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Lista Light has twinned with two primary schools in Devon; Doddiscombsleigh and Landscore. Our mission is to create enthusiasm in the natural world and motivate people to conserve the environment. What better than to share our experiences with schools from a floating classroom as we journey from country to country?!
I have been working as an Ecologist for the past seven years. On occasion this has involved my leading school, university and special needs groups in the countryside, tracking wildlife and learning about how to restore habitats and increase the range of wildlife. This has led me to think about teaching in the future and what better a start then to work with schools from our boat.
I grew up in Devon (my grandparents farmed there) and was living near Dartmoor before we sailed away from the River Exe. One of my better names is the, ‘Devon tourist board!’ as I gush with superlatives when describing the fair county. What better a place to find schools that might wish to link with us then amid Devon’s verdant rolling hills, sunken lanes, rugged moorlands and coastline.
The two schools I am working with are quite different in scale but united in their interest in the natural world, with committed teachers keen in developing environmental awareness amongst the pupils.
Landscore Primary School is based in the market town of Crediton, near Exeter with over 275 pupils. Mr Gary Read is the Head Teacher and Ms Erika Gooding the Deputy Head. I was particularly interested in the school as they have begun all sorts of environmental projects including: recycling and composting schemes, car free travel to school days, fair trade snack stalls (run by the pupils), created a vegetable garden and made a roofed cob seating area. Superb! To find out more about this dynamic school go to http://www.landscore-primary.devon.sch.uk
Doddiscombsleigh Primary School lies below the Haldon Hills in the Teign Valley, just on the edge of the Dartmoor National Park. It is much smaller than Landscore with less than 80 pupils. Mrs Sarah Evans is the Headmistress. The school is very interested in incorporating the environment into lessons when possible and linking with the local village community. You can view the school on line at http://www.doddi.devon.sch.uk
I visited both schools in September 2008 and led an assembly about Lista Light, our mission to conserve, promote and enjoy the natural world and how the schools could get involved. It began by stepping back in time and boarding Christopher Columbus’s ship, imagining the waves crashing over the boat, that sea monsters living beneath and the pirates trying to board the ship. The crew were becoming restless and hungry they were plotting behind the captain’s back, thinking of mutiny, they had not seen land for weeks. Then suddenly one morning land appeared, they had reached the new world!
Switching to the present, it’s now Lista Light who is sailing the seas in Christopher Columbus’s wake. We know that the earth is not flat and we can read about the countries we will visit, but sailing across the Atlantic is still a scary leap and could take over thirty days on our old wooden fishing boat. We will have to feed and water ourselves, watch for ships all through the night and read the sky for the weather. We will record any wildlife we see and prepare for our bird survey work which begins in the Caribbean. It will be our first Christmas on water rather than land!
Below are a selection of emails that I have sent and received from the schools. I hope that in the future we may twin with other schools and that we can provide up-to-date facts and living case studies for lessons.
QUESTIONS FROM LANDSCORE PRIMARY SCHOOL AND MY REPLIES, OCTOBER 1 2008
Dear Katharine, I asked some children to think of more questions to ask you …… so here they are…..
Thank you for your email and all the questions, I have written the answers in red
What are the rarest birds & mammals you hope to see? Thomas, 9 yrs old.
Good question, Thomas. We will begin bird surveying properly in the Caribbean in the New Year. The special thing about the Caribbean is that many of the islands contain bird species that are endemic to them. ‘Endemic’ means that the birds are only found on one island, nowhere else in the world. Endemic wildlife is often found on islands. This is because they are often far from the mainland, which makes it difficult for wildlife to reach them and because they have been isolated from mainland countries for thousands of years. These two factors have allowed bird species to change and specialise to the island and adapt into new species. It would be like you or I moving to a distant desert island. Our great great great grandsons would be very different to us. They would choose mates with particular features and skills that would allow them to live longer and flourish on the island. Over time the features they selected for in their mates would become stronger through generations, until they no longer looked like you or I, because they had evolved into new species! Perhaps they would have huge noses (like an anteater) for sniffing out grubs or massive ears to find fish swishing threw rivers? Perhaps they would like this?!
