in Hawaii – quite shockingly they were the size of coffee tables as they washed back and forth in the tidal zone feeding on algae; and they were potentially dangerous if they crashed into you, especially if you were caught standing on the sand rather than floating alongside them in the water.

Quite recently we had left New Zealand where my neighbour had imparted some useful information; he told me that if a sheep runs in your direction you should bend your legs and point them away from the impact, this keeps your knee caps intact because essentially they bend willingly only in one direction. This also worked well with turtles  – although dealing with them surging back and forth in the surf wasn’t an everyday event for me, in the absence of sheep the advice was useful.

Alice and I watch a green turtle surging back and forth in shallow water.
Alice and I watch a green turtle surge back and forth in shallow water.

More recently, I was sitting on a Maui beach, whilst my wife and daughter snorkelled in the ocean. When they go into the sea they swim as mermaids might. I on the other hand have no affinity with water and float the way that concrete usually doesn’t. This is always a surprise, because despite having no natural buoyancy, I  feel confident in the sea until things begin to go wrong and then it’s a different story. Earlier in the week whilst snorkelling over a coral reef, my mask had filled with water and whilst trying to clear it… I gulped in water. One near drowning experience a week should be enough for anybody and I decided to sit this one out. 

My wife and daughter are more at home in the ocean than I am.
My wife and daughter are more at home in the ocean than I am.

Add to the mix a couple of recent local shark attacks and it wasn’t that difficult to stay out of the water. Understandably, fewer people had been swimming offshore of late. Tourist boards don’t usually advertise shark attacks on their lists of interesting local events, but the snorkel shop had mentioned this tiny detail… and when they advise staying out of the water – you take notice.

In reality, the chances of your surfboard getting bitten in half by a shark, or worse still your leg, are small compared with drowning without a shark in sight, or a motoring accident on the way back from the beach; even getting struck by lightning is easier to achieve than becoming a shark’s lunch, if you hang out in the right place.

All the same my anxiety level shoots up when I think about swimming in low visibility tropical waters as was the case on this day, but it wasn’t the thought of sharks that bothered me, it was the reduced chances of taking a decent photo in the murkiness – otherwise I’d have been out there.

By mid-afternoon the tropical light was busy smashing intense colour out of everything around me, and the beach was intensely beautiful.
By mid-afternoon the tropical light was busy smashing intense colour out of everything around me and the beach was intensely beautiful.

It wasn’t long before I noticed a large walrus of a man sitting close by staring out to sea. Then a teenage boy came running up the beach and called out, ‘There’s a turtle out there you just gotta see. I’ve never seen one that big before.’ But the old man was in no rush, he knew that green sea turtles were grazing algae off rocks in the shallows below us, as occasionally a shell would appear above the water as a turtle was caught by an incoming wave, and now and again a head would pop up for a gulp of air. You might blink and miss it, but turtle watching isn’t like bird watching once in the water: observing turtles grazing is a slow relaxing experience, although in rough surf there is always a chance of a bashing. As I dwelt on this thought the man sauntered down the beach, waded out to his waist and then flopped gently into the water. He wore no flippers and seemed comfortable in the ocean. Around 20 minutes later he was back. ‘She’s a big one alright’, he said, as he flopped down onto his beach towel and I knew then that I had to go and see for myself.

Entering the sea I felt comfortable snorkelling in shallow water and once beyond the point where the waves were breaking, I was still getting dragged back and forth on the swell.

Beneath the waves I am drawn backwards and forwards with the pulse of each wave just like the fish, but once I get the hang of the motion I move into deeper water.
Beneath the waves I am drawn backwards and forwards with the pulse of each wave just like the fish, but once I get the hang of the motion I move into deeper water.

 As I got further out it was still possible to stand on rocks with my head above water, but it was better not to, as I would certainly have been bowled over by the waves;  it sounds counterintuitive but once amongst rocks it is safer to stay under water to negotiate them. I kept going, with no clear idea now of how far I was from the beach.

On my way out a variety of different fish, these kihikihi, hold my attention as the waves above gurgle and bubble, with my breathing audibly loud and clear in a way that it never is on land.
On my way out a variety of different fish, these kihikihi, hold my attention as the waves above gurgle and bubble, with my breathing audibly loud and clear in a way that it never is on land.

The whole process became hypnotic and I felt relaxed… which was good, but in my case, best not to get lulled into a false sense of security.  Then about fifteen feet ahead something big was moving in the water and I was thinking – this is about the right depth to meet up with a shark along the beach line, but thinking ‘shark!’ wasn’t going to be helpful, so I pushed on until the silhouette of a large turtle began to take shape.

What was most surprising was how far the turtle moved back and forth with the wave action, and I watched as this enormous creature swung around the axis of its head in an attempt to keep feeding in the same place; for a moment the weed fanned across the rocks before it was closely cropped by a munch of the turtles ‘beak’ pushing up a puff of detritus that clouded the water. The turtle then moved methodically on to the next growth – some of it already cropped by other turtles.

Along side the big one.
Along side the big one.

 I remained parallel to the turtle for the most part allowing myself to be pulled on the swell whilst remaining at a constant distance, and avoided moving seaward side so that I was not pushed onto the turtle. This is important because touching a turtle in Hawaii is not only illegal but also detrimental to its health. Many green turtles around the Islands suffer from skin lesions which may be caused by pathogens transferred directly from human to a turtle skin. The presence of suntan lotion may also be a factor and so it is best not to apply it when snorkelling.

Total internal reflection - coming up for air creates an interesting image.
Total internal reflection – coming up for air creates an interesting image.

I was so absorbed in the great creature that I didn’t notice until fairly late, something looming to my left. Suddenly there was another turtle… the one I had been watching had moved closer to another, and soon they were almost touching.

I back off a little to avoid contact as the turtles increase the claggyness of the water as they feed.
I back off a little to avoid contact as the turtles increase the claggyness of the water as they feed.

For the most part turtles ignore one another, but for a moment the larger individual used its bulk to push the smaller one from where it had been feeding (see video below). Perhaps this was no more than a coming together of shells – I was too busy avoiding contact with the pair to be certain – for a while I was the filling in a turtle sandwich and the three of us washed backwards and forwards across the reef until I could get clear.

