Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Rainy Day

Rain squalls obscure the horizon - from our deck battened down for rain.
Today was our last day at our perfect Nautilus vacation home.  Tomorrow, we move to the heart of 7 mile beach hotel district for two nights.  The idea is to have a place with a pool for a while but I am feeling deep regret that we didn't just choose to stay here the whole time.  It is so bloody perfect and I am full of dread at having all four of us in a studio apartment (aka, one big room).

Although it rained, Frost and I went snorkeling from our house to the public beach.  We saw many fish on our swim and also found a small toy turtle on the bottom of the sea.  Although it was raining, the visibility was incredible.  Far better than it was earlier in the week when the sand was churned up making the near-shore water milky.  While we swam a magnificent frigatebird rode the currents overhead, its long tail feathers pressed together.

Heritage Kitchen for lunch.
For lunch, I ate coconut grouper at the Heritage Kitchen beach shack which sells local reef fish caribbean style.  After serving my fish and Wren's soda, the chef and her friends sat at another table under the coconut fronded shelter and played a card game while smoking cigarettes.  The rain washed over the sea and gave it a smoothed out appearance.  In the distance, beyond the lee of the houses and palms on the shore - the water was rippled by wind but we were perfectly protected.

Coconut Grouper with a fritter and salad.  The coconut was delicious over
fried onions.
I went for another evening snorkel and found a nice sized conch shell with lovely pink color.

The sea off the deck has fabulous fish.  We saw a porcupine fish just off the rocks.
Snorkeling off the deck - the conch shell.

Frost and I went on a reconnoitre to see what our 7-mile beach accommodation is nice.  The building seems fine (aka Best Western style) and the pool has a hot tub, but the beach was rough and tiny and a 1/10 compared to where we are now.  I am much happier off "the strip".  We are going to have to get out and about.  Frost is interested in the waves - thinking he can boogie board.

A part of our fish list:
Blue Tang
Ocean surgeonfish
Yellow damselfish
Saergent major
Harlequin Bass
Lantern Bass
Smallmouth grunts (schools)
Flat needlefish
Slippery Dick
Clown Wrasse
Porcupine Fish
Southern Stingray

Friday, January 17, 2014

Flowers in the Sea

Seven mile beach is remarkably clean.  There's no litter and no hawkers.  At our end its just a bare naked beach with houses facing up against it, palms, sea-grape and some tall windswept barrier trees at public access to the shore, so we were confused when we kept finding fake flowers in the sea.

I mean, like finding them often.

It went like this.  You are swimming and suddenly you see something bright in the water by you.  You snag it from the waves and find its a plastic tiger lily or a blue petal or a pink begonia.  I started to make a collection.

Selfie with found flowers
My first theory was that they are falling off tourists' beach hats and sarongs but I never saw women festooned with fake flowers.  Not even one.  The second theory was that the locals had window boxes of fake flowers because the sea spray made it hard to grow real ones but I never spotted a window-box among the fronds of bouganvillea, red trumpets and orchids.

I wondered if it might be funerals.  Growing up in South Africa it was not uncommon to find marigolds or marigold garlands floating in the sea along the walking (not swimming) beaches.  We'd also find small red clay pots which we were told not to touch because they were from Hindu funerals.  It didn't seem likely that these were from Grand Cayman Hindus but it turns out I was getting close.  Here is the source of the flowers:

It seems that in the early days of Cayman settlement, people felt it was best to live inland.  They wanted the arable soil and to be safe from hurricanes and wild seas.  The beach was considered a risky place to live so all the island cemeteries were located on the shoreline, where they remain.  We are staying near Cemetery Beach CEMETERY and that is where the flowers originate.

A Day with the Fauna and Flora

This morning was rainy and cool so we went East to the Mastic Trail.  Josh likes goals so he had written a list which included our hopes for the day.  This is the result:

  1. Hike Mastic Trail
  2. See Cayman Parrot
  3. Visit Botanical Park
  4. See Blue Iguanas
  5. Visit East End
In addition, we saw:
  1. Blue throated anole
  2. Hickatee (freshwater turtles)
  3. Wood slave (Jamaican gecko)
  4. Racer, Black snake
  5. A rat
  6. Agouti
  7. A manchineel tree
Mastic Trail
The Mastic Trail is cut into the inland forest - a mixed zone of mangroves, royal palm, acacia-like scrub and taller tropical trees.  We went to the trail the day after a torrential downpour so we were only able to make it about a quarter of the way before finding the trail flooded with about 8 inches of water.  We would have needed galoshes.

While on the trail we saw 1 Rat.  I think it was an invasive Norwegian Rat of the ratus type we are trying to kill at home.

