July 24, 2012
The fifth fatal shark attack in less than a year in the coastal waters of Western Australia has put local swimmers, divers and surfers on edge. Authorities have tried to catch and kill the individual before it attacks again—but their efforts may not stop there. Some officials are already suggesting that lawmakers take a 180-degree turn in shark conservation practices, lift protections from great white sharks and allow people to fish for and kill the animals again after a 14-year moratorium.
The great white shark is a protected species in much of the world and considered vulnerable and threatened in places. Once the popular target of trophy fishermen, who used rods and reels like cranes to haul in sharks as large as two tons, the great white received protection in Western Australia following the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s labeling of the species as “vulnerable.”
But Western Australia Fisheries Minister Norman Moore says he will now be lobbying to legalize sport and commercial fishing for great white sharks in the waters under his jurisdiction.
The most recent attack took the life of 24-year-old Ben Linden, who was paddling on a surfboard on July 14 when a large great white bit the young man in half. A jet skier who came to assist said the shark circled around the victim’s remains before nudging the jet ski, then seizing Linden’s torso in its mouth and disappearing.
Linden’s death was preceded by several other similar events. On September 4, 2011, bodyboarder Kyle James Burden was killed at Bunker Bay, about 190 miles south of Perth. On October 10, 2011, Bryn Martin went missing while taking a swim at Cottesloe Beach in Perth. Later, only his Speedos were recovered. Then, an American tourist, 32-year-old George Wainwright, was killed October 22, 2011, while diving at Rottnest Island, near Perth. Finally, on March 31, 2012, another diver, 33-year-old Peter Kurmann, was attacked and killed near Busselton.
Now, after the Linden attack, people are rethinking how dangerous sharks are, how safe the water is and whether animals that kill people should be allowed to live. Certainly, the rapid-fire recurrence of shark attacks in the past year in Western Australia has been alarming, horrifying and sad, and Fisheries Minister Moore believes a heavy hand must be delivered to protect his state’s precious tourism industry.
“Five fatalities in Western Australia (in ten months) is unprecedented and cause for great alarm,” Moore recently told the press. “It won’t be helping our tourism industry, and those people who want to come here to enjoy an ocean experience will be turned away because of this situation.”He also said recently, “Further action is necessary to deal with it.”
Already, action has been taken. Shark cage diving, though a micro-tourism industry of its own, will probably be banned in Western Australia. Critics, including Moore, had said even before the Linden attack that such operations, which sometimes involve the use of bait and chum to attract sharks to the area and within viewing range of paying customers, could be responsible for bringing great whites into the proximity of heavily used beaches—and, worse, instilling in the sharks an association between humans in the water and free food.
It sounds terrifying. The thing is, sharks aren’t very dangerous. At least, they’re a lot less dangerous than cars, which we cherish and wash on Sunday afternoons and use for driving our kids to church, and for whose deadly wheels most societies all but lay out red carpets. In Western Australia alone, 179 people were killed in 2011 in automobile accidents. And in America, 150 vehicle occupants are killed every year when their cars hit deer in the road.
Sharks killed only 12 people in 2011—worldwide—according to the International Shark Attack File. So, if tourists are afraid of going into the ocean, they should be petrified at the thought of traveling on a paved highway to get there.
For now, lifting protections on great white sharks remains just an idea, and if the suggestion advances toward the desks of Australian lawmakers (who likely drove their cars to work), we will surely hear firm opposition from conservationists and others. In Santa Cruz, California, independent white shark researcher Sean Van Sommeran hopes that people will simply accept that sharks are a part of the environment in Australian waters, rather than back-stepping and rescinding protective regulations on the species.
“People need to come to terms with the environments they go into to recreate,” said Van Sommeran, the founder and director of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation. “There are streams with crocodiles and forests with poisonous snakes, and there are sharks in the water. You just need to adjust your behavior to a place, not the other way around.”
Van Sommeran was among those who first campaigned for the protection of great white sharks in the early 1990s. By 1994, the species was fully protected in California waters, and by 1997 white sharks were illegal to take in all United States federal waters. Elsewhere, the species is likewise protected. In South Africa, a fishing ban took effect in 1991; in Namibia, in 1993; in Australia, in 1998; in Malta, in 2000; and in New Zealand, in 2007.