There was a sudden flash of yellow as I was joined by my daughter; we held our positions on either side of the turtle just long enough for this photo.

Wide angle lenses are frequently used to make foreground animals look bigger in comparison with a person in the background - nevertheless, this was a good sized turtle.
Wide angle lenses are frequently used to make foreground animals look bigger in comparison with a person in the background – nevertheless, this was a good sized turtle.

Animals that have eyes on the sides of their heads, as turtles do, are usually herbivores that require a wider range of visibility than we do, essentially to avoid predators and it is likely they process visual information slightly differently from us. Our frontally positioned eyes prioritise depth perception which is usually a feature of predatory animals. Hanging around on either side of a turtle gives it two visual images to process which for a turtle might indicate double the trouble. Because reptiles are expressionless and have limited use of body language it is often difficult to assess when they are being disturbed until they move away. For this reason, if another snorkeler shows up, I usually move away as the new arrival will sometimes get excited by the encounter and move about too much when the appropriate mode is to just be another turtle. Alice and I keep our joint encounter brief and soon return to the beach. 

A quick picture such as this one (taken without flash) will often be enough to identify an individual at a later date.
A quick picture such as this one (taken without flash) will often be enough to identify an individual at a later date.

Green sea turtles are not especially bothered about being observed in areas where they are free from persecution, but any observation should be short in duration and not too close. Being at one with nature can be a selfish activity, and it is important to know when to move on.

Turtles have clear markings and scale shapes that aid in their identification even when individuals are observed years apart. A picture will requires other essential data if it is to be useful  – when and where the picture was taken with a brief description of the conditions. If reliable pictures could be co-ordinated in the future they might provide a better understanding of turtle movements, their lifestyles and even population numbers.

Turtles are declining so rapidly, almost any information that can be gleaned might one day prove useful, but only if it can be achieved without disturbance. On the plus side it is encouraging to think that taking a picture might hold more than simply aesthetic value and might in some small way be a future aid to conservation.

A short video on Pacific green turtles grazing algae in a tidal zone. 

N.B. Do not swim close to rocks in rough surf, snorkel with a partner and use buoyancy aids when necessary – even good swimmers drown. Please do not touch or follow turtles, never visit in numbers and always maintain a respectful distance in order to allow them to get on with their lives without distraction. 

HAWAII: Haleakala – Flowers Above the Clouds.

On 6th February 1982 I made my first trip to Haleakala – The Sacred House of the Sun – a dormant volcano on the beautiful island of Maui.

This might sound like a grand adventure, but anybody can do it – all that is necessary is a reliable vehicle and a head for heights, because the journey from sea level to ‘almost’ the top, can be achieved by road within a couple of hours; this may well be the fastest land ascent to 10,000 feet anywhere in the world. Only two things will catch a traveller out, the first is the sudden ear popping change in altitude, and the second – what they will find when they get there.
At the top of Haleakala the landscape is hardly a tropical paradise, but it is enchanting.
At the top of Haleakala the landscape is hardly a tropical paradise, but it is enchanting.

Once up on the lip of the crater, it is difficult to believe that you are still on a tropical island, because the landscape rapidly changes to something quite other worldly. Back in the reality of this planet Haleakala has seen perhaps ten eruptions over the last one thousand years, most recently in the late 1700s and it will certainly go off again at some time in the not too distant future.

This extraordinary environment can be interpreted in two ways – either through mythology, or by engaging science.

To the local Hawaiian people this is a sacred place created by Pele, the goddess of volcanoes who was followed here by her vengeful sister Namaka – a sea goddess. The less spiritual amongst us might question what business a sea goddess has roaming around at the top of a volcano, a place totally out of keeping with her natural habitat. If trouble was likely… which of course it was, then I’d have put my money on Pele – but never bet on what the gods will do, because they move in strange ways beyond the understanding of mere mortals. The outcome was a running battle across the crater floor with Pele finally torn apart by her sibling on the far side to the north east. 

The story ends disappointingly for supporters of  the volcano goddess, whilst a scientific explanation runs an equally dramatic course now hidden in the depths of time.

Haleakala, like so many places in Hawaii, is unique. Looking across the plug of the crater you might think that you are on another planet rather than standing near the top of the largest dormant volcano on Earth. The crater is 3,000 feet deep, two and a half miles wide, 7 miles long and takes in an area totalling about 19 square miles. Just like the other volcanos in the Hawaiian chain, this one started on the Ocean floor and over the last two million years has risen to around 10,000 feet and perhaps a little higher when erosion is taken into consideration.

The craters here are like something from another planet - Mars perhaps.
The craters here are like something from another planet – Mars perhaps.

Mark Twain described the views from up here as sublime.

Once above the clouds looking out across the crater floor, it is easy to understand how the mystical legends of Haleakala developed and not at all difficult to accept that a new wave of believers also consider this place intensely spiritual. This is great news because places with spiritual significance are more likely to get protection than those without it. It seems odd that in these more enlightened times conservation can be influenced by faith based belief systems rather than relying entirely upon the facts – but we shouldn’t knock it when worthwhile environments are getting conserved. Mystery excites our imagination, it is how our brains are wired – we are all suckers for a good story with a beginning, a middle and an end. Science on the other hand has the disadvantage of being open ended.

So there was all this interesting stuff to consider on my first day up on the volcano and what was I thinking… that this is Hawaii and I haven’t got a sweater –  I’d totally ignored what 10,000 feet above sea level can do to air temperature. I had come to film for the B.B.C. and my producer Roger Jones had made no mention of needing one, probably because he wasn’t my mother and considered that somebody doing my job should at least have a brain… but mine wasn’t working that day; as we climbed I began to see ice and snow by the side of the road and slowly it dawned on me that when I got out of the vehicle I was going to be very cold.

My wife Jen on Haleakala in 2010. Up above the clouds so high.
My wife Jen on Haleakala in 2010. Up above the clouds so high.

