Archive for the ‘Trip update’ Category

Martin Luther King and the mangroves

June 17th, 2009

Ansil Saunders, a bonefishing guide for 50 years and the builder of beautiful wooden boats, is in no doubt about the value of mangroves to small island communities like Bimini. I caught up with Ansil in his boatshed on North Bimini. He had one skiff at the skeletal stage and one that was finished, awaiting a buyer (a steal at $40,000). The hull of the finished boat was lacquered a deep-sea blue, while much of the interior was an intensely grained blood-red-and-blond timber called horseflesh, or Bahamas mahogany, varnished to a deep sheen. Picking up a big timber “knee” that had been shaped into a bow stem, Ansil remarked: “The hardest timber comes from trees that have faced the strongest winds.”

Ansil Saunders with one of the skiffs he has built.

KENNEDY WARNE
Ansil Saunders with one of the skiffs he has built.


A big fan pushed cool air around the shed as Ansil spoke of his love of the sea and respect for its saltwater forests. “We had a hurricane come across North Bimini—Hurricane Wilma. It was not much more than 100 mph, so it was a light hurricane by the time it reached us. But it threw boulders out of the sea and into people’s houses. I went down to the Sunshine Inn and the waves had split that hotel in half. The hurricane took that hotel and knocked its walls down. Then that hurricane went around South Bimini and ran into the mangroves, and it didn’t do one iota of damage to houses behind the mangroves. Those mangroves tamed the waves right down.”

In Grand Bahama, where there are fewer mangroves, Wilma destroyed homes and raised the dead, Ansil said. “Coffins floated right out of the cemetery.”

The hurricane showed what happens with and without mangroves. “They’re not there by accident,” Ansil concluded. “They’re part of God’s creation to hold the land together. They save our boats, they save our land, and even when the water floods them they still do their job.”

He praised the mangroves’ role as marine nurseries, too. “We don’t even know what all kind of fish spawn here and go right out on the tide,” he said. “Conch [larvae] float out north, south, east, west as far as 20 miles away.”

Then he told me something unexpected about the Bimini mangroves. On two occasions he had taken Dr Martin Luther King Jr into the mangroves of North Bimini to think and write. The first occasion, 1964, King was working on his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. Ansil said he took him to a lagoon in the mangroves (a spot I later visited) and the two of them sat there, filled with the serenity of the place.

The channel where Ansil Saunders took Martin Luther King to think and write.

KENNEDY WARNE
The channel where Ansil Saunders took Martin Luther King to think and write.


At one part in his speech, King wrote, “I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him. I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.” I wonder if that thought came to him while he sat in Ansil’s skiff in the mangroves.

Four years later, a very different King asked Ansil Saunders to take him back to that mangrove lagoon. Whereas in ’64 King had been jovial and hopeful, in ’68 he looked like a man facing a death sentence. He sought the mangrove tranquility to get his thoughts together for a speech he would deliver to striking sanitation workers in Memphis.

In that speech, he linked his own weariness to that of his people. “We are tired of smothering in an air-tight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society. We are tired of walking up the streets in search for jobs that do not exist. We are tired of working our hands off and labouring every day and not even making a wage adequate with daily basic necessities of life. We are tired of our men being emasculated, so that our wives and our daughters have to go out and work in the white ladies’ kitchens, cleaning up, unable to be with our children, to give them the time and the attention that they need. We are tired.”

Three days later King was assassinated. The memory was still fresh in Ansil’s mind, and it moved me to hear him describe it. He was wearing an Obama ’08 baseball cap. I was glad this 76-year-old Biminite had lived to see a day that showed that King’s work was not in vain.

Battling for Bimini

June 16th, 2009

Young lemon sharks use mangroves as a nursery area.

MATTHEW POTENSKI
Young lemon sharks use mangroves as a nursery area.

Photographer Matt Potenski from the Bimini shark lab and I are snorkeling among the mangrove roots in the Duckpond, an embayment a short boat ride from the lab. The prop roots of red mangroves (the primary species here) form cloisters and grottoes through which fish glide like birds through a woodland. In a place like this you can understand how effective mangroves are as a nursery area. Fish simply melt into the forest.

The roots themselves are thickly encrusted with brick red fire sponge and other filter-feeders. Clusters of mangrove oyster grow at low-tide level. Many roots are not attached to the seabed, and bob and sway gently in the current, as if the mangroves were dangling their toes in the tide.

On the seagrass beds beside the mangroves are hundreds of upside-down jellyfish of the genus Cassiopea—a type of jellyfish which appears to wish it were a sea anemone, because it lies on its “back” (the bell) with its frilly tentacles pointing upwards.

The red mangrove's labyrinth of roots makes it an ideal fish refuge.

MATTHEW POTENSKI
The red mangrove's labyrinth of roots makes it an ideal fish refuge.


