Category Archives: ocean

The Hunt: With Alastair Fothergill and Huw Cordey

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A tiger sauntering through the long, tall Vetiver grass, an African leopard quietly padding down a gully, a spider delicately reeling out and laying a deadly silken trail….

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Their story begins with the fight to live another day in their unforgiving habitats – these ultimate “villains” of the natural world are given a second chance by Silverback Company Director Alastair Fothergill, Series producer Huw Cordey and their team in an epic visual feast- The Hunt.” Packed with stunning visuals of the like you’ve literally never seen before, dramatic story telling through cutting-edge editing, colours to pop your retinal cones and sound to resonate with your wild animal instincts…The Hunt truly marks the new age for incredibly high-end drama and storytelling.

We (wildlife filmmaking students), were treated to one of the first talks about this remarkable new series….

In the heart of the Chemistry building in Bristol University, barely a student made a shuffle to reveal their presence in the dark. Their only light source permeated from a screen which displayed the never-before seen markings of a new landmark series. Then enters Alastair and Huw- the ultimate documentary predators of our time, a most formidable duo set to storm the wildlife film industry market with a flurry of experience and talented flair… we didn’t stand a chance- we were preparing ourselves to be amazed….

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Alastair Fothergill
Huw Cordey on location in Kenya

They both spoke with such eager passion and confidence about their remarkable 6X60 blue-chip landmark series, which explores the dynamic relationships between predators and prey, each based in a particular habitat, with its own unique challenges. One thing in common that unites these animals is their struggle to survive and fail as predators-something that Alastair really wanted to capture,

“We wanted to put our audiences in the footsteps of a Cheetah. The previous shows have always depicted predators as ‘red tooth and claw, and so this is one of the most exciting relationship to film. We decided to base the animals in different habitats where each of the different ecosystems create these different challenges. Be it the open ocean– a big blue desert with ephemeral and notoriously difficult to find species, or the vast plains of the savannah where there’s nowhere to hide- where competition (interspecific- between different species) between other predators is rife.”

Although he admits that they were going to film the “BBC blue chip” animals (ie: Charismatic species), but also the more unusual such as the ancestral Telophores and Portia Sider.

It took 3-5 years to make, and I’m guessing at least £3 million per episode to make… But when your throwing in all the possible latest kit (Cineflex or ‘Eleflex’ as its known in Episode 2, jibs, cranes, Sony F55’s, helicopters, editing suites, sound crew, SF, musical composers, flights, travel…ect), you can’t expect to get incredible visuals if you cut corners. The remarkable almost mystical image of the polar bear that talented cameraman Jamie McPhearson captured was made possible with the use of the £300,000 cinflex camera and boat crew- and a total of 14 people and 8 weeks to capture that sequence! The co-proability of this series will, I’m certain, make a lot of it back so that we can enjoy even more exciting series to come (such as BBC 1’s One Planet, 2017!)

Alastair mentions he often think about what the next series will be, for example after Frozen planet they decided to look at habitats. But rather than just to look at the polar regions and tropical jungles for a sense of place, they also they turned to a new areas of natural history- animal behaviour…The most exciting dynamic behaviour is arguably between predators and prey. They haven’t forgot about the prey- despite not appearing as the “sexiest” of animals. One such species shown is the snow goose- where it will form large flocks to protect themselves from predators and use instinctive ‘next nearest behaviour’ movements to coordinate the huge triangular flock formations we associate them with.

Off to the Polar Regions in the first episode.  If you live in the poles you have to be adaptable. After frozen planet he was worried there would be no new stories to tell about its iconic wildlife. But again they managed to give us a literal brain freeze with the superlative polar bear sequence filmed by talented cameraman Jamie McPherson– it was absolutely stunning! Hats off to the remarkable colour grading by Adam Inglis, and editing by Andy Netley too. At some point I felt as if I was transported into Narnia with its gorgeous cool colour pallet. These animals are unique in that they change their hunting tactics serval times during the stalk.

“We didn’t manage to capture how this incredible behaviour stats in Frozen Planet, and so we wanted to film it this time.”

This is usually when the ice breaks up and they are no longer hunting seals on the ice. The weather however made it very difficult for the team to make it through one of the most inhospitable places on earth. At the very beginning of summer when there’s meltwater, the skidoos can be used to get through this vast terrain. Polar bears weren’t at all bothered by their presence, if anything they could pose more of a threat to the crew and so they took “polar bear” security very seriously. At the end of summer, the ice breaks into a mosaic of ethereal blue-coloured ice pancakes, which forces the bear to change its behaviour accordingly. The ‘Aquatic stalk’ is where the bear pursues the ringed seals within the water, which is no problem for it is supremely adapted to swim with its webbed feet and high body fat ratio to prevent it from dying of hypothermia. The metal boat allowed the crew to move in the ice and move with the bear, use the parallax of the moving ice in a beautiful way, which led to creating this incredible sequence.

Another polar tale was filmed at Elsmere Island, most northerly Canadian islands. It is the nearest land to North Pole, 8 degrees north, and a total population of UK and Scotland (150 people), most of which are Inuit. This lack of people that makes it perfect for Arctic wolves, they are completely fearless of people. The challenge here for the team was keeping up with these finely tuned long-distance runners which can reach speeds of up to 40mph. So a larger crew was needed on the ice… 2 cameramen, 1 wolf scientist, 1 producer and 1 helicopter pilot. Then it was Arctic hare characters that leaped into the story with the wolves, leading to a rather entertaining sequence!

In this weeks episode we take a look at one of my favorite animals of all time- the Cheetah. This evolutionary powerhouse can run at 56mph at its top speed for 10 seconds, and has to get within 50m of its prey before the lactic acid burns into its fast twitch muscles and need to slow down to recover. The stalk is a very important part of the sequence, and the amazingly talented high-speed specialist camerawoman Sophie Darlington and the team tried to emulate this hugely important behaviour and put the audience in the footsteps of the cheetah… where every detail and sinew of the hunt can be analysed. They filmed it at a level of detail never seen before, capturing a very intimate and tense moment…at which most cheetahs will fails at this point to successfully make a kill.