While walking the trail I recorded the song of a persistent bananaquit on my iPhone.  I played it back and managed to summon some bananaquits.  Their calls attracted a northern flicker, a cuban bullfinch, a honeyeater and various small warblers.  I was overwhelmed by my trick.  Here is the call:

The Manchineel Tree
Also on the trail we saw warnings about toxic plants: the manchineel tree, the maiden plum and the lady hair being chief among them.  Standing in a leafy forest with kids, the questions of identification can seem overwhelming so Josh just told the kids "don't touch ANY plants".  This is hard when hiking past muddy trenches and caused Wren a lot of anxiety.  He kept saying "oh, I touched that plant, will I be alright?"
"Have I touched a plant?
How long will it take to know?"
The one I was interested to see is the manchineel tree - one of the most toxic trees on earth.  It secretes some kind of sap which is caustic to skin and causes blisters.  We found one in the botanic park but I only noticed because of the big red sign.

We did identify many maiden hair on the Mastic Trail.  This plant's green leaves cause black blisters, welts and rashes that last up to two weeks!

Maiden PLUM not Lady Hair...  (need to update the picture caption)
Cayman Parrots
We stopped to investigate a loud bird and chanced upon a pair of 'good bird' Cayman Parrots in a jacaranda tree by the road.  The say and looked back at us until we tired of them and drove off.  We all managed to see them through binoculars.  I saw another at the Botanical Park and heard many calling and flying past.

The agouti is a large rodent from Central America which was established by early settlers for meat.  Arden Bodden told us the story of the first agouti.  A settler brought them in to breed and had them in a cage.  One escaped as he was coming to feed them and he tried to catch it,  but could not.  Realizing he couldn't breed them with only one he just let the other one go too.  Now they are called Cayman 'rabbit' and hunted for meat.  They are shy but not uncommon.  We saw one at a distance and the kids crept up and saw it again.  They loved the agouti.

Can you see the shy agouti?  It looked like a blend between a
duiker and a dassie to me. It is just to the left of the path in the middle distance.
A Blue Iguana and a Blue Anole
We are talking about getting a lizard as a pet.  Everyone is enjoying the lizards and geckos and iguana all about us.  If I were to 'discover' Grand Cayman today I would not call it los Tortugas (as Columbus is reputed to have done due to the abundance of turtles) but Los Iguanos.

Today, Josh spotted a blue anole.  He was a splendidly bright blue and was kind enough to perform by inflating his neck pouch for us.  You can't quite see that in the picture, but you can get the idea.  Also, see how his color is similar to the leaves.  Apparently they can change color a bit like a chameleon to blend in.
Blue anole at the bird sanctuary
Of course, the stars of the show were the indigenous blue iguana which are being bred and released in the Botanical Park program. We saw three in the gardens.  They are quite a big deal around here and you can see that this tourist was eager to get a good shot.

A blue iguana on the color-garden loop

A tourist getting a close up while Wren kneels in an odd way.
I love this picture.  Its very funny.

We saw no sign of aggression except from the iguana who was waiting by
the picnic tables.  When Wren sat at the table he rushed up as if to get food.

I told them to get back but they crept up on the iguana.  They are
generally lazy things wanting only to lie undisturbed in the sun.

This one was a bit insistent.  He was lying on the hot bricks but grew excited
a bit later.  You can see how big he is in this picture.
Black Snake
We also saw three racer snakes (Black Snakes).  They are harmless and like to lie on the path.  We passed an Australian woman who was quite scared of them but when I stamped this one cleared off the path in a hurry.

It is now quite late and I realize this has been a survey of animals rather than hugely informative.  Still, it was a day full of animals and the kids loved the Botanical Gardens, fighting with fallen palm fronds they found on the path.  Both were impressed by the signs about the risk of falling coconuts - Frost says it is a well-known fact that more people are killed by coconuts than by sharks.  He adds that it is also well known that more people are killed by bovine herd animals than sharks and coconuts combined.  I checked the cow claim and it seems that on average 1 human being is killed each year by a shark in the US while 22 people die from coconut strikes (about 150 annually worldwide).  In an average year about 20 people in the US die from deliberate cow attacks.

Be afraid, people.  Be very afraid of cows and coconuts.
"Don't do it Frost!  There are coconuts!!!"  yelled Wren.

The kids asked me to photograph this warning.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Conk Man

We have come across three traditional foods on Grand Cayman: turtle, conch and jerk chicken.  Today, we learned about conch.  Over here they pronounce the name of the large sea mollusk (strombus gigas) 'conk' not conch.  The shells are everywhere.  Earlier, I'd posted about seeing drifts of them at Barkers Point but they are all around town.  Every restaurant has conch on the menu.  There are conch burgers, conch chowder, conch cerviche, cracked conch with pickled fennel....

