Yes – its summer! That time of the year where we all wack out our shorts, shades and sun cream and jet-set across the world to exciting new places with friends and family. Be it glamping in Gloustershire, or snorkelling with Whales in Tonga, we ALL love to film our adventures and trips while we travel. YouTube is good evidence for this, brimming with hours of awful selfie shots of random tourists doing crazy activities, or what unusual tropical fruits they just ate for breakfast on a remote island.
So WHY go to the trouble of making one?
MEMORIES! These trips of a life-time are so called because of the incredible sights and sounds you get to see, that nobody else will ever encounter or see in quite the same way. So you can capture these moments in a different light to writing and inspire others to get out and pursue their own trails around the world.
To create a successful travel adventure film requires a blend of creativity, planning and decent tech. I don’t believe in the advice that others will say on being able to create amazing films with basic kit, you do need a good SLR or GoPro action camerawith 1080p, 30fps specs! But that said, the standard of the compact camera and touch screen phone cameras nowadays means you can get pretty close to it, so if you’re on a budget this shouldn’t sacrifice the quality too much.
The key here is to OWN a TRIPOD and keep your video footage STILL. Then you’re practically 70% closer to making an amazing video. This is because in most videos that move everything around with additional handshake can result in unpleasant and messy images. This is the worst way to showcase your amazing holiday, and something nobody wants to see – even if the quality is superb, a still camera shot marks the sign of a decent film. All the videos I’ve been shooting in South Africa have been largely on a tripod whilst filming monkeys and big cats at Monkeyland and Jukani sanctuaries. The rule applies to both GoPro’s AND SLR cameras too, mainly the SLR’s as the shake from them can be unruly.
Next up is the sound….
Now unfortunately the budget cameras that we all buy have awful quality audio- the sort that sounds like your voice has been turned into a million billion amps then compressed into sounds waves via a small cheap pair of crappy tin speakers…So your best bet is to buy a relatively inexpensive Rodemic for your SLR cameras, and if not, then don’t bother with the sound and add some on Adobe Audition or Cool pro edit. Both can be downloaded for free (Adobe audition version 3.0, not the new one). You’re an extra 10% there now.
Have a story. There’s no point I filming literally anything you walk past, have some sort of journey through which we can follow. This won’t always be possible note, and DO film exciting things you’ve never seen before, but think of whether you want to make it more of an adventure adrenaline junkie one with plenty of action shots, or a buddies trip over with long braai nights and sit arounds which may be nice to film. Of course including local people and cuisine is important, and most exciting of all, the wildlife and landscapes!
Planning a shots list always helps too, any close ups of preparing food, tight close ups of animals, then the more scene setting views of the area- so streets, mountains, the ocean, a fiesta, ect.
Then interviews should always have a personal perspective and be directly on them, with the potential to have a camera on you if you have +2 cameras. When you find an interesting place, person, animal or situation you ALWAYS film it in a proper sequence in that you get at least 25 different shots of the event in that given location, so that youre able to tell the story visually. Don’t bother if the place/event isn’t particularly memorable, better to save your memory card and battery for somewhere that is. Many a time have I been somewhere and filmed away, then run out of battery for the next day without being able to find a plug socket!
Shoot transitional shots. So whether you’re driving to your next location, passing maps, road signs, street scenes, day to day events, passer by’s, film a few seconds of it. People brushing, cleaning, eating, chatting, commuting – its all great stuff to add to your film an give it a more professional finish. Now your 92% closer to being a pro!
The edit– this makes up the final 99%! Its key to mix up the interspersed transitional shots that you’ve got, and intertwine these to make your movie more professional. Add music or commentary to suite your film and then voila!! You should have an amazing travel holiday video that you can be proud of and show off to all your friends and family. And if your feelin brave, why now show it to the world and put it on YouTube (to reach full 100% pro rating of being a good distributer), Vimeo and then spread it around on social media? Who knows, maybe you can et sponsored to take videos by GoPro, mammut, Nike, Canon, Bergus, Timberland, ect and other outdoorsy companies that would love to promote themselves through your incredible work. More about that soon, but for now, keep filming!
