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 (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.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Mourning a buddy

It was late at night and I was numb.  Edsel had been my closest colleague and a fantastic friend for over ten years.  In the morning I was still numb and spent the morning sending a couple of emails to his friends and colleagues.  Edsel had a very split life; he was a true Kittitian and had a huge network of family and friends on the island itself, but those people barely knew a lot of his international  work colleagues with whom he had shared so many memories – he still had his connections in Nashville through Vanderbilt University.  That conference in Jamaica was for the GIS community in the Caribbean and both of us had served on the committee for several years.  He was well known and liked by everyone he came in contact with, but now I was that link to those GISers.


Edsel in Cayman

I had to compose an email to this community – we were preparing for the conference even while in was in Haiti.  I also got in contact with some of his family in St Kitts and in the UK, including his nephew in St Kitts whom he had taken under his wing.  Within a couple of hours of me sending out this email, I got a dozen replies, from those who knew and respected Edsel as a colleague and sent formal condolences, to those who knew him as a friend and had to admit my message had immediately made them cry.  I even got a few emails from people who knew how close we were – I’ve never come across anyone who had the same vision for how we could help GIS develop in small island nations, or have such complementary skills to see it, and also share the same wicked sense of humour.  These people realised just how much I was mourning as well as going through the motions.  It was tough.  And here I was in the middle of a intense contract in a difficult country miles from my own support networks.  When I was cheerfully greeted by Jean Luc and Chris at breakfast, they quickly saw my mood and knew I had bad news.  I managed to stay composed and in fact the nature of my work – the strict modelling on the computer and the creativity of making good looking maps, helped me to keep things together for the next few days while  I searched for the emotions to find a useful way to vent them.

I became a liaison between Edsel’s family in UK and St Kitts and his GIS colleagues all over the world and did what I could to relay information back and forth, and post messages about him on his Facebook page.

I can’t express everything I felt at that time; you will read elsewhere of our work, our friendship and the adventures we had in many places over the years.  But he was one person I was looking forward to meeting up with when we were old and reflect on our times, and we were robbed of that, as well as to make new times and continue to explore our vision and camaraderie.  I still miss him dreadfully.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Living and Dying with Earthquakes

The same is not true about earthquakes in Haiti.  Some countries live with earthquakes every day; many around the Pacific Rim frequently have violent shakes and have learnt to treat them with enough respect but also with calm and an air of normality.  Even in the Virgin Islands, it was reputed there were on average two earthquakes a day.  When I sat in my office in the corner of the Conservation and Fisheries Office, above the central roundabout in Road Town, I regularly felt my swivel chair vibrate.  I would take a look out of the office window and if there were no big trucks passing the building at that moment I determined it was a tremor.  The office was built on reclaimed land, and was therefore sand vulnerable to liquefaction and I think it amplified any effect.  I seemed to be particularly sensitive in the corner of the building as I picked them all up and would often be the informant to the rest of the office.

Many of these zones where little earthquakes happen are the safest places to be; the pressure built up from huge plates of the earth grating against each other is released little and often.  But in other places the pressure is of a nature that it does not move – maybe the plates are being forced directly towards each other, maybe a knotty piece of mountain is blocking the natural sliding that is needed to release.  But like all pressure, those forces need to be released at some time.  And in Haiti,  there had only been the effect of two earthquakes over the past two hundred years; one in 1842  and a second, centred on the Dominican Republic  in 1946.  Maybe only a handful of people could remember the 1946 event. This means not only a lack of experience by individuals on how to prepare or react to a cataclysmic earthquake but an institutional and national amnesia.  Mix in the corrupt nature of much of government, the lack of planning, limited and ignored building standards, and woeful preparedness for emergency response meant that the country was almost brought to its knees in January 2010.


A few years earlier this airfield was covered in a tented village that served as the base of operations for the search and rescue teams

Search and Rescue teams, aid agencies, government assistance, NGOS, the Red Cross and military struggled to reach the country in the days after the quake, and remained for months treating the wounded, feeding the survivors, trying to prevent disease (although the relief effort itself exacerbated the issue there) , and try to re-establish the basic infrastructure.  But everything that could go wrong seemed to go wrong; the civil service was decimated which meant local and national government had all but collapsed.  A city which was already a powder keg for violence and abuse now became a security nightmare.

The months of struggle to get relief to the affected people turned to months of struggle to put the country and its inhabitants back on their feet.  The large international donors – the USAID, DFID, the EU and others poured not just money in but technical expertise to try to not only make Haiti operational but to start looking at ways for it to become more self sufficient and environmentally sustainable.

