Swimming with Florida’s manatee (dugong)

It’s satisfying ticking off a bucket list item: swimming with manatee – tick.

With two Florida locals, and three from Mexico, I cruise some Florida canals looking for a 600-kg creature (1322.77 lb). Sirenia are large marine herbivores and are also called sea cows, manatee, dugong and for sailors, mermaids.  It’s not the right season, but a few are permanent residents. We are looking for a fat needle in a large, watery haystack.

The canals are beautiful with expensive real estate and living at the water’s edge are a few ordinary working folks among the rich and famous including John Travolta who has a holiday home here.

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge looks after this part of Kings Bay and many locals object to their speed, and other, restrictions. DJ, our young Captain, calls out to a young guy in a hire boat to slow down, to obey the speed limit – he did, but maybe just until we were out of sight.

Manatees, which lack blubber which allows whales tolerate the cold, have a near-perfect winter refuge here as many of the springs produce large quantities of warm (22 c) water.  We’re told that the locals in this de-facto manatee capital of the USA can, from November to March, walk out their doors and see dozens of them swimming or sleeping in the canals.

We pass a boat, with its passengers in the water watching this relative of elephants, but DJ moves on and later, just when I decide my bucket list will not be ticked today, we find a manatee floating on the water like a great grey blimp beside a private jetty.

I’m so excited. The only other manatee I’d seen was in a Disney park many years ago – wildlife in the wild is always different!

“She’s due to pop” our skipper says. It seems no-one has ever seen a birth and a local university has offered $US10, 000 for a video of the event. I immediately check my camera’s video setting, wriggle into a wet suit, then with mask and snorkel on, slip off the back of the boat.

For some reason the water’s very dark at this time of the year which suits the manatee as they can sink and be out of sight quickly.

Keeping well back from this pregnant cow I’m thrilled to be in the water with her. We’d learnt they needed warmth from the sun and her back was out of the water catching sun rays.

Although only a few feet away, the murky water made her hard to see clearly. I just float and admire her while sending mental ‘I love you’, and ‘we won’t hurt you’ messages. We stay in the water for about ten minutes and she’s motionless the whole time. As we get back into the boat she glides slowly into the middle of the canal and I miss her lifting her nostrils to breathe before sinking.

Our boat moves away slowly, heading for the Three Sisters Springs where, in season, photos are taken of the manatees resting in the clear, warm water. It was photos such as them that had put the manatee on my to-experience bucket list.

Once again we slide off the back of the boat, swim past two cruise boats moored between us and the entrance to the springs, then past the barrier that stops boats entering. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop canoes and kayaks and I keep to the edge as many of the boats seem to have passengers who have little control over their direction.

The water is much clearer here and I see how easy it would be to watch them underwater: a reminder that bucket lists sometimes need to be time specific.

Touching protected wild animals, as our captain had suggested we could (none of us did) would never be allowed in many countries, and it’s this ‘swim with manatee’ activity that has conservationists, boaters, some residents, politicians and tour operators arguing over the future of the area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversee all wildlife refuge areas and, manage the manatee population too.

In the video shown before we boarded, we were told ‘don’t disturb resting manatees; don’t block them when they are leaving the roped-off areas (where people are forbidden) and don’t touch.’

Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, believes the situation at Crystal River is harassment of the manatees, and is “in direct violation of both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.” He advocates stricter rules including requiring swimmers to “stop a body length away from manatees” so they are free to interact, or not, with people. “The majority of the dive shops are trying to do a good job” Rose says, and “If they want to be responsible and protect the privilege they have, which is so unique, then fine. If not, the swim-with program should go.”

Some years ago, in Florida, I’d bought a Wyland (marine artist) print of a manatee and baby and now I’ve seen one – without a baby, so no ten thousand dollars for me.  With its fat, flat, wrinkled face and sensory whiskers, the manatee looks rather like an overweight dolphin or small whale despite not being related to either.

Vulnerable to extinction, the population in this state is under 5000 and it seems that without stronger conservation efforts, these gentle creatures will be consigned to legend status along with the mermaids.

Like New Zealand’s flightless birds, the manatee evolved in an environment with abundant food and no predators.  Now vulnerable, its survival depends on locals and tourists being willing to share its home. If you are travelling in Florida, November is Manatee Awareness month and when you are most likely to see them.

 

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Buying artwork in Xiamen, China.

Fancy some good artwork on your walls? Van Gogh perhaps, or a Rembrandt? Can’t afford it? Oh yes, you can buy artwork in Xiamen!