In some areas the seabed has been turned into volcanoes of sand, each about the diameter of a football. These mini-Vesuviuses are the excavations of a tubeworm which burrows deep into the substrate. The lab manager told me that if you’re really quick with a shovel you can dig up the worm, but usually it retreats to the bottom of its tunnel quicker than the shovel can dig. I figure I don’t need to see a worm badly enough to destroy its home.

Clearly, though, another shovel operator doesn’t share this sentiment. In the middle of the Duckpond a digger and a front-end loader are hard at work building a causeway across the water. They are about two-thirds of the way across. Matt is flabbergasted. Despite the fact that Bimini has been a battleground between developers and conservationists for years, the impression I’ve been getting from Sharklab staff is that progress is being made. At the beginning of this year a marine reserve was declared on the eastern side of the island, which will safeguard a large area of mangroves from a developer’s dreams. Now, almost within earshot of the lab, someone is playing fast and loose with heavy machinery.

Reclamation in the Duckpond threatens mangroves and seagrass with changes in hydrology and smothering by sediment.

MATTHEW POTENSKI
Reclamation in the Duckpond threatens mangroves and seagrass with changes in hydrology and smothering by sediment.


The outgoing tide is picking up speed and carrying a plume of sediment from the earthworks out into the lagoon. Where we were following fish through the mangrove labyrinth 30 minutes earlier, now we can’t see a thing.

In the afternoon we take a boat trip through mangrove areas in North Bimini. (Bimini has two halves, North and South. The town and the largest resort are on North Bimini; the lab is on South Bimini.) Some of these mangroves were slated for a golf course for the Bimini Bay Resort, an upscale behemoth that in its original incarnation would have brought 6000 visitors to an island with a population of 1600. The establishment of the marine reserve may have taken the golf course out of the equation, but most of the mangroves we’re passing do not enjoy reserve protection, so are still “in play” as far as development options are concerned.

Grant Johnson among the mangroves of North Bimini.

KENNEDY WARNE
Grant Johnson among the mangroves of North Bimini.


We pass a smart launch on the outer coast, but mostly we are alone in the mangrove channels. From the bow of the skiff I see barracuda and spotted rays, jacks and conch, the shellfish which is a Bimini delicacy, and whose empty shells are a universal landscape feature. A green turtle speeds away from the boat, launching itself out of the water with a splash before diving into the shadows.

At dusk we idle past the manmade islands and marinas of Bimini Bay Resort. On board is a former Sharklab manager, Grant Johnson, who was in the front line of protest against the resort earlier in the decade. For him, it was the scale and inappropriateness of the project as much as its destructive impact on habitat that was offensive. “I found it borderline racist that the developer wanted to turn Bimini in Florida’s playground,” he says. “This is somebody’s home we’re talking about, not a desert island. The attitude was if the land’s not high enough, make it higher, it there’s water where land should be, reclaim it, if there’s land where water should be, dredge it.”

Bimini Bay Resort, Bimini's elephant in the room.

KENNEDY WARNE
Bimini Bay Resort, Bimini's elephant in the room.


We pass a dyke meant to confine sediment from an area of current construction. The high tide is lapping over the top. Grant shakes his head, as if to say “Can’t these guys do anything right?” Bimini is far from the Bahamas’ central government in Nassau, and there’s still a frontier flavour to the place—the very spirit that attracted Hemingway in the 1930s. Grant would like that frontier to be a nature one—see the sharks, swim with the dolphins, kayak through the unspoiled mangroves. If you’re lucky, spot a Bimini boa or a sawfish.

I notice that he has the word “Hope” tattooed on his arm. That’s the operative word for the mangrove-lovers of Bimini.

Tagging lemons

June 15th, 2009

Two hours after I arrive in Bimini I’m swimming with 100 sharks. This isn’t as risky as it sounds, because the sharks are less than a metre long, and they’re inside a pen in the middle of Bimini lagoon. They are lemon sharks, charcoal grey on top and white underneath, and they circle the plastic mesh walls of the pen. If I swim in the opposite direction they stream past me like cars on a freeway.

Shark census volunteer Hollie Neibert with a lemon shark she has just removed from the net.

KENNEDY WARNE
Shark census volunteer Hollie Neibert with a lemon shark she has just removed from the net.


I’m in the pen with a couple of volunteers from the Bimini Biological Field Station (aka “Sharklab”). We’re checking to see that all the sharks are healthy and swimming properly. The director of the lab, Bryan Franks, has just performed a stomach eversion on a shark caught the previous evening. After knocking out the shark with a mild anaesthetic, he gently pulled the animal’s stomach through its mouth and removed a few fragments of undigested fish from inside it. The procedure, which sounds more drastic than it actually is, took only a few minutes, and afterwards the shark resumed swimming around the pen with its fellows. Its stomach contents will be analysed as part of a study to test the long-held theory that sharks play an ecological role in culling weak and sick animals from prey populations, thereby increasing their genetic fitness.