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – As vulnerable as you can be

The result is that 80% of the population are unemployed; that is have no formal employment.  25 % live in absolute poverty – the one dollar a day threshold.  Many of those who had money have left the country.  The impact on the environment has been devastating; fishing in the Caribbean sea has depleted stocks, already stressed by pollution and soil swamping the coral reefs.  That soil has been washed off steep slopes due to the stripping of trees and other vegetation for fuel and subsistence agriculture.

And in the centre of this small country lies a valley where much of the population has made its way – the capital Port Au Prince lies at the heart of a dense conurbation; the main port and airport and  much of the industry and commerce.  Crammed into mountain ranges on either side this valley is a tense melting pot for all the factions, classes, families and social groups of Haiti as a whole.

In January 2010, the Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden fault which runs straight through the crammed valley of Port Au Prince moved.  With a magnitude of 7.0, the resulting earthquake and its aftershocks caused the death of around a quarter of a million people, with many other hundreds of thousands injured or  left homeless.

And herein lies Haiti’s other problem.  It lies in a region of the earth vulnerable to all manner of natural disasters.  Each year, especially around September and October, hurricanes spin across from the Gulf of Mexico, Caribbean Sea or across from the Atlantic. Storm surges cause flooding along the coast, the rain loosens soil and rocks on the steep eroded slopes and landslides rip apart the mountains, depositing on villages and towns below.  Because of its poverty and the weary corrupt riddled bureaucracy of government, the planning and implementation of measures to reduce the risk and impact of these disasters, Haitian society is vulnerable to having the worst of outcomes from these natural hazards.  But at least the regularity of hurricanes means that the memory amongst the community of their problems are refreshed each time – maybe not every year, but often enough that a generation does not forget the experience or the lessons learnt.


Piles of rubble still left on the roadside since the earthquake

Crazy Town, Crazy Island – How did Haiti get to where it is?

“If all the aid money that were available for the Caribbean were given to Haiti, it still would not make a difference.”  I remember this statement from a DFID advisor in Barbados over drinks one night back when I was still working for NRI.  As a frequent island hopper, indeed then an island resident, I got a reputation as an easy life consultant – searching for the tourist destinations and modicums of poverty rather than tackling the really big development issues.  I felt it was completely untrue, and would point out the pockets of extreme poverty in some of the island nations I visited, and the fact that because of economies of scale and the need to set targets, they were ignored by aid agencies every time.

The Caribbean Islands were indeed much richer as a whole against most other regions of the world.  I once did a study which looked at all the human development and economic indicators and indices and I was shocked to see the huge per capita GDP of the Cayman Islands, for example, and most of the islands had respectable and in many cases fast growing economic situations, and their social indices were also good – the levels of literacy for example were amongst the best in the world.

And yet Haiti stuck out like  a sore thumb.  Consistently low human development index values, social indicators and in terms of economy; it was hard to see if it had one.

Why was Haiti so different from all the other Caribbean nations.  It’s modern history started out the same way as much of the region, with first Columbus then other Spanish explorers, followed by Dutch and French settlers.  It was exploited by commercial companies, like other islands, it has an agricultural system made profitable by a system of slavery, like other islands, and was the basis of European empire building conflicts, just like other islands.  Then, stimulated by the French revolution in the land of the colonial masters, the Haitian slaves rebelled and were quashed.  With the Napoleonic wars, the French army were often distracted in many theatres, and eventually the strong willed Haitians took control of the western part of Hispaniola.

So in theory the oldest free black republic in the Western Hemisphere should have built on its early fire but as with many revolutionary pacts, unity comes from having a common enemy.  Once removed, there were factions and strong minded individuals who ripped the new nation apart before it got a chance to build a firm foundation.  Coups and assassinations were frequent, and in the early 20th Century the USA, worried about instability in its backyard (Haiti is only a few hundred kilometres south east of Miami) took is on as a protectorate.  While infrastructure improved, the Haitians grievances grew with maltreatment and continued impoverishment.

After the USA released its grip, a succession of national presidents helped to fuel growing corruption, injustice and political chaos. From this emerged Papa Doc Duvalier; once ensconced his dictatorship  grew, growing corruption, growing intimidation of anything resembling opposition, horrendous stories of rape, voodoo acts, and pocketing of aid.  His son – Baby Doc Duvalier continued the tyranny, albeit somewhat more muted.  Although Baby Doc Duvalier was forced into exile, the subsequent years have been just as chaotic, with more coups and a culture of corruption and violence which has become engrained in the psyche of the country and its people over several generations.