This sequence was made possible with the use of the Cineflex- slowing the image by 40 times at 1000fps. This ‘black ball’ is home to a very powerful lens, with gyroscopic stabilizers which could make Taylor Swift’s Shake it off look like a graceful ballet. Mounted onto a make shift arm on the safari vehicle…it makes for the most remarkable follow up shots as the animal glides through the savannah grasslands. They were able to track the cheetah alongside it as it stalked without disturbing it from 100m away, preventing any interference. Alastair tells us rather counterintuitively that one of the skills about filming cheetahs is…

“Don’t follow the cheetah… Predict and follow WHERE the prey will go, and then go beyond it to try and capture the “down the barrel shot.”

Talented camerawoman Sophie Darlington

The Massia field guide, Sammy Munene, had the superb ability to get the team in the right place at the right time to capture one of the highlights of the series.

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“The last and most crucial thing is to choose the RIGHT Cheetah.” They spent much time deciding who would be their hero…and it was to be Malaika, BBC’s Big cat diaries star, with four 8 month old cubs. Such a remarkable feat for a feline, as 50-70% of cubs die at within their first 3 months. She was under pressure to kill every day for her young and growing family- and so the action heated up…2 cameras on the vehicle, 2 aerials and 6 weeks later led to the team capturing one of the most detailed and incredible hunting sequences of all time. Make sure you tune in this Sunday (TODAY) 9pm BBC One to see it!

But it’s not just all about mammals- the army ant sequence filmed by the brilliant Jonnie Hughes was a feast for the entomological eye and bliss for keen sound recording artist. Just enough of the tittle-tattle sound of the tiny footsteps of one of the smallest and yet deadliest of predators in the rainforest, which demolished everything in its wake.

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Equally the Darwin’s bark spider featured in episode 2 certainly proved that what it lacks for in size it makes up for in awe and charisma (YES I used an anthropomorphic word!) This spider was only described by science in 2009, and perhaps the reason it has never been filmed before. But nevertheless the teams found that the spiders were quite easy to find, and yet was still challenging in that they required just the right amount of wind and light to film. Huw tells us rather unwittingly that the number of camera kit cases required on such a shoot is inversely proportionate to the size of the animal- and with over 40 cases weighing over 40 tonnes… you can see why!

To really tell the story about the spider, a similar camera set up to the other sequences was required to get the shots they were after with all the dramatic elements and action. This quirky arachnid sprays out a stream of silk for over 20m, with which we are informed by the voice of natural history, Sir David Attenborough, that such material is stronger than steel. This sequences took 5 weeks (almost as long as the Wild dog and cheetah sequences) and so was no mean feat of technical skill and patience… even the smallest of creatures require the same level of detail to pull off a good story.

Of course our beloved hero Sir David Attenborough narrated The Hunt, with such verve and passion that it simply wouldn’t be the same without him!

The sound effects of the silk being expelled sounds rather like a spring coil being trailed along the floor, and is rather entertaining I must say! Anyone hear the sucker squelching sound of the crocodile’s nictitating membrane of its eye opening and closing? Or the mission impossible zipping effects of the Portia spider? The last squeaking breaths of the mantis? Hats off to the foley effects artist for being so brave! The music throughout the series has been quite sublime, the perky little notes with our smaller insect protagonists and action bass heavy chase sequences creates so much depth and engages the audience further. Clearly Alastair and Huw were proud of their music assembly and so they should be. Attenborough’s performance as a narrator and storyteller as always is faultless…a true master of hitting every single syllable and verb with incredible passion and verve- what a true legend!

The shear amount of dedication that went into making this series is truly astounding – and a HUGE inspiration to us up-coming wildlife filmmakers. Now that we’ve learned about how the whole team coordinates and how the industry works, we can really appreciate the hours, blood, sweat, tears, talent and of course money that goes into blue-chip productions like this. But if you have the right team, you end up with a remarkable piece of natural history that will inspire others to want to protect these fascinating species, with their array of intriguing animal behaviours.

Can’t wait to see what’s next for the team! (**Hint hint.. Keep watching out on BBC 1 and Netfilx!**) Tune into BBC One tonight 9pm to see the Cheetah hunt!

 

[All images above were taken by BBC staff and I do not take any credit for them, simply sharing their content in a review/analysis/report].

 

 

Ocean Film Festival 2015 – Bristol

Having a Whale of a time

Saturday was the International Ocean Film Festival UK Tour at the rather splendorous Victoria Rooms- a regular concert hall for the students of Bristol University. What a fitting venue to showcase some of the worlds most inspirational ocean based films, from the icy expanses of the Arctic, the colossal depths of the pelagic Southern African oceans to the rip-roaring undulations of waves off the coast of Hawaii- this 2 hour plunge into the ocean will literally leave you gasping for air…

I chose to go to this rather than the opening of the Encounters Festival as I feel assessing your own response and emotions towards the films is far more valuable in terms of learning a great deal about what works within this industry. That and wanting to watch some epic shots of surfers, photographers and divers!

First up was the hugely gob-smackingly courageous and gutsy “The Fisherman’s son” filmed by Chris Malloy, about Chilean born surfer pro, Ramon Navarro– a son of a subsistence fisherman off the once sleepy shores of Punta de Lobo. His entire life path was shaped by the random kindness of a visiting surfer who had given him one of his old surf boards to practice on. So Ramon would head out onto the rough swells of the Pacific Ocean- the largest in the world… where his passion and connection with the Ocean fueled a gritty determination to explore the world. The journey of this gentle fisherman was captured with an assorted collection of local interviews as well as with his good pro surfer friends.The lighting during these was actually quite ethereal and intimate; capturing that sense of mystery about this once unknown fisherman.