All this activity is part of an annual census of all the lemon sharks in Bimini lagoon. Over the course of a month, nets are set each evening at strategic locations in the lagoon and monitored by volunteers throughout the night. (The work happens at night because the sharks are most active then.)

Flotilla of Sharklab boats heads into Bimini lagoon.

MATTHEW POTENSKI
Flotilla of Sharklab boats heads into Bimini lagoon.


The population study has been going for 15 years, making Bimini’s lemon sharks among the most studied sharks on earth. Researchers now have a full pedigree of the entire population (around 200 animals).

One of the current research goals is to look at the effects of nursery habitat loss on the population. Lemon sharks use mangroves as a nursery area until they reach about a metre in length and are less vulnerable to predation. On Bimini, the mangrove habitat loss is happening big-time. Resort development, channel dredging, roading and reclamation are steadily robbing the lemon shark—and other fish that use the mangrove roots as refuges—of a vital nursery ground.

A fishing guide I spoke to, “Bonefish” Ebbie, lamented the losses, saying: “Everybody chewin’ into mangroves. Sooner or later we won’t have a fishin’ village no more.”

Bimini has been called the bonefishing capital of the world. Hemingway lived here on and off in the 1930s and wrote about the experience in Islands in the Stream—the “stream” being the Gulf Stream. Bimini, the smallest of the 700 islands of the Bahamas and the closest to the US, lies on the edge of the Gulf Stream. This strategic location gives Bimini an ecological importance that exceeds its tiny size. Marine organisms spawned in its wetlands and seagrass beds may disperse for hundreds of kilometres on the aquatic conveyor belt that lies just offshore. Development threatens that process, and the Sharklab researchers want to quantify its impact.

One end of the net is tied to the mangroves, a vital nursery habitat for lemon sharks.

KENNEDY WARNE
One end of the net is tied to the mangroves, a vital nursery habitat for lemon sharks.


A couple of hours before sunset I join one of the net teams for a night of shark catching. One end of the net is tied to a mangrove trunk and the other to a pole sunk into the sediment. The lagoon is shallow, no more than about knee deep—except for soft spots where you suddenly sink to your waist. The water is 34 degrees—three shy of body heat. Every 15 minutes the net teams wade through this bath-temperature water, removing sharks or the occasional fish that gets caught in the nylon meshes. Sharks are whisked to a centrally located tagging boat for measurement and the injection of an electronic tag (which can be read with a scanner like a barcode). They are then released into the holding pen.

It’s a slow night. I’ve come to the island midway through the census, and two-thirds of the shark population has already been caught and corralled in the pen. Our team captures four sharks in the space of five hours. There’s a lot of bonhomie out here on the water. The crews are constantly on the radio, congratulating each other on a capture, ribbing each other, playing music from their iPods, posing obscure trivia questions (one of the catchers is an expert on Pirates of the Caribbean).

The two dozen volunteers come from as far afield as the UK and Holland to spend a sleep-deprived month swatting mosquitoes and being drenched by tropical rainstorms for the shark cause. I ask the crew in my boat if it’s the sharks or the camaraderie that draws them here (some come back year after year, and they pay for the privilege)? With one voice they say: “The sharks!”

Checking the net at sunset.

MATTHEW POTENSKI
Checking the net at sunset.


Around midnight everyone is thinking about the imminent food run. The radios are busy with confirmation of people’s burrito orders: One or two? Guacamole or sour cream? The skiff with the goodies is due around 12.30 am, but as the magic hour approaches so does a thunderstorm. The sky rumbles and heavy drops of rain start to fall. Before long we are all huddling under raincoats and plastic net bins as the downpour hits.

It could be worse. If the electrical activity is severe (usually heralded by the net girls’ hair standing on end with the static) crews either crawl into the mangroves and shelter under insulating plastic covers or race hell for leather back to the lab, everyone lying flat on the floor of the skiffs. You don’t mess with lightning in this part of the world.

To everyone’s relief, when the dinner boat arrives the rain eases. Sodden jackets are peeled off and the boat bilge is pumped dry. I leave the net teams to their burritos and join the boat going back to the lab. I tell them I’m feeling guilty for bailing out halfway through the session, but that I’m sure the feeling will pass. In about half an hour, as soon as my head hits the pillow.

Driving taxis or cutting hair

June 14th, 2009

This morning there was time once more to walk the Malécon, the seawall promenade that borders the city, past the fishermen, the patriotic statues, the 16th-century forts guarding the entrance to the harbour.

Black flags flutter in front of the US Interests Section obscuring the 'imperialist' messages from the electronic billboard.

KENNEDY WARNE
Black flags flutter in front of the US Interests Section obscuring the 'imperialist' messages from the electronic billboard.


