Child of Mother Earth

I had a lot of time to think to myself while walking three hours through the countryside this morning. I smiled as I passed cows as they stared me down for walking along their pasture, then again as I passed two horses as they happily grazed fresh green grass together, all the while noticing all the beautiful birds that fluttered around. Galahs, Ravens, Willie Wagtails, Fairy Wrens, Kookaburras, Magpies and Pacific Ducks were just a few friends that accompanied me on my morning stroll. As I walked, I couldn’t help but feel a wave of serenity fall over me like a warm blanket as I thought about how thankful I was that my passion for conservation has brought me to yet again, another incredible destination.

My mind wandered to all of the people I have met along my conservation journey and to all the families I have found myself being an important member of over the years. I thought about how weird it is that I am so many people’s daughter and so many other people’s sister. Sometimes I think about how conservation has been a method of transport for me, a vessel to take me to so many different places and to become a part of so many different lives that I otherwise wouldn’t have been if I was instead a carpenter or an accountant or really passionate about model trains.

As I walked along the dusty gravel path through the valley, looking at the mountains either side of me, I thought about all the times I have truly felt accepted and at home. I thought about eating rice with my hands at the dinner table in Sri Lanka with the family and gossiping with Auntie over tea in the mornings before anyone else was awake. I thought about drinking iced tea with the village men in North Sumatra and despite being a woman, being accepted as part of their male harem. I remembered cuddling my boss’s daughter as we went on long family road trips together away from Medan, and making her giggle until she fell asleep in my lap. I thought about teaching people I loved English so they could talk to me in my language, I thought about laughing over dumb TV shows with people, I thought about playing cards late into the night and most importantly how a whole village gathered in a pub to watch Eurovision with me, just because they knew how much I liked it.

Sometimes I think I am like a family parasite. I just insert myself into people’s families and make them my home for a while until it is time to move on. Sometimes I think I trick the host into making them think I am their blood relative, their real true daughter, their real true sibling. Sometimes I think I am the best version of myself when I am surrounded by a close-knit community, one where I can contribute and be a part of something magical.

Today I thought that I never really felt at home in my childhood house, and that I have felt at home in a hundred different other places. I thought that this home, this new home, even though temporary, is a good home. I will be happy and I will do something special and unique with my time and I will be something special and unique as well. I was taught from a young age that school cannot teach me everything I need to know, and I think that’s why I have this insatiable urge to meet many different people and go many different places and truly live like them and understand the way they think. The more I learn, the more I can do to appreciate and protect the natural world I live in.

I suppressed the tears of gratitude I knew were wanting to escape. I thanked the hills and the trees and the birds and the cows for all being so wonderful and fascinating to me that they have taken me on such a grand adventure that I would not be the same person without.  Without conservation, I would not have so many families, I would not have so many homes, and that is something carpentry and accounting just cannot compete with.22139775_10211917815993475_1154134925_o

 

Dancing through oceans

Once upon a time I placed my palm to my face as my friend announced that she thought there was only one type of whale.

“And which type might that be?”

I asked, surprised at the thought of this concept.

“You know, the whaley type.”

She responded, content with her answer.

Maybe she was thinking of the biggest animal known to man, the blue whale, who’s heart is the size of a small car. The whale that marks the benchmark for awe inspiring mass amongst the animal kingdom while somehow simultaneously achieving  such incredible levels of grace and beauty in its movements.

Or maybe she was thinking of the Beluga whale, such a unique looking specimen which is so pale grey it almost appears to be white in the right levels of sunlight. Its bulbous forehead housing a rather intelligent brain, with aquarium workers claiming to hear the Belugas speak to them through the glass panels.

What if she was thinking of the Sperm whale, known for its giggle-inducing name, which appear to me to look like big long rocks with tails. Maybe she was thinking about how they sleep vertically in a circular group to resemble pillars of ancient ruins in order to be protected against loitering predators.

In my brain, there are too many whales to name. Toothed whales, baleen whales, smaller whales and gigantic whales. Lonely whales who call long distances to find somebody, anybody to share their lives with, whales in family groups migrating long distances together and whales who have succumbed to the whaling villages who use their meat for food and their hide for their homes. I wonder how a person can believe there is only one species of whale in amongst all of the vast diversity.

Personally, I never grasped the true awe of whales until I was acquainted by many mother Humpbacks, teaching their calves to breach in order to rid their backs of parasites. I watched intently as the mothers jumped first, heaving their huge and weighty bodies out of the ocean, somehow defying the laws of physics, flipping over and slamming themselves back into the ocean causing an enormous splash. The calves followed, they were babies by name but hardly by size. They heaved their smaller bodies out of the water and following mum, awkwardly fell back into the ocean from which they came.