But Van Sommeran notes that these laws have been repeatedly bent to allow for white shark capture in the name of science.
“By 2001, the laws were being undermined by aquariums and scientific collection projects,” he said. The Monterey Bay Aquarium, for example, has offered payment to commercial fishermen who accidentally catch and then turn over juvenile great white sharks, with fees varying depending on the condition of the animal—and top dollar going for live juvenile sharks, which have periodically become popular tourist draws at the aquarium. And in the past several years, laws forbidding white shark fishing have been waived for documentary television crews. The shows Expedition Great White, Shark Men and Shark Wranglers have each portrayed teams of scientists hooking and landing adult great whites, hauling them aboard their vessels and spending 20 minutes or more prodding the animals and fitting them with SPOT, or Smart Position and Temperature, tags. Many critics of the activity have warned that SPOT tagging procedures are potentially harmful to larger sharks.
The popularity of sharks in mainstream culture seems to have increased with more and more televised presentations of sharks in their natural habitats, and the men and women who study them—but concern for sharks’ protection has not necessarily grown, Van Sommeran believes.
“Sharks generate a strange kind of enthusiasm that isn’t at all confined to conservation,” he said. He explains that many of the people stoked on sharks are only stoked on the prospect of catching them. Even today, catch-and-kill shark tournaments are held every year in the United States.
Van Sommeran warns that any steps backward in protecting great white sharks could set a precedent for changing laws that protect other large predators.
“If we remove the protected status of every species that runs afoul of humans, we’ll run out of bears, lions and tigers really soon,” he said.
The International Shark Attack File reports that sharks of all species made unprovoked attacks on 75 people in 2011. The database file adds that shark attacks have grown increasingly common since 1900—a trend that most likely reflects the increasing popularity of surfing, diving, bodyboarding and other water sports. It’s also a trend that comes in spite of the world’s declining populations of sharks, of which people kill 30 million to 70 million per year, according to the International Shark Attack File.
So, perhaps the bottom line to this story should be that although shark attacks are frightening and tragic for those involved, they are not a relatively significant per-capita danger. You might even be safer in the water today than a century ago.
Just be really, really careful while driving to the beach—and beware of hitting a deer.
Following recent attacks, is it time that laws protecting great white sharks be changed? Tell us what you think in the comment box below.
July 21, 2012
About 10 years ago, while passing a hot afternoon on the deck of a tourist lodge in Belize, a friend on his way out to go bird-watching asked why on earth I had my nose buried in a book. “Here we are in the jungle of Belize,” he said. “There are jaguars in the woods, and crocodiles in the swamp, and grackles in the trees—and you’re reading a book?” I explained that reading while traveling—if done right—can serve as a sensory supplement to one’s surrounding environment, not necessarily a distraction, as he believed. I explained that many years from now, any mention of Dove—a sailing memoir by Robin Graham—would sweep me right back to these Belizean tropical forests where I read the book, and the coral reefs off the coast, and the croc-filled lagoons, and the villages, sulking in the boggy Caribbean heat and odors of fermenting cashew apples and mangoes. And I was right. When I think of Dove, I go right back to Belize. Because reading a book charges up the mind with information and memories. These become entangled with the scents and flavors of reality, and rather than detract from an experience, a good book can enrich it. Never in the past 15 years have I left home for a week or more without a piece or two of literature, and below I list some of my favorite reads—and where best to read them.
Montana, Night of the Grizzlies. On August 13, 1967, two different grizzly bears in two different parts of Glacier National Park attacked and killed two unrelated young women in one of the most bizarre stories of modern wilderness tragedy. Night of the Grizzlies, by Jack Olsen, recounts the events that led to the attacks. He describes the tourist lodges and the bear-viewing balconies above the garbage dumps, where grizzlies regularly gather—growing accustomed all the while to humans. When the victims—both 19, for another coincidence—go on their respective overnight trips into the backcountry, butterflies begin fluttering in the reader’s stomach. Night falls, the campers go to sleep and their fates are sealed; the worst nightmare of the human psyche is about to become reality. The deadly maulings were the first bear attacks in Glacier National Park, and Olsen’s book acknowledges the inexplicable nature of the coincidences of that night, then delves into the uncertain future of bears, people and wilderness. NOTE: You might lose sleep in the backcountry after reading this one—but that snapping tree branch outside was probably just the wind. Probably.