I stopped to snap a picture of one of the most ludicrous sights in Havana: the building which houses the “US Interests Section.” Clearly, given the mutual acrimony, the US does not have an embassy in Cuba; what it has instead is a presence in its former embassy building, now home to the Swiss embassy. In 2006, USINT staff took it into their heads to install an electronic billboard to display anti-Castro messages. Among them was a George Burns quotation, “How sad that all the people who would know how to run this country are driving taxis or cutting hair.”

Castro responded by erecting a forest of flagpoles flying black flags in front of the building (which was referred to as the ‘imperialist lair’) so that the messages could not be read. Such is the level of tit for tat that exists between the two ideological rivals. In my opinion the USINT would do better to airdrop a few million DVDs of the movie Antz.

'So tell me, Che, was this Cuba you had in mind when you fought with Fidel?' (Author musing outside communist party offices in Pinar del Rio.)

KENNEDY WARNE
'So tell me, Che, was this the Cuba you had in mind when you fought with Fidel?' (Author musing outside communist party offices in Pinar del Rio.)


And so to Bimini.

Closure of a kind

June 13th, 2009

We reached Guanahacabibes National Park, the nail of the finger of land that points towards Mexico, by mid morning. The hutia (a type of rodent) endemic to this area had already retreated into their burrows to escape the burning sun, but iguana were basking on the expanse of coral rubble through which the road had been cut.

Basking iguana.

KENNEDY WARNE
Basking iguana.


Frangipani, ice plant and cactus gave hints of green to this otherwise grey, rocky place. Where the road took us more inland we passed through semideciduous forest. Osmani, the local guide, told me to stop at a place where the bee hummingbird, the world’s smallest bird, can be found. We listened for its whistling call and then spotted one on the highest twig of a tree. This charming little bird lays eggs that are smaller than coffee beans.

Near the end of the peninsula we paused at a scene of destruction. Hurricane Ivan—‘Ivan the Terrible’—swept across this region in 2004, killing entire forests of mangroves and leaving nothing but bleached stumps. We climbed into the brittle branches of the dead trees and scanned a brackish-water lagoon. Turtles popped their heads out of the water, and hawks flew overhead.

Hurricane Ivan left a trail of desolation among the mangroves of Guanahacabibes.

KENNEDY WARNE
Hurricane Ivan left a trail of desolation among the mangroves of Guanahacabibes.


Osmani suddenly pointed to a dark shape that had just broken the surface: an American crocodile, at last. Binoculars brought its lumpy head and serrated back into view. Wavelets rippled against its scales and eyes as it floated there, every inch the patient predator. There was no way to get closer, so with this glimpse of the uppermost 5 percent of a solitary reptile my Cuban croc quest achieved closure.

Perhaps I would have been better off to have used Humboldt’s approach. Lacking time to go to the marshes, he paid for two crocodiles to be brought to him in Havana. “They were captured with great difficulty and arrived on mules with their snouts muzzled and bound,” Humboldt wrote. “They were lively and ferocious. In order to observe them we let them loose in a great hall, and from high pieces of furniture watched them attack large dogs.”

I called it a day and headed back to Havana.

Glimpses of Cuba

June 12th, 2009

I’m not seeing as many mangroves as I’d like, but I’m covering a lot of Cuban ground, and loving it.

There is much that I find unique about Cuba. The mix of transportation modes, for a start: horse carts and buggies everywhere (they have their own special lane beside the interstate), three-wheeled “bicitaxis” in the towns, bullock carts in the country, Cuba’s famous 1950s American cars, still going strong, motorcycles with sidecars (including the Czechoslovakian Jawa, which I used to get laughed at for riding in New Zealand 35 years ago) and hordes of bicycles, often with two people aboard. (Two-up protocol is for the passenger to sit side-saddle on the carrier or bar, holding a sun umbrella to shade both riders.)

I'm seeing more tobacco leaves than mangrove leaves, but c'est la vie.

KENNEDY WARNE
I'm seeing more tobacco leaves than mangrove leaves, but c'est la vie.


The town centres are architecturally gorgeous, with their fluted columns and ornate plasterwork, open courtyards and shady arcades. The contrasts are everywhere profound. In Remedios, on one side of a walled street a cluster of people bought ham by the slice from a hole-in-the-wall butcher while on the other I stepped into the airy atrium of a stately home with spiral timber staircase and chandelier, antique furniture and Catholic statuary. Down the street, in a bodega (store) with next to nothing on its shelves, people bought cooking oil, scooped out from a drum, raw sugar and bread rolls. I rounded a corner and saw two boys walking along, cradling their pet pigeons in their hands. (At least, I hope they were pets and not lunch.)

Here I am always conscious of—and, I guess, looking for—the difference between what is on the surface and what lies beneath. A British businessman I met in Havana said Cuba is like The Truman Show. Nothing is as it seems. The man mixing mojitos behind the bar in a nightclub is probably a staid government employee by day, unable to make enough in his regular job to support his family. I stayed in Havana with a former nuclear engineer who found himself out of a job when the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba’s hopes for nuclear power evaporated. He earns a living by renting a room—a common revenue source in Cuba. But you need a government licence to earn money this way (or any way). I was told the licence costs $300 a month. Rooms rent for $20 to $30 a night, so you need to count on 10 guests a month to break even. The government smothers entrepreneurial activity by a spiderweb of laws and levies—de Tockqueville’s “network of petty regulations—complicated, minute, and uniform—through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way.”