Landing into the crazy town

A tale of two swamps -So far from the ocean…

We had one last stop that day.  To the north of Samfya was a resort hotel and we had seen from the main road that it sat above sand dunes.  We decided to investigate further and took a turning off the tarmac just at the entrance to the town.  We surfed over the crest of these dunes and dropped under the hotel to a beach bar.   The sand was whiter than by our own hotel; you could have been in the Caribbean.  A guy was sweeping the sand clear of detritus from the nearby trees, preparing the beach for weekend trippers and locals.  I’m not sure I wanted to enter the lake myself as there were a few water snail shells around and I was not keen on contracting bilharzia.  But the scene was alluringly beautiful and surreal.  This beach was the westernmost point of the open water of Lake Bangweulu and lakewashed sand from the rest of the basin must be blown here on prevailing easterly winds, particularly in the dry season when the lake is low and sediment exposed.  Over the years the sand has been whipped up into 20m dunes as if you were on the coast or desert plains.

These bizarre natural phenomena in amongst the marshland and rolling agricultural land are not protected though, and sand is a valuable building commodity, so it is no surprise that the leeward side of the dunes are being excavated at an alarming rate.  But the beachside has an elegant beauty all of its own.

The Adopted Dog – Ancient markings

So it all makes perfect sense.   But back to the Caribbean.  Layou like many St Vincent towns, had a pleasant waterfront on a narrow beach; a small river flowing out in to the bay divides the town; the main road turns inland less than half way along the beach.  Like most of St Vincent’s beaches, the sand is black here.

So many of the main settlements in St Vincent are on the coast, and with the work I had done previously looking at coastal resources, I was sensitised to many of the concerns about sea level rise and climate change that could affect such settlements.  By the time this project had started, the implementation of more coastal defences were being carried out.  Although leeward sides of islands are not usually so badly affected by hurricanes as their leeward counterparts, when they do hit this side the lack of preparation and the higher density population concentrations often cause more devastation.  But also people were learning that not only general sea level rise could cause noticeable differences in the amount of sea flooding that can occur, but it exacerbates other events such as storm surge.  The results of all this thinking was starting to manifest itself in structures on the shorelines.  Here in Layou the road had been reinforced with concrete defences, but not a sea wall in the traditional sense, but a gently graded ramp with many carefully calculated holes and rough edges, all designed to take the energy out of any waves cheeky enough to come right up close to the town.



We stopped at the back of the town and took a look at the Layou Petroglyph Park.  The running theme in this story is the mixture of new perspectives and familiar sights.  Petroglyphs came under the latter category.  They appear throughout the Caribbean and I had hunted for them in St John in the US Virgin Islands, been shown them by Edsel in St Kitts on a stone next to a village school, and even helped out with excavations of a Taino village on BVI’s West End.  So the presence of these stones in St Vincent were hardly a revelation, but they were some of the better ones I had seen.  The best were set on a large stone deep in the forest; faces etched into the rock surrounded by triangular shapes, large circles and swirls.  All very primitive and appearing more like haphazard graffiti than anything formal or deep and meaningful.  If they were ancient in any way, they would be representative of our human species development of culture and crafting, but since they have been put at no more than 1800 years old, we know many other civilisations were  at the same time drawing, writing and creating much more intricate artwork than these.  But it does show the last vestiges of a pre-Columbus civilisation that existed in these islands.  Which particular tribe these carvings relate to is still up for debate – one which will probably never resolved.  Not only is there the simple question of whether they are the stereotypically  ferocious Carib or the passive Arawak who drew these, but a more complicated question as to whether those two extremes were fuzzied by many interactions – rape, enslaving, intermarriage being three of the most obvious.  It is not certain what the characteristics of populations that lived in St Vincent were.  Although a few people with Carib blood do still live in St Vincent, mainly in the north eastern quadrant,  even these are mixed with post-Colombian immigrants from Africa and Europe.  So be the difficulties of history in the new world – the written documentation, verbal histories and evidence on the ground, used so meticulously in the old world, is scant in the Americas up to the 1700s, and what evidence there might have been was so often destroyed before any archaeologist or historian could get their hands on it.

As much as the petroglyphs, the parkland in which they were situated grabbed my attention.  Again there was nothing unfamiliar in it, but having been stuck in the concrete and bustle of Kingstown for most of the last two weeks, it was a joy to be wandering in the cool under the canopy, a gentle breeze blowing down the valley, further cooled by the small stream that tinkled between the rounded volcanic rocks.  From those rocks and the assortment of leaf litter on the forest floor grew all manner of plants – big rubbery leaved ones, huge trees with buttresses, plenty of mosses and lower plants like mosses, lichens and ferns.  It was now late morning so the bird and animal life was limited, it is true, but the atmosphere in here was so relaxing.