Seeing them up close was only reaffirming what I saw in National Geographic photographs and David Attenborough documentaries. The bumps on their head gave them a unique texture along with the straight ridges that they sported on the underside of their bodies. The smooth skin on their backs and dorsal fins were marked and nicked from a rough ocean life of predators, rocks and communication with other whales, as if they were covered in graffiti like common street mammals. Their dorsal fin was the most peculiar of all however, as its small bulbous point was hardly the angular fin that most cetaceans possess. They were absolutely stunning, and happy to show off their tails and flippers to us mere humans while we were ogling at them from the boat.

Watching these beauties I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with the feeling that these creatures were real and alive in front of me, in a way that led me to believe I formerly regarded them as fictional and magical beasts. It is one thing to accept that whales exist from watching them in documentaries and seeing them in photos but it is another thing to sit in wonderment as they dance through the ocean around you. To add one last slice of magic, their song reverberated through the boat and filled our ears with the most wonderful sultry melody. They truly were the best performers of that slice of ocean.

It is a shame that whales are hunted so dramatically all over the world, especially in Nordic countries, and more so, it is a shame that something so vast and magnificent is confined to a life behind glass for human entertainment. Seeing whales in the wild is a truly amazing experience and I urge you to add them to your bucket list of animals to see. I was planning on swimming with the Humpbacks, however due to the young calves being present, we didn’t come between the mums and their babies within their safe haven and put ourselves in potential danger. Whales taught me a long time ago that seeing animals perform their song and dance for you in the wild on their own, is a far more breathtaking experience than knowing a human orchestrated their behaviour. The world is magical without our interference, and whales are definite proof of that.

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Say my name, say my name

To be honest with you all (I am pretending that many people read this blog), I never really liked dolphins until a couple of years back. Growing up I always saw them as a species that was hogging all the love and grant money that should have been dispersed amongst a wealth of other marine species. As I became more involved in ethical tourism however, I learnt more and more about dolphins because of their involvement in marine parks and I came to realise the reason for their adoration. Firstly it is important to mention that dolphins are so intelligent that in India, they are regarded as non-human persons. They have self awareness, meaning they can recognise themselves in mirrors as well as having a complex language that contains specific name calls for each individual in the pod. That’s right folks, dolphins have named each other just as we have.

Dolphins are not built for a life in captivity for many reasons, the first being that to get into a captive lifestyle they first have to be herded into a small cove and become captured whilst the rest of their pod is mass slaughtered in front of them, hence the name for the alert “The red cove.” If you want to know more about this trade or the dolphin meat trade, I urge you to watch the documentary “The cove” or to know more about other cetaceans in captivity, I’d also recommend watching “Blackfish.” A small disclaimer though, you will feel very depressed after watching both of these movies. Orcas, or Killer Whales as they are otherwise known, are actually more closely related to dolphins than to whales and have half of their brain solely designated to emotions which is significantly larger than the designated emotion-producing space for humans. This makes it all the more depressing when a mother and her calf are separated for capture and the mothers are left to send long ranging calls through a small pool to try and locate their lost baby. One thing I didn’t know until watching these documentaries is that every breath a dolphin takes is on purpose and very controlled as they are air breathing mammals who live in the water. If a dolphin is unhappy in a captive environment and has had enough, they can end their life with one final breath then and there.

Dolphins have fission-fusion social groups which means that they are always popping in and out of pods which is great for mixing genes amongst populations but is impossible to uphold when you live with two other dolphins in a swimming pool. Dolphins have been also known to gang-rape, play with their food and have sex for fun which I guess comes from their increased intelligence as these behaviours are not too far fetched from our own. For this reason, I never understood why they are considered to be a spiritual icon, as with any species, there are good dolphins and evil ones, the sunset diving ones and the gang rapists, and I think it is unfair to use both examples as a calming and spiritual omen. Their intelligence also brings about amazing hunting techniques such as herding fish and using sonar to locate prey in murky waters. Most dolphins have their neck fused to their spine so they cannot swim in tight circles and be at risk to breaking their necks, however an Amazonian river species of dolphin has the disconnect needed to curve around mangrove roots and hunt for fish in more complex environments.