Back to the question! There are many birds and animals that I have never seen and that I hope to see, these include: flamingos, terns, petrels, frigate birds, pelicans, boobies and tropic birds. Mammal wise, I hope to see many species of dolphins and whales, many of which are rare. I will report back to you on the website about the rarest birds and animals we see.
Let us know if you see any octopuses. Sam, 6 yrs old.
Thank you Sam, I will! Octopuses are amazing animals which can change their colours depending on their surroundings. I hope if we snorkel or dive that we might find some. At the moment the only octopus I have seen have been on a plate in Spain! The Spanish love to eat sea food and battered octopus is one of their favourites.
Can you let us know when you see any sharks? Harry, 6 yrs old.
Definitely, Sam. At the moment we’re in Vigo in the North West of Spain. On the way to the city, we anchored near some islands called Islas Cies. They are protected as a nature reserve for their birds and plants. I swam over to them to see what birds I might find. The water was very deep and completely dark green, I couldn’t see a thing. I kept on imagining I might bump into a shark during my swim, but not this time! There are many different species of shark in the world, many are rare, so I´m looking forward to finding out more about them and hopefully catching a glimpse of one.
Will you see any turtles? Ryan, 6 yrs old.
I hope so, Ryan. They breed on some of the Caribbean Islands that we hope to visit. The Mothers come ashore to the same beaches that they were born and under the stars dig a hole in the sand and lay their eggs. On a high tide, under a full moon the tortoise babies hatch and swim to the sea. The Mother lays many eggs to ensure that some tortoises survive as they are very vulnerable when they are small and are eaten by bigger sea creatures. I will report on our wildlife pages if we see any.
I will keep you posted of our progress!
AN EMAIL FROM PORTO, 15 OCTOBER, 2008
Just a quick email to keep you updated of Lista Light's progress down the Atlantic coast. We are currently in Lexios, south of Porto, Portugal.
We have spent the last couple of days in the harbour doing work on Lista Light. This has involved climbing the mast, madly holding onto the shrouds (ropes that hold up the mast) with a chisel in one hand scraping varnish off, then sanding and lacquering the mast. A scary process, but necessary to allow us to pull up the wooden rings that run up and down the mast that carry the sails. They were badly creaking before and often became stuck, so we hope this will work. It should also increase the life of the mast.
Sanding the mast
The view from the mast was incredible! I could see huge shoals of grey mullet- over 100 fry (young fish) and mature fish. They have a weird habit of looking like terrapins as they raise their heads above the water and feed upon surface debris You can find them in many of the estuaries in the UK, including the Exe and Teign. They are not typically consumed, but we caught two and will report back if they are good to eat!
We left La Coruna and sailed to Vigo. This is said to be the second largest fishing harbour in the world after one in Japan. Do you know where that might be? This is not surprising considering the Spaniard's love of sea food. Fish and shell fish are most of the menus at meal times. We sailed from the harbour behind more than 30 fishing boats. They gathered together herding shoals of what we thought were sardines and catching them in drift nets. Their technique was similar to that used by dolphins- rounding fish up into tight balls where they can pick them off. Indeed, a large pod of common dolphins joined us and swam with us for most of our journey to Lexios.
Yesterday we cycled to Porto. It is a beautiful city with many old, hickledy-pickledy houses stacked row upon row up the hilly, city sides. It has a large bridge over the river, quite like the Bristol suspension bridge. Many of the buildings had patterned tiles on them, especially blue and white ones.
I had never been to Portugal before. The language is like a cross between Spanish and Russian! We have been sampling the local specialities including: huge, sweet grapes; thimbles of strong, black coffee like tar(nasty!) and port (fortified wine of many colours- yum!)
On our cycle ride to Porto we saw a flock of grey herons- over 40. Incredible! They were queuing up by a stream running into the sea, grabbing at passing fish and eels, standing completely still, or attacking one another. They were wonderful to watch. It's fascinating watching grey herons in their heronries. In the UK, they congregate in January, February and March, building their nests high up in the tree tops. They're a raucous, squabbling bunch, howling and attacking one another. If you get a chance you could see them at Powderham (also little egrets)or you may find a closer heronry.