He now has such a huge following that he uses this power to campaign against the development of his hometown- something which I hugely admire with any “celebrity.” I think the ability to use your voice as a vehicle to influence others when you have such a following is almost a duty, but more importantly it should be something that comes naturally, the want to make a difference in the world. ALL of the sequences of Ramos and his chums tearing down the jaw-droppingly immense waves are as remarkable as they sound… the elegance with which Ramos executed the anglelings, kick outs, aerials (dude yes, I’m down with the lingo), was exhilarating. The man would never fall off! He glided seemingly endlessly across the water, and with such ease that its a surprise that he hasn’t the nickname Jesus de Chile. Check out the film here:

Next up was a rather quirky short with a very talented sand artist, depicting the unseen problems and ignorant relationship we have with the ocean. He dashes his sand across his glass, and in an almost hypnotic way in rhythm to the music, where he then moves his fingers across to paint the picture. The destruction of our oceans through dredging, pollution and over fishing are just some the highlights of this short but powerful film.

The next film was a rather remarkable journey of a South African surfer who rose above a physical and mental tragedy of losing his ability to walk. It was the Ocean where he sought to take his own life, and yet the very place where by an inevitable twist of fate that he found it once more. He describes his difficulty in accepting his condition, and then this almost leading to his “collapse into the abyss”. And yet feeling the “strength” and “spiritual power” of the ocean is what led to him living a full and adventurous life, sailing his own boat solo across the Indian Ocean, meeting fascinating people and places. DevOcean is a real reminder of how EVERY individual has a powerful journey to make and its how their attitude towards life can be shaped by the natural world around us. Top short film.

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After a short break – with the light-hearted topic of contemplating the meaning life with a fellow course mate and friend, we returned to watch another repertoire of unbelievable stories created by indie filmmakers. Arctic Swell, although a short film, shows the incredible photographic talents and remarkable endurance of Chris Burkard and a team of surfers up by the freezing sub-zero temperatures of Norway. Nevermore so has the preconception of a typical blonde surfer with a bronzed tan and generally not wearing much been so overruled… deep within the Arctic circle, with wind chill and waves that carry seemingly endless pancakes of cobalt-blue icebergs are the team of dedicated explorers- keen to capture the majesty and beauty of this raw landscape. The colours are some of the most awe-inspiring I’ve seen, and the contrasts between the hues and tones makes his photography truly magical. Check out some of his incredible work: http://www.chrisburkard.com/

The next one was rather unusual and quirky, The Fox of Bloody Woman Island was about the unusual life of one Nordic traditional Viking boat builder- Ulf. Another short, this was certainly the weakest of the cohort, but nevertheless fun to watch the hilarious antiques of this solitary wild man of the woods. He certainly was a very talented wood worker, and incredible audaciously bold to skinny dip every day in the sharp, cold dark waters of the Nordic Fjords. A true Viking at heart! The next small short was quite extraordinary, the remarkable talents of young 6 year old Quincy Symonds, known as the Flying Squirrel. Growing up with health complications and yet being able to surf with extreme accuracy and flair really made for an inspirational story. I mean what were we all doing aged 6- starting to ride a bike? A hear-warming tale of the families journey through her health problems and overcoming them together…Little surfer was all very Disney like.

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Finally we come to the last film about Hanli Prinsloo, an ex-pro free diver, from Johannesburg. She certainly took our breath away with her outstanding ability to dive deep into the depths of the ocean, all the while gliding with eloquent grace like the marine beauties she so ardently seeks to film. Having had many years as a successful Pro Diver in the World Championships, she decided that taking a larger conservation role and enjoying the beauty and thrilling experiences that the oceans has offer was far more rewarding. Be prepared to see her diving with some of the worlds most incredible marine species- Mako, Blacktips, Blue sharks and dolphins! Ocean Minded was a fantastic way to end the stream of awe-inspiring films.

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Here’s a short clip of her reason for her love of the Ocean and her work with the Ocean Conservation trust.

All films had a remarkable inspirational and motivational message to get across, which was most fitting as my course friends and I are about to embark on our own journeys into the world of Wildlife Filmmaking. I really do feel so blessed and fortunate to be able to have this opportunity, not only personally to pursue a childhood passion, but hopefully to be able to make a difference to this most beautiful blue planet of ours.I hope you can join all of us on this exciting adventure and be prepared to see some incredible, staggeringly beautiful people, places and nature around the world!

Help support the ocean and go on a 2 minute beach clean!

Into the realms of Giants- Whale watching in South Africa

It is only when, for the first time, that you see one of these COLOSSAL creatures in their element do you realise how small species we are – and yet able to cause so much damage to the world’s greatest biome that the Great whales live in.

These great whales are frequently found along the coasts of South Africa as the currents that pass through the Indian Ocean bring up-welling’s of nutrients and food to feed these 20 tonne giants. This is where the fresh, cooler waters from Antarctica meet with the warmer currents of the Pacific. However the main reason for the presence of the whales is to mate– this is literally a clubbing lek for whales wanting to find love, and also for mothers to give birth to their calves. Many locals have told me about remarkable sightings of females being pursued by amorous males for many kilometres on end, what sight that must be!

Their numbers are slightly increasing since the 1970’s ban imposed by the Whaling Union in Durban, and the dreadful practice of killing these magnificent mammals has halted. Most people now see the whales as being more valuable alive than dead which is huge plus. The whaling industry was hugely prolific back in the 1950s, from the shores of Argentina and South Georgia, (in particular during the Falklands war). South African whaling stations along the coast were also being established along False Bay where the meat was processed, where you can see remnants of the place today. Namibia also had a large station as well as Durban and Cape Town as well as in New Zealand and South Australia.