Paris, Down and Out in Paris and London. Ernest Hemingway may have spent his days in Paris thoughtfully fingering his beard at sidewalk cafes and drinking the house wine, but George Orwell voluntarily dived into a life of grim poverty as he made a journalistic effort to understand the plight of Europe’s working classes. In Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell describes short-term jobs in the Parisian restaurant circuit, weeks of unemployment, living in a pay-by-the-week hotel and selling his clothes to scrape up the rent. He lives franc to franc, describing the logistics of saving coins and managing free meals and dodging the landlady. In one especially dismal spell, Orwell and a friend named Boris, living together at the time, go three days without food. Following false rumors of job openings, they drag their feet throughout the city, growing weaker every hour. Orwell even goes fishing in the Seine in the hopes of landing something to fry in a pan. When the pair finally acquires a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine, they devour what must be among the most satisfying dinners ever eaten in Paris. Orwell eventually lands steady work, but not before learning how strangely liberating it is to hit rock-bottom, to own nothing in the world but the clothes you’re wearing and have no worries but finding a bite to eat. T. S. Eliot, an editor at Faber & Faber at the time, would later decline the manuscript offered by the young writer: “We did find [the book] of very great interest,” Eliot wrote, “but I regret to say that it does not appear to me possible as a publishing venture.”
Texas, Lonesome Dove. Author Larry McMurtry creates a lovable cast of characters in the cowboy era of Texas in this Pulitzer Prize winner of 1985. The year is 1876, and Gus and Call, a pair of retired Texas Rangers, now operate a cattle ranch by the Rio Grande and spend their days tracking rustlers and warring with bands of Comanche Indians. Just as the reader grows cozy with life on the farm, the prospect of joining a cross-continental cattle drive pulls Gus and Call from their idyllic home and on an adventure to Montana. Through dangerous encounters one after another, the men convince readers they’re invincible, but a tragedy ends the party, only one of the pair returns alive to Texas, and we remember that the American frontier is as brutal as it may be alluring.
Mediterranean Europe and the Middle East, The Innocents Abroad. In 1867, Mark Twain joined a group of wealthy Americans on a cruise ship bound for the Mediterranean—-and in one of his best-selling books he boldly makes a mockery of the most cherished sites and attractions of the Old World. No museum, ruin, impoverished village or biblical site is off-limits to Twain’s criticism. He ridicules, especially, the patriotic Italian guides who lead the group to famed statues and artifacts—such as a particularly dazzling sculpture of Christopher Columbus. “Well, what did he do?” they ask the tour guide (I’m paraphrasing), who had thought the Americans would be flabbergasted. “The great Christopher Colombo!” the guide stammers, incredulous. “He discover America!” “What? We’ve just come from there and we haven’t heard anything about him.” The Italian almost faints. And another hired guide shows them an Egyptian mummy, 3,000 years old. Twain and the boys stare in silence, stifling giggles for ten minutes, before one of them finally asks, “Is he, uh, dead?” Onward, in Greece, Twain sneaks into the Acropolis at night; in Turkey, he describes the “illustrious” stray dogs of Constantinople; in the Bible country, Twain mocks almost every artifact and scrap of cloth advertised as once belonging to Jesus—and only in the presence of the Egyptian sphinx is his teasing manner at last humbled. As he stares at one of the oldest creations of humankind, he likens the sight to how it must feel to finally encounter “the awful presence of God.”
Somewhere on the tropical ocean, Men Against the Sea. The sequel to Mutiny on the Bounty, this novella describes the voyage of the 19 men set adrift by the Bounty’s mutineers. The sailors locate themselves via celestial tracking, set themselves on a course for East Timor, and row more than 3,000 miles across the open ocean with only one man lost—killed by the hostile natives of Tofua. Hunger weakens the men nearly to starvation, but a few mahi mahi, flying fish and fruits harvested from island trees barely keep the men alive. The reader feels their hunger pains and likewise grows queasy each time they must make a landing to find water, surfing their boat over tremendous breakers onto unfriendly shores, often astir with threatening people. The men observe strange hopping animals as big as a man in the vicinity of Australia, and beneath their boat the shapes of monsters appear as fleeting shadows—probably the fearsome estuarine crocodiles so infamous in Australian swamps today. NOTE: If you’re reading aboard a boat at sea or under a palm on a tropical atoll, the aforementioned Dove can stand in ably.