We leave for Lisbon tomorrow. We should sail there in a couple of days. We hope to journey to the cork forests when we arrive. They are special habitats that have become more rare as people choose plastic stoppers and screw tops over corks. They support rare species of animals including birds of prey, mongeese, butterflies, wildflowers and lynx. These unique ecosystems provide traditional jobs for local communities. We hope to investigate them and report back.
Please check out the greening of the boat page, it may be of interest www.listalight.co.uk/preparation.asp. Meanwhile, please email me any questions that the pupils may have.
QUESTIONS FROM DODDISCOMBSLEIGH PRIMARY SCHOOL AND MY REPLIES, 16 OCTOBER 2008
We have just read your letter which sounds very interesting. We are going to track your movements on a map of Europe. We don't think there are any other heron nest sites closer to us than Powderham but we see plenty of individual herons raiding our fishponds! Unfortunately, we haven't found the biggest fishing port yet but we will soon.
Thank you for your email. Good to hear from you. I'm glad you have been watching the grey herons, they are a charismatic species and it's always interesting seeing them fishing, roosting or nesting. They can definitely clear out a pond very rapidly, but then I suppose you can't blame them, it would be like someone opening a sweet shop and allowing you to eat as many sweets as you wanted!
The class and I have got some questions for you:
1: What other countries will you visit?
The next countries we will visit will be Morocco, North Africa, the Canary Islands and Cape Verde Islands. After that we shall sail across the Atlantic. When you are eating your turkey and unwrapping your presents on Christmas day, we shall probably still be in the middle of the ocean!
2: Have you seen any rare animal species?
I think the most interesting animal species we have seen so far is another fin whale off the Portuguese coast. We only saw it very briefly, unfortunately, it was probably feeding. We have also seen Mediterranean gulls, which I had not seen before. They are very pretty, with red legs and beaks and quite like our (British) black headed gulls, but with grey edges to their wings. The other rear species was I think a Pommerine skua, they are very difficult birds to identify from a far. We are also keeping records of any cetacean (whale or dolphins) that we see for the Whale and Dolphin Society.
3: Can you speak any other languages?
Ah, very good question and very important! Well, I learnt French for many years at school, but am a very rusty. I will need to practice again for the Caribbean, as some of the islands are French speaking such as Martinique and Guadeloupe. I am learning Spanish, this will be crucial for working in Central or Southern America where Spanish is the main language. I have books and CDs to follow and they blare out annoying everyone on the boat!
AN EMAIL FROM LISBON, 16 OCTOBER
We anchored in a bay near the city and counted over 73 small fishing boats in the early morning casting nets or guarding lobster pots as well as larger fishing trawlers making their way to Lisbon for the fish markets. Concerns about over-fishing are very strong out here.
We sailed into Lisbon on October 19th after three days at sea from Lexios near Porto. We made incredibly slow process, even going backwards (!) as the wind was non-existent, so Lista just flapped in the breeze. We read and watched birds- plenty of Northern Gannets (like great, white turkeys) flying in lines of three or four and manx shearwaters. Both of these species can be seen off the Devon coastline. Gannets are incredible birds with re-enforced skulls and air pockets in their wing allowing them to dive at height and plunge onto fish below.
Lisbon is the capital of Portugal and an impressive city. We sailed underneath its huge suspension bridge, built in 1966, during the right-wing dictator, Antonio de Oliveira Salazar’s rule from, 1932 to 1968. It was renamed, ‘the 25th of April’ bridge marking the Portuguese revolution of 1974. It is the longest suspension bridge in Europe (1.5 miles) and made by the same engineers as the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The weird thing about the bridge is that it ‘hums’! It sounds like a swarm of hornets as cars and lorries drive across the un-tarmaced surface.
The River Tagus winds into Lisbon’s natural harbour. Archaeologists believe that Phoenicians occupied Lisbon from 1200 BC and that they had a trading post in the centre of the present city. The estuary provided the ideal spot to restock ships travelling to the ‘tin islands’ (Isles of Scilly) and Cornwall. Who would have thought that Lisbon would have such links with the West Country?!