Once you start to climb more steeply, the ascent is rapid; at some point your ears pop, the sky goes grey for a while as you go through the clouds, and on a good day, on the other side it will be sunny with sharp light and deep contrast in the shadows. Up here the air is clean and at night there is no supplementary lighting – perfect conditions for an observatory and it is therefore no surprise to find one.

Haleakala Hight Altitude Observatory. Hawaii's first astronomical observatortry and one of the most important observing sites in the world.
Haleakala High Altitude Observatory. Hawaii’s first astronomical observatory – one of the most important observing sites in the world.

 So what’s the point of going up Haleakala for a wildlife film-maker. 

There is presently no discernible life on Mars  and this place certainly feels the way we might imagine another planet to be, but with the bonus of at least some oxygen to breathe. Look out across the crater and before you is a rolling bed of cinders for as far as the eye can see. 

This place not only has one of the oddest landscapes in the world, it also has one of the oddest plants to be found in Hawaii.  The silversword (Ahinaha) manages to survive, by living life in the slow lane and although it can’t move about like a triffid, it can grow to triffid like proportions – a fully grown plant with flowering raceme seems just too big to be living under such inhospitable conditions.

A silversword slowly increases in size growing upwards for well over twenty years and then having put all its energy into a lifetime of super slow development it goes out with with a bang, achieving one mighty glorious mass flowering – then it dies.

A Silversword in bloom 24th June 2010. I imagine that if Vincent Van Gogh had managed to get here he surely would have painted this.
24th June 2010. The Haleakala silversword (Argyroxiphium sandwicense subsp. macrocephalum) in bloom –  Everything this day seemed better than on my first visit – in particular these wonderful blooms and of course the weather. I imagine that if Vincent Van Gogh had managed to get here he surely would have painted these flowers – if you haven’t guessed already, silverswords are members of the sunflower family.

So, this is what I came to film all those years ago – one of the world’s rarest plants in flower, in one of the world’s most inhospitable places; and by the end of my first visit I was shivering so much I had to lock the camera off and run it without touching, so that my shot wouldn’t have the jitters. A wonderful opportunity, but all I could think about was getting down from the crater before I became the first person to die of hypothermia on a tropical island.

The swordlike silver leaves have evolved a dense layer of silky hairs that reflect the intense solar radiation on a day like today and provide insulation on the days like this one and provide insulation on the cold days when you have forgotten your pullover, unlike you the silversword will be fine. The hairs also slow airflow over the leaf surface and reduce water loss in this arid environment.
The swordlike silver leaves have evolved a dense layer of silky hairs that reflect intense solar radiation on days like today and provide insulation on colder days when you have forgotten your sweater, but unlike you the silversword will be fine. The hairs also slow airflow over the leaf’s surface and reduce water loss in this extreme and arid environment.

I’ve been back to the crater several times since, when thankfully it was warm and sunny and I didn’t need my ‘just in case’ sweater although I now never forget it. But here’s the bit that I like best – the one thing that no self respecting photographer will tell anybody… you can film or photograph silverswords from the car park; there aren’t huge numbers of plants, but plenty enough for pictures that will cover various stages of development, and if you can’t get it all done within 50 feet of the car, then you’re really not up to much. The most difficult part is getting low enough to avoid having bits of car or the road in shot … and missing out the tourists is tricky because well over a million visitors make their way up here every year. 

These daisy like flowers are brash and colourful - quite a surprise amongst the beautiful desolation. They are pollinated by a yellow faced bee; but sadly I don't have a good close up of the pollinator.
These daisy like flowers are brash and colourful – quite a surprise amongst the beautiful desolation. They are pollinated by the yellow-faced bee, found only in Hawaii and threatened by introduced predators. Sadly I haven’t managed a good close up of a bee yet.

I guess when you get to my age and people see you lying motionless on the floor waiting for the background to clear they think that maybe you’ve had a heart attack. The last time I was up Haleakala was a few months ago along with my wife and daughter; and a group of young men began talking about my situation. “Please let me help you up sir”. said one, “Even if you don’t want to be helped up…” Then another “I don’t know if you’re happy just lying there motionless, but please, let us help you up. We really must insist…” This was amusing, but they were far enough away for me to ignore them without seeming impolite – I affected my grumpy persona to avoid conversation and the wasting of time – you never know how long the light will hold. I’ve missed a good many shots with this insular approach… the light has gone, you get back to the parking area and don’t mind a chat. Somebody says, “Did you see that fabulous owl?” And you’re thinking, ‘Owl… what owl?’

Photographing a young silversword in the stark lighting of a sunny day up on Haleakala.
Photographing a young silversword in the stark lighting of a sunny day high on Haleakala.

The most enjoyable thing for me was the realisation that I have probably seen some of the flowering silverswords when they were just starting out in life and now I was coming back to see them at their end as they burst into flower.

The problem is, that at the time of my first visit I didn’t know that a record of the plants might be useful.  Although it had occurred to me when I was younger, that many species were already in trouble, I hadn’t naturally thought ‘take a picture, save the Planet’, and so I didn’t go for a wider reference  picture of the car park. This was an oversight as I later had no clear recollection of where plants were, their sizes, or how many. Back then the last thing on my mind was photographing the car park, and consequently I have no evidence to support my feeling that there are now fewer plants growing in this area than there once were.

Luckily my wife does see the point of taking pictures in a car park but in 2014. I'll come back when I'm 80 and check out the changes.
Luckily my wife does see the point of taking pictures of a car park but not until 2014. Now  I’ll have to come back when I’m 80 and check out how the plants are growing.

However, there may be other reasons for thinking there are now fewer plants growing.

2014 was a great year for the silverswords, they managed a mass synchronous flowering. In other years when there were only a few plants in flower it was perhaps easier to notice the smaller individuals coming on, but when large and impressive plants are doing their thing they really grab your attention.
Whatever the case, the silversword is better off now than it has been for some time. Not so long ago goats grazed here, eating anything vegetative they could find including these wonderful plants, but now there is proper control, the silverswords are making a comeback.
17th Novemeber 2014. A silversword at the end of life. Gone to seed with the promise of future life to come.
17th November 2014. A silversword at the end of life. Gone to seed with the promise of future life to come.

