Estero Tastiota

In truth I had never seen so many birds. We were camped on a long sand spit near the mouth of the lagoon. As the tide raced in, it swept with it millions of small, shiny fish, a dark mass moving and pulsing in the clear water.  Brown pelicans, terns and gulls wheeled and dived in their thousands on both sides of the spit, until the fading of the light as the sun sank over the desert to the west.

Estero Tastiota is a large, shallow lagoon studded with mangrove islands and backed to the N and NW by even larger shrimp farms. To the WNW, a long, nearly straight, continuous beach backed by scrubby dunes and flat, open desert, stretches all the way to Punta Baja. Here, at the mouth of the lagoon, the coast runs up against the Sierra El Aguaje, and takes a sharp turn to the SSE. Our goal is to follow this rugged and rocky coast to our take-out at La Manga Dos, just N of San Carlos.

I awoke at first light to the beating of wings. I emerged from my tent to see wave after wave of pelicans, gulls, terns and cormorants as they arose from the waters of the lagoon, passing low overhead on their way to the sea. The shoreline was lined with the bodies of tiny fish, no doubt killed by the plunging of beaks and bills into their tight schools the evening before. The sandy bottom was dotted with more corpses, which were keeping the blue crabs busy, scavenging the leftovers.

Beating wings, splashing dives and the raucous cackling of terns filled the air as the feeding frenzy continued. Everywhere you looked there were birds, soaring and wheeling in the sky, passing urgently overhead, diving in the sea, taking off to dive again. Our location on a spit of sand separating the coast from the lagoon put us in the middle of the action. Never since the Serengeti Plain have I seen the mesmerizing spectacle of so many animals in one place. You couldn’t stop watching it.


As the sun rose higher, the feeding activity began to fade. We made breakfast and packed up camp. Before we were to leave the lagoon, we paddled to a nearby island, to search the shallows for clams. As most of us squidged our toes in the mud, feeling for clams, two of our party, avid birders, explored among the islands and channels. They reported seeing a flock of roseate spoonbills, some white pelicans and a variety of herons and egrets. Once we had enough clams, about 160, we decided we had enough and headed out of the lagoon, and set our course along the rocky coast.



This past winter/spring I had some big chunks of free time, so I worked hard on my boat. Spindrift is the second outrigger canoe I have built in Belize. The first was called Manadi, the Carib word for manatee. It was made of a dugout canoe, and had a single outrigger and a single sail. Here is the finished product before I took her out and broke her in.


A lot of modifications were made after this picture was taken. The small mast and sail were removed: it was too complicated. The wooden rudder was replaced with one taken from the wreck of an old Hobie Cat. The new rudder would eventually become the keel for the Spindrift.

Manadi was an interesting boat. She sailed close to the wind, and with her full-length keel,she tracked such a straight line that once I got her on a heading, I could steer by making slight adjustments to the sail, without having to touch the rudder. She was, however, extremely difficult to turn.

The big problem with Manadi, though, was that she was so heavy. I needed a boat that I could pull up on the beach, above the high tide mark. And I needed to be able to drag her back down in the morning. This boat, being basically built from a big log, was, basically a big log. In the photo you can see what look like two roundish,white objects under the keel. Those are inflatable dock fenders, meant to be used as rollers, completely flattened by the weight of the boat.

I decided to change my project and build a new boat of fibreglass. This was the beginning of Spindrift. I started with the purchase of a fibreglass canoe from Bradley’s Boatyard in Belize City. 


The founder of Bradley’s Boatyard, Mr. D. Bradley Sr. graciously allowed me to take his picture, sitting beside the canoe I purchased. Here is a better picture of the canoe.


The above boat is a three-person racing canoe, undoubtedly built for the Ruta Maya Canoe Race, Belize’s largest annual sporting event. The Bradleys build big boats, and they know how to build them strong. This 20 ft. (5.8m) canoe was built the same way. Too heavy for racing, but strong enough to take punishing waves, or a hard surf landing on a beach. Not so good for racing, but perfect for me. So I bought the boat. 