It seems many people can buy, not the originals, but copies made by talented artists and which are sold around the world. They hang in private homes, hotels, motels and conference centres and it seems most are painted and sold in Xiamen, Fujian province, China.

I visit the Xiamen oil painting ‘village’ (within the city) which has evidently been named one of, if not the top, centres of the world’s oil painting areas: most of these paintings are exported to America and Europe.

Some 5000 artists (mostly graduates from Art Schools) produce the paintings and it appeared that each had their own specialities. Many will paint your family or home from a photograph to your specification or styles.

After sheltering from a monsoon type downpour I later wandered around the streets full of little shops selling completed canvases, paint brushes, frames, and other art paraphernalia.

Needless to say I too bought an “original” artwork – not Mona Lisa or Chairman Mao, but a bright green frog with four shopping bags. I asked the artist where he got the idea from. He responded “Look up Google”.

a frog goes shopping

I have done as he suggested and the closest I can find were on UK, reusable shopping bags: my frog is a boy, the bags were of naked frogs or frogs in dresses. Perhaps this is how they get around the original artist’s copyright, by making small changes.

My quirky green frog takes pride of place on my wall and he always gets favourable comments about his cuteness – not what people expect to see as a souvenir from China. (of course I have other more Asia-obvious things too)

My next blog (s) will be about the Jimei university’s JMU Fine Art College and the artist in the  Duishan Art District. Now take a walk with me through the village … all these photos were taken on my phone.

Bachelor Boys at Orana Park. The world’s largest primates, gorillas

Orana Wildlife Park is New Zealand’s only open range zoo and as soon as I arrived I went to see ‘the boys’ – my main reason for visiting the park yet again. I have been visiting this park for many years, in fact my brother, Roger, helped with fundraising to get the park started. Some years after it started my father had to apologise for his lack of trust in the success of the project and he too loved visiting.

‘The boys’, as they are affectionately called, are three of the world’s largest primates, and Orana park is part of the international zoo based breeding program for Western Lowland gorillas: their role now is to house three of these critically endangered species. These bachelor boys are :Fataki, the silverback and half-brothers Fuzu and Mahali. (Fataki is a half-brother to Mahali too).

orana 2016-02-05 10.44.22They’re housed in the $6M Great Ape Centre – Orana’s most   ambitious project ever was completed in June 2015 just before the gorillas arrived. The habitat enables Orana to hold two species of critically endangered great apes (in separate habitats within the one complex) and the endangered Sumatran orang-utans will hopefully be transferred to Orana during 2016 – when I will return to Christchurch. Add it to your ‘bucket-list’ too.

Raising awareness on the plight of gorillas and orangutan is also a huge page of the park’s role although in the future Orana Wildlife Park hopefully may receive a breeding recommendation.

As you will possibly know threats to gorillas are primarily driven by lifestyle choices such as habitat loss due to coltan mining for electronic devices. Orana Wildlife Park has partnered with Re:Mobile, a New Zealand firm that recycles and re-markets mobile phones, reducing the demand for new handsets and the associated environmental impacts.

So, take any old mobile phone to the park when visiting and put it in the collection box so you too can help.

Orana, a registered charity, is a not-for-profit organisation, and raises 100% of funds for each new development and generating the required funds for the Great Ape Centre was a huge effort by them – well done to you all. See their website to see how you can help as a volunteer, adopt an animal, or donate.

I have more blogs to come about my recent day at Orana Park, but for now for some of my gorilla photos:

Keep up to date with the park and its inhabitants on Facebook … here is the boys shopping list.

Shopping list for vegetarians
Shopping list for vegetarians

NOTE: Many of the endangered animals at the Park do not belong to Orana Wildlife Trust but to the relevant breeding programme which makes decisions about which females are best bred with which males to ensure the most diverse gene pool possible in these captive populations. From time to time animals are moved between various zoos and parks to enhance the genetic diversity of their particular species.

*See recent posts about the quakes – an elephant in the room and one about Christchurch as it is.

See heuse IMG_6616re for more of their conservation activities

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Wildlife Sanctuary – near Melbourne, Australia

Many thanks to Grayline for hosting me on this fun day trip which included the Puffing Billy trip (see  an earlier blog) food, wine and chocolate. It also had stop at Healesville Sanctuary  which is part of  Zoos Victoria and we arrived just in time for the bird show.

I think the best way to introduce you to this sanctuary is to give you a slideshow about some of my time there  … naturally being there in the flesh is way better and I hope this encourages you to pack a picnic lunch and go, or do as I did and go on a day tour with Grayline.