Central America, The Mosquito Coast. In Paul Theroux’s novel about a brilliant but wayward man who transplants his family to the upstream wilderness of Nicaragua, protagonist Allie Fox builds a self-sufficient paradise—but in the metaphor of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the protagonist loses his mind, and the dream goes up in flames.
California, My Name Is Aram. From William Saroyan, this 1940 novel hashes out the comedy and drama of life in the farm country of the San Joaquin Valley, where the Saroyan family, from Armenia and still embracing customs of the home country, have set new roots.
Baja California, Log from the Sea of Cortez. John Steinbeck’s travelogue from the scientific collecting voyage he joined in 1940, aboard the Western Flyer, describes the rich Sea of Cortez and the shoreline of the Baja Peninsula. In 2004, several Stanford marine biologists re-enacted the voyage on a vessel almost identical to the original. En route, the scientists compared Steinbeck’s descriptions of a bountiful sea with the dwindling fish and invertebrate populations of the present.
Southeast Asia, Catfish and Mandala. In this travel memoir, Andrew Pham tells of his pilgrimage by bicycle from his home in the San Francisco Bay Area to the land of his roots, Vietnam. Here, Pham seeks out old friends and familiar places, but haven’t we all been warned never to go home again? Indeed, much of the world that Pham hopes to see again has vanished or transformed.
Finally, the brand-new guidebook Oregon Cycling Sojourner, by Ellee Thalheimer, provides local insight and tips helpful for anyone considering riding a bicycle through Oregon—and camping, dining out, drinking beer and even doing yoga along the way. The glossy paperback details eight routes through all regions of the state, covering 1,826 miles of highway, 12 breweries and 14 mountain passes. Those not wishing to have a tour route described down to the turns in the very road might read the book for pointers, take a few notes, then leave it behind and wend their own way.
Have any more book suggestions? Add any ideas to the comment box below, as this list continues next week.
April 6, 2012
Eating locally grown produce may be the easiest way to help spare the planet the stresses of cross-global commerce, and many of us have been all but trained out of buying imported fruits (though we tend to ignore the exotic realities of bananas, coffee and cheap Australian wines). But what if we make a voyage across the world to eat their local specialties? Does that count as eating locally? Probably not—but there are some fruits so unique, so exotic and so tied up with the place and the people from which they emerged that one simply must travel to truly taste them. And here are just a few of the best, most historical, most charismatic of the world’s fruits. Go get them at the source.
Breadfruit, Polynesia. The food value of this whopper tree fruit and starchy staple of the tropics has been heralded for centuries. The fruit grows on beautiful, large-leaved trees and cooks up like something between potato and bread. The British first gave close consideration to the species in the 1760s as Captain James Cook sailed the Pacific. An onboard botanist named Joseph Banks observed the breadfruit and was impressed by its yields and quality. In 1787, Banks returned to the Polynesian breadfruit country, this time on the ill-fated HMS Bounty captained by William Bligh. The boat’s mission, before it was taken over by miscreants, was to collect breadfruit trees in Tahiti and transport them to the Caribbean to provide a new food source for slaves in the sugarcane fields. Today, breadfruit, like so many tropical fruits, has been introduced to nearly every suitable region around the equatorial waistline of the globe, and in many places the trees grow semi-wild. Hawaii is just one hotspot. In Holualoa, the Breadfruit Institute is home to the largest varietal collection of breadfruits in the world—a tidy orchard of 120 varieties. The institute also co-hosts the annual Breadfruit Festival, which took place in March, but in many places, breadfruit trees fruit year-round.
Pitahaya cactus fruit, Baja California. Not to be confused with the common prickly pear or with the pitaya dragon fruit, the pitahaya fruit is brilliant red, is prickled with needle-like spines that fall off as the fruit ripens and resembles a crimson kiwi when cut in two. The fruit occurs in the Sonoran Desert of Mexico, with the Baja California peninsula a center of abundance. The fruit grows from the long arms of the so-called “galloping cactus,” which anyone who visits Baja will see. The octopus-looking plants are a dull green and mostly unremarkable—until September. That’s when the bright red bulbs the size of apples swell into ripeness, and until December the feast is on. The fruits occur by the millions, and tequila-sipping cowboys, fishermen with the day off, families from the city and even a few tourists wearing backpacks all take to the desert to pursue the pitahaya, filling buckets and bringing them home like many northerners do with wild blackberries. October is a sure hit for the pitahaya on the southern half of the Baja peninsula. The best bet: Bring camping gear and go out a-walkin’. Beware of the sun, and watch out for rattlesnakes. The fruits should be attacked with a knife, sliced in two, and eaten with a spoon like a kiwi. A piece of pitahaya trivia: Local indigenous people historically feasted on pitahayas in the fall, and toward the end of the season they sifted the many small seeds from their communal latrines to grind into flour.