The 15th- 17th centuries marked the age of discovery, with the Portuguese, like the British rushing to find new countries and treasure. Vasco de Gama was Portugal’s famous explorer who left for India in 1497. The 16th century was the golden age for Lisbon. It was the most important city in Europe, trading goods such as spices, slaves, sugar and textiles with: Africa, India, the Far East and later Brazil.
Hello, it’s now 26 October! Sorry for the delay, we had to rapidly move from Cascais, a small fishing harbour nine miles West of Lisbon, as the winds arrived. We have continued to sail down the coastline of Portugal, the night before last anchoring in Portinho de Arrabida, a nature reserve and tonight in Arafana, a tiny bay further down the coast. In Arrabida, we swam nearly a mile to a small beach watching shoals of fish and crabs scuttling across the sand. The current was very strong and you could see seaweed flying across the sea floor like tumble weed. We ran up the hillside to investigate a white washed village. It turned out to be a nunnery with a series of shrines marching up the hillside. We asked if we could visit the nuns, but they were not too impressed, ‘No, no, no, no, no!’
Wooded, herb filled slopes with religious shrines
The plants on the slopes were interesting. Many of them you could find in your local garden centre or botanical gardens. They included evergreen oak and the strawberry tree, which has red bumpy fruits, but I don’ think you can eat them. We also found rosemary growing wild, so collected sprigs to cook with. You can find many household herbs growing wild in the UK, including mint, thyme and marjoram, but make sure you are absolutely sure you have the identified the plant properly before eating it! (Nettles are also surprisingly good if picked when young in the Spring. They are high in iron and you can make soups, stew and tea with them).
Hello Again! Its Halloween, October 31st, I wonder whether you will be eating pumpkin soup and dressing up tonight? We are in Baleeira now in the Algarve and it's raining. We sailed around the most southerly tip of Portugal with the lighthouses guiding us on our way, but now I am sitting in the internet cafe and the woman at the bar is scraping out the inside of a pumpkin to use as a lantern!
Baleeira is a small fishing town. We have been here for a couple of days working on Lista before we leave Portugal. We spoke to a spear fisherman yesterday who snorkels after fish to sell to restaurants. He says there are not many fish, but he did catch eels yesterday. We will leave on Monday/ Tuesday when the winds turn to the north again. Next stop Africa, Morocco!
AN EMAIL FROM Morocco, November 7 2008
The latest report from the floating charabanc!
It’s November 7 2008 and Lista Light is moored against a wall in the fishing harbour at El Jadida, Morocco. We arrived yesterday, after a three day sail from Portugal. It was great to leave Europe behind and sail into the chaos of Africa!
Arrival into El Jadida
I must first tell you about November 5 on the sea, a wonderful day for wildlife. When we are at sea we take turns at keeping watch for boats, fishing pots and other hazards, particularly during the night when visibility is poor. During the night two of the crew members on watch heard a thud and wondered whether we had been visited by a flying fish. In the early hours of the morning when I was sitting at the helm I noticed a small creature, it was not a flying fish, but a common squid Loligo vulgaris! It looked as if it had been sprayed by ink and had huge, rather beautiful eyes.
The common squid is a member of the Cephalopod class. It is a very important member of the food chain, with many animals including fish and whales feeding upon it.
Do you know what the ‘food chain’ is?
The food chain refers to the link between plants and animals that are eaten and what they eat. In the sea, a food chain would be plankton (tiny animals that drift on the current) –common squid which eat them- common dolphin which eat squid.
Can you think of a food chain that occurs in your garden or school playground?
Common squid are also important to humans and have been harvested for centuries. Other sea creatures in the Cephalopod class include octopus and cuttlefish. They have very strong touch, smell, taste and vision. They also have the amazing skill of being able to change their colour depending on their mood or surroundings. They could, for example, hide from predators by merging into the ocean floor or flash with desire towards a possible mate. Common squid are very fast moving and swim to catch their prey, passing it to their ‘beak’ to eat it.
After the squid, arrived the starling! The starling flew onto the boat for a rest. I found an oat cake and soaked it in water and he pecked at it from my hand. I think this was because he was so tired and hungry after flying across the sea (we were more than 30 miles from land). He would likely have died if he had landed on the sea, as his feathers are not adapted to cope with sea water. He stayed with us for a while and even sang to us! Then, out of nowhere another starling appeared and off our starling flew with his new friend!
