Beating off the waves – Living on tiny islands

When I lived on Tortola for two years, there was much to love.  But one aspect that drove me crazy was that if I had no big plans for the weekend, I would climb in my jeep, drive round the island slowly just to check up on what was happening at all the beaches, and I would end up back at the apartment after 2 hours, max, and would have driven along every metalled road on the island.  A few islands I worked on had more room that a day trip did not mean seeing the whole island in one day.  But others were so small a quick trip in a boat over, and unless you found a beach bar or a hot sandy spot to sit in all day, you ran out of things to do fairly quickly.  For someone who enjoys driving over the horizon and beyond, to spend so much time on islands where the first horizon is often the end of any more landward travel, it could be limiting.  In fact it could drive you up the wall.

So the idea of travelling to the Maldives where even the largest and most populated islands are barely a mile across, did leave me wondering whether I would be suffering from acute claustrophobia by the time I boarded my plane home.

How do people live on islands that barely rise from the ocean waves?  Nowhere in the Maldives is more than two and a half metres above mean sea level. You can walk across most islands in ten to twenty minutes.

The archipelago is a long chain of islands, reef, sandy banks formed into twenty six atolls.  These atolls are themselves in a necklace like shape draping 500 miles across the Indian Ocean.  On the eastern side in the centre of this chain are the two Male atolls, north and south,  and the capital, Male itself, sits on an island at the southern end of the northern atoll.


Can you live on an island this small?


Return to Cayman – Is it conservation?

With so many conservationists in our party, the inevitable debate surfaced about whether this place, nick named Sting Ray City, was for the benefit of sting rays or people.  There are several tour operators who head out daily to this sandbank  but the government regulates how many tours, how many people on each tour, how  much of the squid they can feed in one session, and how long you are allowed to stay with the rays.  Obviously the rays are thriving, we saw well over a hundred just from where we anchored.  And it helps educate and build awareness amongst people who otherwise could be fearful, or worse, take action against the ray in the same way sharks are demonized in many parts of the world.  The truth is that there is a relationship between humans and rays on Cayman Island, not quite symbiotic but certainly having some benefits both to conserve a good population of these animals and provide a key tourist product for the islands.


Whose benefiting from this tourist attraction?

And it was a privilege to be stroked by a sting ray.  How Steve Irwin ever got killed by one still confuses me.  So much has been written that it is not worth going over the details again; yes he was incredibly unlucky to have the rays sting pierce his heart, most get a nasty gash on the foot or leg.  But I’d always thought his sensational approach to educating people about animals was abusive to so many of the animals he encountered, that when the ray caught him, the rest of the animal kingdom went “YES!!!!”

Time to leave these beautiful animals, and time to leave Cayman.  The contrast with my previous time here was so great, and I pay tribute to the local conservationists who took us places that few tourists bother to explore, as well as one of those experiences that rank at the top of world must dos.  Cayman has a brash American, rich man’s paradise angle to it, but deep down it is a lovely old Caribbean island with a rich and unique biodiversity, and we should ensure it is nurtured for ever more.

Return to Cayman – Getting to know the sting rays

The guides took the lead and from a bucket they held above the water they took some small squid and first placed it gently on the surface.  A ray immediately approached , covered the squid and when it had moved on the sea was empty again.  Next the guide carefully held another morsel a few inches under the surface, and the ray came across.  We were invited by the guide to do the same.  Sometimes the ray would suck it up as it passed, other times you could hold it up and it would reach up to snatch it from your fingers.

The rays passed close by and with both the water’s clarity and shallowness you could see every detail.  There was the  gentle motion of the wings as they propelled the fish through the water, and the long tail with the nicely shaped hydrofoil at the tip to steady to do the steering.  And if you looked closely (but not too closely) you can see the groove in the tail where the ray stores the sting which gives it its name.  It did take a little convincing amongst some of the party to accept that sting rays are very passive creatures, and the safety briefing aboard the boat had set out how we should act in the water to prevent the sting ray from being disturbed and causing it to defend itself.  No sudden movements, let the creatures come to you not vice versa.

We were told we could stroke the sting rays, but not actively.  If we put our hands in the water you found the rays would come right up to and run their backs through your fingers.  They were keen to investigate these curious pink and black creatures that kept on turning up every day.  While I would be looking at another squadron of fish heading our way, I would feel the tender soft touch of a ray’s wing fondling my knee.  Softness is the sensation, it was almost affectionate the way they would be so tactile with you – not merely brushing against you as they passed but staying close to you for a while and rubbing the wing up and down your skin.