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Let have another look at that bird that hit my camera, which hit me and created a huge lump and cut in my eyebrow – seemed it didn’t like the close up i wanted to take! I don’t know what part hit me, maybe the straps hanging from his legs, his body or wing, but whatever it was, it was an unexpected and hard wallop!

Travel writers – just going that extra length to get a story huh!

A second before it collides with me!
A second before Australia’s biggest raptor collides with me! See the mean look it has!

A taste of blogs to come (Australia)

Just got home at midnight last night: but here are a few photos from my first day in Melbourne, Australia to give you a taste – these are from a  great day tour which included food, wine, wildlife, and a Puffing Billy!

I did this tour with Grayline and for more about this day tour and my other activities during the past 3 weeks make sure you sign up to get my blogs by email (top right hand corner of this page) and/or follow me on FaceBook, Pinterest, Instagram etc – get the links off my website www.kiwitravelwriter.com)

Mista: from under a bridge to apartment living

Mista, (March 2008 – November 2014) was born under a bridge in Kaiapoi (near Christchurch, NZ). Cats Protection League  took his mother and siblings in, and it was from there that I adopted him. You can see why he was registered as ‘chocolate’ in colour.

He was pretty wild and fearful when, at about 5 weeks old,  I took him to live in my 3rd floor inner-city Christchurch apartment – on quiet street.

In 2010 the quakes scared him, and when he was about two and half,  we moved to Wellington – a couple of months after the 7.1 quake – but not because of it.

We drove up the South Island’s picturesque east coast  then got the Interislander ferry. Mista was fine for all the trip,  just sat on the seat beside me, and we moved into another inner city apartment: two months later a new apartment began to be built beside us.

Mista continues: “Mum and I had huge adrenaline surges with the pile driving … we thought it was another quake!  We got used to it.  Our new apartment has more things and people to watch and  from four levels high, I became the neighborhood-watch-cat in the funky cuba quarter of New Zealand’s capital city. Although Mum traveled more than I thought she should, I’ve had a some great women come and look after me.”

Darn my travel writing mum is off again
Darn my travel writing mum is off again

Mista died unexpectedly and very quickly on Friday 7th November and has 3 ti kouka trees to mark his grave.

As a Christchurch writer said of  Mista my on Facebook page, “From under a bridge to the life of Riley”. Yes indeed  – I even imported a kitty toilet training seat for him to learn to use the people toilet.

Thanks for the great company Mista.

India is much more than slums: Gujarat is one of my fav spots

Chaos, slums, beggars, pollution and poverty: India is so much more than this and I recommend you put one of the least visited states, Gujarat, onto your must-see bucket list.

Birthplace of Mahatma Gandhi, a long coastline, this largely vegetarian area is astonishingly varied with huge cities, national parks, bird sanctuaries, majestic monuments, and temples – as well as locals who are extremely welcoming to travellers.

 

Ahmedabad (founded in 1411) is the largest city and has some of India’s finest Hindu and Jain temples along with Islamic monuments. The guided heritage tour of the ancient walled city is a necessity to appreciate the old ethnic diversity of the area. Up and down narrow streets we walk, into even narrower lanes and through secret passages these few hours flew by – some of us repeated the tour days later we loved it so much. The volunteers who are the guides are charming and informative – but keep your eye on where they are – turn the wrong corner and you will be lost! When your expedition is over, stay in Manek Chowk to explore the market and taste the food – then jump on a tuk-tuk and leave him to find the way back to your accommodation or next sightseeing destination and adventure.

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This huge bustling city is a good base for day trips to explore nearby temples, step-wells and even birding areas: Gujarat has some 40% of India’s bird species and with large numbers of migratory birds also, it’s an excellent venue for bird watchers.

Known for their slow but steady success in protecting the last surviving Asiatic Lions in the wild, Gir National Park is a popular destination. There are some 350 lions now compared to the 20 when the park, their only home, created 100 years ago, and with a reliable water supply, it is also home to many other creatures – this is worth more than one days worth!

Interestingly, the Sasan Gir area, in the south of the state, is also home to village of African migrants who have lived there for generations. As well as living alongside, and in harmony with, the lions and leopards of Gir, they perform wonderfully energetic, traditional dances. People come from all over India to offer their prayers to the Peer (priest) who I understand is contacted through the gymnastic-like Dhamal dance.

 

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One of my favourite areas was a corner of the 5-thousand square km area known as the Little Rann of Kutch, home to the beautiful and endangered Indian Wild Ass (Ghudkhur) of which there are only some 2000. Few other animals can survive this harsh environment, although, as these desert salt flats flood to a depth of a metre every monsoon, it’s also home for over 350 species of birds, and where I saw the rare, and shy, McQueen’s Bustard.

