Bird’s Eye View of a Wildfowl State – Geography Mapped Out Below Us.

Having another geographer flying the glider meant we could focus on things which interested our geeky selves.  Gray described the layout of Brookings city, and the planes.  I tried to orientate myself; I could see a long line of wind turbines to the east. I wondered if they were just over the state line in Minnesota.  To the west there were no other features to determine.  South Dakota is known for the Black Hills and the famous carvings of US Presidents on a rock face, but they were nearly 350 miles to the west; well over the horizon even at this altitude. All I could discern were just fields.

But I noticed that within the regular grid iron pattern of fields and roads there were anomalies.  The river channels and creeks that have existed for millennia across the whole of the Plains have no respect for human regularity.  Either the rivers are still bending this way or the other, or where they have been covered of rerouted, the ghosts of former channels are still present in the shadows from the low fall sun, or changes in soil and vegetation colour in the fields.

The regularity of the fields is a common feature of so much of the US.  While it is monotonous or boring, it is the legacy of an amazing principle that was put in motion as early as the 1780’s, a few years after the declaration of independence.  The Public Land Survey System was a plan to subdivide the new territories west of the Appalachian Mountains for sale and planning purposes.  The result was you see the squares of the fields and plots, and the roads which have to obey the lines drawn up which makes so much of the central part of the US have such a regular land pattern.  If people wonder why the most advanced nation on the surface of the earth still insists on using the Imperial System of measurement, the PLSS is one of the largest reasons for this.  Plots were marked off in miles, and the distances between road junctions are multiples of miles.  Any use of kilometres would be nonsensical in this rigid framework.

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PLSS in action

 

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Crazy Town, Crazy Island – Hotel or Prison?

About 40 of us remained now and eventually a small 737 landed and we headed on board.  It was dark when I reached Port Au Prince, but a new driver had been hired and he was efficient at whisking me away from the hawkers and taxi drivers outside the terminal building.  And because it was already quite late, we headed straight up the main road with barely a stop – less than forty minutes to get up to Petionville instead of the usual hour and a half.

Jean Luc and Christophe were having an after dinner drink when I arrived; we greeted and they could see I was shattered so they gave me the barest of arrangement details and sent me to bed.

The Kinam Hotel is a remarkable piece of Caribbean culture in amongst the mayhem of the Port Au Prince region.  Beautifully ornate gingerbread details on the roof, the balustrades, even the window shutters. It was barely touched by the earthquake, probably because it was built on firm rock and its base too was local stone.  It covered a small plot but apart from a wall on the south face, the other three sides were all enclosed by one large building.  There were a couple of restaurants on the front side; one next to the pool, one raised up on a terrace.  Jean Luc had booked us in to one of the meeting rooms for the next two weeks, to do the analysis of the results, write the reports, make the maps and prepare a final presentation.  We were not going to work in the Fisheries Department for two reasons.  One it saved nearly four hours of commuting, but two, there had been some issues with various individuals in the ministry and we wanted to avoid them escalating into difficult problems.  That is diplomatic talk and I’m contractually not allowed to say more!

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The gingerbread style of the Kinam Hotel