Have you noticed starlings in the fields at home? They are an interesting species to watch. They are happy in farmland and gardens, but have also adapted to town living where you can find them perched on roofs or telephone wires singing. They have a beautiful speckled and iridescent plumage that shimmers in the light. During the summer the adults become particularly glossy looking and gain a yellow beak, whereas at this time of the year they are less iridescent with a grey beak. Their long, sharp beak is perfect for pecking at worms, leather jackets and other insects in lawns. They are very good singers, often copying other birds and sounds such as car alarms and door bells! They nest in holes such as in oak trees, but in the city like the holes found in houses. So it’s important not to be too tidy and block up all the holes in your houses, because starlings, like many other previously common birds (such as sparrows) are not fairing so well.
In the winter our British starlings are joined by Scandinavian starlings from Finland, Norway and Sweden. They fly south for a warmer winter where more food is available to eat. So as you walk in the countryside you should notice many more starlings flocking together. In the summer, however, when the northern cousins have left our own starlings decrease in number.
Back to Lista Light, so once our starlings had flown away, we were next joined by a chiffchaff that fluttered aboard for awhile. Chiffchaffs are warblers, a family of birds that feed on insects and generally visit Britain in the summer and then leave for hotter countries in the winter when most of our insects have died, are sleeping or changing form etc. This little bird was probably flying south of the Sahara and used Lista as a useful break from flying. Chiffchaffs are amongst the first of our summer bird visitors to return in the Spring and can be recognized by their distinctive song, ‘chiff, chaff, chiff, chaff’, repeated. They can often be found in tree tops picking insects off the bark and leaves.
The next visitor was a sky lark! He called and flapped around the boat, but did not manage to land and flew off. In Baleeira, Portugal we saw crested skylarks flicking around the tops of the cliffs. We do not have this species of skylark in the UK, but they are found in Spain, France, much of Europe and North Africa.
The next spot was a turtle! I have never seen a turtle before and it was too far away to identify properly, but a likely candidate was a leatherback turtle. The leatherback turtle is the world’s largest marine turtle. It spends most of its life in the open sea feeding on plankton such as jelly fish, returning to the land (Tropics) to breed. The leatherback turtles have a thick layer of insulating fat under their skin allowing them to keep warmer than their surroundings, so unlike other turtles they can roam into colder waters. They have been found near Iceland and have wondered over 4000 miles!
Little egrets and fishing boats
After sailing for miles we found a bustling harbour crammed full of small wooden boats, gulls and little egrets! The fishermen were landing conger eel, sardines, shark and every kind of fish. We moored Lista Light by the harbour wall and she looked very fine with all the other fishing boats.
Arrival of fishing boats- port hullabaloo
We walked into the town and found markets full of everything you could ever want to buy, heaps of plastic containers, mountains of brightly coloured spices, fresh vegetables and fruits, particularly: clementines, pomegranates, Jerusalem artichokes and stacks of mint. Goats and cow heads, chickens, turkeys, fish and all kinds of biscuits and cakes. The people wore a mix of clothing from Western trousers, shirts and skirts, to traditional Muslim burkas ( a long lose garment covering the whole body) worn by some of the woman. The most distinctive garment worn by many woman and men, however, were full length cloaks with a hood. It felt like we were wondering around with a whole load of magicians!
Traditional dress- the jalaba
Instead of churches, mosques were scattered through the town like in many Islamic centres and the towers (minarets) can be seen in the town skyline. About five times a day a special man (the muezzin) climbs to the top of the tower and calls the people to worship. Practicing Muslims will then kneel on their special mat and turn to Mecca (the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad) to pray.
A few more facts about Morocco and El Jadida: The currency is Dirhams, the capital city is Rabat. The Atlas mountains run through the South of the country, with the highest peak, Toubkal, rising to 4167m (the highest mountain in Africa is Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania at 5892m). The old port of El Jadida is a World Heritage site because of the merging of European and African cultures between the 15th and 17th centuries. The Green Revolution was celebrated on the day we arrived (6 November) it remembers the same day in 1975 when 3500 Moroccans marched to the Sahara Desert to reclaim it from the Spanish. The march was peaceful and successful. Muhammad VI is the current ruling monarch. The main exports of Morocco are almonds, wax, wool, eggs and sardines.
