Posts Tagged ‘zapata’

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.