South Africa, DURBAN, Sperm Whale Caught, WHALING (1910s)

Thankfully, there are dedicated researchers setting off into the blue in all weathers to study different species and populations around the entire coast of South Africa. This is principally conducted by aerial photography, isotopic DNA analysis from  samples as well as fin photography. Through identifying individuals, the researchers are able to determine the return of philopatric individuals, where previous calves were born and returned to their birth place to mate and give birth themselves. Humpack whales in particular are attuned to this cycle. They will take 3 years to recover from giving birth, as it’s a very energetic process. I’m pretty sure if I was that big and gave birth to a 4m, 1.5 tonne baby I’d be in no hurry for more…

To see whales in their natural environment has always again been a life-long ambition. Watching Sir David Attenborough documentaries, and seeing incredible camera operators such as the multi-talented and hardy Doug Allen and Diddie made me want to come into contact with these gentle giants myself. Ocean Safari’s made this possible with their coastal tours of Plettenberg Bay, they are the oldest whale watching tour guides on this part of the coast and offer discounts to volunteer students (was 800 rand, now to 500 rand which is around £25-27) for 3 hours of whale watching. You have different excursion times from 9:00am, 12:00 and 2:00pm daily throughout the whole week (weather dependent). So you should always call up if you want to have a tour and book it.

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The boat names Fat Boy, after the local name for the Southern Right Whales

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The different species of whales you can see include Southern Right, Humpack whale, Brydes whales, and bottle nose dolphins, common dolphin, sharks, cape seals and Orca! The possibilities are endless. The Captain of the Ocean Dafir’s was Marvin, who was an expert sailor- and I asked him how long he’d been sailing this particular vessel- and his response of 15 years assured me that we would be in good company and able to see and spot the whales. Our guide was equally qualified and friendly to us all. We had a quick safety briefing as usual and then headed off to the Plett central beach bay with our life jackets.

We were ready to set sail!

Thrash! We speed off towards the sea and jet stetted off towards the headland of Roberg where the Cape Seal colony resides. The weather had improved significantly compared to the previous day, although clouds did loom ominously in the distance. I had taken my trusty sea sickness tablet, Kwells, which I would recommend taking even if you “don’t get sea sick,” just because it give you that reassurance. I warn you, you WILL GET WET.

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Do take a rain jacket if the company you go with doesn’t provide you with one. The sea salt will leave you looking like a shipwrecked drugged up model with sea salted hair but don’t let that put you off! It was glorious bouncing along the Indian Ocean, and being kissed by the spray peppering our face. As we approached the seal colony everyone grabbed their cameras and gasped at the extent of the Seals climbing abilities. These were apparently the highest climbing seal colonies in South Africa, some at least 40m above the progressively swelling sea that thrashed against the rocks, sending a jet of white foam into the air like flecks of white paint.

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Above is Roberg, a fantastic place to hike and below the seal colony is visible as well as the whales and sharks!

P1010393  Posing for the camera! Cape Seals on the rocks. There’s a fantastic opportunity to “Swim with seals” which is run by the same company.P1010376P1010404P1010429

I’m not going to lie, I was a little perturbed by the size and progressive onset of swells that efficaciously emerged from the seemingly endless ocean- this was my first experience on a boat on a choppy day. I have previously been on a dolphin safari in Spain, but the waters were tame compared to this. As we bounced along the sea, we kept focusing on the sea horizon, and the reassuring words of our friendly guide who assured us we would see Whales, and to keep looking out for the spouts of spray. The humpbacks and Southern Right whales have the two blow holes from which they breathe when they surface.

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Yes that is a helicopter drone you can see above the spray, they are being used now to take samples of the animals and take aerial photos- top class!

The sound they make as they breach is a characteristic “ptfffffffff” which is seemingly imperceptible amongst the sound of the waves and wind resonating through the hull of the boat. Everything seemed to be a Whale, every wave! After 30 minutes even I was beginning to lose hope and wish the trip was over as my stomach began to churn…but then I saw the cool waters break and an immense grey dark shape emerged from the depths and glided across the surface effortlessly, the afternoon light reflecting profusely along its streamlined body- it was a Humpack!

“Over there!” I gasped in awe.

The captain and guide then followed my hand signal to my surprise, was it a whale or did I imagine it? Nevertheless we sped on, and then there it was again, the spouting and the appearance of the whales back, this time accompanied by a miniature version of itself- a calf! This was a female travelling with its mother, perhaps one that had been born there and now off to feed. They did indeed seem to be hungry and moved with remarkable speed. I had no time at all to take photos, and so filmed everything on the GoPro. I would recommend the same. The water and spray could really damage your camera, and the Gopro on the selfie stick works wonders as a stabiliser.

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We followed them towards the north and Roberg, and then were surprised to see yet another whale join us at the side, and fluked with its broad and knarred tail, slipping once more into the deep dark depths of the ocean. It’s truly was magical. Then to top it all off, one of the males breached and its immense body left the waters for seconds, water streaming down its muscular and colossal body, and then landed with an all mighty splash. Wow! We saw a few more sightings of the mother and calf, and I believe we saw up to 4 individuals all busy on their way to feed or mate…

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And then all of a sudden as soon as it had started, it was all over, and the skipper had already extended our trip to get further views, and so we headed back past the seal colonies. I spoke to our guide about any BBC film crews that had shot in these waters, and apparently Dolphin Army was filmed off these waters! I mentioned my plans to film in South Africa as part of my final film project next year, and he said that they would be more than happy to accommodate students! Score!

So who knows, I may return to film some of these remarkable marine species in more detail the following year. But if you’re around Plett or South Africa in general, I can’t recommend a Whale Safari more highly, it’s one of those experiences that never leaves you, and it’s now made more aware of what we’re putting into our oceans. As part of the #BigBlueLive filming that will shortly hitting our screens on the BBC, I think it’s vital that we get behind our gentle giants of the oceans and keep putting pressure on our governments to create more marine reserves around our waters in the UK and worldwide. Happy Whale watching!