This weekend was all about the SRT, caves, sheep and the industrial valleys of the wonderful country that is Wales! I went down with the Leeds University Speleogical society to Summit centre (Wales), Merith Tyfild to further enhance my caving expedition skills. This is all in preparation for the rather excitingly named “Dachstein expedition” which will be going ahead this summer, more of this towards the end! As well as how YOU can join Matt St Claire on caving EXPEDITION– yes YOU could be then next Ralph Reynolds, and best of all the prices are student friendly. A guide on what kit to take and first aid is all you need, (and frankly to be slightly insane) to go on this exciting adventure.. But firstly our trip down south began 10:30am, Friday 27th March…
The trip down in the van was probably the most entertaining, where much fun was had ridiculing the sheep, lack of windows in and how industrial Wales appeared to be- enveloped in mysterious and ethereal blue smoke. We stopped off in what only could have been described as a town full of Morrison’s and Gregs to buy an entire chicken, which we carved and ate later on our picnic stop, much to the delight of Rachael, (not so sure about Daniel’s reaction though).
Whilst Luke and Rob frolicked along the banks of a quaint river, skimming stones and generally skipping around, I took a few photographs of their later modelling efforts- just take a look at these stunners…
We then set off again, feeling ebullient and joyous about what lay ahead. One more coffee stop and we arrived at a rather late time of 7:30pm, but relatively earlier than the rest. Joel Corrigan (the event organiser), was suspended 12m in the air rigging the equipment for the following day, and so we decided a nice dinner would suffice until he was within audible shouting distance. When we returned from the small village, the car park seemed rather more packed than before, so we made our way to the meet and greet hallway areas, bumping into a few budding cavers.
I met another fellow Zoologist, Kieran, and he told me that he was studying at Cardiff Uni– a brilliant place for research as is Leeds. His research was fascinating!Victoria was a very funky archaeologist and Raphael a smiley German student, both at Cardiff again. Meg, a French exchange student, was telling me all abut the trip to Austria, and what a great time its is for students to get involved with expeditions now. We then popped into the climbing centre where we were astonished by the size of the walls… I mean this really does beat the Leeds wall and Edge!
Climber-eye candy, we had a go at some bouldering. Later after a brief meeting and hearty salad for dinner, a furious networking session with a group of lovely cavers was had! We chatted about our research (how sad…), hopes for the summer, and the thought of what lay ahead the next day. By the time we got to bed my contact lenses were peeling off my eyeballs (it was that long a day)…but fell fast asleep to the sniffling and constant rotations of my top bunk bed partner… thanks Brendan!
Morning came rather soon, whilst everyone was slightly hung over and reluctant to emerge from their roosts. I couldn’t stay in bed any longer, so I quietly snuck out to have a shower and sniff out some wifi. No luck with the internet I’m afraid. Or with breakfast for that matter. Despite the long drawn out morning, an energetic meeting was had about the plans and details of our training.
First up, basic SRT practice! The basics of kitting up with your descender, hand jammer, chest jammer or Kroll, cows tails, D-ring, friction karabiner (don’t ask me where these names come from!), chest piece and of course the hip and leg loops/harness from which you attach all these marvellous metallic pieces of kit.
I had fun getting my chest jammer in wrong for the 6th time, but got there eventually. Raphael was being shown by the experienced Elliot (tree surgeon, yep that’s an actual job title!) how to kit up, whilst I took photos of everyone.
The others did the more advanced SRT and Joel swanned around cursing at the ineptitude and lack of safety of the caving clubs tackle masters with their incompetent uni SRT kits… scary times.
He did have a good point however! And was very knowledgeable about ALL aspects of caving. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who is generally that cave keen.
Everyone also had a go at some easy rope access, tight re-belays, tension lines, rope to rope transfers and cave surveying (attended by Rachael and Luke using Clinos, compasses and Distal X’s).
A bit more swinging around on ropes, rock climbingand belaying rounded off the day nicely and brought us to the evening where we watched Joel’s rather insightful home videos. Well, caving videos, which all left us feeling inspired about the trip this summer. Dinner was a bit of a brawl over the last morsel of stuffing and lemon tart piece. Luckily I didn’t want pudding…just as well, the guys went back for more! We all went to bed buzzing with butt ache and the clinking sound of our SRT kit ringing in our ears.
The next day we went to a first aid talk with Rob, a vet, on getting wrapped up in tinfoil (like our chicken counterparts), how to prevent hypothermia, blood loss, broken limbs, painkillers, rock fall, ect… check this space for a special first aid section soon. Also a cave rescue was executed – a very brief intro to French style cave rescue with their system of vertical rescue. That rescue dummy looked awfully heavy!