I remember vividly a time when I was in year 7 and my mum was doing some surveys for her university project on a local dolphin charter boat. She offered to take me swimming with the dolphins instead of going to school one day, and to accompany her on the charter boat as she conducted her research. As it was also my birthday, I relished the opportunity to take the day off of school even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of dolphins at the time. The set up was very friendly to the local pods as the boat drove along the same stretch of ocean each day and it was the dolphin’s choice if they wanted to swim around us or not. There were four or so ropes tied to the back of the boat which we held on to as the boat pulled us along, with no contact allowed between ourselves and the dolphins unless they decided to touch the swimmers. As I looked down to the green/blue ocean dispersed with long, smooth grey mammals swimming below me I felt humbled in their presence. One swam so close to me it grazed up against my wetsuit and I felt like I was accepted in their company, with their presence being not at all threatening as I so previously thought they would be.

Seeing dolphins has been relatively easy for me since then, as I often spot them whilst walking along the beach, cruising on boats or walking along jetties and each time, I love watching them play and show new and fascinating behaviours. I think that there is a reason why there are so many marine biologists who focus on dolphins and that there is so much more to learn about them, however I do still believe that other species should be allocated some of the dolphin funds as well. I think that dolphins for me have been the spiders or snakes for other people, the un-liked creature that turns out to be fascinating the more you discover about them, and I am glad that I opened myself up to learning and discovering how dolphins are unique and important within their ecosystems. I hope to one day be able to see the pink dolphins of the amazon and other cetaceans such as the Narwhal or Orcas in the Arctic oceans, but until now I am happy to be surrounded by the simple old Bottlenoses on my walks through coastal South Australia.

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Human Bait HOO HA HA!

Most people have probably heard the saying “you are more likely to die from a coconut falling on your head than you are to be killed by a shark” and I believe this to be 100% true. I believe this so whole heartedly as I have in fact seen a coconut fall on someone’s head however I have never in my entire life seen someone have a negative shark encounter. More so, I have even seen people pay good money to occupy the same waters as great white sharks and witness them enjoying every second of it. Of course I understand that “enjoying sharks” is not something that a majority of the world’s population do, however I hope that one day more people could begin to see the value of this important family of fish.

I wonder if it was JAWS that turned the world off of sharks, or if they were feared long before then. Floating cartilage takes many different forms in regards to these creatures, from a tiny Cookie Cutter Shark to a magnificent Whale Shark, with each species serving a very unique role in the oceanic ecosystem. I know you are not supposed to pick favourites, however my most favourite shark is definitely the Port Jackson Shark, or Dog Shark as it is otherwise known. It’s small but robust body is home to two defensive spines, a camo looking “skin” and the greatest skull formation in the entire world. If you have never seen a Port Jackson’s skull, I urge you to google it right now. The Port Jackson’s skull is so unique with its tooth formation whereby the teeth aren’t really teeth, but more mashing plates that appear to be scrunched up in order to fit inside of the mouth. These strange teeth substitutes are perfectly adapted for crushing crustaceans for a good hearty meal.

Port Jackson’s also give birth to leathery spiral eggs which I have often found washed up on the beach, I urge you to google these as well if you have never seen them, for they are not what you expect shark eggs to look like. These dog like sharks have their litter of eggs which they hatch in nurseries before raising the pups in a communal setting. Another fun topic to google is baby sharks as some species such as the Hammerhead, have live births and so baby Hammerheads are just really tiny and adorable miniature Hammerheads. Okay, I think that is enough googling for now.

Gansbaai (pronounced hans-bye) is arguably the cage diving capital of the world, and also the location I was privileged enough to work in for two weeks back in 2012. Gansbaai is one of the only locations where Great White Sharks have been seen to show breaching behaviour and let me tell you, to be on a boat and have a huge five meter shark jump out of the water and rise up to your level is truly something else. Something I have found to be very interesting about conservation biology is that recording morphological data for sharks uses the exact same methods as when similar data is recorded for African elephants. This method of “Mark Recapture” uses basic outlines of a shark and or elephant and allows you to pencil in the unique markings of your focal individual over the top of the outline in order to identify individuals. Sharks and elephants, who would have thought they were so similar!

If you want to become a millionaire, listen closely. Nobody knows exactly how great white sharks mate or court each other and if anybody filmed and or recorded this information they would be very popular in and amongst the shark scientist community. I have seen footage of smaller sharks mating, and let me tell you, seeing the way the male bites the female in order to hold on to her and the way she couldn’t muster the energy to swim away afterwards, it makes me feel very relieved to be a human in terms of reproductive strategies. This is the thing about biology, the more you learn about animal sex, the more you thank your lucky stars you were not born any other species.