A conch I picked up in the sand at Barkers.
A drift of conch shells
Conch shells are ubiquitous.  There are roadside stands advertising varnished conch shells for $10.  Every house has a few of them outside - for Christmas they are put up in rows as decoration.  Some of the shells are old and faded white but locals paint them pink again.  Down the road from us we saw a house in which conch shells had been cemented into a wall and painted and a sign for conch horns and shells.  I asked a passing local why the shells all had a hole in the top and she said "You should ask Eden, he's the conch man".

The conch wall.  Wren waits to find out about a conch horn.

A lovely conch shell outside Eden's
Eden was sitting outside his house smoking and drinking a beer.  Old fishing nets and floats snagged the branches of a nearby tree and a radio played from a gazebo where a game of dominos lay, unstarted.  A life sized plastic marlin stuck its head out from a sea grape.  He is a man in his early 60s with a rich Cayman accent.  Seeing us talking about conch, he came over and explained that he had to make a hole in the top of the shell because it was the easiest way to cut the muscle and remove the flesh of the snail to eat. 

I found this reference to the Queen Conch harvest on the site for the Cayman Department of the Environment, explaining that the measured population declined by 50% 1988-2006:

"The Queen Conch has been harvested for human consumption since prehistoric times.  It represents one of the most commercially exploited marine species in the Carribean.This has led to overfishing and depletion of most know shallow water stocks." 

There are limits on the catch and a closed season, but poaching and over-harvesting still occurs.  The large conch has a wide flange with bright pink color while a young conch is called a 'conch roller' because it has not yet grown the wide lip and so will roll in the surf.

Eden explained that the dives for conch in North Bay but that they are now more scarce.  That said, he is still selling conch horns - a traditional horn that makes a loud noise and remains an accepted noise maker for a small craft under US Coast Guard regulations!  He went inside and returned with a conch horn, giving us a demonstration of how to blow it.

Wren IMMEDIATELY wanted one and tonight we returned to pick it up.

Wren, his conch horn and Eden - the maker

Wren is thrilled with his conch horn.  He has learned to blow it and is very careful to keep it safe. Eden gave Frost a conch shell (with a hole) that was eaten.  He is also pleased with it but unsure that US Customs will allow us to return to the US with it.   This is a valid concern since conch are Conch are protected under the Endangered Species (Trade & Transport) Law.  I have checked and you are allowed to bring them in from Cayman.  I am not sure what Wren will do if we are not!

Here is a very interesting local article on the eating and endangered status of the conch.  

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Wren learned to boogie board a little

Evening swim.
I bought Frost one of those cheap styrofoam boogie boards at the supermarket and he has been enjoyed bouncing around on it.  There are not really big waves here, behind the protection of the barrier reef, but as the beach banks down sharply they rise up a bit just at the shore.

Wren asked for a turn and practiced riding the small foamy waves up the beach.  Since he cannot swim he was closely watched and since he hates salt water in his eyes he would run up the beach each time water splashed his face.  Still, as he had more fun riding the water-in-eyes were less of a drama for him.

Here we are swimming in the later afternoon before the most amazing sunset. You can see a cruise ship heading out after a day moored off Grand Cayman.  Frost is in the deep water where he cannot stand - there is an abrupt shelf off the beach that plunges a few feet.  We bough tWren a snorkeling life jacket today so that he can play more safely without me having to be on high alert for the shelf.

Wren is watching for a wave.  Really, there were some waves!
Wren catches a wave!

Talking all the time about being "level 1" now and how he caught it and
what he was thinking and how this was the BEST DAY EVER!!!

Turtles, nectar feeders and some swimming

We started the day as usual with a morning swim then headed over to the Turtle Farm & Boatswains Lagoon to see the turtles.  As with any zoo like exhibit, the turtle breeding saddened me.  There is a big pond - a small lagoon - with many large green turtles in it splashing around.  It is not a nice place for a turtle that is by nature solitary and migrates thousands of miles across oceans.  Here, many live in same-age tanks and they are raised as a legal source of turtle meat which is a local traditional delicacy.
The only mitigating fact is that they release a fair number of yearling turtles each year - 31000 since 1980.  They do not have good records on the number of these turtles which survive but last year 11 were recorded returning to Cayman Island to breed.  This is not too bad since they did not do a full record of all turtles returning and they only breed when they are 20 years old.  Anyway, the kids enjoyed picking up a turtle.  Wren snorkeled in the lagoon (despite grave misgivings about water purity after the guard warned us not to swallow the water) but kept telling me he thought he had swallowed some!