Also endangered, in different ways, are the families who live in this arid setting, eking a subsistence living from harvesting salt for eight-months each year. My small donation for their hospitality seemed meagre despite being told it was appropriate, and enough for a ‘big bag of dhal” according to my guide. Next time I will take a gift of jandals (flip-flops) and milk too. I visited two families on different safaris and was charmed by their friendliness, and their willingness to share stories of generations of being salt-workers. (Agariyas)

The salt is produced by pumping, with small pumps, the underground brine up about 14 metres: it then takes four months to crystallise, a harvesting technique unchanged in centuries.

In their shack, right beside the pump, lives an inter-generational family who serve me tea in the old Indian way, on a saucer.

“Because we work in the saltpans, our feet become septic and they absorb the salt. Nobody lives more than 50 or 60 years,” a grandfather tells me – through my guide.

Locked into a religious and cast system that seems impossible to move out of, he sees no way for his family to escape the cycle of poverty and poor health. Despite the low wages and appalling conditions, they will continue to leave the villages on the edge of the desert to labour all day for eight-months each year.

women of the salt plains gujarat

The history of Gujarat goes back to the times of the Indus Valley Civilisation in 2500BC and the culture, architecture, food and history have amalgamated to create an exciting region.

India is a land of contrasts and colour, of culture, festivals and seductive cuisine and Gujarat has it all: I recommend making a list of places or types of things you want to see, contact a local tour company and ask them to create an itinerary from that list, or make recommendations, and for ease of travel, supply a car and driver for much of your trip.

A must-do is the free walking tour of Ahmedabad and see my posts – search Gujarat on right 

NOTE: For my Gujarat travel arrangements I used J.N.Rao Tours, Ahmedabad.

Tip – to say Ahmedabad – sound it out like this “arm dar bad”

Recommended places for bird watchers

  • Khijadiya
  • Porbander Bird Sanctuary
  • Thol Sanctuary
  • Little Rann of Kutch
  • Sasan Gir

web dont hunt kill keep web

  • Turtles Galore … my bucket-list item achieved in Sarawak, Malaysia!

    Sarawak’s first marine national park, Talang-Satang was established with the primary aim of conserving Sarawak’s marine turtle population. The park includes the coastline and sea around four islands in southwest Sarawak: this area has 95% of all turtle landings in Sarawak.  I’m thrilled to stay overnight on two of them. One turtle arrived on the first island, ten on this one,  Talang-Talang.

    I arrive on Talang Talang - photo by Gustino
    I arrive on Talang Talang – photo by Gustino Basuan Sarawak Tourism Board

    Marine turtles are amongst the world’s longest-lived creatures, but only about one in one thousand eggs grow to maturity about 30 to 50 years old!

    Ten turtles arrive overnight and I watch as they laboriously dig the holes for the nest, lay about 80 eggs, cover them up and go back to sea. We then see the forestry staff carefully dig them up, record the details,  and rebury them safe from predators.

    I hope some of the sixty hatched eggs (that had been buried safely about 45 days earlier)  that I was privilege to count into the release bucket, are among those very low odds and return to this island to complete the process.

    My photos tell the story. (There are no overnight photos for 2 reasons – one, I wanted to just enjoy the experience and two, it’s hard to photograph at night with no flash allowed!)

     

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    A turtle may lay 10,000 eggs in her lifetime, but once they reach the sea, as few as 10 hatchlings will survive to reach maturity. Some don’t even get to the sea … ghost crabs and birds are always waiting for a meal to appear.

    The Sarawak Forestry has conservation programmes at which volunteers can help (holidays with a purpose) : the eggs are either removed from nests and placed in guarded hatcheries, or left in place and guarded round the clock by Sarawak Forestry wardens. After 40 to 60 days incubation, young hatchlings are released at night to reduce losses from predators.

    Please note: The Sarawak Sea Turtle Volunteer Programme is not suitable for everyone. Accommodation facilities are basic and everyone is expected to help with cooking and cleaning-up. Volunteers join a team of dedicated conservation experts whose mission is to monitor every turtle landing on the island and so help to preserve Sarawak’s natural heritage. Volunteers can expect a rewarding ‘Back to Nature’ experience but should bear in mind that the programme is not a beach holiday.

    More Info http://www.sarawakforestry.com/htm/snp-np-satang.html 

    And here is a not very good video of ‘our turtle’ being released 

     

    Reef-balls similar to this protect the sea from nets and dredging. Great!
    Reef-balls similar to this protect the sea from nets and dredging. Great!