Trails exist away from the parking lot where other silverswords may be seen. Beyond the range of the average tourist it is possible to walk and see plants in a more natural setting, although it is important to stay on the trail.

Another member of the silversword family is Dubautia menziesii. Less impressive in form It also grows up near the crater rim. They have evolved from a rather ordinary ancestral tar weed found in California which arrived on the Hawaiian Islands some time in the distant past.
Another member of the silversword family is Dubautia menziesii. Less impressive in form it also grows near the crater rim. Both plants have evolved from a rather ordinary ancestral tar weed found in California which arrived on the Hawaiian Islands some time in the distant past.

The spiritual nature of Haleakala might also account for the longterm survival of silverswords because until modern times. In the past few people would have come here to simply wander.

Many tribal societies display belief systems that appear to the modern world little more than superstition, but there is often more to appreciate than most of us realise. In the modern world we continually walk in places where perhaps we shouldn’t, destroying the essence of a place by directly damaging fragile ecosystems.

Scientific research is essential to any conservation agenda, but there is another side to the story. Our continual erosive presence in wild places has become a problem: we believe that we have the right to roam wherever we like, often in numbers, with a total disregard to the wishes of local people. But it may be that what most of us regarded as primitive cultures, have belief systems that are more in line with the needs of the environment than our own, especially when they advocate limited access to places that have spiritual significance.

One flowering at the end of a long life of steady growth must be considered a success ending with the production of many thousands of seeds.
Flowering at the end of a long life of steady growth must be considered a success when it ends with the production of many thousands of seeds.

As outsiders we should always tread with care, especially when local people do so for reasons they can’t explain beyond extraordinary tales of the imagination. This way of thinking certainly makes good ecological sense high up on HaleakaIa, as silverswords may be damaged or die if the volcanic cinders around their roots are trampled. In a broad sense the environment here doesn’t look delicate, but in the finer details it is.

Similar myths and legends apply to other beautiful locations around the world. Many of us will visit them to fulfil personal challenges or inner needs. Often we are just tourists looking for fun. For whatever reason, our assumed levels of sophistication have masked our ability to notice the problems we are causing.

One of the great heroes of Polynesian mythology is Maui – his exploits are optimistic and culturally significant on the Island that bares his name.

A story passed down through the generations tells of an evening when the sun set too quickly – this annoyed Maui because the day had passed before all of the chores could be done, and so he hatched a plan. Aided by his brothers Maui would catch the sun in a net when it came up in the morning and refuse to let it go until an agreement had been reached for the sun to move more slowly across the sky. To everybody’s surprise Maui succeeded in his ambitious plan.
Modern day heroes of mythological proportions will cycle up the volcano. It can take 6 hours, although going down is easier... providing the brakes hold out.
Modern day heroes of mythological proportions will cycle up the volcano. It can take 6 hours. Going down is easier… providing the brakes hold out.

And so on a clear day up at the top of Haleakala, it is possible if you stand in the right place, to watch the sun come up and go down without obstruction from foreground hills, mountains or volcanos and in consequence the day becomes longer. But there is more… up here you see a more distant horizon – the sun rises earlier in the east and sets later in the west. Effectively, the higher you go, the longer the day. Polynesian mythology is closely tied to the natural world and local people may have appreciated this, and it makes perfect sense when Polynesian legend claims this place as ‘The Sacred House of the Sun’.

Remember that if you take a picture that might one day help save the planet… tread carefully… even if you don’t know exactly why you should.

For further details of the Tarweed family see:http://waynesword.palomar.edu/ww0903b.htm

For park details on the silversword:

Also, ‘Silver Swords in Bloom’:

With thanks to Dr. Roger Jones for introducing me to Haleakala.



On my first visit to Hawaii I saw a bumper sticker that I found amusing, because clearly there are no bad days in Hawaii.

Is there's another meaning to this that I didn't get on my first visited all those years ago.
Maybe there’s another meaning to this that I didn’t get when I first visited in the early 1980s.

Every day on a tropical island seems pretty much the same to an outsider;  barring the occasional storm, pleasant weather and spectacular light are the order of the day, but maybe there are more problems in paradise than most of us realise, although suggesting a luggage sticker has been designed with irony in mind might be stretching it a bit.

There are odd little things you notice. You might for example begin to wonder what’s going on when you go to hire your snorkel gear, because the second thing the sales person might try to do after fitting you up with underwater gear is to fit you up with a time share… it’s difficult to believe that anybody would waste half a day of their holiday looking at an apartment that on any level headed day outside of paradise, they’d want no part of.

But never mind that, the real disappointment is that on all the main islands there are any number of resorts where you can move from a high-rise hotel to a golf course, or a private beach and later return for a meal without ever making contact with reality. Unless you go out of your way, there’s no real need to set foot on anything that truly belongs on the Islands, whether that be a native grass, or if you’re feeling really mean… a native insect!

This is rather lovely in tourist dreamland, but it doesn't touch base with reality and at some point a visitor really should.
This is rather lovely in tourist dreamland, but it doesn’t touch base with reality and at some point a visitor really should.

As I was leaving the Hotel the girl on hotel reception said, ‘Come again when you’ve earned some more money’. At the time this seemed mercenary, but at least refreshingly honest. 

The tourist market is designed to extract money from those who have it as quickly as possible… and that’s fine, even though it often has nothing to do with supporting local economies. The real issue is, that worldwide, holiday resorts have been developed that degrade or destroy the environments around them. The justification is usually progress and providing jobs for local people, but in truth the smaller fish are often poorly paid, whilst the sharks tear into the profits and carry them away to some place offshore.

Without question, the Islands have a lot going for them – there’s sunshine,  a tropical sea, rainbows, hula, mai tai and friendly people… and perhaps a little more Hawaiian guitar on the radio than is absolutely necessary, but the real question is… where is natural Hawaii?

In a single word the answer is extinct, or close to it. Clearly it would be madness to sell a holiday destination by pointing out that Hawaii has been described as the extinction capital of the world; and the Islands are now so full of introduced species that there is confusion for tourists and residents alike as to what really belongs here.