Bioparc Fuengirola Zoo

Komodo dragons, Bengal tigers, Western Lowland Gorillas and Binturongs….not only are they found across the furthest stretches of the verdant Indonesian islands, equatorial Africa and the depths of the everlasting stretches of Asian forest, but this array of superb species are all found in the rather non-tropical heart of the Costa Del Sol.

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Situated in the busy coastal town of Fuengirola is Bioparc zoo. This spectacularly simulated zoo with over 260 species and 1600 animals, with collections from Equatorial Africa, Asia and South America was established in 1981 with the name Fuengirola Zoo. As a member of EAZA and AIZA it partakes in the Endangered Species Breeding Programme (EEP). The zoo was entirely rebuilt in 2001 and renamed Bioparc with its new ethos and free of barriers concept. There is glass of course! But the overall impression makes it feel like you are watching them in the wild. The architectural design of the enclosures attempts (and in my opinion, succeeds) to recreate the natural habitats of its fury, scaly and smooth inhabitants. The entire experience allows you to stroll through each of them in a rather immersive fashion, encapsulating the feel of the wild ecosystems and the continuity of the design is overall very pleasing to the eye.

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Take this man made Baobab tree (Adansonia digitata), yep, it’s made of concrete and clay! Originally constructed from wires them plastered with cement, it accurately depicts this revered tree, which can store over 30,000 litres of water during the rainy season. It is often called the “upside down tree” for obvious reasons or “tree of life” due to its succulent fruits which ripen during the dry, scorching African and Australian summers. The seeds are incredibly nutritious and the bark is used for all sorts; including musical instruments, waterproof hats and homes. The leaves can handily treat kidney problems, bladder disease, asthma and insect bites. These ancient trees can live for over 5,000 years and have been central to local folklore in Africa as well as traditional remedies. All are deciduous and can reach impressive heights of 5-20 metres. Their rather bloated pinkish barks are easily carved/hollowed out and lived in by several African tribes, with up to a staggering 40 people residing in the cavern. Other unusual uses for the tree have included a bus shelter, storage barn, shop and prison!

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On my route around the park, I first encountered a Lowland Gorilla, which was a remarkable specimen; a large adult male who’s been around for quite some time now. I do feel sorry for the poor old chap, Ernest, I can’t help but imagine him in his native forest in the Congo. The gorillas first arrived 2004 from the Royal Rotterdam Zoological Garden; Kim, Xara and Ernst. Brazza monkeys also inhabit the enclosure and are perfectly happy to share their space with their larger counterparts. The enrichment includes trees and tyres with a small artificial waterfall and stream, and visitors can see him through a large 6x6m glass frame. Photography is made a LOT easier with this architectural pleasure! Indeed this is a thought, for all of the enclosures contain this if not open air plan. Although mind, keep your ISO up to at least 800 in the shade, then switch back to 200 when back in full daylight. The Spanish sun always causes a lot of contrast in your images, whereas in my experience in the UK its doesn’t create enough, so keep checking your settings when on holiday, and make sure you shoot in RAW so you can edit them later on in Photoshop.

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I also went into the lemur enclosure, where they roam free and approach you at their will. There are strict rules of not touching them, but they most certainly approach you if you happen to have fruit in your bag! I had apricots and apples in mine which caught the attention of a particular Red Ruffed lemur. The Ringtails were bursting with energy as we approaches, literally bouncing off the palm trees like fuzzy black and white pinballs as they jostled for the best position to knock each other over. Lemurs are highly social and communicative primates, and are the oldest- at the base of our phylogenetic tree. Our common ancestors once came from theirs too. Often the young males partake in “stink fights” by rubbing their tails furiously along their studded thumb projection on their hand, whilst females are often far more aggressive as the dominant, stripy- trouser wearing members of the troop.

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The Black ruffed were rather inactively grooming themselves, I would recommend visiting them earlier in the morning, I went at 11am, and they were still all fairly active, but even earlier or later on in the evening when the air is still and cool, is perfect. It’s a most wonderful feeling to get so close to our little hairy cousins, their large, amber coloured eyes protrude from their head and stare at you in a rather primitive fashion- its not like the sentinel and meaningful gaze of a chimp or Gorilla, but nevertheless still a magical moment. In the wilds of Madagascar these beautiful creatures are critically endangered (Red Ruffs and Indris), primarily due to habitat destruction. Over 90% of the forests have been destroyed, GONE FOREVER. Although replantation programmes are in place, it will take many years for the ecosystems to recover, indeed, any forests that are cut also require time to recover as the mycorrhizal fungi that connects and symbiotically associates with certain trees are also destroyed- life is NOT that simple! There is hope though now, many breeding programmes across the world are now able to add to the genetic pool and many babies are born each year in captivity, ready to be released into the wild when the time is right.

Walking over a reassuringly, well-constructed bridge, Chimpanzees were frolicking and residing next to a cool pool with nothing more better to do than pick their noses and groom their companions. Their gaze is entirely different to that of the Lemur, behind those dark emblazoned eyes is something far more meaningful and intelligent, which is of course one the reason why we share 98% of our DNA with them. Some of the relaxing poses were remarkably similar to that of a human, scary in some way! Even reminding me of particular yoga move my teacher is fond of- I don’t think I will be able to get a mental image of that chimp out of my mind now during my next session! Flashes of “Rise of the Planet Apes” also come to mind, but then you are reminded of the high elevation the impossibility of one nabbing a bamboo cane to use as a vault pole to escape… but you never know.