It meant the rather peaceful surrounds of the Hotel Kinam became my home and prison for most of the next two weeks.  In theory we could have gone out and about a lot more, visited all the Haitian restaurants around Petionville, but to be brutally honest there was not time.  We had a huge amount of work to do in time for the presentation before I left.  For those who read these blogs and think what a fantastic jolly time I always have; well you only really hear about the highlights.  On many a trip I have been on I spend 90% of it in an office or hotel.  I may get one day trip out to see a bit of the country, and of course take lots of photographs and have many stories about that.  What is never visible are the hours and hours of work that you do not take photographs of or talk about much because…. well it is tedious.  Tedium was the routine at the Kinam; up and breakfast where a nice grapefruit juice, a plate of fruit or maybe some scrambled egg and toast and lots of coffee, then back to the room to grab the laptop. Off to the office or the (ok yes) poolside to tap away.  We had a nice table next to the pool for a while but the sun came direct on to it by 10am and made us both sweat and not be able to see our laptop screens that we gave up on that idea.  The small meeting room above the main entrance was far more suitable, although the construction work outside and noise of street traffic could be distracting if the windows were open, and the inside either too hot, or if we used the AC , too noisy again.  My favourite spot was in the lower restaurant, shaded from the sun next to the cool stone walls of the hotel but still with a nice enough view and a modicum of activity to keep you interested when making maps became too much of a chore.  The three of us would take turns in going to different places as we felt comfortable.  We might all be around the restaurant table and interacting – either joking or discussing finer points of the project.  We might split for several hours.  Jean Luc had  a few activities out of the hotel to concern himself with, mainly about arranging the workshop.  Chris and I often as not were in the hotel.  Chris had all his field data, which he had shared with me, and was doing his analysis work with stats packages.  I had all the data I needed and spent hours putting it together, running some process that would take an hour or two and spend the interim time stopping my computer processor from overheating or typing up my notes for the report.

So this was the rhythm of life.  Lunch would be something light – a salad or a quick sandwich.  We might have a glass of lemonade in the afternoon, and our meal would be taken with a beer beforehand and a beer with and then back to the rooms for an hour of home emailing, watching whatever I could glean from the francophone and non-CNN channels on the TV and so to bed.

Walking the Beaches – the curse of the filao trees

Our second Pressure Zone was the stretch of the east coast usually referred to as Palmar or Bellemare.  Whilst not where the earliest set of hotels had been developed on Mauritius, it was certainly now packed with resorts and golf courses, but also had some of the longest stretches of Public Beach on the island.  A great favourite particularly with people from the urbanized centre of the island, at weekends almost every inch of the parkland under the filao trees were covered in large family groups, spread out over several blankets, perched on what seemed to be dining rooms chairs as well as deckchairs, or just sitting in cars or eating out the back of a minivan.  This last set of practices had been a cause of great stress for the Beach Authority who managed these Public Beaches.  The parkland was usually open to the road and people drove straight across to the point they wanted to picnic at, often close to the edge of the sea, and stopped.  A network of hard soil tracks had grown up, damaging the vegetation and causing occasional quagmires after heavy rain.  The Beach authority were actively trying to make better car parks at key points along the beach and put up logs, bollards or piles of dirt to stop people getting into the park.  Until the Beach Authority  could complete their ring of steel, people still snuck through any gap they could find.

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The beauty of filao trees

The tourist brochures may be full of palm trees and many resorts planted thousands to keep the idyll sacrosanct but the dominant tree along the Mauritian coastline is undoubtedly the filao.  It has become a pest of so many tropical coastlines and goes by the name of ironwood, Australian pine, beach oak, she oak and agoho.  Its scientific name is Casuarina, but most people in Mauritius refer to them as filao.  They grow tall and slender, the trunk clad in tough grey bark that branches down to small green twiglets with tiny leaves on.  The roots are shallow but extend widely across the sandy soils they grow on to gain the tree’s stability.  A single tree looks elegant enough but a wood of them produces a perfect picnic ground.  The root systems preclude other vegetation getting a strong foothold so only a grassy covering is possible, and since they grow relatively close to each other, there is enough shade across the woodland.  The light filaments of the twigs and the flexible branches are teased by winds and respond with a slightly haunting whooshing resonance even in a light breeze.   They mark out the territory of the majority of the Public Beaches and are ingrained in Mauritian culture, and some still say they provide a useful purpose as a halt against coastal erosion as the roots bind the top layer of sand together in all but the worst tempests.