You were allowed to pet the turtles in the yearling turtle ponds.  The turtles swam around and around and, after washing hands, you could carefully pick them up.  We were told that stroking a turtle under its neck could calm it down.

A highlight of our visit to the Turtle Park was the Caribbean Aviary.  In the aviary we met Arden who told us about the birds and how he used to hunt agouti in the dry forests inland.  The agouti looked cute, but they are apparently invasive like rabbits.  We bought a cup of nectar and the kids fed the bananaquit and a brilliant blue honeycreeper from Cuba/Brazil.

Josh has a bananquit on his head.

We were amazed by the blue honeycreeper 
Juvenile bananaquit

The parent and child bananquits.  The baby kept yelling at its parent
even though it is of an age to feed itself!
Tomorrow and following days are likely to be less sunny than our first four days - a thunderstorm is forecast for tomorrow, followed by overcast days with increased waves.  We are planning to explore the forest and botanic garden later in the week.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The Cayman Chanterelle

Mycology is one of my chief interests home in Seattle where the moist forests of the Pacific North-West host a formidable number of fungal species.  Coming on vacation on the Cayman Islands I did not expect to be studying mushrooms.  Of course, it is winter but the sand is dry and the forests are completely different to those at home.

Yesterday, while looking for birds, I stumbled across a huge patch of chanterelles.  They were clearly chanterelles - as you can see from these pictures.  I took a spore print and looked at them under magnification.  I didn't have a measuring eyepiece here so I can't give the size in microns but the shape of the spores was the same as that shown online for chanterelles - smooth oval with a small 'tooth' on one end.

Spores of Cayman Chanterelle.  100X.  No oil!

There are a few distinct differences between these chanterelles and those in the PNW.  Firstly, there are no conifers around here.  They are growing under low dry forest trees and sea-grape.  Secondly, they are a vivid sockeye pink and bright, apricot orange rather than the subtle egg yellow and soft pinks of our varieties.   The closest match I can find is Cantharellus Cinnabarinus which is reported to grow in Eastern Hardwood forests under beech, aspen and hickory.  They are supposed have caps of 1-5cm while mine grow a few cm larger than that range.

Since I was so sure it was some kind of chanterelle and I read online that some local restauranteurs had eaten them, I ate one last night and had no ill effects 24 hours later.  I hope to collect some more to eat later.

I asked a few locals about the mushrooms.  Their responses showed that they know nothing about them, as follows:

"I was told you can't eat the brightly colored mushrooms because they are the poisonous ones."

"It is like this, if animals and chickens eat them, then they are good for us to eat but if these mushrooms are in the forest and not being eaten, they are probably not good to eat."

"Mushrooms?  Did you say MUSHROOMS?  In the FOREST?"

"No, we don't have mushrooms here except the white ones in the Food Mart.  I don't even eat those."

PS.  Please excuse my mushroom spore slide.  It was made on a piece of plastic cut from a catalog lid because I left my microscope slides and immersion oil at home! 

Stingray Sandbar Trip

This morning we took a charter with Captain Crosby on his snorkel trimaran.  It was clear but cloudy with a fair breeze but no swell in the sheltered bay behind the reef.  Although the plan was for Wren & Josh to stay home, it turned out that our family of four were the only passengers, and it was not worthwhile to go with just two SO Josh and Wren came along.

Wren was only partly happy - he wanted to be home.  He says "It was fun and I got to see the stingray kind of out of the water and I got to see one school of fish.  I saw another stingray that was very demanding and wanted to take all the food from Mom and Frost and there were lots of seagulls flapping their wings in the wind but they could not move forward at all."
Stingray Sandbar - surrounded by hungry rays after our squid
Frost and I had a ball, we both love snorkeling and both go to hold and feed the stingrays.  They have been trained by years of feeding to congregate and 'feed from hand' fairly gently.  That said, they are big and demanding.  After you feed one a piece of squid, 5 or 6 huge stingrays swim around you and press up against you trying to get in position near the surface to be fed.  If you hold onto the squid too long they slurp your hand into their mouth - this is not sore but very peculiar.  One slurped my hand across his ridged teeth.

Frost was very entertained by them.  We both held them and stroked their skin which is soft and jelly-like underneath but firm and sandpapered on top.  Captain Crosby, who was one of the original feeders and habituaters of the rays, is a local Cayman who was a laid-back and informative Captain.  He showed us how to hold the rays, feed them and also took us to a popular snorkeling location where we were mobbed by sergeant-majors, stop-light parrot fish, tang, squirrelfish, scrawled filefish, needle-fish, wrasse and many others.

On the way home we stopped off for some Popeyes Fried Chicken which Josh said was an East coast 'thing'.  Frost had sides.  I am going to swim out to the reef in front of our house this afternoon.