Salmonberry, Southeast Alaska. Going to the Pacific Northwest this July? Then watch the berry bushes closely. You’ll see raspberries and blueberries and blackberries—and a lesser known one called the salmonberry. As tender and soft as a raspberry, the salmonberry is about the size of a farm-grown strawberry. That is, the things are huge. I discovered the salmonberry in 1999 on Prince of Wales Island, where my brother and I spent five weeks backpacking, hitchhiking and fishing for salmon. Salmonberry thickets lined most streams and roads, and many afternoons we set aside our fly rods to pick berries. The abundance was mind-boggling, and we would fill our Nalgene bottles in just minutes, each down a full quart of pulverized salmonberries, and then return to the brambles to fill our bottles for dinner. One afternoon, we rappelled down a cliff to access a particularly thick patch. We often dodged black bears working the same patches. We ate salmonberries until we couldn’t move, and when we could stand again, we went back for more. We grilled up sockeye salmon every day for lunch and dinner, and we often drizzled hot salmonberry reduction over the fillets. We feasted on these exciting new berries until the season petered out in August. Then we went home, and we have never seen a salmonberry since—but Michael and I still talk about the summer of ’99, the summer of the salmonberry.
Porcini mushroom, Italy. As surely as the apple is the fruit of the tree, the mushroom is the fruit of the fungus—and perhaps no edible mushroom is so unmistakable or such a sure find in the times and places that it grows as Boletus edulis. Called cep in French, king bolete in English and manatarka in Bulgarian, this mushroom is the famous porcini in Italy. Here, this giant, brown-capped mushroom fruits in huge abundance in the late summer and fall. The species tends to grow among chestnut trees throughout southern Europe, and following the first of the autumn rains, the forest floor erupts. Local hunters swarm the woods. Until the winter frost ends the season, households grow fragrant with the nutty, smoky scent of drying and frying porcini, much of the harvest destined for pasta sauces. Can’t get to Italy? That’s fine, because Boletus edulis spores have drifted around the Northern Hemisphere, and in China, California, New York, Greece and Russia, the porcini mushroom grows. Note: The species occurs among different trees in different places—Douglas fir forests in the Pacific Northwest, Monterey pines in Central California and mixed deciduous forests on the Eastern Seaboard. But be smart, and only hunt mushrooms with an experienced forager, and if in doubt, throw it out—not into your risotto.
Durian, Thailand. Just as a wine writer is sure to speak again and again of the tireless Pinot Noir, a writer with an interest in fruits must pay regular tribute to the durian. This spiky and musky-odored beast is called the “king of fruits” in Southeast Asia and can be found worldwide in most large cities with thriving Asian communities—but these imported durians, usually from Thailand, are generally ones that have been frozen. They’re delicious, but fresh off the tree, the durian, which includes multiple species of the genus Durio, is said to be an experience just short of heavenly—the onion-vanilla flavor of its custard-like flesh amplified in every tantalizing way. In the jungles of Southeast Asia, Borneo and Indonesia, locals keep their ears tuned to the trees during the late-spring peak of durian season. Upon hearing a heavy thwunk, they go prowling—seeking the freshly fallen fruit, which is said to lose much of its aroma and flavor in mere hours after harvest. Journalist David Quammen described the hunt for durians on the forest floor in his collection of essays The Boilerplate Rhino. Author Adam Gollner praised the durian in The Fruit Hunters while giving a wary nod to a bizarre subculture of nomads who call themselves durianarians, who camp their way through Asia following the durian season. And in the mid-1800s, durian-lover Alfred Russel Wallace famously wrote that making a journey to the Southeast Asian durian districts is well worth the weeks of sailing just to have a taste. Even tigers, though built for beef-eating, can’t resist durians.