Filao trees have as many enemies as friends.  They were introduced to the island for the erosion purpose, but have spread prolifically and at the expense of other species, including natives.  Some claim their erosion control role is overplayed and that when a filao tree uproots the erosion is worse as there is nothing else growing at the time to bind the sand and large blast holes are revealed.  Far-reaching  programmes to eradicate the filao have been put forward – but fortunately not implemented. To destroy so much mature vegetation in one go both would hurt the environment more than save it as re-establishing natives would take so much time.  Also, the aesthetics of the filao woodlands are one of the most charming aspects of the Mauritian coastline, for tourist and Mauritian alike.

Walking the Beaches – Slow progress

Just to show how useful it is to look-see again, we were surprised by the little headland that separates the bay into two places- making the water look like a pair of tonsils on the map.  Rather than the expected smattering of high price villas, there was a tightly packed community with narrow streets running down to the seafront and one or two jetties which contained artisanal fishing boats instead of the big plastic dinghies in front of the resorts.  This was a predominantly Creole community, no doubt housing just those people who were to service the richer residents and tourists.  When the coast tucked back against the main road another small public beach marked the end of this district and the more expected high status villas returned.

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The end of a tough walk round the bay

One problem with walking a coastline is that if it takes more than a couple of hours you will necessarily run into tidal issues.  Mauritian tides are not huge as they are in greater latitudes, but they still fluctuate and when you are using your GPS and noting down all the facts on your survey notebook, you might not notice the water lapping round your feet.  Towards the end of our day on Grand Baie this proved a challenge as to complement the incoming tide, the next stretch of coast consisted of the high class villas with their extensive dividing walls coming right up to the water’s edge.  We had to carefully negotiate the hard concreting , assorted gabions, piles of rocks and walls.  The water had relentlessly climbed up and in some places was splashing well over the areas we had to walk through.  I worked out this was not just due to simple tidal issues.  This west side of the bay was far more exposed to the narrow opening and tide, wind and waves bashed in here regularly.  Any sand that had existed had long been washed away and if nature had been left to its own devices a much more incised lobe would have been carved out.  Instead people had done their best to protect their coastline and the hardest forms of  protection had been bought in.  Unfortunately this now had caused the energy of the waves to be stronger – with nothing to drag and lessen their impact even the smallest wave seemed to bash against the defences, and when it found a weakness it mercilessly exploited it.  We saw so many broken down walls or  rusted gabion cages, and behind the plots of land scoured out even more vigorously  by the water.

Eventually we reached a rocky headland and completed our survey on a short stretch of public beach at the very north of Grand Baie.

We headed back to our car – as the crow flies not so far away but on the other side of this incised bay and thought – this was our smallest pressure zone.  Would we be able to complete the others in the allotted time – both the sea and the land sides?  Well, we had committed to them so we just had to take the plunge; and we also realised that although much of it was easy observational work and walking, when something difficult cropped up like a tide, fenced off areas or deep mud  and jagged rocks, it would slow us down significantly.  We consoled ourselves that the Grand Baie Pressure Zone was the most built up, busiest and most complex from a human perspective, but it was still a tough task.

Walking the Beaches – Grand Baie

Much of the rock around Mauritius’ coast is black, volcanic and almost impossible to touch in the middle of the day with all the heat it had absorbed.  Exposed to the rain and washed by high tides, the outcrops are rounded but deeply pitted but rarely covered in algal growth.  White limpet like shellfish clamp on to the sides, and winkles amble across the wetter portions.  The contrast between the black rocks and the white sand could hardly be greater.

As we passed the resorts, the sand became cluttered with their paraphernalia; large palm leaf sunshades, line after line of loungers and small glass tables for your drinks, a volleyball court here, assorted watersport equipment there, and from time to time a beach bar blaring out music.  Although the beach is public, these resorts de facto own just by occupying the space with their bric-a-brac.

Then there were the boat ramps – huge concrete slabs descending gently into the water.  The main fault with these was that sand would be trapped on one side and prevented from moving onwards around the bay; the longshore drift of schoolboy geography powering the process.  On the downdrift side the sand would continue to be moved away but nothing replenished causing holes in the beach, exposed rock and threatening the coastline behind from accelerated erosion.