Getting it to Dangriga was a challenge, one which I wrote about in another blog called The Voyage of the Manatee. If you just came back from reading the blog post I linked to, welcome back. At this point in my story, I have the new canoe in Dangriga, and I begin work on it at once.

The first stage was the decking. Everything was made of fibreglass, so I had to invent the moulds for each section as I went along. 


Out of thin plywood I made the forms, then coated them in wax and laid out the glass over them. Once cured, the fibreglass pieces were trimmed to shape, and fixed in place with more fibreglass and resin.

100_0758 (2)

The hardest part, psychologically, was cutting a hole in the bottom to accommodate the retractable keel or daggerboard. The keel is encased in a trunk, 3ft. (~1m) long, 1 ft. (~30cm) tall and an inch (~2.5cm) wide on the inside. This long, thin box was inserted into the hull from inside the boat. The keel can be rotated up into this trunk when landing or in shallow water, and then can be extended down into the water when under sail. 

100_0765 (2)

The boat was divided into three sections: the central cockpit, and storage compartments both fore and aft.100_0763 (2)

Bulkheads were built and installed, with hatches for access. I wanted no hatches on deck because I couldn’t be sure of building them watertight. If water were to leak into a compartment, I wouldn’t know until the boat was severely out of trim.


Note the curved upper surfaces of the bulkheads, to give the boat an arched deck. This will shed water and provide more space inside.

100_0868 (2)

This view shows the forward bulkhead with hatch cover in place. I will be able to lock up my possessions when I go ashore. The foredeck is being installed and will be trimmed along the edges when the resin has cured.


The mid-deck is just sitting roughly in place. It has a big opening in the middle, surrounded by a coaming several inches high. This coaming is to shed any water that washes over the deck, before it can enter the cockpit. By itself the coaming is too fragile.


Here is another view of the mid-deck, after it has been attached with resin. It needs to be trimmed. The after-deck is about to be cemented in place. That is yours truly, fiddling with the fit.

A problem developed at this point. The mid-deck covers the forward part of the cockpit. In the middle is the daggerboard trunk. With all of this fibreglass, fixed in place, how can I access the foreward compartment? In the picture below you can see how deep the foreward bulkhead is located. 


To solve this problem, as best I could, I had to install another hatch, on the mid-deck, near the foreward bulkhead.


Here is the view from under the deck. This hatch allows me to reach through from above and open the hatch on the bulkhead. From there I can stuff things into the compartment, and if they are tied to a string, they can be retrieved again. Not the best way, but unless I take a trained monkey with me, the whole forward compartment would otherwise be inaccessible.

The next step was to strengthen the coaming.


To strengthen the coaming, I installed gunwales of a local hardwood. I had to cut the wood into thin strips and laminate them together. Then I trimmed off the excess coaming.



Another view. You can see the access hatch, before the frame and cover are installed, as well as the mast step, before it was trimmed flush with the deck. 


Inwale and outwale are installed and bolted in place, and the excess coaming has been trimmed flush. A little filling and some varnish are all that is needed at this point.


This is the access hatch. Barely visible in the dark is the hasp that locks the fore-hatch.


The decking is completed, the mast step is installed, and the rudder is in place. Now comes the next big phase, turning it into a trimaran.

There is a saying among nautical folk: two is one, one is none. After the loss of Manadi, I decided my next boat would have two outriggers. If one fails, it might be possible to get safely ashore using the remaining one.  I experimented with a number of outrigger designs, and just as importantly, I wanted to be sure the cross-members that connect the outriggers to the main hull are strong and securely fastened.

You may have noticed that the canoe itself does not have gunwales. Instead, the hull is curved at its margins into a half-circle with a diameter of about 2 inches (5cm). I decided to bolt the cross-members to this section of the hull, so all forces will be transferred to the stronger hull, and no strain will be put on the relatively weak deck.

The cross-members are Schedule 40 aluminum poles: thick, strong and relatively light. They extend out from the hull and make a 90 degree turn. Here is a close-up of how they are attached to the boat’s hull. The view from above:


The view from below; the strain is distributed along a half-pipe of aluminum.


Once I got to this stage I decided to have a friend spray the hull with gel-coat, to protect the fibreglass and resin from UV damage, and make the boat look more finished.