The guides encouraged you to hold the rays, put both hands in and they would steer themselves onto your forearms.  You could lift them gently up out of the water, maybe put your face close to their pointed fronts as if to kiss.  I could see that while they tolerated this it was not their favourite game, and one so manhandled in this way would usually decide he wanted some space and swim away from our group.

Return to Cayman – Meeting the rays

The conference over, there was a little free time the next day before we needed to head for the airport and several of us who did not have high level meetings to attend or other business on Cayman thought about how we might spend it.  Top of the list was Cayman’s number one environmental hot spot , more known that even the Turtle Farm.  To reach it we had to head out on to the water and into that major lagoon that Grand Cayman surrounds.  The launch spot for this trip was not so far from the hotel and we all boarded a powerful cruiser and pulled slowly down the channel between the mansions and villas.  Beyond the mangroves, the captain threw down the throttle and we surged out into the North Sound.  It took less than ten minutes to reach our spot, a sandy bar not far from the lip of the lagoon where it hit the coral reefs and the Caribbean Sea beyond.  It was so shallow here, the turquoise water was as azure as…. well more like topaz, but I’m not a specialist on precious stones. And for some curious reason a crowd of a dozen tourists were standing still up to their thighs in water, some barely up to their knees.

We were about to do the same thing. The boat had been brought to a steady slow cruise as we approached the sand bar and now it was stationery, a small anchor locked into the sand beneath to keep us in the same position.  We were given instructions by the crew and one by one we lowered ourselves down the ladder astern and stood in the water waiting for things to happen.

It did not take long – from across the sand came a squadron of dark rhombus shapes. They swooped in fast, decelerated as one and broke formation to disperse amongst the tourist groups.  We were now completely surrounded by about a hundred sting rays.  Despite their name and fearsome reputation, they were the gentlest and most inquisitive fish I have ever come across.

Return to Cayman – Ridge to Reef sightseeing

The walk gave us a chance to explore the landward side of Grand Cayman.  I enjoyed it a lot – I always like scrambling about the interior of Caribbean islands.  While most tourists will stick firmly to the beaches, resorts and towns, these patches of woodland are the last remnants of how these islands must have looked in the pre-Columbus era.  Particularly in these drier islands, the vegetation has a fragility which is all too easily disturbed, but get down in amongst it and you see the resilience and adaptability of species for coping with irregular rainfall, thin soils and on ferociously incised geology.  I loved Ghut running in BVI  – the temporary river channels up and down the mountain were often the best ways to walk through the forest, the periods of heavy rain flushing aside the soil and vegetation to make a clear path in the dry season.

But of course, what one thinks of when you hear the word Caribbean is sand sea and sun, and for our final night on the island, we were taken on a sunset cruise across the North Sound.  Most of the delegates boarded two catamarans and headed out into the open water.  It was your traditional booze cruise, we’d help ourselves to a cocktail or beer and settle down on the benches or on the net straddling the two hulls.  Everyone was so relaxed and chatty the time passed quickly.   Here,  rarely in the Caribbean, we were at sea but almost surrounded by island and the sun sank below the mangroves to our west, picking out the straggly branches of their canopies.  The mangroves had been bashed about by the hurricane that had made me evacuate the year before and , like many trees on Cayman, were taking time to regenerate.

In semidarkness we alighted at a dock close to one of those magical restaurants that exist across the Caribbean.  A welcoming building opens up on to the sand, the tables perfectly set on the beach (how come they never get sand on every item), lights wound up the tree trunks and set out on poles in the shallows to shimmer against the darkening surface.  We had a great party there.  Then it was socks and shoes or sandals off again and wade back to the boats.  We sat glowing as the catamarans chugged us back over to the hotel; no better way to spend a night in the Caribbean.

Return to Cayman – On the Mastic Trail (2)

We decided we did not need to wait around and continued along.  Fortunately the National Trust left their botanist with the Kew Gardens contingent and other keen plant taxonomists and they were able to revel in their natural habitat without recourse to the main group.  Indeed we decided that they should get a lift back some other way so they did not hold the minibus up later.

So we were able to enjoy the trail at a brisker pace.  This was still a leisurely stroll which in the close humid air in the scrub was necessary.  And we did not miss the key species.

The trail is named after the mastic tree.  Mastics are a common name for families of trees across the tropical and Mediterranean type climates that produce various well known products – resins or putties that we commonly use around the house.  Cayman has two main species, the yellow mastic which can be found elsewhere and the black mastic, which is found only on Cayman itself.  Both are critically endangered – victims of their own usefulness.  Like many good trees in these dry climates, they grow very slowly, but produce thick hard wood perfect for serious furniture construction.  Unfortunately this meant that when spotted they were cut down.  Regeneration takes so long and other species can grow more vigorously and shade out the trees, hence they became scarce.  The mastic trail is one of the few places where they can be found.