Juan Carlos buys cheese from a roadside vendor.

KENNEDY WARNE
Juan Carlos buys cheese from a roadside vendor.


Cuba may be a bastion of socialism, but it is full of closet capitalists. Everyone is looking for a way to make a peso—or a “CUC,” the currency Castro introduced in 1994. Beside the autopista, men on horseback or on foot sell blocks of homemade cheese and guava paste, ready to fade into the forest if the police should drive by. There is very little street food in Cuba cities for the same reason—you need a licence to sell anything. It’s not just the fact of paying for the privilege that inhibits would-be entrepreneurs. It’s the act of making yourself visible to the authorities in the process. Visibility = risk, and the government uses this queasy undercurrent of uncertainty to foster compliance.

I had a small insight into herd timidity when the power went off in the casa where I was staying in Ciego de Avela, about 400 km east of Havana. No problem, I thought. I would go to a café in the town, buy a glass of cold mango juice, find a power point and type my blog post in style. Ah. Not so fast. I tried a couple of places, using sign language to point at my laptop and a power point. I managed to pick up some words that sounded like “consume” and “electricity” and much shaking of the head. It was not possible. Consumption of electricity was apparently verboten.

I found Juan Carlos, who was still making phone calls, and he explained the mindset. A gringo asking for electricity is an unusual request. Unusual requests are inherently risky. Suppose the police or military should show up. Questions would be asked. In a regime like this it is best not to invite questions.

Here are some more glimpses of Cuba . . .

Chevvies, Oldsmobiles and Studebakers share the road with horse buggies and bullock carts.

KENNEDY WARNE
Chevvies, Oldsmobiles and Studebakers share the road with horse buggies and bullock carts.

Bodega in Remedios is named after the boat (Granma) Castro and his fellow revolutionaries used to sail to Cuba from Mexico in 1956.

KENNEDY WARNE
Bodega in Remedios is named after the boat (Granma) Castro and his fellow revolutionaries used to sail to Cuba from Mexico in 1956.

Bicitaxis in Remedios.

KENNEDY WARNE
Bicitaxis in Remedios.

A gracious interior in Remedios.

KENNEDY WARNE
A gracious interior in Remedios.

Spanish colonial architecture is everywhere evident in Cuba.

KENNEDY WARNE
Spanish colonial architecture is everywhere evident in Cuba.

My favourite Cuban road sign. Fortunately, I escaped the fate depicted.

KENNEDY WARNE
My favourite Cuban road sign. Fortunately, I escaped the fate depicted.

Schoolchildren passing a museum in Ciego de Avela.

KENNEDY WARNE
Schoolchildren passing a museum in Ciego de Avela.

The sound of horses' hooves on the streets is one of the pleasures of early morning in Cuba.

KENNEDY WARNE
The sound of horses' hooves on the streets is one of the pleasures of early morning in Cuba.

Travels with Mr Burns

June 11th, 2009

I’m thinking of invoking Robbie Burns as patron of this trip, because our best-laid plans are going seriously awry.

All the mangrove sites I want to go to are protected areas, and many are off the tourist map. To visit these areas requires inside knowledge, friends in the relevant management offices, permission (or at least a nod and a wink) from the military and a large dose of luck. My guide, Juan Carlos, is on the phone incessantly, trying to keep the wheels of the itinerary greased and turning.

Despite his best efforts, Juan Carlos keeps getting the message: "Access denied."

KENNEDY WARNE
Despite his best efforts, Juan Carlos keeps getting the message: 'Access denied.'


Today one of the wheels fell off. The manager of the Rio Maximo mangrove area has been called away suddenly to Havana. In his absence, we cannot coordinate the various layers of permission and cooperation necessary to make the visit possible.

This is a pity, because at Rio Maximo there are flocks of flamingos which number in the tens of thousands. So many flamingos, I’ve been told, that their reflection colours the clouds pink. Reaching the mangroves would have entailed chest-deep crossings of croc-infested channels, so naturally I’m disappointed about that, too.

Juan Carlos has activated back-up plans, trying to arrange alternative mangrove experiences during my remaining few days in Cuba. I’m particularly keen to see crocodiles, which though not unique to Cuba are well represented in the mangroves here.

We travelled to Cayo Coco, a beach resort (some would say tourist ghetto) off the north coast, in the hope of securing permission to visit a crocodile habitat in the vicinity.

Caya Coco is reached by crossing a 26 km causeway. Building it must have been a enormous earthmoving exercise. Like any such enterprise in Cuba, construction was framed as a patriotic opportunity. A billboard shows a smiling Fidel exhorting workers to “stack rocks without looking ahead”—an apt metaphor for the country, when you think about it.