Back in my undergraduate, we were watching footage from a shark shield experiment during a lecture one day, lead by a shark biologist whom always had shirtless pictures of himself wrangling sharks in his lecture slides. Needless to say, attendance was higher when he was presenting. The craziest thing happened as the shark swam toward the camera and almost engulfed it with it’s mouth.

“Nawwwwwwwwwwwww”

My lecture theatre all said in unison.

“This is the weirdest reaction I have ever received from this footage”

Said my lecturer.

It is one of the great injustices of the world that sharks are made out to be the monsters of the ocean. It is in fact not wise to cull them from beaches as they play a very important role in controlling the numbers of second grade predators so that all the phyla beneath them do not go out of control in numbers. It is also not wise to hack off their fins and chuck them back into the ocean no matter how good they taste in soups. Sharks, in my opinion are highly charismatic, fascinating and essential beings to a fully functioning and regulated environment. If you don’t want to be around sharks and just respect them from afar, that’s okay too, just blow bubbles under water to scare them off. In the end it is best to remember, most things in the animal kingdom have more reasons to fear you than you have to fear them. If sharks have taught me anything, it is that humans are quick to judge books by their covers but seldom wish to read the mysteries and fascinating stories within them.

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Long Live the King

Kookaburras must be the greatest joke tellers of any avian species, with their incessant laughter, they can be heard cackling through the sclerophyll forest around my house in South Australia, almost every day. Claiming title to being the largest and arguably most majestic of all the kingfisher species, they feed off water skinks and snakes that frequent the undergrowth surrounding the creek which meanders through my neighbourhood.

Over time I have come to think of Kookaburras as good omens for me as their placebo affect of “greatness to come” always fills me with an immense amount of joy, and thus fills the rest of my day with immense positivity. If I catch a glimpse of their stout fluffy bodies and long tough beak while walking along fire tracks, it seriously makes my entire day. I don’t know why I perceive them to have such a godly status, but maybe they are just my totem animal.

Walking along another path somewhere across the world, a path made from water, a flooded mangrove track, houses a bunch of the most photogenic kingfishers around. Malachite Kingfishers are much smaller than Kookaburras with their bright orange and blue plumage, and in my experience, they love to pose and show off their feathers. Stu the Malachite Kingfisher was named after a volunteer on camp who never took a bad photo. He would fly meters from us while we were wading along the river, stop on a mangrove branch and sit still enough for us to take any photos we pleased. As we moved along, Stu would fly in front of us again, stop and pose. But there were cuter kingfishers to come.

Madagascan Pygmy Kingfishers with their bright pink-orange feathers and teeny tiny body are possibly one of the cutest species of bird in existence. Much harder to find, the few I did see were curled up and asleep at night tucked within a tree fork, which understandably made them look even cuter. There is a certain aesthetic to kingfishers however, whereby even though they maybe small, they still have a robust feel to them which may come from their strong reptile catching beaks.

Years later in Sri Lanka, standing on a beach with a Spanish friend whom I had only seen in person two or three times, she quickly points out to me:

“JESSIE! A KINGFISHER LOOK!”

My heart melted.

“I know how much you like kingfishers so I just had to point him out to you!”

I didn’t even remember ever telling her I liked kingfishers but the smile on my face must have said it all.

Reptiles may not be palatable to some people, however killing them or leading them to extinction via habitat loss leads to a chain reaction whereby their predators, kingfishers in this instance will also face extinction. It is important to remember that all species on this planet are linked in a fragile web of connections and breaking just one strand can lead to the demise of many more. Though Kookaburras are common in my local area, I have never once took them for granted and I can only hope that they have inspired many other Australians to love kingfishers as much as I do.

They truly are the kings.

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Mr Labah Labah

I struggle to think of an animal group out there which faces higher levels of  prejudice than the humble spider. Is it the eight legs which may be two pairs too many? Is it the mass conglomerate of eyes? Or is it the small furry body which puts your average Joe on high alert? Living in Australia, the flies and mosquitoes are to me, way more fiercely agitating and live in much higher concentrations than spiders do. In fact, spiders actively control the ever growing populations of such insects so there are a few Australians who don’t mind a casual Hunsman sitting in the corner ceiling of their house, just to keep the flies and mozzies at bay.

One of my closest friends Tim, was the only man I have ever met who could make normal, every day people actually interested in arachnids. Bringing his passion for spiders to our small Malagasy camp, he begun leading spider walks most evenings to determine the biodiversity of spiders that lived in the forests of Nosy Be Island. It was slightly unusual to see a bunch of young people in their teens and 20’s actively searching for spiders in a dark moon lit forest. For me and Tim of course, it was one of the most amazing things we had ever seen. Although you may hear a soft yelp or scream every once in a while from sudden movements or a rush of adrenaline, everyone was totally okay with finding a spider, grabbing a bag and putting the spider in the bag for Tim to identify. These people were spider fearing humans once too, but now inspired by an arachnid loving man, they too had seen interest in the furry legged creatures.