As well as this, we attended a fascinating talk by an amazing cave photographer, Andy Harp and his wife- what talented individuals. I got a severe banging on about my tripod, so will have to consider changing mine in the future. I’m afraid its too unstable to get the kind of shots that require the upmost stillness. His cost over £500! But the rest of his kit was surprisingly cheap. Daniel also came with Brendan, also keen photographers. To our delight a 12 month year old puppy chewed at our feet whilst we sat staring in amazement at his incredible shots. This man had travelled to the depths of the steamy amazon rainforest cave formations and some of the most extensive Chinese karst systems. I seriously hope if he’s reading this he enters a Nat Geo photography competition and showcases his photography online, such an eye for incredible compositions, here is just one of them.
Another special post on how to get into cave photography will be up soon. A final bit of SRT and rock climbing rounded off the trip, and we headed back to our dark van, although Rachael very kindly let me sit in the front, and journeyed through the Brecon Beacons back to Leeds. Such fun!
SO! You wanna be an EXPEDITION CAVER?
A motley crew of 40+ cavers, with a range of ages, will descend upon the Austrian Alps for the Dachstein summer Caving Expedition 2015. This is literally all the low down on the cave exploration scene in the Alps. It is as well renowned for its deep, tortiousand hard alpine cave systems, as the Austrians are for lederhosen and beer. A staggeringly high peak of 2995m, the possibility of a 2500m deep entrance point to the water table below is tantalisingly closer than ever before.
The Winter project requires dry, frozen, stable conditions to enter the 100km long, 1.1km deep single monster cave at the main project to the far west (Sahara), deep snow, and involves a breath-taking 2-6 hour approach hike. This is however not for the light hearted, a 10-18 hour caving trip in extreme cold conditions is the likely scenario, and trust me when I say these cavers are literally rock hard and (sorry), rather insane!
But nevertheless, it’s a most exciting trip to be had if you’re fed up of a gentle walk up Ilkley Moor, and if your local Hyde Park snowball fight isn’t quite giving you enough frost nip…get your crampons and ice picks at the ready and sign up to this winter’s expedition! For more info head to their Facebook page and have a chat with them, they’re a really friendly bunch once you get past the grimy remarks and jokes about your incompetence (I kid of course). A plan of the cave route can be seen here:
As for THIS summer, the project involves connecting the hysterically named “Wat have U-got-Pot” and the Hirlatz (yes I think its German). So for the fit and keen there will be the opportunity to take part in the exploration of the mighty Wot-U-Got Pot (800m+ deep and 6km long) which requires camping underground for 4 days at a time. But do be warned, this is a dangerous, cold, flood-prone pothole that demands skill, ability, bloody-mindedness & a twisted sense of humour which I must say was provided by the bucket load this weekend (I can’t remember or understand most of it, but do join us if you want to hear some).
It is this cave that gives Joel and his team the best hope of breaking into and connect to the massive Hirlatz Hole from WUG Pot- then it will become a 1.5km deep monster system and mastercave (1.5km+). Recently over the past few years teams have shortened the distance between these two mega cave systems to under 500m. If the connection is made the journey from top to bottom could well be the ultimate adventure sports challenge involving winter mountaineering, abseiling, caving and cave diving taking several days to complete.
SO just think of all the mud, sweat, darkness, smelly feet, lack of sleep… I mean- ADVENTURE, EXCITEMENT, HEROIC APTITUDE, SWANKY CV BOOSTER (a ‘what scenario shows teamwork skills’ drill), and most of all FUN 2 weeks of caving during one of the most exciting times in caving exploration history in Europe. The price really is fantastic too (£250 for 3 weeks). Here’s a little break down courtesy of Joel:
Expedition fees (to go towards metalwork/hardware, ropes, communal food, etc) £60 for the duration;
Weekly allowance(fresh veg, fuel, etc) €10 (so €30 or €40 for the duration);
Accommodation of approx €3.50 or €4 a night = approx €80 total;
Travel: very rough guide but maybe £100
The team are insistent that it’s not necessary to be a pro but the willingness to train and have a go! I think I may be going to simply take the photographs, document the expedition and have a nice hike and climb until I feel ready to undertake the caving trip- so if you fancy a nice sight-seeing holiday, come along! It’s not just all about that hard-core exploring, there’s plenty of other activities to do and get involved with, including prospecting in the mountains looking for new caves, continuing the exploration of previously discovered caves, assisting with the re-rigging as all the ropes and much of the metal work needs to be replaced.