Here is the boat ready for spraying. You can see the holes where the aluminum pipes pass through.


Here is Kerry spraying the boat. Note the gunwales have been removed for this step.


And here is the finished product. The boat was never going to look this good again.



Unfortunately, the gel-coat never properly cured, but remained sticky and picked up all kinds of dirt, and foreign debris. More on this later.

The last phase was my biggest challenge. What do I make the outriggers from, and how do I fasten them to the boat? I thought of all kinds of options, and finally settled on one which I could handle. 

I talked one of the directors of Island Expeditions into giving me an old wind-surfer board they had lying around in storage. I then took it to the boat, and with the help of Sam, I cut it in half lengthwise.

I really owe it to Sam to pause here, and explain to you who Sam is, and how important – no – critical – he has been to my project. Dinsdale Sampson is a furniture maker who has a workshop in his yard in Dangriga. I met him the first time I came to Belize, and when I decided to do the Manadi project, I asked him to help me. I would need some space, and access to tools as well as his carpentry skills. If he would help me, I would make sure he was compensated for his time and knowledge. He was reluctant, as he had no boat-building experience, and did not want to be responsible if it all went to hell. 

I reassured him that I would take full responsibility: just some crazy gringo with a dream. He agreed to help and we have been friends ever since. I misunderstood when he introduced himself, thinking his first name was Sampson, and so called him Sam. Everyone else calls him Dins, but he lets me call him Sam.

Sam has been patient, and tolerant and very helpful throughout my boat projects. I owe him a great debt of gratitude. When Spindrift gets in the water, Sam will be my first passenger. He has lived in Dangriga all of his life and has never been out to the cayes. 


This is Sam, building some cabinets, while I work on my gunwales behind him.

Back to the boat. Here is the windsurfer board cut in half. I coated any exposed foam with epoxy paint in several layers.



To attach the new outriggers to the aluminum poles, I bought some 1″ x 1/4″ aluminum bar and got it cut into 18″ sections. These sections I bent and drilled to make brackets that hold the outriggers to the poles. Once fitted, the brackets were fastened to the outriggers with a strong adhesive sealant and bolted through.

Before fastening the brackets to the outriggers, I bolted them to the poles upside down. Then I slid the outriggers in place and marked them before drilling and gluing.


Another view:


Once they were fastened on, then I swung them down into position. I could only work on one side of the boat, as there is a wall close by. When both are installed it will look the same on the other side.


That is basically it. I also got a deck cover made to keep out the rain and to use as a spraydeck while underway in rough weather. The only remaining tasks are to install a crank to raise and lower the keel, a few refinements on the tiller (steering arm), and to register the boat.  Next winter, she goes in the water and I will go through the process of fixing what fails and improving what is less than ideal. I look forward to the challenge.

Highlights of Belize

Well my season in Belize is all wrapped up. I didn’t do any reporting while I was there, hoping to snag some pictures from guests, but the time ran away and I am home again. It was a good season, overall. Here is the first of some highlights.

Crooked Tree

When the days of preying on the Spanish fleet, loaded with gold and silver pilfered from the natives of Central America were over, the Baymen of British Honduras, as they called themselves, were pressed for a way to make a living. There was one valuable item, easy to harvest. This was the logwood tree (Haematoxylum campechianum) Despite its name, this is a shrubby tree, with a twisted trunk, which grows along stream banks, in swamps and along the shores of lakes and ponds in southern Mexico and northern Central America. The sap of the logwood tree was used extensively for dyeing textiles. By altering its pH, the sap could be made to produce a variety of colours, from reddish-yellow to purple.

Since the logwood grew along the banks of rivers, and the only way to travel in Belize those days was by canoe, it was a simple matter to harvest it and float it to the mouth of the Belize River, where it could be loaded on ships and sent to England. This became the main industry in Belize from the 1670’s to the 1780’s.

Travelling up the Belize River, a party of Baymen headed up a tributary known as Black Creek. They discovered a long, narrow lake (in Belize lakes are called lagoons) which splits, leaving a large, central island. Unlike the surrounding terrain, the island was high and dry even during the rainy season when rising waters from the Belize River would reverse the flow of Black Creek and fill the lagoon and surrounding forest with floodwaters. On this island the Baymen established a logging camp, and named it after the tree they sought, the Crooked Tree.