My love for spiders developed many years earlier thanks to the cute and cuddly jumping spiders. Lying on my stomach in the back yard of my house, I’d watch their little furry bodies jump around, wave their feelers up and down and scurry away. When I discovered that peacock spiders existed I thought they were the coolest creatures to ever be found on the entire planet with their multi coloured butt-flap that they wave around to attract a mate, along with their highly rehearsed side to side dances. It astounds me how much effort these spiders put in to attracting a female, dancing and flapping away for hours, only to be eaten without copulation if she doesn’t find him sexy at all. The more I learn about animal reproduction, the more thankful I am to be human.

Maybe my love for spiders is too extreme. I remember once typing away on my laptop while sitting in bed and looking to my left to see a small brown spider sitting on my neighbouring pillow as if I was in a seriously committed marriage with him. My mind drifted to newspaper headlines:

“LONELY WOMAN MARRIES SPIDER”

But then again, maybe I just see that spiders are just as harmless and beautiful like every other organism that we let be. The natural habitat of a house spider is in fact, a house, so putting them outside can sometimes mean the end of the road for them. In one instance I genuinely believed that people were going to be kind to a spider who dangled down on a thread of web in the middle of a bus station. People walked around it, informed others of its presence and kept a good distance away from it. I considered moving him out of the way but the way people were acting, I let him be. All of a sudden, this crippled woman hobbled over to the spider ever so slowly, wincing as she moved.

“SMACK!”

She took off her shoe and smashed that spider into the ground. I looked around, everyone smiled at her as if she had done a great service to everyone there. I looked mortified. All my hope was lost.

We could all engage in a great symbiosis with spiders if we looked past their reputation. If we all provided just a corner of our ceilings for them to live, they could control all the other pests within our houses such as flies and mosquitoes which carry a wealth of diseases with them. It is actually a health precaution to have spiders around if you think about it, the more spiders, less risk of mosquito born diseases. Sounds like a win to me! If you see a spider soon, instead of screaming and running away or killing it, maybe take a step back and thank it for being a valued member of our society. Thank you spiders.

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Flying Butter

Butterflies are something we all learn about in primary school, especially their unique life cycle and transition from caterpillars into beautiful flying flaps of colour. They are environmental indicators due to their sensitivity which means that the health of an ecosystem can often be determined by the presence or absence of butterfly populations. Unfortunately, destroying the quality of grasslands, forests and other ecosystems frequented by butterflies means reducing butterfly species on a global scale. This of course impacts plant species pollinated by butterflies as well as the beautiful aesthetics of spring. Being born on the last day of spring, annually as I transition into another year of my life I am usually greeted by beautiful white butterflies flying around my garden. It is a symbol of growth and renewal for me that as I turn a year older, caterpillars all around me are transitioning themselves into their next stage of life also.

Having to undergo butterfly surveys in Madagascar was honestly the worst survey experience, for the volunteers. Running around a hot open grassland for an hour, stumbling with nets and hoping that even if you caught a butterfly it wouldn’t escape before you placed it in the jar for identification. For me however, butterfly surveys were a relaxing time sitting in the shade, identifying jar after jar of butterflies that my volunteers handed to me. After a couple of months, I learnt how to lure butterflies onto my hand to trade the salty nutrients from my sweaty palms for a good macro photo opportunity.

The thing about butterflies is, the dirtier you are, the more they will love you. They love mud baths and seeping up all the salty goodness from the ground, so a sweaty and dirty human is close enough to satisfying nutrient meal for their small hairy bodies. Luckily, after living on an island outside in a tropical climate for 6 months I was as dirty and sweaty of a body as any butterfly could ever dream of. Don’t think that butterflies have lowered their dating standards however, for their short lifespans are jam packed with finding a mate, seducing them, mating with them and laying eggs. After all this is done, they have no reason to stick around and they quickly fade back into the earth that they once bathed on.

Its very easy to make friends with a butterfly and I urge everyone reading this to do so. The more we connect with nature, the more we will understand its importance in our world. Something as small as a butterfly can often be a huge indicator that we have to change our actions and start taking better care of our planet. I truly hope that butterflies will send me off into every new year of my life as long as I live, and I also hope I can pack as much activity as I can into my life, as they do into theirs.

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