And if deep dark caves aren’t your thing, there’s even an ice cave nearby that makes for a stunning tourist trip, just so you can pose with those new ice picks you’ve bought (lads), and girls yes you can pretend to be Elsa.
For all you animal lovers out there, Joel tells me there are marmot colonies near by, gams in the hills at dawn (similar to chamoix), foxes, snakes, etc… Where you’ll be based at 1850m its about 100m below the transition from the superlative carpeted green slopes to more bare alpine scenery- a haven for wildlife, and wild ADVENTURE!
This is the greatest cave exploration project in the world: no discussion!! Matt St Clair will be organising & will appoint key people to the role of “Dachstein Reps” as some of the lifers cannot commit 100% these days. If you feel you would like to assist in the organisation then please make yourself known. Dates are provisional but will probably be 3 weeks in total, see their dedicated Facebook page for more information: info.https://www.facebook.com/events/1490999744511831/
First of all, before you go jet-setting to the Alps with your shorts, T-shirt, trainers and multi coloured running leggings… there’s a few things you need to know about surface gear and caving gear, as well as the health and safety aspects to the trip. I’ll try and make it as painless as possible I promise!
Recommended 2 sets for caving (one for each trip) and one for the hut. (You could get away with two sets one for caving one for the hut relying on the drying room – it should be noted that the term drying room is a misnomer, it just makes all things marginally less damp)
DO NOT BRING JEANS TO CAVE IN!!!!!!
(When wet they get cold, heavy and chafe, they also take ages to dry, fine for the hut though.)
BRING WHITE STUFF AT YOU OWN RISK
(Water in caves is often a bit muddy and can dye white clothes a permanent brown)
WARM STUFF FOR THE HUT
Caving huts can vary wildly in temperature (also good to keep warm on the way to the pub)
A FLEECE to cave in
Fleeces are ideal to cave in as they are warm and drain relatively quickly when wet.
THERMALS to cave in
Very good for keeping you warm in wet caves. (A cheap set can be made with any tight fitting top e.g. modern rugby tops and a pair of thick tights (yes even for the blokes) looks silly? yes Warm? Definitely. I mean, who can resist a guy in tights? (Definitely me…guys don’t go for the 1D look outside of caving, only wimps wear girly tights for fashion).
WELLINGTON BOOTS (gum boots) to cave in
Wellies are quite simply the best footwear to cave in. The club has a good selection which it is happy to lend out but please email to request them as unless you were born with 3 size 9 left feet we may not have any in your size (particularly true for small/large sizes)
GLOVES (marigold washing up gloves) to cave in
A controversial one this (some cavers like gloves some don’t) but good for keeping your hands warm they are cheap and can be god-send so you might as well bring them
HAT to cave in
A wooly hat/balaclava is good for keeping warm underground. People with long hair should bring some stuff to tie it back e.g. hair bands, buff e.t.c
To sleep in. No really.
So you can find your way to your bunk/ back from the pub. Oh and the cave.
WASH KIT (Tooth brush, soap, deodorant etc.)
PLEASE bring this guys to wash with. Don’t bother with beatifying stuff (hair straighteners), but perhaps a hint of mascara and eye liner..oh and concealer for those equally dark eye circles around the eyes from days of no sleep. Trust me everyone will thank you for it. Shower gel- many cavers don’t even bother to shower after a trip, merely washing will make you look like a god/goddess compared to the other muddy and smelly cavers.
To dry off with / avoid flashing everyone when getting changed and to hide from the prying eyes of cavers
Money for the pub crawls and to buy dinner and any drinks
There will normally be quite a few drinks had Friday and Saturday night. We normally stop on the way at a supermarket. Even if you don’t drink alcohol it will probably be worth bringing some coke/ squash to quench your thirst. Missing something? The club has some spare kit it can lend (particularly wellies).
A length of foam mat to keep you of the tent floor and hence much warmer.
OPTIONAL KIT (if you have it please bring it):
Any PERSONAL CAVING KIT
Some caves have some great (if cold) swimming opportunities. Chances of using one is slim but swimming in crystal clear pools deep underground is worth the effort of packing it. Please don’t pack your bikini.