The causeway to Cayo Coco with its message to workers: "Here you must stack rocks without looking ahead."

KENNEDY WARNE
The causeway to Cayo Coco with its message to workers: 'Here you must stack rocks without looking ahead.'


There must be more political messages per kilometre of roadway in Cuba than anywhere on earth. I photographed some and jotted down others. “Country or death.” “Always fighting.” “Country before everything.” Or this gem—“Revolution is not to lie, and not to violate ethical principles.” Really?

My favourite was a billboard showing a long line of leafcutter ants, with the slogan “We’re working. How about you?” When a regime can compare its people favourably to insects, and get away with it, you have to admit it knows a thing or two about thought control.

I few days after seeing this billboard I came across a quotation from 19th-century French political writer Alexis de Tocqueville that seemed written for the occasion:

“I see an innumerable crowd of like and equal men who revolve on themselves without repose, procuring the small and vulgar pleasures with which they fill their souls.

“Over these is elevated an immense, tutelary power, which takes sole charge of assuring their enjoyment and of watching over their fate. It is absolute, attentive to detail, regular, provident, and gentle. It would resemble the paternal power if, like that power, it had as its object to prepare men for manhood, but it seeks, to the contrary, to keep them irrevocably fixed in childhood … it provides for their security, foresees and supplies their needs, guides them in their principal affairs…

“The sovereign extends its arms about the society as a whole; it covers its surface with a network of petty regulations—complicated, minute, and uniform—through which even the most original minds and the most vigorous souls know not how to make their way… it does not break wills; it softens them, bends them, and directs them; rarely does it force one to act, but it constantly opposes itself to one’s acting on one’s own … it does not tyrannize, it gets in the way: it curtails, it enervates, it extinguishes, it stupefies, and finally reduces each nation to being nothing more than a herd of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.”

“Timid and industrious animals.” Leafcutter ants, perhaps?

Calienes town proclaims proudly that the revolution is always going forward. But at what pace?

KENNEDY WARNE
Calienes town proclaims proudly that the revolution is always going forward. But at what pace?


We were starting to feel like ants ourselves. We spent a witheringly hot afternoon traipsing from one office to another, directed hither and yon by minions, and ended up talking to a scientist who said he wished he could help, but, really, this sort of visit needs to be arranged three months in advance. Well, I had tried that route—I applied for an official visitor’s permit in February—but was told the application would take six months to consider.

Late in the evening, Juan Carlos thought he had a green light for a visit to a croc area on the south coast. He had arranged the permission, a 4WD vehicle for access and a boat to negotiate the mangrove channels. But when he checked the following morning, he learned that recent heavy rains had turned the track into a quagmire. A park worker had been marooned in the mangrove area for three days, unable to get out.

There’s nothing for it: we will drive 500 km to the western extremity of the country, where Juan Carlos has good friends in the Guanahacabibes National Park, and where there is a high probability of a croc sighting.

Vámanos!

To the bat cave

June 10th, 2009

We travelled from the Zapata Peninsula, on the south coast, to a little place called Cayo Caguanes, on the north. The target was bats. There is a fishing bat that takes its prey from pools in the mangroves here, and we hoped to see it in action.

Butterfly bats stream out of a limestone cave at Cayo Caguanes.

KENNEDY WARNE
Butterfly bats stream out of a limestone cave at Cayo Caguanes.


Before we looked for that bat, however, Juan Carlos had another species to show me: the butterfly bat, said to be the world’s smallest. He knew of a cave where millions of these bats roosted. Each evening they stream out of only a couple of exits for a night of feeding on insects.

An hour-long, bone-jarring ride in a trailer towed by a smoke-belching Russian tractor brought us to a guard house in the mangroves. (Initially I thought the strong military presence in mangroves on the north coast was to discourage Cubans from attempting to launch boats in the direction of, say, Miami, but Juan Carlos told me that access to all Cuba’s mangrove reserves is controlled by the military.

While the guards lounged in the watchtower—high enough to be out of mosquito range—we followed faint trails into the bush, searching for the cave entrance. It had been a while since both Juan Carlos (an avid speleologist) and the local guide had been here, so it took a while to find the place. It was coming on to dusk, but there was still enough light to identify various bird and tree species, including one locally known as the “tourist tree,” because its bark looks just like the peeling skin of a sunburnt Caucasian.

With a wingspan of about 12 cm, the butterfly bat is said to be the smallest in the world.

KENNEDY WARNE
With a wingspan of about 12 cm, the butterfly bat is said to be the smallest in the world.


Once we located the entrance we climbed down into the limestone cavern and crawled to one of the holes where the bats emerge. I stuck my head into the opening and was amazed. The sound of millions of tiny wings was like a fan on full speed. It felt like a fan, too—a steady breeze against my skin. The cave was pitch black, but I knew that the bats were flying past me: I could feel the rush of air and the occasional touch of a velvet wing on my face. I was astonished that no bat collided with me, though I guess to a bat my head looked like a large hot globe, easily avoided.