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The stunning leopards were up next through the maze of palm trees, who were also relaxing on a log. The mother, Toni and the once cub, (now a two year old, he has grown a lot since I last saw him!) Again, another small enclosure for a big cat, but nevertheless a well-constructed one. Some scientists argue that cubs, having been born in captivity have no prior knowledge to life in the wild, thus it is not unethical to keep them in enclosures. My argument is that evolutionary and instinctively these animals need VERY LARGE areas to roam as they would do in their natural habitats. It’s hard-wired in their DNA, so how on earth are you supposed to observe natural behaviour and reintroduce healthy characteristics and traits into the gene pool with this sort of restriction? It is however remarkable view, only 6 metres away from one of the rarest felines in the world. Its coat was irrefutably a thing of beauty, dappled in the light, with brown swirls and rosettes splayed along its golden back and delicate face. Its flank was cream coloured, and his large paws dangled down while he slept and rested his head on his mother’s back. He only stirred to look up at the young children tapping the glass, and then rather nonchalantly returned to his dream state. What a privilege.

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Further along were the stunning Sumatran tigers, with their enormous paws and burning eyes.. However it was clear to me that they were clearly disturbed. The incessant pacing and non-meaningful stare into the unknown are classic signs of “zoochosis” as coined by Bill Travers of the Born free foundation or stereotypical behaviour. This deeply upsetting behaviour is due to extreme boredom, frustration and usually a lack of enrichment. For all the marvellous recreations of the Angkor watt temple, complete with a mini-waterfall and stream, as well as large fallen logs and a bamboo forest, the enclosure was simply not large enough for this fierce some predator. I always get a thrill to see them, but no in this condition. They did play around with each other for a short time which was lovely to see, check out my video below.

Next up were the Biturongs… now a year ago I NEVER heard of them. With a monkey-like tail, body like a bear and a face like a cat many call this 2-3ft animal a bearcat. Their short, stocky bodies and coarse shaggy hair give it its distinctive appearance. They inhabit the tropical rainforests of South-East Asia in the densest and remotest regions, and their main threats to their survival in the wild is, ye you guessed it, habitat destruction. These little quirks of evolution reveal many fascinating insights into its family, the Viverridae which includes the Civets and Gneets, under the order carnivore… thus is not related to bears or cats, but part of a very old group of medium sized mammals found in the Old World (East). They primarily eat fruit, eggs, plant shoots, fish, birds, small mammals and carrion. However they have a mutualistic relationship with the strangler fig, whose digestive enzymes are strong enough to remove the husk of the seed, and thus plays a vital role as a keystone species, spreading the seeds far and wide. The scent glands located underneath its tail, which is dragged along the foliage when it patrols its territory, and the smell is apparently similar to buttered popcorn! Can’t say the same for a leopard! Living in the tree canopy, they are superlative climbers and use their semi-retractable claws to move with agility throughout the forest trees. With its prehensile tail to aid it (only the second carnivore in the Old world to have one, other than the Kinkajou) with its climbing. I tell you what, I’m beginning to think that having a tail would be pretty useful for my own, or indeed caving! Avatars have it right after all…Nearby were the Alligators too, which you can see at very close quarters, remarkable ancient looking creatures.

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The very exciting a new Komodo dragon enclosure was really interesting, it was my second encounter with one of these prehistoric looking reptiles. The enclosure resembled another one ancient temples at Angkor Watt, complete with its little stream and sandy court yard. It wasn’t very active initially, but then it picked up a scent as it flicked its tongue, tasting the air as it retracted it into its mouth, from which it can use the molecules of air to taste what its surroundings are giving off. It has relatively similar vision to humans, so it’s a useful sense to have. He then waddled towards a pile of small pebbles, which initially I thought were eggs, and started digging them up. Although they seem rather lazy and cumbersome in terms of their gait, they can move pretty fast as monitor lizards, at 20kmph. Of course they are known for their powerful bite which inflicts much damage to its prey in that the repulsive bacteria congregating in its mouth with almost certainly cause its victim to die of septicaemia or blood poisoning.

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 Later on I went to a “Jungle event/animal exhibition” whereby trained animals are on show, including kookaburras, Asian Otters, Sitatunga, Wild Peccaries and several other birds of prey. I always enjoy a good show, which is in both English and Spanish, wand lasts for around 20 minutes. By then my camera battery had run out and I was a spectator without a camera, which I actually enjoyed! Although I occasionally used my mobile. The last animals I went to visit were the flying foxes, VERY CUTE Old World bats which were busily scoffing down an assortment of succulent fruits such as mangoes and banana which seemed to be their particular favourite.

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Bioparc Fuengirola is a fantastic day out, one which I would highly recommend; it only costs you £13 with the discount card you can pick up at the Miramar centre. They even have African dance night, which I went to last year and was great, the atmosphere is electric and the buzz you get from dancing is positively euphoric! Its also a very good time to see the animals out and about. If you need any tips on getting there, or would like to know about any of the animals there, get it touch!

IMG_2466-001“Boundless Nature”

July 24th July: Nerja caves

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The cool, still quietness of a cave really makes you reflect upon how our how our ancestors pace of life was likely to have been.

I went to see the infamous Nerja caves today with my Dad, and what an incredible experience, one that every one of all ages should have the pleasure of experiencing. Recent dating tests on the superlative paintings in the Upper Gallery of the Caves of Nerja, in Málaga, Spain, have confirmed that they are indeed the OLDEST PAINTINGS in the world made by humans.

Moreover, these remarkable relics of the past , dated between 42,000-45,000 years old are the first to have been painted by Neanderthals, our closely related cousins. We drove there ourselves via the main A7 road towards Malaga and Almeria, google can pretty much give you a direct route to the village there and having recently built a new section of the motorway, it’s a smoother drive than ever and the coaches aren’t that cheap, at 23€ without a tour and 29€ with one. If you can rent out a car then it would be worth it, but if you wish to have a tour then the best package is with “Viajes maxy excursions and sightseeing.”