FURRY / Thermal Undersuit
A giant adult sized fleece baby grow. Known universally by cavers as furries they are also sometimes used by sailors and divers under dry suits. These are the crème de la crème of caving insulation and many cavers’ first purchases. They can be very expensive so if yours is a non-caving one for use under a dry suit you use it at your own risk.
Oh! I almost forgot. Warm underpants…I’m not fooling around here, its vital to keep yourself nice and snug down there. Nothing worse than soggy bottomsis there Mary?
Well that’s all from me, write up on first aid and cave photography soon!
The media and Zoology students at the University of Leeds were treated to very fascinating and inspirational talk by Dr Chadden Hunter, wildlife biologist and a BBC producer and director of ground-breaking series such as Frozen Planet and several upcoming exciting new series by the BBC- to be revealed soon! I had the incredible opportunity to have a television interview with him afterwards as part of our new “Eco Talks” for Eco Sapien, and really enjoyed delving into the world of wildlife filmmaking with a true professional. David, producer of Eco Sapien, and I quickly set up 3 cameras to intermittently film it and added a Magnito microphone to capture Chadden’s dulcet Australian tones. I was rather nervous before hand as a huge fan of his work and having not presented on camera for some time- been living behind the camera and radio mic! Firstly the talk discussed making the transition from the world of academia into the wildlife film industry– a notoriously difficult and incredibly rewarding career and way of life that I am sure those of you who are reading this want to get into …keep reading on!
What I really enjoyed about the interview was how passionate and encouraging he was about getting into the world of science communication, because what many people wanting to get into this industry forget, is that although we are all competing to get that dream job and place on the next major blue chip BBC series- were are ALL working together as a TEAM to achieve the same goal: inspiring others to care and preserve the natural world around us and conserve it for future generations to enjoy. Wouldn’t it be a sad legacy if we were not able to save the very subjects that we film? That’s what we encompass at Eco Sapien, the collaboration of conservation biologists and creativity to communicate our passion for the natural world TOGETHER. The interview and full write up will be out soon once the editing process has begun, so should take a while- WATCH THIS SPACE! But here’s a little teaser into Chadden’s amazing aussie adventures…. Born in Mount Isa, a mining community in the remote north-east of Australia, he travelled with his family to pre-revolutionary Iran where his father was working as a field geologist. Following a few years in Arizona and Colorado it was back to Melbourne where Hunter happily settled back into Australian life. That strength of character was reinforced during the halcyon years of his adolescence when his enduring love of nature and the natural world really took hold. Moving to Cairns, he was suddenly surrounded by nature in all its stunning beauty and profusion. At 15 Hunter fell in love with scuba diving and saved every penny he could earn to pay for his new obsession, not least since he had the dream location to pursue it. After Cairns he moved on to the University of Queensland zoology department, completing his Bachelor of Science in marine biology and working as a research scuba diver. He then studied bowerbirds in St Lucia to gain a First Class Honours degree in behavioural ecology. It was during this time he was taught by one of the people who was to have a profound effect on his life and the way it progressed…..
‘Who has made the greatest contribution to biology, Gregor Mendel or Charles Darwin?’
There is no doubt that the irrefutably intrinsic contributions of both these remarkable scientists enabled future generations of scientists to make further advances in biology which has shaped our lives worldwide; but to what extent does Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection or Gregor Mendel’s set of laws of inheritance outweigh each other in terms of importance?
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was ‘a man born to explain the astonishing diversity of life and in doing so would revolutionise the way in which we see the world and our place in it.’ Indeed a revolutionary biologist, his pivotal idea was to be inspired on his journey to the Galapagos in 1835 aboard the HMS Beagle. Darwin collected a plethora of different species and meticulously noted minute differences between the species of the Galapagos and the mainland of South America. The evidence suggested that each species had not been independently formed by a creator but had diverged from a smaller group of common ancestors within the major animal kingdoms (Bowler 1983). His ideas of natural selection developed during 1837-1838. The proposed theory stated that in all species limited resources lead to a struggle for existence either between or against other species members, this is known as intraspecific and interspecific competition (Fullick 2008).