Next week: More fruits to eat locally when traveling globally.
March 28, 2012
I am not a SCUBA-certified diver and I may never be. Instead, I free dive and have been for about 13 years, mostly along the coast of California, and I have no interest in introducing tanks, tubes and pressure valves to the simple relationship I have with the water. I can only imagine the burden of swimming with all the mechanical gadgetry and gear on my back that tank divers must wear, or the logistical nuisance of having to fill the tanks prior to each dive. Free divers must fill only their lungs, and sometimes just 5 or 10 feet beneath the surface we find all that we might ever hope to: the mangrove thickets of Belize, alive with nurse sharks, reef fishes and even crocodiles, or the kelp beds of California, where many divers spoiled by tropical reefs may be born again as they discover this unmatched habitat. But SCUBA technology grants access to a deeper world that I, again, can only imagine. And I think that the magic of SCUBA diving can be simmered down to one flat and obvious fact which an old friend and diving buddy once illuminated for me as we debated the pros and cons of air tanks:
“Dude,” he said. “You can breathe—underwater!”
There’s no arguing with that. And so we go, tanks and tubes and valves flowing with pressurized air, into the finest SCUBA diving destinations in the world.
Great Blue Hole, Belize. Jacques Cousteau visited this site in 1971 and declared the Great Blue Hole of Ambergris Caye to be among the best diving locations in the world. The Great Blue Hole is a wonder of geology, a 410-foot deep sinkhole located within the Belize Barrier Reef system and was created through forces similar to those responsible for the underwater caves of the nearby Yucatan Peninsula. The Hole is more than twice as wide as it is deep, making it less like a bottomless pit than a huge pothole, yet the vertiginous void may offer divers something of the feeling of facing off with the edge of the world. Descending into the hole, one will encounter local residents like groupers, various sharks, great barracuda and a diversity of other species. Bottom topography consists of sand, reef, many varieties or coral and ancient limestone stalactites, as well as caves and dramatic outcroppings that look like cathedrals. Visibility may exceed 150 feet and surface water temperatures rarely dip below 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
Wrecks off Papua New Guinea. Things under the sea may be categorized into two classes: naturally occurring or the far less common anthropogenic. And that’s where diving can get creepy—coming across tools and devices and vehicles, objects that weren’t supposed to end up here but which, through some mishap or disaster up above, sank into watery graves. The sea floor is littered with manmade stuff, and few underwater adventures may be more thrilling than exploring a wreck. World War II was an era in which Davy Jones acquired a wealth of collectibles for his locker, and a great many planes and ships went down around Papua New Guinea. The Boeing Blackjack B-17 bomber is just one of the region’s popular dive wreck dives, sporting a very recognizable cockpit and turret guns. Discussing the “best” wrecks seems a bit callous, considering that many people have died on them. Some wrecks, though, are sunk intentionally, without casualties, as tourist draws and habitat enhancers, such as Papua New Guinea’s Pacific Gas, which has rested in 145 feet of water off of Port Moresby since 1996. On the wrecks where human lives may have ended, dive with respect.
Red Sea, Egypt. Surrounded by land, the Red Sea experiences a temperature range much like that of a continental lake, with waters in January as cold as 65 degrees Fahrenheit and, in the late summer, as warm as the high 80s. Furthering the flux in temperatures is the north-south extent of the Red Sea, which crosses almost 15 degrees of latitude, from 30 degrees north into the tropics, where its waters touch the coasts of Eritrea and Yemen. The Red Sea wreck of the Thistlegorm, a British vessel sunk in 1941 during an air strike, is said by some to be the “best” shipwreck anywhere, with motorbikes, guns and vehicles still intact and viewable. In the realm of living things, whale sharks occur here in some abundance, and they’re just the biggest of the 1,100 fishes to be encountered in the Red Sea. About 200 of these species occur nowhere else. Marine mammals include the sluggish, vegetarian dugong, which grazes on sea grasses in the shallows and in lagoons. Further from shore, the sea floor plunges to some 10,000 feet deep. In many ways, the Red Sea is much like the equally splendid Sea of Cortez in Mexico—a sea also two miles deep, also a product of tectonic activity, also ranging from tropical to temperate, also of giant temperature range, also surrounded by desert and date palms, and also one of the most beautiful places in our mostly salt-watery world.