We plan to stay in El Jadida for at least a week and explore the surrounding area. Please email me if you have any questions.
Spotting wading birds and other coastal birds, El Jadida
AN EMAIL FROM DODDISCOMBSLEIGH PRIMARY SCHOOL, 8.NOVEMBER 2008
All sounds great! There are still lots of starlings back here. What's it like in Morocco and can you tell us more about the animals and the environment? Did you have any fireworks(or see any from your boat) on November the 5th? Where are you going next?
Talking of starlings, Laura has found a book about teaching starlings to sing songs. Here's how you do it. To teach starlings how to sing songs you need to download a ringtone on an old mobile and put it in a place where starlings normally sit or near a starling's nest and with another phone ring the number of the old phone at regular intervals. The starlings then might begin to sing your song. We are tracking your position on the map. That is why we want to know you next .
Great idea about the starling! They definitely should mimic the song on your phone, just make sure it's one you enjoy listening to!!
AN EMAIL FROM THE ATLAS MOUNTAINS, MOROCCO, 23 NOVEMBER 2008
We are still in Morocco. Our boat has been moored in the fishing harbour for over two weeks now. We are using the time to mend her, buy food for our long voyage ahead and write reports.
We caught a bus, rammed full of people and travelled to the mountains, with our bikes slung on top of it. The driver hooted all the way for more people to join us. When we stopped food sellers wondered aboard with bread full of whole eggs, peanut snacks and sweeties.
We arrived in Marrakech. The main square in the old town was full of food sellers with: snails, goats heads and cattle's feet. There was also a kestrel, snake charmers and monkeys! All very odd! We wondered through the souk (a maze of alley ways full of food, jewellery, shoes, clothes, spices etc).
Camels on the road to the Atlas Mountains!
The next day we cycled out of town and up into the mountains. On the way we saw and heard cirl buntings!! Can you believe it- I worked to increase their numbers within the Teign Valley for the RSPB and there they were in Morocco! We also saw chaffinches, blackbirds, robins and wrens! So it felt like being at home. Blackcaps (warblers that breed in the UK in the Summer) fly to Southern Africa in the Winter and we saw them on their passage South, picking off insects from the scrub.
A bend in the road, Atlas Mountains
We cycled high up into the Atlas mountains. It was amazing looking back through the red mountains, crowned with snow to the vast, hot, flat plain below. The villages were mainly built of baked earth, straw and stones (like our Devon cob houses). In the valleys there were apple, almond and walnut trees. They were very green, compared with the stony hills. We camped in an orchard, it was freezing! In the morning we walked up paths to a village. They all ran to greet us (they were not on a road and probably do not see tourists very much). We ate honey, butter and olive oil on flat bread, with mint tea with the villagers (they are the Berber people).
We did not see any mammals in the mountains except stripy ground squirrels scurrying across the rocks. We also saw a praying mantis in a park in the lowlands, in Rabbat, the capital of Morocco.
The snow line, Atlas Mountains
We will probably first sail to Las Palmas in the Canaries. We are thinking of leaving on Tuesday as the wind looks good then.
AN EMAIL FROM La Graciosa, Canary islands December 5 2008
The latest instalment from the Lista Light travels:
We arrived in the Canary Islands last Saturday 29 November, after setting sail from El Jadida in Morocco.
We had some great sailing weather with strong winds, but also very gusty ‘squalls’ (sudden, strong wind and rain), lightning and no wind at all (when Lista Light just flopped around in the sea and we moved nowhere). So we experienced just about every type of weather! Weather is very important to us when we are at sea as it dictates whether there will be enough wind for us to travel anywhere or whether we need to sail in a certain direction to avoid dangerous stormy conditions. We are learning to be weather forecasters by ‘reading’ the sky. Clouds give a big clue about what the weather will do. For example, huge, towering, cotton-wool clouds mounding high into the sky are called ‘cumulonimbus. They bring heavy rain and thundery squalls and can be hazardous to yachts.