Variation within species influences the success of an organism; therefore species with more advantageous ‘variations’ will live to reproduce and pass on these useful characteristics to their offspring and will better enable it to survive in its particular environment; this is natural selection (we now know that variation in genetic terms means advantageous alleles which occur due to DNA mutations, gene flow and sexual reproduction). This process over time would lead to the elimination of the lesser adapted species and the survival of the better adapted ones and possibly a new species (this is known as evolution, however, Darwin did not directly call his theory this).
It took 22 years after his voyage to the Galapagos, armed with a wealth of knowledge and a mountain of evidence to publish the world-famous Origin of Species in 1859 (Shanahan 2004). It is clear today that the extent of Darwin’s contribution of his theory of natural selection has greatly contributed to biology. We are now fully aware of the interconnections between species and how we evolved over time. This also lead to the discovery of continental drift, the ‘missing links’ within our earths history through fossil records, the age of the earth itself and inspiration for other biologists. Professor John Shine from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research stated that “Darwin’s theory was a fundamental building block for all modern biology…underpinning the way we think about a lot of medical and biology research” (Arnott 2009). Also in agreement of Darwin’s achievements is Professor Tim Flannery who concluded that what Darwin has done for modern science and indeed every living individual on the planet is “give us the context that created us” and I am inclined to agree with both leading scientists (Arnott 2009).
However, many critics of Darwin argue that his contribution was not as great as that of Mendel’s and that Mendel was the ‘father of genetics’ (Mawer 2006). Gregor Mendel was an Austrian monk and biologist who experimented with peas. Quite like Darwin, he was a nature enthusiast and studied at the University of Vienna before returning to priesthood in the Augustinian abbey (Montgomery 2009). It was at the abbey where he began his famous experiments with peas. Between 1856 and 1863 he grew and observed more than 28 000 pea plants and identified seven characteristics showing discontinuous variation including flower position, pea colour and pod shape (Fullick 2008). He experimented by crossing the pairs of peas and recorded which characteristics were passed down onto the next generation, later presenting his results to the Brunn Natural History Society. In 1866 his papers on the subject were published describing the two fundamental laws of hereditary; these are known as Mendel’s Laws of Segregation and Independent Assortment.
Mendel helped us recognise how organisms passed on their traits to their offspring. His idea of genes was as “discrete particles passed on intact from parent to offspring” (Walsh 2012) and although his great achievements were not noted until 16 years later by Hugo de Vries and Karl Correns, the significance of Mendel’s discovery has enabled our modern society to function as his research laid the foundations for the study of genetics. The Human Genome project for example was created as a multinational project to determine the base sequence of the human genome and many new ones have been identified such as those responsible for disease (Skinner and Lees 2009) which has lead to the development of target drugs benefiting millions globally. Mendel had read Darwin’s theory with interest but pivotally disagreed with the blending notion (Pangenesis- where both parents contribute fluids to the offspring containing the genetic material which is blended to create the new offspring, Walsh 2012) and this is the main reason for many why it was Mendel who was the greatest contributor to biology as he had no ‘gaps’ in his evidence (Leroi 2009). However, I would argue that although Darwin had difficulty in comprehending inheritance, part of his genius was to realise that not understanding inheritance was not a predicament for his theory of natural selection and he had sufficient evidence for it from his work on domesticated animals and plants as well as from communicating with other scientists.
The world’s most influential biologists, “Darwin and Mendel were contemporaries to many and yet the initial acceptance of their ideas suffered very different fates” (Walsh 2012). Darwin theorized evolution and its complex traits (concepts from population and quantitative genetics) whilst Mendel was concerned with the “transmission of traits from a genetic basis.” Combining Darwin’s theory of evolution with Mendel’s genetics was the most important breakthrough in biology as it triggered a cascade of a whole host of other biological discoveries including DNA (Mayr 1997) the understanding that bacteria evolve which has enabled us to devise methods of dealing with the diseases that they causes and also the disentanglement of the complex relationships between animals and plants within communities enabling us to foresee some of the consequences when we start to interfere with them. I have found both these remarkable scientists profusely influential in my life and to many of my heroes. I therefore collectively deem both of these extraordinary biologists of equal importance in their contributions to biology, because not only have they revolutionised modern biology, they have inspired countless generations to further pursue scientific knowledge, which is fundamental to the survival, well-being and enjoyment of future generations to come on an ever-changing planet.