The greenhouse frog Eleutherodactylus planirostris is one of many introduced frogs eating their way through Hawaii's native invertebrate species.
The greenhouse frog Eleutherodactylus planirostris is one of many introduced frogs eating their way through Hawaii’s native invertebrates.

The introduction of reptiles, amphibians, birds and mammals have proven to be overwhelmingly inappropriate. They have arrived in waves over the years and are partly responsible for the annihilation of many unique and extraordinary native species.

It is thought that were no amphibians or reptiles on Hawaii before the arrival of man. Certainly there were no brown anoles when I first visited – these appeared in the mid-1990s and are now so numerous in some parts of north west Maui it is difficult to walk along pavements without treading on one; they can also be seen crossing roads amongst busy traffic. The problem is, anoles will eat anything lively they can swallow and that’s bad news for small, mobile creature of Hawaiian origin.

Brown Anoles are a recent introduction and have quickly become a serious pest
Brown Anoles are a recent introduction and have quickly become a serious pest

A young man selling fruit in a local market told me that he had recently lost a pregnant Jackson’s chameleon and it was now living in a tree close by his town house; the creature probably wasn’t going to do a lot of harm there because very little native fauna has survived in the local area. On the up side, he had captured and removed the creature from a nature reserve where a large pregnant female was bound to cause problems. A chameleon is an impressive find in its native Africa, but released into the wilds of a tropical Pacific island it is just another pest – despite their visual appeal all introduced reptiles and amphibians are detrimental to Hawaiian ecosystems.

Out of town, beautiful natural areas are still be found, although many have become so degraded that native diversity is far lower than it should be, but without an intimate understanding of local wildlife, most of us wouldn’t notice.

Over the years many lowland areas have been cleared for agriculture, in some cases providing only short term financial benefits to local people. The return is hardly worth the natural wonders that have been lost, with so much replaced by attractive looking weeds and vermin, but weeds and vermin nevertheless.

Red ginger Alpinia purpurata, originally from Malaysia, is the national flower of Samoa. Confused yet? - well, there's more, the flowers of the plant are not red, they are small, white and cunningly concealed by red bracts. Most important of all, this is an invasive species of Hawaiian forests and a beautiful nuisance.
Red ginger Alpinia purpurata, originally from Malaysia, is the national flower of Samoa. Confused yet? – well, there’s more, the flowers of the plant are not red, they are white, quite small and cunningly concealed by red bracts. Most importantly, this species is invasive of Hawaiian forests. At best, it is a beautiful nuisance.

The attack on island resources started from the moment Europeans set foot on Hawaiian soil, although generations earlier Polynesian settlers also brought their fair share of devastation.

From the time of Captain Cook’s first landing on the Islands in January 1778 it was common practice for seafarers to dump goats, pigs and other livestock on remote islands considered suitable for their survival, to provide fresh meat for any future visit. Livestock, along with seeds were commonly given to native people as a gesture of good will at a time when there was no understanding of the problems caused by introduced species. Today we know better, but oddly, non-native introductions continue to plague the islands.

A recent picture of chicken wandering along delightful forest beach on Maui; eating their way through any native invertebrate they can grub up. Domestic birds have also brought alien forms of avian malaria to the islands pushing some Hawaiian birds to extinction.
A recent picture of chicken wandering along a delightful forest beach on Maui; eating their way through any native invertebrate they can grub up. Domestic birds have also brought alien forms of avian malaria,  pushing some Hawaiian birds to extinction.

The scope of discovery during Cook’s three major voyages to the Pacific region was incredible; and included not only the charting of many previously unrecorded areas, but also a huge contribution to scientific knowledge, in particular the classification of a great many plant and animal species. However, the romantic idea that explorers, particularly those following in the wake of Cook, were traveling to distant places simply to observe and then move on without interfering, is a fiction.

As much as we might admire the skills and endurance of Captain Cook’s voyages of discovery, it is difficult to ignore that between 1768 and 1779, his diligent and obsessive recording of unchartered regions of the Pacific area, would be the starting point for a wave of European plunder. 

Beyond all the record taking, early exploration of the Pacific region was largely a mixture of pillage and punch up and during one such encounter with natives on the Big Island Hawai’i, Cook lost his life. After a successful visit to Kealakekua Bay, he had been forced to return when a mast on his ship broke during a gale and relations with the local natives quickly became strained. Captain Cook met his end on February 14th 1779 during a skirmish on the beach – the incident was perhaps as a direct result of an illness, which caused Cook to exhibit increasingly erratic behaviour, compounding his intransigent dealings with an unfamiliar culture.

In Honolulu locals race canoes that have changed very little since Captain Cook's arrival on the Islands two hundred and one years before this picture was taken.
In Honolulu locals race traditional outrigger canoes that haven’t changed since Captain Cook’s death on Hawai’i two hundred and one years before this picture was taken.

Early European colonisation of Pacific Islands was centred around grabbing anything useful that nature had to offer.

The process usually started with the felling of trees; in the first instance to replace  masts and  refurbish vessels – which were justifiable activities, but it didn’t stop there. Log entries – and I’m talking books not trees – reveal that forests were regarded as resources that could be felled and  taken for profit to the other side of the world with little or no benefit to local people.

There was often such an enthusiasm to clear a location of its trees in order to plant crops, that whole forests were simply burned. Every day, somewhere in the world this is still happening – a waste that seems almost unimaginable – in the process species are disappearing before there has been a chance to record them. A situation that makes the methodical recording during Cook’s travels more than two centuries ago, all the more impressive.

An open fruit of the autograph tree Clusia rosea - very beautiful and extremely invasive,   this is now a serious pest, its sticky seeds spread by birds.
An open fruit of the autograph tree Clusia rosea – very beautiful and extremely invasive, this is now a serious pest, its sticky seeds spread by birds.

On these early voyages of discovery cameras weren’t an optional means of recording landscapes, which instead had to be painted. Plants and animals were collected and preserved but they were also rendered in watercolours by ships naturalists and artists, often with such beauty, they still have resonance today.

Although botanists were recording native plants by making beautiful pictures, they were also looking for plants that might in future become commercial crops – understandably, there was always more going on than the recording of beauty and science.