The start of the trail is close to the highest point on Grand Cayman, a heady 20m above sea level.   Here the coral reef had been uplifted to form the pitted limestone geology.  We had to be careful putting our hands out to steady ourselves, the rocks that jut out here are as razor sharp as the original coral had once been.  It was incredible that any vegetation at all could get a foothold here but soil builds up in the pits, and rainfall can get trapped in the depressions and holes for long enough to be sucked up by the plants.

We descended as we walked southwards and the need for oxygen masks reduced.  We marvelled at the epiphytes dangling mid air on the branches of trees, or affixed to bare rock.  It was late morning and the wildlife was scarce, until someone observed a small snake in a rather curious curling position.  It appeared at first sight to be that it was eating itself, but then a couple of our crew got a closer look and realised this creature was consuming another even smaller snake head first, and it was coiled stiffly around the remaining body of its victim.


It took a while to untangle what was happening here

The walk finished at the edges of the central swamp which fills the middle of the island.  It passes through the upper reaches of the swamp and the mangroves are out of water more than in, with the specially adapted roots which point skywards out of the mud to excrete excess salt from the plant.

Return to Cayman – On the Mastic Trail (1)

Often neglected in the Caribbean is the land vegetation.  The coral and the deep seas get so much attention, as do the endemic birdlife, reptiles and amphibians.  But the curious mix of land habitats are worthy of mention.  Cayman is a fairly flat island, no volcanoes here, and the pitted limestone makes it a difficult environment for any vegetation to get a grip.  Most of the natural vegetation appears to be a tangle of spiny , half dead shrubs.  The glamorous stuff is to be found in gardens where the imported bougainvilleas and the crotons colour up any backyard.


Conservationists are horrified at the amount of invasive species which have colonised the OTs.  Some, like the Casuarina trees, could not be eradicated, and many have been adopted by the islanders as loved local favourites.  Given the remote location of many islands, the native vegetation is often not as large or showy as those brought in for gardens and erosion control but there are many species out there in the scrub.  If only the scrub were not treated as wasteland; most developers have it in mind to “beautify” the island with their hotels, estates and shopping malls where they plant up the same plants out of pots that might line a highway in Miami.   This tangle of scrub to them is at best an eyesore, at worst, in need of simplifying down to grass verges and manicured monocultures.


The dry scub of many Caribbean Islands  – this one in the British Virgin Islands

Cayman’s attempt to educate the island about the true value and the need to conserve its areas of natural vegetation is centred on the Mastic Reserve.  It is one of the only true wildernesses left on Grand Cayman, distant from the heat of development in Georgetown and away from the coast too.  Bordered by mangroves to the west and the coast road round the rest of the island, the poor terrain of old coral stone, plus the lack of access to the sea, meant it was relatively untouched by humans, and fortunate for itself, largely impenetrable.  We were driven in a minibus round to the north side of the island and down a little side track where we were dropped off and waited in the still sun drenched air for our guides.  Members of the National Trust came in another vehicle and were delayed en route, so we tried to find some shade.  It was difficult – the trees are not all that tall round here and they had an open structure which at best gave a dappled shade.


Ready to start the Mastic Trail

Eventually our hosts turned up – but then spent ten minutes talking about the trail.  It was a good job we did because as soon as we started out on the footpath, it was clear that the group was going to split.  Many of the animal conservationists, the managers, the media types and GISsy people like myself were keen to have a good walk, enjoy the countryside and the key sights.  The botanists though went into field study mode.  They wanted to absorb every plant species they could find.  That meant not just the trees, but the shrubs, the herbaceous layers, the grasses, the epiphytes and parasites.  And it was not just a case of plant spotting, they had to look at the leaf, the stem, the root, the flower and fruit, maybe dissect them, discuss amongst themselves and make copious notes in their little books.

Most of us had gone a half kilometre before we realised we had left them behind.  One of the Cayman guides went back – reporting later that they had hardly passed the board which marked the start of the trail.

Return to Cayman – Encounters with the blue iguana

One of the elements of the conference were that the local Cayman Island guys wanted to show off their conservation successes, of which Cayman had many.  Although many of the Caribbean Islands had iguanas, Cayman had an endemic one that was so beautiful called the Blue Iguana.  Fred Burton and his team had worked hard to bring this animal back from near extinction.  At the back of the botanic gardens, which itself was a beautiful place, was a set of compounds from which a breeding programme had been established.  It is always difficult establishing how many animals there are.  Many are shy creatures and hide away in the dense bush, and you may not see individuals that you can recognise clearly unless you have some way of tagging them.  You might see other evidence though; burrows, footprints, the most obvious might be the scat, or the faeces of the animals.  Problem then comes is how you work out how many animals are represented by this kind of evidence.