The distance around the east side of the bay into town was barely a kilometre, but noting down all these features took time.  Eventually we met what we expected to call the centre of town, where a rather ugly shopping mall had been constructed by Grand Baie’s main road junction and traffic lights.  It was dominated by high class boutiques selling essential items like handbags, silk wraps, Persian carpets and hifis.  Beyond this point we had to scramble over the waste pipes of a couple of establishments on the sea front, more boat ramps and then a strip of more formal institutional type buildings.  We realised our skewed perception of Grand Baie was wrong – we had been passing through the tourist centre up to now, here was the true town centre, if indeed you could say Grand Baie had one at all.  Religious constructions of various types, police station, town council building and some normal shops selling things you might actually need.  What was still missing from Grand Baie was anything old.  Even the mosque and Catholic church were modern in construction; no earlier than the 1950’s.  And indeed that is Grand Baie’s history.  Despite one of the most extensive and sheltered bays on the whole island, its shallow and difficult entrance made it unsuitable in sailing ship times, and the small fishing village was just at the end of the huge sugar plantations for most of the last three centuries.  As tourism started to develop in the 1950s the village grew both with people who found the area attractive to live in, and for those to service the growing population.  The next stretch of the walk revealed just that activity,

Walking the Beaches – The First Boat Survey

Jeremy was very clever to find a highly motivated, organised, intelligent and willing partner from the University of Mauritius,  We visited his office at the Reduit campus in the middle of the island and he not only offered his expertise but gave the services of a number of students who were willing enough to drop over the side of a small boat and explore the substrate in the lagoon.

We decided Grand Baie was the best place to start our field survey.  Not only was it close to Calodyne, but it was an intensely busy bay and the smallest of the pressure zones.  I had prepared the initial interpretation from some satellite imagery back at the house and chosen  a route around the bay where we could investigate all the patches I had identified.  By using the GIS to mark those locations, their coordinates could be uploaded into a GPS and then it was a matter of sailing around the bay guided by the unit.  I found this relatively easy to do using the GOTO function on the GPS – it warned you how far you way from your destination and in which direction.  Fairly quickly I learnt that you could read the currents and wind by looking at the water surface and if we approached from the direction of the current we got a good chance of standing over the spot we wanted.  In most of the bay the current was fairly mild so the boatmaster could use the engine to fight against the current and keep us stable over the patch of sea.  It helped in Grand Baie that we had found a glass bottom boat.  Glass bottom boat tours are common around many of the touristy areas to give visitors a chance of seeing under the water without getting too wet.  They helped us enormously as I could keep the map and survey materials dry.  Our colleagues from the University of Mauritius  were very keen to keep popping in to the water to take a look around.  With over a hundred points to survey we could not spend huge amounts of time analysing each frond of coral, but we did want to ensure that we were not overgeneralizing, so we did allow them early on to investigate any new cover class in a bit more depth.  In particular we were keen to record where algal growth had choked the coral, or for any evidence of bleaching, an aptly named process where the animal parts of coral migrate out of the rocky skeleton, effectively taking the colour out of the coral.

On the first day in Grand Baie we made slow progress.  It took time to explain the methodology to the new field workers, and also we were trialling it ourselves for the first time, so we had to see what was necessary and what could be streamlined.  But although the bay looked complicated on the satellite image, large areas of the central portion were a grey sandy bottom with occasional mats of seagrass or algae and could be covered quickly.  The slight colouration differences on the image proved not to be a substrate issue but related to the depth of the water.  Around the fringes of the bay and at its mouth was the reef itself and on the satellite image this looked like a myriad tapestry of shapes and colours.  Even here ,with a bit of understanding of the morphology of coral reefs, one can see the patterns repeated time and time again; the head reef, the long thing parallel lines where countless waves have ground a path through, the scattering of patch reefs behind.  Once these classes of substrate have been confirmed by the field survey, over 80 percent of the job is complete.  The challenge is to seek out the exceptions to those rules – different textures or colours on the image that do not conform to this morphology.  Usually the solution to those teasers are fairly obvious once seen, which shows the value of spending time on the boat.