Great Barrier Reef, Australia. The most renowned diving location, the Great Barrier Reef is also the biggest barrier reef and, like nearly any tropical reef, a hotbed of colorful coral snags and zillions of striped fish darting in and out of the cracks and, well, you know—all the same stuff you’ll see in the travel brochures and computer screensavers. We could, I’m sure, go on all day about warm-water reefs—of Bermuda, Thailand, Micronesia, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean. Those and others like them are the places that most “best diving” lists consist of, and the Great Barrier Reef, like them, deserves every medal it wears around its neck. But what more is there to say by now about clownfish and big friendly grouper and how clear the water is?
Monterey Bay, California. And so I come home, to the waters of the American West Coast. They’re often murkier, surgier, spookier and gloomier than the seemingly airbrushed beauty of the tropics—but I’m just one diver of many who first fell in love with the world underwater in the stately kelp forests of the California coast. Those of Monterey Bay might be the most famous, teeming as they are with rockfish and surfperch in the water column, lingcod on the bottom, abalone in the rocks and, backstroking over the kelp fronds on top, sea otters. The average “vis” in places—such as Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, just south of Carmel—is 30 to 40 feet but can be as much as 60 on the best of autumn days. A jaded SCUBA jock who lives in a thatched beach hut in the Maldives might spit on such conditions and go back to bed, but for temperate-zone divers, even just 25 feet is like magic. The waters off Northern California, too, are frigid. Go in without a hood here, and it’s an instant head-freeze so shocking that you might almost pass out. Many divers even wear drysuits, though most can pull off several hours in the water with a 7-millimeter wetsuit. But for the beauty below sea level here, it’s worth braving the elements—the towering trees of kelp, the shafts of sunlight slicing through the canopy, the schools of fish silhouetted against the gloomy blue. Kelp forests grow all along the West Coast, Alaska to Baja, as well as around the world, from New Zealand to Chile to Japan to Scotland. Almost anywhere, in fact, where water touches shore is worth a dive—with or without air tanks on your back.
December 22, 2011
Planning a vacation for next year? Consider these remote island getaways. They could really use a visit.
1) Pitcairn Island. The history of this island is one of the most compelling stories in nonfiction, recounted in the book trilogy of Mutiny on the Bounty, Men Against the Sea and Pitcairn’s Island. The two-square-mile subtropical crag was unoccupied until a boatload of mutinous Englishmen showed up in 1790, sank their ship off the island’s coast and piled ashore, along with a number of ladyfriends picked up in Fiji and other islands along the way. The mutineers had sent Lieutenant William Bligh and 18 loyal sailors adrift in a flimsy lifeboat after taking control of Bligh’s ship, HMS Bounty. They brought to life a true Lord-of-the-Flies scenario to the island as they learned to survive, descended into drunken infighting and began killing each other. By 1800 the only sailor left was John Adams, whose life assumed a peaceful pace with his Polynesian companions. Today, Pitcairn Island is populated by 50 people, has administrative headquarters in New Zealand, markets honey, stamps and coins as its chief products, has a handful of hostels, a general store and a café, and frankly, it could use some company.
2) Nunivak Island. I probably don’t need to warn anyone to stay away from this desolate island patch of Alaskan tundra until May or June. It’s then that the sun comes out and stays out over Nunivak Island, located in the Bering Sea at 60 degrees latitude north. About 200 people, almost all residents of the Cup’ik Eskimo town of Mekoryuk, live here, hunting seals and fishing for a living. Musk ox and reindeer also occupy the island, introduced after the native caribou were exterminated, and the streams teem with salmon. Don’t expect much in the way of accommodations here, and bring a waterproof tent if you go. Flights come regularly from Bethel, Alaska. The virtues of this island are its isolation, its wilderness, its bounties of wild fish, blueberries and game and, in the absence of tourist infrastructure, the prospects for true adventures and interactions with local people and culture.
3) Isla Angel de la Guarda. If there is an island in the ocean but no one there to enjoy it, does it really exist? Sure. Consider Isla Angel de la Guarda, in the Mexico’s Sea of Cortez. At any given time, almost nobody is there—but satellite photos show that the island itself always remains. This 40-by-10-mile wilderness, with the stoic silence of the desert, is surrounded by sapphire-blue water. Without hotels, villages or tourist attractions of any sort where one might spend money, it doesn’t really need visitors—and that’s the best reason to go. If you should find yourself there somehow (you’ll have to hitchhike out via fishing boat), stand on the beach at night and gaze at the night skies bejeweled with stars, and by day soak in the clear ocean waters. Bring plenty of water (or a desalinator), and take along a fishing rod. Leave only footprints.