Stop overs for the collection of specimens were often selected because of a sheltered harbour, such locations were often inhabited, and the ships crew would require that ship repairs were balanced with leisure time, which usually meant fraternising with local women wherever possible. Adding to a native gene pool is one thing, but the pestilence and disease that Europeans unwittingly brought to the region was quite another. The problem extended beyond the devastation of human populations to the destruction of native cultures, in particular by missionaries who believed they had a God given mandate to change behaviours that they didn’t  like or understand. And while the Pacific Islanders were getting their cultures re-calibrated, their natural resources were also being depleted and destroyed over a very short period of time.

On the Hawaiian Islands, there has been considerable forest clearance as well as destruction of coastal wetlands to produce crops of sugar cane, pineapple, macadamia nuts, coffee and tropical fruits. What followed was the heavy use of fertilisers and the subsequent contamination of ground water and the surrounding ocean – for the most part such problems have been downplayed.

Invasive species, are then, only part of the problem… it’s nice to have something else to blame, rather than allowing the burden of guild to fall entirely on ourselves. Some might say that our species has been insensitive, even a little greedy in our dealings with the natural world… but surely, that can’t be us, can it?

The red-crested cardinal is beautiful, but it is not a native bird.
The red-crested cardinal is beautiful, but as a native of South America it does not belong here.

For a while during the 20th Century the pineapple industry flourished – at one time Hawaii supplied 70% of the world’s pineapple juice, but that didn’t last; lower labour costs elsewhere (in the Philippines for example), caused the industry to move away. The creation of jobs when a big agricultural concern  takes up residence is a short term illusion, because in the end most enterprises will gravitate towards the lowest labour costs, although in fairness the wages paid to farm-workers now in Hawaii are now more likely to be above minimum wage.

Today, only about 2% of the pineapples produced worldwide are grown in Hawaii – this reality is something of a surprise. According to an economic research group at the University of Hawaii, agriculture no longer plays a major role in the economy; a report (in 2005) stated that only 1% of Hawaii’s income and 2% of employment were derived from agriculture. 

The real Hawaii - the exceptional beauty of waterfalls and forests.
The real Hawaii – the exceptional beauty of waterfalls and forests.

About one third of the economy now relies upon tourism and with the rapid worldwide expansion of ecotourism, it would make sense to allow some lowland agricultural areas to revert to their former natural state. This might seem rather fanciful, but Hawaii could command an increasing share of the ecotourism market if it were more closely aligned to the uniqueness of its ecosystems.

An Hawaiian Honey Creeper - The Iiwi.
Startling…. This was my first impression of an I’iwi. A honeycreeper that is not yet in danger but certainly in decline. Eight others have become extinct in recent time.

For less impressionistic pictures  – Google: Images for I’iwi bird.

There is however a problem for ecotourism on the Islands.

Many people will travel to specific locations to see unusual birdlife, but sadly, of the 140 species of native birds that existed before the arrival of man, 70 are now extinct and 30 are endangered and increasingly it is difficult to find native birds in Hawaiian forests.

For details of Hawaii’s extinct birds, see: http://www.birdinghawaii.co.uk/extinctbirdarticle2.htm

There were once five species of honeyeater to be found on the Islands although recent research suggests that the birds are not, as was first thought, related to Australasian honey eaters, instead they make up a new songbird family, the Mohoidae, which is more closely related to waxwings. These are exactly the sort of birds that people would travel to see, but unfortunately the last representative of this family native to Hawaii went extinct probably sometime in the early 1980s and that really is a tragedy.

For Hawaiian Honeyeaters see: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/picture-of-the-weekhawaiian-honeyeaters-180945790/?no-ist

The way it all began - with larva flows and colonisation by plant life.
The way it all began – with larva flows and colonisation by plant life.

The decrease in Hawaii’s native diversity has worldwide consequences, because although the Islands still appear very beautiful, there are problems in the fine detail – it is rather like having a contract and ignoring the essentials in the small print – as many unique little creatures have gone missing across the Islands. It is necessary to notice this and react, because if we choose not to do so on a chain of small islands under the control of a wealthy country, where else will people be bothered enough to act.

We are morally obliged to tune in and push for a sea change in attitudes, because without it, the world will pretty soon be inhabited by little more than rats, cockroaches, starlings and us. Natural diversity is a measure of the health of our world and it needs to be maintained. 

It may not be possible to bring back natural Hawaii to the way it once was, but everybody should be aware that there is a problem because human induced extinction is unacceptable. There is a certain dignity in showing at least a little disappointment that we are increasingly the cause of species destruction and to demonstrate this, we need to move beyond the trivial. Just because the grass gets watered and is manicured well enough for a picnic, or to play golf… doesn’t mean that everything is fine – it is necessary to work towards a different level of awareness based upon the facts.

Hawaii is so beguiling - sometimes we don't notice when things are going wrong.
Hawaii is so beguiling – sometimes we don’t notice when things are going wrong.

I was fortunate to film many small plants and animals during the early part of my career, recording some for the first time in moving pictures. Today, many of these have moved a little closer to extinction, and some species may have disappeared altogether, which is disconcerting, because although the vital existence of a species shows incremental change over time, many have existed without discernible modification for millions of years and we have no right to end their tenure on Earth so abruptly.

Despite all the declines and losses, taking a photograph of an unusual plant or animals is never a waste of time, because information is the key to making necessary changes in thinking. So, if you see an unusual plant or animal, then why not take a picture, it might lead to the conservation of a natural environment and in some small way help save the Planet… or at least some of the stuff that lives upon it.



On a recent visit to Hawaii, I hardly saw any native wildlife, a stark reminder that things haven’t improved since I first came to film for the B.B.C. back in the early 1980s.


Thirty five years ago I made my first visit to Hawaii at a time when travelling to distant tropical islands from the U.K. was considered exotic. In those days, you’d emerge from a plane into the shimmering light and once down the gangway steps walk to the terminal building with the heat of the sun bouncing beneath your feet like a playful pet; and just as you were beginning to appreciate that life was all the better for being here, smiling girls in traditional dress would come out to greet you and place flower leis around your neck.