Centuries later, Crooked Tree village is accessible by road most of the year, and is surrounded by a large protected area known as Crooked Tree Wildlife Sanctuary. Logwood ceased to be a valuable commodity when other, cheaper dyes were discovered. The main industry of the village now is cashew products. The fruit of the cashew tree produces a single seed, hanging from its underside. This fruit is also used to make jam and a notorious fermented beverage known as cashew wine. It is said the hangover from drinking too much of this wine is without parallel.

Other sources of income to the village include a little cattle ranching and tourism. The big attraction here for tourists is bird-watching. The lagoon goes through an annual cycle of flooding and drying. When it is in flood, wading birds inhabit the shores and swamps, and the lagoon hosts a large population of ducks, both tropical and migratory and neotropical cormorants, while snail kites, black hawks and black vultures hover and soar overhead. Ashore, one can spot flocks of parrots, and a variety of insect-eating birds, such as cattle egrets, vermilion flycatchers, tropical kingbirds and many others. But it is when the lagoon starts to shrink that things get interesting.

As the water-level falls, the swamps dry up and then the lagoon becomes a shallow, weedy network of channels. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of birds make use of the shrinking lagoon to gain access to the fish, snails, frogs and other inhabitants. Great flocks of egrets mix with white pelicans, roseate spoonbills, wood storks and the famous jabiru stork, a huge pterodactyl of a bird with a wingspan up to nine feet (nearly three metres).

We were staying at the Bird’s-Eye View Lodge on the shore of the lagoon. The dry season had progressed to the point where our guide Leonard wasn’t sure if the boat would have enough water for a pre-dawn birding tour. As it turned out, we got the last tour before they pulled up the boats for the remainder of the dry season.

We met in the early twilight for a cup of coffee or tea and quickly boarded the boat. Even before we got underway Leonard was pointing out a variety of birds, and we could see great gatherings farther down the lagoon. I won’t bore the reader with lists of species spotted, but this day we were lucky to see something very unusual.

The northern jacana is a small, chicken-like wading bird with huge, long toes, allowing it to walk on the floating vegetation as if it was walking on water. I’ll let you figure out this bird’s nickname…

The jacanas are a very pretty bird with black head and neck, rusty back and wings, with bright yellow bill, forehead and underwings. They have a comical walk as they place their toes on the weeds. The males make a nest and encourage a female to mate, which then lays a single egg. Then the female leaves to find a new mate and a new nest for her next egg. The chicks are speckled brown and are found with their father who raises and protects them as they search for food together.

As we squeezed down the narrow, shallow channel towards the big flocks ahead, Leonard drew our attention to a group of jacanas, three adults and three chicks. They were standing in a circle looking into the middle and chirping excitedly. In the centre of the circle, barely sticking out of the weeds, was a pair of nostrils. Occasionally a whole snout would emerge, revealing a pair of eyes. It became clear that we were looking at the submerged head of a boa constrictor (the only animal whose latin name is identical to its English common name).

The large snake had swum out in the dark and buried itself in the weeds, with only its eyes and nostrils emerging occasionally, ready to snap out and throw a few coils around a hapless egret or duck which waded too close. As long as the jacanas stuck around and warned the others, this snake would go hungry. Of course, jacanas have to eat too, and we knew they would soon fly off. After that, either the snake would eventually get its meal, or a jabiru stork would spot the snake, and the would-be predator, well, would be prey. Such is life in the Crooked Tree Lagoon and I was lucky to be there to see it.

Kayaking the Sonoran Coast

This is a bit of a blast from the past, but to give my reader(s) a sense of what paddling the Sonoran Coast is like, I have a collection of photos, literally snapshots of my kayaking experience here. So to begin.


My Fleet

This is an earlier picture of my fleet of boats. On top is a 17′ Nipissing canoe (red), which I brought with me from Northern Ontario when I moved to Vancouver. Beside the canoe is a Greenland-style seal-hunting kayak (white), which I built in Vancouver with the help of an instructor.Super-light and nimble, she has a wooden frame and a ballistic nylon shell, painted with Hypalon, which is what coats high-quality rubber dinghies.