However, our planet is changing. Although natural phenomena have always influenced our climate, the surmounting evidence is unequivocal – Homo sapiens’ ignorance and reckless activities have caused a colossal shift in the natural order and balance of our ecosystems and inevitably the animals that previously co-existed within them. Threats such as climate change, the introduction of invasive species and habitat loss have decimated animal and plant species numbers over the past 100 years to such an extent that nevermore so has the study of zoologybeen pivotal in understanding the complex interrelationships between specie physiology, behaviour, evolution and development in order to protect their very existence. To be able to understand the intricate relationships animals have within their environment and observe their interactions within it is truly a blessing. I have been enchanted by all organisms from a very young age; to study them in depth would be a privilege and would give me the opportunity to return the same fulfilment by protecting them for future generations to see.
I know it seems odd I’ve never been to London before…BUT I grew up in Spain, so never really had the opportunity to go before- and I can tell you, in the words of Patsy, it was ABFAB! I saw the advert to go and see all of my wildlife film heroes, Doug Allan, Steve Backshall, Steve Leonard, Martin Hughes-Game and Lucy Cooke at the Lyric theatre, Shaftsbury Avenue, London on the 15th December. Train tickets were ridiculously cheap (£12 Leeds>London Kings Cross, London>Leeds £9), so I went for it! I couldn’t wait to go to London’s ZSL zoo either, I’ve been growing up seeing all these wonderful places on television and in the news- that it was thrilling to be heading there for the first time. The train journey was very comfortable itself, straight and direct and I got there at 1pm. So I headed off alone into the urban jungle, not knowing where on earth anything was. Even the bus I tried to catch wouldn’t let me pay in cash (WHAT?), only some weird oyster card, so the lovely conductor let me stay on for a bit…then the long trek to ZSL. I eventually got there by 2pm. The little canal along the way was lovely, a small Chinese restaurant was perched along its banks The zoo was relatively quiet, but then again being a Monday, it would be! So much to see in so little time, I had so little time- less than two hours till it closed! First off- Gorillas. None about, all having dinner. TIGER TERRITORY! Very excited, lovingly recreated habitat, and the mother and two cubs were having a lie about. I hope the photos do these stunning Sumatran species justice- they were truly majestic and it was a special moment to be so close to such a superbly adapted predator. I took many different shots, hope you like them! Taken with Canon 600D, Tamron 70-300mm.Fast asleep…. This rather noisy Malayan Tapir had a right old good time calling for food, think its keepers heard it after a moments tantrum. Yes, a Tapier tantrum! Then I went off to the stunning aviary containing a plethora of bird species, truly stunning specimens of southern Africa. One bird that resembled a shoe bill was collecting nest material, lovely to see a bit of natural behaviour.
Of course there was the “keystone” zoo species that every collection has, the mischievous meerkats and yellow mongoose which were enjoying a little thermal light as the natural light started to fade. The reptile house was equally as exciting, with a variety of constrictors and venomous species alike- my all-time favourite being this Rhino Snake consuming an unwitting mouse. The amphibians in the retile house (yes, that’s a bit weird!), were also fascinating and beautiful, like little jewelled darting flecks that were occupied with catching any conceivable small round thing that moved in their tanks. It’s truly tragic that such resplendent creatures that were the first tetrapods that led to the evolution of the amniotes, and us, are under threat from extinction from the chytrid fungus. Work is being done at ZSL by scientists (and Post Docs!) to work out how to halter this deadly killer.
On a brighter note, I went to explore some more and came across this sagious looking Galapagos Tortoise having a drink, he seemed to take an age to slurp what seemed a cup-full of water, but hey, he’s in no hurry. This Komodo Dragon wasn’t very impressed by the peering eyes of the visitors, or perhaps it was the cold. At the far side of the zoo was the especially stunning bird house, with a whole host of incredibly rare tropical species, impossible to take any clear shots, as the “jungle steam” fogged up my lens pretty bad! But the gorgeous feathers and sounds that filled the air were worth it. Along the back were some rather cute Adelie penguins having a dip, and 3 large pelicans that also had resplendent plumage. This one posed nicely for the camera! Flamingos also adorned the little pond. I then went back round under the tunnel to go to the “Out of Africa” section, and saw some of my favourite ungulates in the world- giraffes! They were busy chomping away on vegetation. The Flamingos were stunning, and the sun was beginning to set casting a dappled orange glow on their pink plumage. Pygmy hippos were lounging about into their warm pools too. The Rainforest section really was tropical, with the fog and steam effects accurately recreating a steam forest. Thee-toed sloths (a mother and baby) clung on browsing on fruit whilst the Tamrins swung above our heads. Unfortunately this meant its was downright impossible to get a photo! The Dark World of course was home to my research topic of study! BATS! These were Yingpterchiroptera– the Old world fruit bats which zipped around clicking their tongues (Yangochiroptera echolocate) and enjoying the fruit. The insanely CUTE Potto also lounged about, but was hidden from sight. The “Happy families section” included a not so happy but adorable Asian short clawed otters and Grey Heron. Looked like the heron wasn’t pleased with the otters eating its food…and the otters seemed to take an interest in my camera- thinking it a threat!