The sights to the quaint little town of Nerja are about 1 hour 20 from Mijas. What a joy to see the Spanish scrubland and agricultural scenes on the way. I happened to catch a ride early in the morning at 8:40am by the Galp petrol station with my Dad, as I had stayed with a friend at Los Alamos.

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The journey…

We set off early to avoid the searing Spanish sun and heat wave which was forecasted prior to our journey. The journey itself was a very easy and relaxing one, (apart from the fact I wasn’t driving!) and the scenery was rather pleasant to look at. I must admit, the fog cover and arid scenery made an impression on me, and since a young child I have been use to the rather dry-looking Mediterranean scrub; a very stark contrast to the UK which is primarily green and seemingly enveloped in a shroud of mist that makes everything look like it has been painted with watercolours. Petrol to Nerja from Mijas or Fuengirola would roughly cost you around 17€.

Shopping…

The souvenirs are relatively cheaper in Nerja and Maro than at the cave itself, with postcards (cheapest 0.25€), decorative plates (3.00€), pieces of polished crystal (2.00€), fake dinosaur eggs (don’t ask me why), and much more.

The shops in Nerja were actually really beautiful, with many artisan and hand-crafted jewellery with exquisite designs. Many organic and natural looking shaped pieces. Cool and in-style cotton clothing also adorned the shops as well as the in-fashion Bermuda loose trousers with quirky patterning, I have recently acquired such a pair from the Fuengirola market.

I happened to come across a beautiful Native American Indian shop, with stunning pieces of jewellery, small carved animal necklaces of turquoise, bone and silver. The Native Americans, to the utter disbelief of the Europeans, never used gold in their designs, but silver was prominently crafted into all sorts. Dream catchers dangled from the ceiling and traditional Native American Indian music emanated from the speaker, I remember recalling that I had that very same CD! In the end I bought a dream catcher necklace and a lovely horse key ring for my Mum. Such clean streets and brightly coloured doors and flowerpots, this town clearly take pride as a top Spanish tourist destination. The Plaza there had spectacular views of the Nerja beaches below, with beautiful arches and palm lined walking areas. There’s even a life size statue of the old king Filipe, couldn’t resist a photo!

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IMG_1809If beaches is your thing and not delving into the depths of a dark and damp cave, then the Nerja beaches wont disappoint.  This is the El Playazo beach that lies to the West, with superlative aquamarine waters and white sandy stretches of sand; it has been awarded the Blue Flag by the European Union who have recognised its pristine condition, unlike the more popular Costa Del Sol.IMG_1812

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We then had lunch in the rather un-scenic and dusty car park, and headed off towards the caves, located only 3km from the Nerja town. We parked for free just outside the main car park which is to walk through the Sierra de Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama nature reserve, so if you want to avoid costly parking charges its best to park here. Saw a really quirky van that had been vandalized with “Can’t park here…this is bat country!”

You see what bat people do to your cars at night!

We headed over to the ticket office and purchased our tickets for a 9€, then descended into the dark, musty entrance of the cave.

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Guides to the area (above) and (below) the car park you have to pay for!

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Although the air almost instantaneously changed to a heavy, dank quality, the coolness and quiet of this natural wonder was very welcoming, also having escaped the 36 degree heat. We entered the various different chambers that crossed under the National Park, vast ceilings were adorned with varying sized stalactites which had taken hundreds of thousands of years to form.

IMG_2003Just a small section of one of the stunning stalactites protruding fro the ceiling. Please note, when planning to take photos here, if you have an SLR or compact, PLEASE bring a tripod, I shot everything with ISO 3200+,  you are not allowed to use flash rather annoyingly and so the stability brought by your trusty tripod will allow you to capture the colossal columns and cave formations.IMG_1989

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The stalagmites pointed towards the ceiling towards their creators, forming unusual shapes and with several different shades of green and beige. The series of colossal caverns stretch for almost FIVE kilometres and are home to the world’s largest stalagmite, a gigantic 32 metre high column measuring 13 metres by 7 metres at its base seen below.

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The Cuevas de Nerja have been open to the public since 1960, having been discovered by five local Maro boys who happened across this “Cueva de marvillas”. It was declared as Project of Cultural and its geological, biological and archaeological importance continues to fascinate and enthral thousands of visitors annually. Every year in July, the International Music and Dance Festival takes place in the Caves which is apparently a truly amazing experience, we happened to have visited on that very day! But unfortunately it was late in the evening and only really accessible to visitors who happened to live nearby or have a hotel to return to.

The tour itself takes around 45 minutes and apart from escaping the mid-day heat, is a truly remarkable experience, more so if you’re into caving and speleology. They even have a speleo activity/adventure for the more keen visitors where they get access to the restricted pats of the cave, called Galerías Altas y Nuevas (High and New Galleries). The Rooms of Columnas de Hércules (Hercules´Pillars), Inmensidad (Inmensity), La Galería de los Niveles (Levels Gallery) and La Sala de la Lanza (Lance Room) are ventured into and an extra booking and registration are required for visiting. I didn’t have time myself, but looks really worth it if you’re planning on spending the whole day there, and you’re with a fit group of willing friends.

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Just when my eyes had accustomed to the everlasting darkness of the caverns, and its welcoming coolness, no sooner we had then left the cave and the light came flooding into my retina. Back into the sun and heat. The gift shop was funky, with some rather cute canvas bag with bats printed on.

We then drove up to Frijilliana. This quaint little village in Southern Spain, is seemingly perched precariously on the edge of the Parque Natural Sierras de Tejeda mountains. Rather similar to Mijas, the stunning backdrop provides breath-taking views, with reminiscing remnants of its rich history. The Moors once ruled here, as well as across the region on Andalucía. The Arab population played a prominent part in history, and have left behind reminders of their fascinating and rich culture  in the form of food and architecture, to be seen everywhere you look. The hill pictures above, overlooking Frigiliana was the scene for the final battle for the Moors of Axarquia. Many moors who didn’t want to suffer defeat threw themselves to their deaths from the summit rather unremittingly, so peace is only recent in these parts. Indeed in terms of geological formation, its history has been quite active, with the African plate colliding into the European.