After half an hour the evening bat commute seemed to be waning, so we retraced our steps. The forest was dark now, and fireflies were out. Juan Carlos found one on a blade of grass and caught it to show me. I had never seen one up close. I expected something resembling a fly, but in fact these ones were sizable beetles. The two green light-emitting organs are situated on either side of the front end of the abdomen.

The tractor took us back into the mangroves, where we watched a known bat pool for half an hour, flicking a torch on occasionally to light the scene. The bats were making their ghostly flights just above the surface, but not dipping down to feed. As at Hatiguanico, there had been a lot of rain recently, shifting the salinity of the pool towards fresh water, and the thinking was that this had forced the fish towards the sea.

The lumbering batmobile was cranked into life once more, and we jolted home to the pyrotechnics not of fireflies but of an electrical storm that made the clouds glow like mercury lamps.

Bonefishing in Las Salinas

June 10th, 2009

The sun has just risen over the Bay of Pigs, and Juan Carlos and I, accompanied by a local guide named Mario, are driving the mangrove-flanked road from Playa Larga to the Laguna de las Salinas, in Zapata. The road is alive with large white crabs which scatter left and right into the mangroves as we approach. At certain times of year you cannot see the road for crabs, Juan Carlos tells me. There are separate migrations for red and white crabs, both for the adults heading to the sea to breed and for the young crabs making their way shoreward, where they dig their burrows in the sand and live most of their lives out of water.

White crabs on the road to Las Salinas.

KENNEDY WARNE
White crabs on the road to Las Salinas.


The most spectacular migrations are of the red crabs. Sometimes they swarm up the walls of houses and onto the roof. Juan Carlos says he has seen thatched roofs that look like they have been painted red. The red crab’s pincers are sharp enough to puncture a car tyre, he adds. I find this hard to believe, but later, when I encounter a crab with a claw the length of my hand, I can readily see the possibility.

Flamingos, egrets, spoonbills and ibises are feeding in the seagrass beds and mudflats behind the mangroves. In deeper water a hundred or more cormorants paddle round and round a clump of mangroves as if attached to a conveyor belt, dipping their heads underwater to feed, then resuming their frenetic circuit.

The flamingos take flight, running on skinny legs to achieve launch speed, then lifting themselves into the air. They look like flying broomsticks, neck and legs forming a straight line in front of and behind a pair of black-tipped pink wings. Later I see a juvenile, entirely lacking in pink pigment. Like scarlet ibises and roseate spoonbills (and no doubt other reddish wading birds), they hatch white, and only assume their ruddy colour after eating large quantities of red crustaceans.

Fishing-guide Marco casts a fly near a clump of red mangrove.

KENNEDY WARNE
Fishing-guide Marco casts a fly near a clump of red mangrove.


At the end of the road we climb into a plastic skiff and Mario poles us across the shallow flats. We see a man casting a fly rod and pole over to investigate. He’s a fishing guide, Marco, but he has no client today—summer is the quiet season—and so he is relaxing . . . by fishing. He walks slowly across the flats, casting and retrieving in a relaxed rhythm. Near a clump of mangroves he has a strike, but it is a small needlefish and it breaks off.

He moves to a new area and immediately has a big strike that strips line and gives the rod a nice bend. He works the fish away from the mangrove roots and reels it in. A bonefish, almost translucent, a fighting species highly prized by anglers. The mouth is down-pointing, suggesting a diet of creatures on the seabed. I ask Marco if bonefish mostly eat crabs. He says, “For sure, crabs, but also anything that moves.”

He deftly removes the lure and releases the fish. As we pole away we see him start casting again; a solitary angler in a vast wetland. There are definitely worse ways to spend your days off.

Bonefish are one of several prized sports fish (also tarpon and permit) which can be caught at Las Salinas.

KENNEDY WARNE
Bonefish are one of several prized sports fish (also tarpon and permit) which can be caught at Las Salinas.


The crabs are back on the road when we drive back to Playa Larga. We pool suggestions as to why this should be the case. Does the road offer a clear space in which to make territorial or courtship displays? We can’t see any displaying going on, so this seems an unlikely explanation. Is there a particular kind of food on the road—the corpses of crabs that have been squashed by car tyres, perhaps? There is no scavenging that we can see. I conclude that it may just be a factor of density. There are so many crabs here that the natural spacing of the creatures takes them onto the road.

In a clearing in the mangroves, several rows of bee hives stand on coral rocks above the mud. I’m instantly reminded of the exceptional mangrove honey I enjoyed in Bangladesh and Tanzania. Alas, it is not the flowering season for Avicennia, the species from which honey is collected here.

Beehives ready for collection of mangrove honey.

KENNEDY WARNE
Beehives ready for collection of mangrove honey.