Below those, in two tiers of three, are my Seaward Southwinds tandem kayaks.  These boats are heavy but they paddle well, and can carry a big load for long expeditions.

I have since added three single kayaks to my fleet. Pix to come.


Punta las Cuevas

This young couple is passing through a cave I call the elevator. Waves enter from both ends, and if you sit a moment in the middle you will ride up and down with each passing swell..


taking it easy

Winds are light, but with the sailing rig you get a little push, and a welcome rest from paddling. Who said kayaking has to be work?


Blue-footed boobies

It’s not hard to find the roosting sites of these beautiful birds. Watching them dive on a school of sardines is a spectacular sight.


entering a cave

The rugged coast is pocked with caves, some of which are large enough to enter and get out of the sun for a moment. Watch those rocks!

Shore lunch

This is a group of great people who I was lucky to enjoy a ten-day expedition with. In this shot we have pulled ashore to make some lunch. The sails make a convenient patch of shade and we are eating ceviche made from fish we caught only moments before landing.


This scene isn’t much different from the previous one. I just love it. Here we are taking a lunch break along a section of the coast which is one long beach for miles.


Lizard says bye for now. More pix coming soon.

Lest we forget

What is a nation but a group of people united by common principles and traditions? A nation as diverse as ours can easily be pulled apart into competing factions, and this does happen occasionally to some degree. This why our common principles and our traditions are so important, so much a part of what defines us as a people and as a nation.

War is and always will be a horrible thing, something to be avoided at nearly all costs. Loss of freedom to tyranny is one cost too great even to avoid war, and so, when war broke out in Europe early in the twentieth century, the people of Canada answered the call. Over 620,000 men and women signed up and the rest did all they could at home to support the war effort. Many never came back. Many came back broken, physically or mentally. All suffered loss in some way.

The nations of Europe swore peace and promised never to do it again. But they did, and again, the Canadian people again went to war. They went voluntarily, knowing the costs, still feeling the losses from the Great War of Europe.

My dad was one of them. Young, patriotic and eager he ran down to a recruitment office to sign up. He was a hearty fifteen-year-old, and lied about his age so they took his name. But his high school principal found out and marched down to the recruitment office and told the officer to take Harold Wilde’s name off the books.

So the eager young warrior went to a different recruiting office and signed up again. But this raised suspicions and he was called into a meeting with his Principal. His principal made an offer, to him and a group of other eager would-be recruits: that if they would wait a year, they could do an accelerated curriculum, graduate from high school a year early, and then they could sign up. And that is what they did.

Dad never talked about the war when I was a kid. I think it was partly because the scars were still too fresh, and partly because he did not want to glorify war to a young boy. The war had ended fifteen years before I was born but it still was a significant part of our lives and culture. To this day, despite our involvement in many other conflicts around the world, Canadians still call it “the war”.

Passchendale, The Somme, Vimy Ridge: the Great War defined us as a nation. The Second World War cemented that unity, and connected us with a community of nations. We have had our divisive moments, but we remain united in our basic principles of fairness, of kindness, of a duty to each other, to our nation, and to all of humanity. We need our traditions to remind us of the importance of that unity, and once a year we remember those who willingly sacrificed so much to ensure that our people remain free. We owe a debt of gratitude and remembrance to those who made their sacrifice, and those who continue to serve and sacrifice. And that debt will never, ever be paid in full.

Thank you CBC, for broadcasting the national Remembrance Day celebration on the internet. Thank you to all those who organised, who recorded,and who participated in all of the Remembrance Day celebrations across the entire Dominion. Thank you to those who continue to serve in various missions across the globe. And thank you to all who served and sacrificed so much so that we can enjoy our freedom. May this truly Canadian tradition continue to bring us together as one people for as long as Canada stands as a nation.

Accident Scenario

A close family member had a car accident recently, which got me thinking in terms of how to deal with such an event. I have written an entirely fictional scenario, hopefully to point out a proper and an improper course of action in such a case.