Bread at sea
We did not see very much wildlife on our trip South from Morocco, but a pod of common dolphins did come and join us a couple of times and swam at the bow (the front) of the boat. We are keeping all records of dolphin and whale sightings for the Dolphin and Whale Conservation Society. They are working to protect and conserve these animals and need to know where they are in the ocean, when they are there, what they are up to (their behaviour) and where they are going. Our records can help them piece together this jigsaw of information and help them to ensure that they have safe places to breed, with plenty of food.
Half way between Morocco and the Canaries, we noticed that we had a party of black and white stripy fish following us! I don’t know what species of fish they were, but it appeared that they were feeding off the algae and seaweed that is growing under Lista! So you see, we are living aboard our own floating habitat. They followed us all the way to Graciosa, a little island near to Lanzarote where we are living at the moment. It is an amazing island, like stepping on to the moon! All around us are dormant (sleeping ) volcanoes. They are large, pyramid shaped, black hills. They were formed when movements in the earth’s crust caused ‘magma’ (molten –liquid, rock material) to gush up from below the earth’s crust. The black rocks are bubbly like Aero chocolate and are called ‘igneous’ rocks. The rocky surface of the volcanoes is not very friendly to life (inhospitable) with only plants that can live in harsh conditions found at the foot of the slopes.
Volcanoes, sand and birds, Graciosa
There are no roads on the island, only sand tracks. We are moored in the small fishing harbour, surrounded by white-washed houses. Beyond us are the sand dunes and volcanoes. The sand dunes are also inhospitable to life. Only plants that are suited to dry, salty conditions with very few nutrients survive. Plants have adapted to these harsh conditions by trapping water in their leaves, growing thick leaves and stems which stop water from being lost. Plants are often low growing so they do not dry out and shaped so that they can funnel water into their roots. Gradually these plants with their special adaptions trap the sand with their roots and create soil, making the conditions kinder to less specialist plants. Other plants will then be able to move into the sand dunes and a new ‘community’ (group) of plants can grow.
There are some wonderful birds here! I have seen hoopoes, large tiger-coloured birds with showy crests (hats) on their heads, also the great grey shrike. Shrikes are also called ‘Butcher Birds’ this is because they have a nasty habit of catching insects and spiking them on a thorn bush or strand of barbed wire to eat later! There was a rare bird called the Houbara bustard on the island in the 1990s but I’m not sure if it has been seen since. I cannot find it! It is large, almost turkey size and looks a bit like an over grown pheasant. Houbara bustards are also found in Fuerteventura where there is a special reserve to conserve them, so I hope to find them there if not here. The Canary Islands are very important for their birds, Canaries really do live on them and I hope to see one! The islands are important for birds because they have been separated from the mainland (Africa) for a long time. This has allowed birds to evolve (change from the original bird) over hundreds of years so that new species of birds have formed and are found nowhere else in the world. Such birds include: the white-tailed laurel pigeon, the dark-tailed laurel pigeon and the Canary Island chaffinch. In this way, the islands are, therefore, a bit like the Galapagos Islands.
We are mending Lista still (she is after all over 70 years old) and needs lots of care! We will leave Graciosa in the next couple of days and sail down the chain of islands until about 15 December when we shall sail off into the Atlantic! It should be a very odd Christmas and New Year in the middle of the deep blue sea!
I hope you are all well. All the best and I hope you have a GREAT CHRISTMAS AND NEW YEAR!!!
AN EMAIL- ARRIVING IN THE CARIBBEAN AFTER CROSSING THE ATLANTIC, JANUARY 22 2009
Happy New Year! Hope you are all well and had a wonderful Christmas holiday?
We are still alive...
Well, by the skin of our teeth! One night, in the middle of the Atlantic our main mast broke, snapping in two so that the sail and mast fell into the water. It was very scary. We were worried that the mast might puncture a hole in Lista Light's sides. We cut the sail, broken mast and wires free and then readied our emergency bags and life raft. Finally they drifted to the bottom of the ocean and we limped onwards.