But things have changed… the sun still shines, but on more recent visits I couldn’t fail to notice that the girls were no longer present – the Honolulu Airport terminal is bigger now, reflecting that there are many more travellers coming to Hawaii and if every visitor was still receiving a traditional floral  greeting, the islands would pretty soon be clean out of flowers.

People still smile though, and the pace of life is slower than many of us are used to; pretty soon you feel relaxed because it’s difficult to find these islands anything other than enchanting, but my first couple of visits were not the magical encounters with paradise that I had imagined – mostly I was filming ten hours a day in a laboratory at the University of Hawaii.  I’d been sent by the B.B.C. to film a variety of tiny creatures and two oddities in particular – both spectacularly unusual carnivorous moth caterpillars.

Anything that has a sensory rear end that alerts to an approaching fly and then flips its front end over backwards to grab the unwitting insect in its jaws in a mere fraction of a second is a real attention grabber, but the little critters are just so small and well camouflaged, that if you didn’t know they were there, they’d might just as easily be  another twig on the tree.

Where else but in Hawaii could you find an insect so clearly associated with feeding on leaves that has switched to eating insects? And not just any insects, in this case Hawaiian fruit flies that have evolved to become spectacularly large, but nevertheless will go down twitching as they are eaten alive.

It doesn't seem likely, but there is is... a moth caterpillar Eupithecia streurophragma feeding on an Hawaiian fruit fly.
It doesn’t seem likely, but there it is… the moth caterpillar Eupithecia streurophragma feeding on an Hawaiian fruit fly.

 Hawaii is an extended chain of islands which has formed over a mid-Pacific hot spot of volcanic activity,  roughly equidistant between Eurasia and the Americas; and to get to either requires an approximate two and a half thousand mile journey either east or west across the Pacific Ocean. It was this creation of land by fire combined with a perfect storm of circumstances that allowed for the evolution of so many unique and unusual lifeforms.

These Islands might be regarded as a natural laboratory for the study of evolution, and if Charles Darwin had landed here rather than on the Galapagos Islands he would have come to similar conclusions about how species evolve when  separated from their relatives on distant mainlands, and even from those isolated on different islands… but Darwin would have needed to be paying attention (clearly one of his strengths), because many of the animals concerned are small invertebrates, such as spiders, insects, crustaceans and molluscs.

Certainly limited numbers of creatures would have made it to the islands to start the evolutionary ball rolling and no large animals were amongst them – other than those that could  swim here – turtles for example, and they never get further than the beach. Consequently no native reptiles, amphibians or mammals ever made it to the islands until their arrival alongside man, either as stowaways or transported intentionally, with frequently disastrous consequences to the native flora and fauna.

Small arthropods such as insects, spiders and crustaceans will most likely have arrived on floating vegetation, the lucky winners hitting this narrow window of opportunity, whilst the majority missed the jackpot and drifted on across the world’s largest ocean to become lost at sea.

The initial arrivals had the advantage of making landfall on uninhabited islands which provided a variety of empty niches ready to move into – and those that managed to adapt to their new circumstances would have radiated out into different habitats to eventually form species that were unique.

The Hawaiian Islands were at one time or other no more than volcanic larva flows and it is no surprise that the wolf spider Lycosa has evolved adaptive colouration to live in what might elsewhere be considered unusual surroundings, in particular larva cinders in desert areas.

The habitats available for life in Hawaii were varied, and included not only forest, grass and wetlands, but also larvae flows, deserts, beaches and caves – all of these would become populated by invertebrates; there is even an small creature (the wekiu bug) that lives at altitude, sucking the juices of insects that have been caught up and preserved in snow and ice to be released many years later as frozen dinners along the thaw line of Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano and the highest point in Hawaii.

A cricket that appears so well camouflaged on larva flow I could just as easily have photographed only the larva flow and then tell you it was there.
A cricket that appears so well camouflaged on larva flow that I could just as easily have photographed only the larva flow and just pretended it was there.

One species peculiar to the Islands is the happy-face spider, which derives its name from an apparently smiling face on the upper side of its abdomen; this tiny spider mostly lives and hunts on the underside of leaves and despite its size is visuality impressive.

The morph shown below is the one most commonly seen, but there are a variety of others that have extraordinary clown faces on their rear ends and you might want to Google  ‘ happy face spider images’ to see more impressive examples. The spiders have made it onto four Hawaiian islands but are not yet on Lanai, nor have they managed to get as far west as Kauai.

I had a couple of happy face spiders to film, but since I photographed them many more extraordinary faces have been captured by by photographers. Just Google Happy Face Spider to see some extraordinary morphs.
In 1980 I had only a couple of happy-face spiders to film – the disappointment was their small size, which made filming their behaviour a challenge.

It appears that almost everything that arrived in Hawaii evolved into  something special… but then man arrived and the party was over, which is a sad but familiar story!

The islands by dint of their remoteness have undergone extraordinary speciation in the absence of too many predators or competitors, but once these were brought in from elsewhere, many native species were immediately threatened. Indigenous plants and animals have become well adapted to their circumstances but they have not evolved appropriate defences against the onslaught of the new invaders. And so it was, that species in existence for millions of years, were snuffed out by the newcomers like candles in the wind.

Many of the new arrivals were so closely associated with man and his agriculture that with the additional advantage of a perfect climate they thrived in their own little paradises within paradise – and from there ventured out to invade other places on the Islands.

The first aliens will have come in with the Polynesians between 300 and 500 A.D. Then the Europeans showed up; it is possible that the Spanish arrived a couple of hundred years before Captain Cook made landfall in 1778, but it is Cook that we remember because he claimed the Islands as British territory, which now counts for little more than the hoisting of an interesting union flag colonial combo.

Flags are not traditionally Polynesian; these two flutter beneath an Hawaiian sky as a reminder of the transient nature of colonialism.
Flags are not traditionally Polynesian; these two flutter beneath an Hawaiian sky – a reminder of the transient nature of colonialism.