Clouds of mosquitoes drive us back into the sanctuary of the vehicle. I would like to stay longer in the Zapata wetland, but Juan Carlos and I have an appointment on the north coast with some bats.

Croc-hunting in the Bay of Pigs

June 9th, 2009

My name has drawn some amused smiles from residents of Playa Larga, in the Bay of Pigs. It was JFK who approved the Bay of Pigs invasion—fiasco would be a better word—in which 1300 CIA-trained Cuban expatriates stormed the beaches here in 1961 and were trounced by Castro’s troops.

Not a relic of the Bay of Pigs invasion (as I imagined in my first flush of enthusiasm) but a wrecked fishing boat on the beach at Playa Larga.

KENNEDY WARNE
Not a relic of the Bay of Pigs invasion (as I imagined in my first flush of enthusiasm) but a wrecked fishing boat on the beach at Playa Larga.


The Bay of Pigs forms one boundary of the vast wetland area of the Zapata Peninsula, on Cuba’s southern coast. I have come here with Juan Carlos, a nature guide who knows the Cuban mangroves well. I met him in an unusual way. I was looking at the Zapata Peninsula on Google Earth, clicking on the handful of mangrove photographs that had been linked to the area, and noticed that one of them had an email address instead of a title. Clever marketing, I thought, and shot off an email. Juan Carlos replied, we met in Havana and set up a road trip to a few mangrove hotspots.

For this first leg we took the main highway out of Havana, known as the Autopista, stopping off at a river called Hatiguanico to look for crocodiles. Cuba has three species: the native Cuban crocodile, the larger American crocodile and the caiman. Hatiguanico has a population of the Cuban crocodile.

With some difficulty (this is an understatement—everything in Cuba is difficult) we found a boat driver and spent a couple of hours looking for large reptiles. The Cuban crocodile often excavates a burrow under the roots of mangroves. We waited at a location where the driver had seen a crocodile in its burrow recently, but heavy rains had raised the river level, and neither burrow nor croc was visible.

Freshwater turtle warming itself on a mangrove root in the Hatiguanica River.

KENNEDY WARNE
Freshwater turtle warming itself on a mangrove root in the Hatiguanica River.


We kept motoring downriver, stopping from time to time to eat hicaco berries, a sweet black-skinned fruit with a large stone in the centre. We passed a tree where a dozen turkey vultures were drying their wings, and saw the endemic green woodpecker and Cuban parrot, but these sightings were scant compensation: I had my heart set on crocs.

The best we could manage on the reptile front was freshwater turtles sunning themselves on the prop roots of red mangroves. They slid off and plopped into the water whenever we got close—a reflex no doubt partly induced by hunting pressure.

Thunderclouds were laying down a booming artillery as we returned to the launch site, but fortunately we dodged the afternoon deluge. The day hadn’t yielded much, but it was good to be in the Cuban mangroves at last. When nature is the quarry, you had better have a large reservoir of patience and stoicism. I sometimes think of myself as the Thomas Edison of nature observers. Edison, so the story goes, was asked by a journalist how it felt to have failed in a thousand attempts to make a light bulb. He replied that he had succeeded in finding a thousand ways not to make a light bulb.

In point of fact, I did have a crocodile encounter today—as dinner. There is a croc farm at Playa Larga, and crocodile meat is cheap and popular here. Marieta, the woman whose house I’m staying at, served deliciously fried strips of crocodile accompanied by the classic Cuban potaje de frijoles negros (black bean soup) and fried green bananas. Nevertheless, I prefer my crocs in the swamp rather than on the plate.

Croc encounter of the culinary kind at Playa Larga.

KENNEDY WARNE
Croc encounter of the culinary kind at Playa Larga.


In Playa Larga I started thinking about a companion blog called “A Mangrove a Day: 365 Things to Do with Mangroves.” The medicinal and antiseptic properties of Rhizophora, the red mangrove, are widely known among mangrove communities. Marieta said that her mother had recently visited the doctor with kidney troubles. The doctor recommended drinking a decoction of red mangrove bark. Marieta described peeling the bark and letting it infuse in a jug of water overnight. “When the water turns pink, you drink,” she said. Apparently it did the trick.

A completely different use for mangrove water is employed by homeowners in Playa Larga: they soak timberwork such as window shutters in a Rhizophora water bath to darken and bring out the grain. By using a mangrove primer they save on varnish. Furniture is treated in the same way, and so are boat sails. The mangrove tannins are said to make the sails last longer, and to make the boat less visible when its owner is engaged in illegal fishing! I even heard that locals make an alcoholic drink from Rhizophora tannin and mangrove honey.

When I was in Porto Segura, Brazil, I learned that the clay pots in which the fish stew known as moqueca is cooked and brought bubbling to the table are steeped in Rhizophora water to darken and strengthen them.

There must be dozens of other unexpected uses. I will keep eyes and ears open for them.