4) Tokelau. Poverty, idleness, the despondency of being marooned—these aspects of life on Tokelau are nothing compared to what’s coming for this triangle of islands. Lying smack on a straight line between Auckland and Honolulu, the islands of Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofo, made of sand and crumbled coral, stand no more than two meters above sea level. With sea level rising already, the Tokelauan archipelago may not see another century of life above water. For the time being, this territory of New Zealand is home to 1500 people and, reportedly, three cars. (I have not learned where people go in them.) There is no landing strip, and the fastest way to Tokelau is a two-day boat ride from Samoa. Representatives of Tokelau recently made a stir in Durban, at the November-December climate change summit, where they announced an ambitious plan to switch entirely to renewable energy within a year. Their idea is to challenge the rest of us to take similar action. If you go to Tokelau, expect to eat breadfruit, tuna, taro root and kaleva, a local alcohol made from coconut.
5) Frank Sinatra preferred New York City. I prefer places like Tristan da Cunha, famed as the most remote inhabited island group in the world. This Atlantic cluster of volcanoes lies 1,750 miles from the nearest port, Cape Town, South Africa. The six islands take up 52 square miles of the Earth’s surface and provide a home to just under 300 people. Tristan da Cunha Island itself sports a dramatic summit that rises 6,762 feet from the sea—a perfect conical peak with a heck of a hike to the top. In other words, sea level won’t swamp this island group and you’ve got all the time in the world to go see it—but how does one get there? Like Tokelau, “Tristan” has no airport, and the only way here is by boat, whether fishing vessel, freighter or private sailing yacht. Camping, meanwhile, is reportedly not illegal but is considered unusual. The other islands in the group are uninhabited, though, and presumably you can sleep any place you want. One of these islands is actually called Inaccessible Island—which sounds to me like a challenge. Note: Tristan is not tropical. It lies at almost 40 degrees south latitude. Better bring a coat.
6) Lemnos. This Greek Aegean island is a personal favorite of mine—a lesser-known expanse of low hills and untrammeled beaches that I visited in 2006 and which I remember most for its abandoned villages, desolate plains, beehives everywhere and a mind-blowing abundance of fig and mulberry trees. Homer praised Lemnos in the Iliad for its wine, and today its scrubby 186 square miles still produce a variety of acclaimed wines. Myrina is the main western port, served by multiple ferry lines and with all the hotels and services a tourist might want. But Lemnos’s east side, relatively deserted, is where the magic happens. Camp where you like. Savor the stars at night. Eat figs by day. Revel in the rare solitude. While you’re in the area, Samothraki to the north is a beautiful mile-high volcanic island populated by camps of Central European hippies known for their trance parties and well worth a visit, while Chios, just a ferry ride to the south, is another mountainous beauty of the Aegean.
7) Caroline Atoll. Want a real party this New Year’s Eve? Then go to New York City. But at the eastern edge of the Kiribati island group you’ll find the Caroline Atoll, whose proximity to the international dateline makes it among the first places in the world to see each new day on Earth. Go here in a week and enjoy the distinguishing thrill of being the first person to enter 2012. In fact, Caroline Atoll’s name unofficially became “Millennium Island” prior to the “Y2K” New Year’s celebration. But in the realm of more relevant and real tourist attractions, visitors here will find virtually no people, as the Caroline Atoll is uninhabited. Sleep where you will—and bring a mask and snorkel, for the coral reefs here are considered among the most spectacular in the world. Watch for giant clams underwater, grab a lobster for dinner and good luck keeping the coconut crabs out of your tent at night.
Last Note: If you plan to be marooned somewhere for some time, that’s great. I’m glad for you. I wish I was going, too. Just be sure to bring along a copy of David Quammen’s The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions, in which the author-naturalist discusses, through fascinating examples and cases studies, just why the creatures that inhabit islands—from the largest lizard on Earth to flightless birds that have no fear of predators to grotesquely oversized tortoises—can be, well, such freaks.