Despite these challenges, the current population of iguanas is estimated around 750, including both the captive population and that in the wild.  Now this does not seem like a huge number, but considering there were only a dozen at the turn of the century, and Cayman’s habitat is constantly under threat from development for its 60,000 human inhabitants, it is not a bad track record.

When you see a blue iguana, you can appreciate how wonderful it is to have saved it.  I like iguanas anyway   – they have the most striking skin, armoury and colour patternation.  I remember when I lived in the Virgin Islands, I used to grab brunch in a bar in Red Hook Bay, St Thomas – usually as I was waiting for a ferry back to Tortola.  It was called Molly Malones and the deck out the back was shaded by a grove of mangrove trees .  You could look up in any of these and find an iguana lolling around on the branches.  They were on the roads everywhere in the USVI – some got mashed up but others would aggressively lurch their heads as you as they went by – you had to fear for your tyres.

In Cayman, add that stubborn attitude and  the curious exterior with a sheen of blueness across it, and you have the most beautiful creature to watch.  As well as the ones in the pen, there were many roaming free in the Botanic Gardens. We had arrived to attend the conference’s opening ceremony and as it was still before noon, several were out on the grass warming themselves up for the day.  One came wandering in to the marquee that was laid out for the meeting – possibly to decide what the smell of buffet he had detected had to offer.

The presence of nearly a hundred people in the tent did nothing to discourage him.  He stomped determinedly across the grass, paused to re-orientate himself as to the source of the smells, and moved steadfastly forward.  It gave us all a chance to see the remarkable pattern of scales, over his wattles, down his forelegs, and the deeply veined cloak with the small comb like ridge of spikes down his spine that he wore.

Return to Cayman – Party on the Plane

The party started at Heathrow.  Now normally I am used to heading over to the airport, sipping a coffee and a Danish while reading the paper and waiting to board, then settling down for hours of movie watching and eating from plastic trays.  Rarely do I have more than a fleeting conversation with any of my flying neighbours, infrequently I might travel with a colleague.  But this time there was a contingent of about twenty people from UK institutions that were all travelling on the plane, as well as the Crown Dependencies of Isle of Man and the Bailiwicks of Guernsey and Jersey (the makeup of UK territories is quite complex)  as well as several from Gibraltar and the South Atlantic who were connecting through London .  British Airways only fly every couple of days to Cayman Islands and this was the one which most closely coincided with the conference.  So it really was no big surprise to start seeing familiar faces as I headed to the gate.


Conservationists from all over the world

Once on board there was a party atmosphere; I wondered what the effect we had on the other 100 or so passengers either heading with us to Cayman or going on to Turks and Caicos where the flight was scheduled to head off to once we had been dumped off.  I suppose it was a bit like a polite version of a rugby team or stag weekend group.

It meant that before we even reached the hotel we had gelled as a group. Once there we met the Caribbean delegates and a couple of others from other parts of the world , and we were ready to start the party. Oh, and conduct some serious conversation about conservation to boot.

Return to Cayman – The Environmental Warriors of the OTs

Having worked in several overseas territories, predominantly on environmental projects, I had got to know an amazing group of enthusiastic scientists who valued the special nature of the small islands they conserved.  A group called the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum had been established which brought these specialists together at a conference every couple of years to talk about their successes, their trials and tribulations.  As well as people from the OTs themselves, many of the agencies that helped them out were involved too.  This included some big players that are well known in the UK, like the Durrell Foundation, the Royal Society for Protection of Birds and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew.  When I had been in the BVI,  I was give the chance to go with a large delegation to one of these conferences in Bermuda.  Flying via New York, we arrived on the island in the middle of the night. It being March, I was amazed what a different climate it was from Tortola – most of the time it was dull and misty, and fairly chilly!  Despite this there were plenty of coral reefs and palm trees around and I was confused by the mix of tropical and temperate signals I was getting.

As well as the conference, the field trips around Bermuda were fantastic, especially to Nonsuch Island.  Bermuda is one of the most urbanised of the OTs, and predominantly expensive properties which gave it the air of looking like Surrey but with fringing reef.  Surrey with the fringe on top, as it were.


taken by UKOTCF , me in green t shirt

Several years later, with me back in the UK, I was approached by members of the forum to present at another of these conferences in Grand Cayman.  It was to be about the Ascension Island work and I was pleased to have a place to talk about the stuff Edsel and I had done.  Moreover, I was delighted to be able to meet up with so many familiar friends from around the OTs and it would be fantastic to get another chance to explore Grand Cayman properly after the curtailed trip the previous year.