The sands and the seagrass beds and even most of the coral patches were easy enough to navigate over, but coral reef has a tendency to try and grow up to the light and much of the reef was too shallow for the boat to go over, in some places even breaking the surface.  We had to be extremely careful if we needed to get in amongst the sharp reef heads to investigate deeper water beyond.  Over our numerous trips, our captains varied in their courage levels, or maybe it was their boat was uninsured, I never dared ask.  Even when I would show them print outs of the satellite image and demonstrate a clear way in (and more importantly out ) of the reef they would be sceptical.  Their experience had told them that reef bad, deep water good – why would anyone want to navigate a boat against that hard jagged thing that could rip your bottom apart on your way out.  Indeed we had many nervous moments when all you could hear was the scratching of reef against the fibre glass and the sucking of teeth from our captain.

Our surveying had to extend out into the open water beyond the bay and too look at the forereef.  Out here we were still not in the ocean but the incredible lagoon that surrounds almost the whole of Mauritius.  The waves were larger and the currents stronger here, and it took all the skill of the captain to be able to still navigate to our survey locations and hold the boat still while we observed under the water.  I’ve got better at keeping my nausea to a minimum in small boats, but this started to affect me; Jeremy was looking the worse for wear and he retreated into the depths of his rain jacket and lowered his wide brimmed hat over his eyes.  We did not spend too long out there but there was nothing difficult about the interpretation in the open water; it was a mixture of hard reef and rubble kicked up by the wave energy.  Anyway, on the satellite imagery much was obscured by the white foam and breaking waves themselves so I could not do much with any mapping.  So we headed back to the shore.

Walking the Beaches – Jeremy

Jeremy had not been on the original project team  – indeed I did not know of his existence when I had been here for the first two months.  Our original survey expert had not been able to go through with the project and Jeremy was known to our team leader.  He had arrived a few days before me so I turned up at the house in Calodyne with him already settled in.  It’s always a mouth gulping  moment when you meet someone for the first time with whom you have been forced to work for a long period, but after a day or two of pleasantries, a few beers, exploration of our mutual pasts and a few terrible joke telling sessions, we found ourselves comfortable in each other’s company.  As the next few weeks progressed I grew to like Jeremy enormously – very passionate and sound over his work, meticulous over contract arrangements but also generous to other’s opinions and relaxed about working arrangements and incredibly good company.  Those qualities proved supremely important given the tasks we had to do.

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We set about thinking through our strategy for field work and the resources we needed.  The survey needed to be two sided.  We wanted to get out in the lagoon in each area and determine both the substrate and any other environmental factors.  Substrate would be complexes of hard or soft coral, seagrass beds on sand, and rocky or sandy bottoms.  The environmental factors could include turbidity or algal growth on the substrate.  To complement this we had to walk the entire coast of each pressure zone to document what the coastline was like.  We needed to see whether it was naturally a sandy or pebbly beach, a rocky area or cliff, or whether some sort of coastal protection in the form of gabions, walls or rocks had been placed.

In theory it sounds ok.  The practicalities on the marine side were we needed to hire several boats. It is difficult to get inshore boats to sail around the whole island given the nature of the lagoons,  so we had to pick local guides in each area. We required people who could do the survey for us, with our guidance, and we needed a strategy.  I had done several interpretations in the Caribbean and worked out a method – to use the imagery first to delimit areas that looked the same, and try and categorise from your previous knowledge which of the types it was, then you would head out in a boat and try and find those areas and see if your first guess was right.  In theory, if your first guess was right you could just go round reaffirming that your initial interpretation was always correct, but if you found something different at your location, you had to start working out what that classification was, what it looked like on the image and why it was different from the other class you first thought of.