The islands were named after Cook’s sponsor, the 4th Earl of Sandwich – the very same Earl who found himself disinclined to leave a gambling table and suggested to staff that they bring him food conveniently held between two pieces of bread… the rest of course is history… as is the case for the naming of the Sandwich Islands which later reverted to their more appropriate Polynesian name – or at least a close approximation to it.

Colonisation would be instrumental in the devastation of many indigenous species causing the rapid degradation and destruction of habitats; this combined with alien introductions became the driving force for many island extinctions.

It was decided that I would film snails to illustrate the troubles caused by introduced species and I was pleased to be filming at least some of them out of doors. There are many valid reasons for filming animals in their natural environments, but invertebrates are often the exception, usually their behaviour is not much affected as long as their living conditions are adequately simulated.

Prior to the early 1980s film stocks were limiting and a lot of light was required to capture the activity of any small creature in movies. This was just before cold light using fibre optics became widely available, and I had to devise my own water cooling system bolted to the front of lights which required a constant flow of cold water to substantially reduce temperatures. In the years to come I would replace my cumbersome system with cool fibre optic lights; this was really helpful because invertebrates can’t cope with excessive heat, but rarely are they bothered by extra light, and for the best results good lighting was essential.

Filming in the lab (way back when) with Steve Montgomery (right). We are checking that the carnivorous caterpillars are happy under my water cooled lighting system - a year later I had the benefit of fibre optic lights.
Filming in the lab (way back when) with Steve Montgomery (right). We are checking that the carnivorous caterpillars are happy under my water cooled lighting system – not long after, cool fibre optic lighting became available.

There is also a moral question as to whether this is truly wildlife photography, but imagine carting all of this gear into the big outdoors to capture perhaps fifty different creatures in various locations across the islands – setting up on steep slopes for example – because hardly any fertile natural environments have escaped cultivation on the flat – and then there are the cave habitats which are a nightmare to get equipment into. Time and budget constraints required everything to be done in a few weeks (and today these constraints are even tighter). There was then little option other than to bring many of the smaller creatures to one place in order to get the job done.

Taking a still flash photo on location is one thing, but filming the very tiny with plenty of light without any vibration has always been a wind up, and there is the additional problem that when visiting delicate environments trampling has to be avoided, along with the possibility of losing invasive species to the wild. Back then, despite all the disadvantages that the real world presented to macro-photography, I still had to establish some environments on wider lenses and in the process was determined to film at least some of the native snails in the big outdoors.

I was once embarrassed to lose a large tortoise whilst filming in Africa – it made off (across its natural habitat) when I left for a short while to fetch a lens – I had assumed that it wouldn’t get too far, but of course, tortoises run at breakneck speeds when you stop watching them.

I learnt a valuable lesson… but even at my most inattentive, I thought it unlikely that I could misplace a snail, not even a well camouflaged individual, but the truth is, it’s easy to lose sight of almost any snail by simply looking away… and given half a chance they’ll dash off and hide under a leaf when you do. Living in a small world – your perspective on life changes and when you’re not worrying about snails rushing off to hide, you’re worrying about the fact that some move so slowly they won’t register as moving at all in real time. But of course, things could have been worse… ants are always in such a rush, so it was great to discover that there are thought to be no native ants living on the Islands at all.

There are more than 40 species of  endemic tree snails living on the Hawaiian Islands and all are endangered - this one seems hardly to have managed to have held on to a protective shell at all.
There was once around a hundred species of tree snails in Hawaii and now only about a quarter remain – most of which are endangered – and this one seems hardly to have held on to a protective shell at all.

Until recently Hawaii held the most diverse representation of land snails anywhere in the world, but since the arrival of humans it is likely that around 75% have become extinct. Habitat loss will have played a part, but many have been eaten out by introduced predators, in particular predatory snails.

After the African land snail Achatina fulica was introduced – it’s a monster and ends up elsewhere either as a food source or as a pet – it soon became clear that the newcomer was munching its way through the Hawaiian natives, and so another predator was introduced from Florida – the rosy wolfsnail (Euglandina rosea)  to control it – and there wouldn’t be much of a story unless the new arrival had set about the native snails even more ferociously than the problem snail it had been brought in to eliminate, which of course it did, reducing native species even further, and pushing some to extinction… This was without doubt a ‘doh!’ of Homer Simpson proportions.

It is clear that when humans get environmental issues wrong, they make a really great job of it, and often eliminate species that have evolved to become spectacularly different from anything else on the Planet. The problem is, that when this happens to invertebrates… hardly anybody notices.

A native Hawain tree Snail (below) does the dance of death with an introduced predatory species - Achatina fulica which predates upon unfortunate natives.
A native Hawaiian tree Snail (below) does the dance of death with an introduced species – the rosy wolf snail Euglandina rosea which predates upon the unfortunate natives.

 It is the larger cuter animals that usually grab our attention, but when it comes to extinction we need to consider the smaller things in life, because if we include them, the losses that are presently occurring on a worldwide scale indicate that we may be entering a mass extinction event. Long term, this makes no difference to the Planet, but species diversity remains the best measure of the prevailing conditions for life on Earth and that is an important consideration for all of us.

Our own well being can be gauged by what is disappearing around us, and it is possible that any who travel might at one time or another hit the jackpot, and take a picture of some small creature that is unknown to science. Seeing the bigger picture means looking out for the small stuff, which is one of the best ways to save the Planet… or more precisely… the life upon it.


Roger Jones supporting Steve Montgomery (with the net) collecting specimens for filming in 1980.
Roger Jones supporting Steve Montgomery (with the net) collecting specimens for filming in Hawaii -1980.

With thanks to former BBC Natural history producers Richard Brock and Roger Jones who gave me my first opportunity to film the natural history of Hawaii, Ken Kaneshiro for fruit flies and lab space, Frank Howarth for his cave critters and Steve Montgomery who collected many of the specimens for filming; he has been foremost in discovering many new species on the Hawaiian Islands and continues to do great work bringing the uniqueness of island biodiversity to the rest of us.

For more on Hawaiian extinction see: 


For details on Hawaiian tree snail and other species see:


and for a more detailed description of Hawiian snail status from 1990  (please note that numbers have declined since this paper was published):