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The Sephardic Jews were in large number until their expulsion by the Christians in the 15th century, they refer to the Iberian peninsula Jews who descended from the Near East i.e. those from western Asia, the Ottoman Empire. The Christians, of course, which reside here still to this day.

After a good sightseeing of the village, we drove back home, exhausted but exhilarated after and exciting day of caving.

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“The cool, still quietness of a cave really makes you reflect upon how our how our ancestors pace of life was likely to have been”

21st July Dolphin tour, Fuengirola

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Stepped foot on my first boat today! Finally decided to go on the boat trip with Costasol Cruceros, Fuengirola, to go and see wild dolphins, as well as sandfish, turtles and other cetaceans. I was feeling lucky that day and the weather forecast was pretty good (24-33 degrees), with calmish winds of less than 20km/hr. Got my tickets by the port and went with my sister and little niece towards the port, located near the Fuengirola markets (see map), feeling rather exited! Fuengirola is a large Spanish town located within the Costa Del sol, and stretches 8km along the densely populated coastline, hugging its well visited beaches.

Many come for the shopping, sun and Sangria (pardon the personification!) and there are market days on Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday where you can get all sorts, from fake Luis Viton an Gucci bags, to boohoo leggings, crystals, Beats headphones and Nike shorts. The boat itself was rather small, in total I it would fit around 60 people. I sat at the front of the hull, to be sure of getting the best photo! Met a really fascinating woman from London, who was immediately friendly and welcoming.

Apparently, she had been the previous week with no success, and had got her second ticket half price and wanted to try her luck again. She had also swam with wild dolphins in Egypt, with the permission of the locals who only permitted her to allow the dolphins to approach her. The Skipper was busy getting the anchor whilst the captain communicated on his radio, to what I presume were local fishermen, and the engine roared to life- we were off! The harbour itself was remarkably calm, but as we got further out, it was slightly choppy…

But it was great fun!

It really was interesting talking to the kind elderly lady, really well travelled and smart. I took some panoramic shots of the vast Mijas mountain ranges and the busy coast line as we sailed further out. Tiny dotted beach towels added a splash of colour to the otherwise arid time landscape. The sun was beginning to arch hiGHEr into the sky, and reflected brilliantly off the surface of the Mediterranean sea. Polarized sun glasses are definitely a good option, helps to cut out the reflections and see what lies beneath the waves.

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I noticed some other passengers had Canon cameras (naturally, the best!) On our way out I spotted a sand fish! I think I was the only one to spot it right beneath the boat, initially I thought it was a shark, but the guide asked me to describe it and corrected me. It had a dorsal fin and was grey-yellowish colour with a creamy underbelly, and roughly 1 metre long. *Just adding this in: apparently within this week, Spanish news reporters have documented sightings of a shark near Fuengirola, so perhaps I was not mistaken by the sighting! Feeling lucky, I kept scanning the waves for a small dorsal fin, everything to me, after a fishy encounter, seemed to be dolphin-like! I remembered how confident I became after about 40 minutes into the trip, then I had to open my big mouth and then I genuinely felt a little sea sick….

The woman was very reassuring though and kept me occupied by re-counting fascinating stories. I decided to try out my amazon.co.uk sea sick bands, which really worked! Try them yourself if you get a little queasy. They’re basically like arm bands but have pressure balls for the acupuncture points on your wrists. We eventually approached another boat with rather a lot of seagulls, eager to snatch up any discards. This, I was assured by the Captain, would bring in the Bottle-nosed dolphins who peered at the sea with his rather large “bins”. Then, to our astonishment after a reported sighting through the binoculars, a streamline shape rippled through the azure waters, revealing that notorious dolphin dorsal fin! We all gasped with excitement as the beautiful animal breeched once more, and we all furiously clicked away with our cameras. I did too but did not look through the lens (as you can probably make out from the photo below!) and wanted to watch this stunning creature with my own eyes.

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I am often torn between marvelling at the wonders of that natural world with just my eyes or from behind a camera. I think it’s something all photographers face and sometime, I feel it’s best to let your eyes to the focusing and your emotions be the sensor and memory card- you can capture moments in your in and heart forever by just observing the natural world. But nevertheless, I still snapped away! It breeched about 3 times, then another larger individual came up alongside the boat (6 metres away), and came out the water a little more. It was really breath-taking, seeing such a wild animal coming close to us. I remember going to Selwo Marina last summer to look at the captive dolphins, and it saddened me deeply to see how distressed they can get as well as develop stereotypical behaviour. However I did actually see two of them mate, so they did show some relatively normal behaviour at least. But nothing compares to seeing them in the wild, free of human intervention in terms of training them to do meaningless tricks for tourists to glee at. It is much more incredible to view them in their natural environment with less intervention from human activities. Then it just melted away into the waves, and disappeared as if it had never been there. It was a brief but nonetheless exciting encounter with a Bottlenose, however our time at sea was up and the boat turned back and speedily darted across the dark Prussian blue sea.

What a trip! On the way back I took some shots of the coast, spectacular views. It really was worth it for €15, roughly £13.30 for 1 hour 30 minutes (conversion rate at the present moment: 1.25). The name of the company is Costa Cruceros and the service was excellent. I admit, if you really want to get good sightings, Gibraltar is probably your best bet, you can even get sightings of Orca! But for first timers like me, it’s a brilliant, I would highly recommend this trip! Please leave any comments below if you want any tips on how to get there from the airport via train or coach, I would be happy to help!

 

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