Choppy sea and a rainbow
Luckily our boat has two masts (it is a ketch) so we were able to fly one sail on the back mast. The next days were spent creating new back stays and ‘rigging’ (the supports that hold up the mast and sail) for what was left of the main mast. We managed to cobble together a new sail and onwards we sailed!
Incredible cloud patterns and shapes
Otherwise, it has been a wonderful and strange experience:
Our world was made up of the ever changing sky and its clouds, stars and moon and the sea. We only saw one other yacht in the distance, a Russian who was sailing to Africa. Otherwise we were completely alone.
In the middle of nowhere on the Atlantic
That is apart from.....
Lots of storm petrels- little birds that spend most of their life at sea feeding on small fish and plankton. (You can see storm petrels, the size of swallows in the sea around Britain). Also white-tailed tropic birds, spectacular showy birds with long streamer tails that we will be surveying in the Caribbean. Also Atlantic spotted dolphins, common dolphins, pilot whales and .... a minke whale that followed us for four days!!! We kept seeing it surfing a wave behind the boat and then swimming around the boat, blowing water out of its air hole and gliding through the waves. On the last day we saw it continually throughout the day and then it disappeared! You can also see Minke whales in our British waters, particularly Scotland and Ireland.
Christmas on the
We did not sail to the Cape Verde islands in the end, deciding to cross the Atlantic directly from Canary Islands. We took nearly 30 days to cross this huge expanse of water!
The wind stopped blowing for 5 days, so Lista bobbed and we swam!
We have sailed to the little island at the north of the Lesser Antilles called, Sint Maarten. One side of it is owned by the French (St Martin), the other by the Dutch, where we are. This is where the Caribbean conservation organisation called EPIC (Environmental Protection In the Caribbean) who we will be working for are based.
Male magnificent frigate bird
Most of the islands in the Caribbean have lost much of their natural habitat and wildlife. The birds have suffered greatly. Seven thousand years ago when man first came to the islands birds were harvested and eaten as they provided a good source of protein. This continued during the European colonization which began over 500 years ago. Sea birds were easy targets as many of them are not suited to walking on land as they spend most of their lives at sea. Many sit on their nests for a very long time warming their eggs and feeding their chicks. They nest in big colonies which also meant that people could catch lots of birds quickly. Some birds such as the petrels are attracted to lights, so they lit bonfires which the birds flew into. The settlers also brought pets such as cats and dogs that ate the birds. They introduced rats that ate the eggs and chicks of the birds and then Indian Mongeese, because they thought they might eat the rats. Unfortunately, the mongeese preferred eating the native sea birds and lizards which were much easier to catch. Goats and pigs were let loose on the islands and ate all the new tree seedlings so that woods and mangroves could not grow up, trampled nests and caused soil to wash into the sea. People chopped down most of the native woodland and bush, planting coconuts and sugar so that the native wildlife did not have anywhere to live.
White-tailed tropic bird
So the poor birds and other wildlife faced many problems and their numbers went down. Then in the 20th Century, people started holidaying in the islands and more and more people wanted to live on them. Lots of houses and hotels were built particularly around the coastline where the sea birds nested. So now the sea birds are under even more pressure from loss of habitat, pollution, over-fishing etc. and many have had to move to the last remaining little islands to nest where people and the introduced animals are not.
Cruise ships, often up to five in a day, pile into the Sint Maartens
This is where we come in! Our job is to sail to islands in the Lesser Antilles such as Barbuda and the Grenadines and find sea bird colonies. We then have to count the number of nests, chicks and eggs in them and write a report on how many sea birds there are and how they are doing. We have to look for signs of predators such as rats and cats and note whether the birds are being disturbed by people. We will then speak to local people such as fisherman and see whether they know of other sea bird colonies. We will also talk to people about our work and see whether they are interested in helping the sea birds and other wildlife.
I will be adding the wildlife and cetacean (dolphin and whale) records to the green pages of the website, also your emails and a new chapter called Ecology: from flying fish, to Darwin to Birds in the Education section. (Oh and I did a short video in the middle of Atlantic which should pop up soon!)
I would love to hear your news. Please send me any questions or thoughts and have fun!
Very best wishes, Katharine