Then I left the Zoo wanting to go to the Natural History Museum…but would have cost me £40+ in taxi fares to get there and back to the theatre…so London Covent gardens it was! Saw the lovely Paddington outside the Royal Opera House. It was such a vibrant city, here are just a few of the photos! Picadilly and Trafalgar square as stunning.The buses were really ODD THOUGH I must say, how can you NOT be allowed to pay cash? Trafalgar Square with the national Gallery in the background! The theatre was a right pain to find, but after much walking and running and asking annoyed Londoners, I found it..HALLLELHUIIIAA! The talk was BRILLIANT! I even got Steve Backshall to sign my book and he walked right in front of me ahha! Was a fantastic end to an exciting day! I got the 11:30 train back to Leeds, so was exhausted by the time I got back at 3am…then would have a photography job the next day! I will be back for more though London…NHM here I come after the exams!
I got the incredible opportunity to chat to Simon Reeve about his brilliant new series on BBC one, Pilgrimage, where he takes us on a fascinating journey through Norfolk, Lincoln, Spain (Santiago de Compostella), Italy, France and Jerusalem to find out about our ancestors’ urge to go on fugacious pilgrimages.
Throughout the 3 part series, he meets modern-day pilgrims to ask them about their motivation behind their “adventures” as he calls them, meeting some rather captivating people along the way. Take the utterly dedicated 61-year old Lindsey, carrying his 25kg cross to send out the message of Christ’s suffering. Simon admits he’s not a man of religion, but was really eager to meet people and find out how these people lived and travelled. It really was another brilliant series, he has such an ease with people and a likeability that makes you want to make the journey with him.
I was personally excited about episode two, where he travelled through Northern Spain where my Spanish family live! Very proud that it has become one of the most popular Pilgrimage walks, which can take up to anything from a few weeks to a month. The remains of St James are said to have been found in the Cathedral in Santiago. Never knew it held so many secrets…
Luckily he has another series on the way! The tea trail shows Simon heading to east Africa to uncover the stories behind the nation’s favourite drink. While we drink millions of cups of the stuff each day, how many of us know where our tea actually comes from? The surprising answer is that most of the leaves that go into our everyday teabags do not come from India or China but are bought from an auction in the coastal city of Mombasa in Kenya, and as a tea lover myself I was actually very surprised!
From Mobassa, Simon traverses through the awe-inspiring Kenyan and Ugandan landscape, meeting several of the millions of people who pick, prepare, package and export our tea to the world. There are some darker tails to be told, however, about prostitution and child labour, so he really does explore every aspect of this particular trail.
He then follows up with the coffee trail and Simon heads to Vietnam to uncover the stories behind the energy boosting morning up-lifting drink. Again rather surprisingly it is not Brazil, Colombia or Jamaica where most of it comes from, but Vietnam! 80% of the coffee that us British drink is the instant, cheaper coffee bean, (not the more expensive one found in Starbucks!) We see how in Hanoi, after the war nearly 40 years ago, there was a massive surge in coffee growing across the dishevelled landscape as the demand increased and people took the opportunity to earn a little more. But, as we shall see, this has had a great impact once again on the landscape, and some experts think that it’s a matter of time before the quality of the soil will be simply too poor for anything to grow at all.
It really was incredible talking to someone who is so well travelled and has such a respect for people and the environment, such a gentleman, so thank you Simon and good luck with all your travels! He has got another program coming on soon called Sacred Rivers so keep your eyes peeled for that! Check out my interview with him!
Komodo dragons, Bengal tigers, Western Lowland Gorillas and Binturongs….not only are they found across the furtheststretches 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!