A young woman crashes her car, driving it into the trees and shrubs beside the road. She calls a family member for help.

Scenario 1:

The family member and her partner rush to their car and drive to the scene of the accident, about 10 minutes away.

Scenario 2:

The family member (FM) calls the accident victim (V).

V: (weak voice) Hello?

FM: Hi. I just heard you had an accident. Stay where you are. I have some questions for you.

V: ok

FM: Are you still in the car?

V: Yes.

FM: Is anyone in the car with you?

V: No

FM: Is the car upright? Are you in a tolerable position?

V: Yes.

FM: Good. Try not to move, ok?

V: Ok.

FM: Is the car turned off?

V: Yes.

FM: Is there a smell of gasoline?

V: No.

FM: Good. You are safe where you are. Please don’t move. Although you may not feel it, there is a chance you injured your neck, so it is important to stay still. Can you do that?

V: Yes.

FM: Good. Now I want to you to follow my instructions. We are going to examine you for injuries. Can you move your arms? Does anything hurt when you do that?

V: I can move my arms. Nothing seems to be broken.

FM: Excellent. Now without moving your head, I want you to feel your sides and down your legs. Feel for torn clothing. Feel for wetness. Feel for anything that seems the wrong shape, or is hurting when you touch it.

V: (a moment of silence) My sides feel ok, but it feels like there is something sticking into my leg. And it feels wet.

FM asks partner to call an ambulance, giving the nature of the accident, the exact location, the number, age and sex of victims and saying that there is uncontrolled bleeding.

FM: Ok, try not to move. You will be okay. An ambulance has been called and we are on our way.

FM and partner borrow a second phone, get in car and start driving toward accident site.

FM: We are on our way now.

V: Thank you

FM: Ok, it is important to remain calm. Can you do that?

V: I’ll try.

FM: Good. It seems something is imbedded in your leg. Let’s try to see how bad that is. First try not to move the leg. Can you feel around the object? How big is it where it is touching your leg? Try to describe it.

V: (breathing a bit more rapidly) it is a big piece of metal, and it is in my leg just below my hip. Blood is coming out under it.

FM: ok, do not move it. Do you have something you can push against where it is bleeding; a scarf or a shirt?

V: I have a bandana.

FM: Good, Fold it up and press it against the area where the blood is coming out.

FM’s partner is still on phone with emergency services. She reports that the victim is bleeding from an imbedded metal object in the leg, and her breathing rate is increasing.

V: There, I have it pressed against the bleeding area.

FM: Ok, hold on, the ambulance is on its way, and so are we.

A few seconds pause.

FM: Do you have a hand free?

V: Yes.

FM: Ok, while we are waiting for the ambulance I have a few more questions for you. Try not to move your head, ok?

V: Ok

FM: Take a deep breath.

V: (breathing deeply and exhaling) OK.

FM: Did that hurt?

V: No.

FM: Good. Now feel your face. Does it feel like you hit your face?

V: No, face feels fine.

FM: Good. Now run your hand very gently over your head. Try not to push against your head. Feel for any sign of injury.

V: Head feels fine. No cuts or bumps.

FM: Very good. Now very gently, feel your neck and throat.

V: Feeling neck. Ow. Feels a little tender.

FM asks partner to update emergency services. Sign of possible neck injury.

V: (very faintly) Ambulance has arrived. They are opening door.

FM. We are two minutes away. Hand the phone to an attendant.

Phone is handed off.

AA: Hello?

FM: Hi. Did you get our updates?

AA: Yes. We are putting a collar on her and are working on the bleeding. She is pale but still conscious.

FM and partner arrive in time to see AA’s extract V from car. She looks very pale and is on oxygen. They set up a drip before loading her into ambulance.

Back to Scenario 1: FM arrives to find victim unconscious and still in car. They call emergency services. 

The point of this exercise is to demonstrate how important it is, not to just do something. The instinctive reaction is to rush there, hopefully to do what you can. But it is much more important to stop and think, before you do anything. The first priority is to assess the severity of injury, to determine if there is need for emergency services, and how fast they need to get there.

If the accident victim is only mildly injured, and not in need of immediate treatment, (as was the case with our family member) then they can stand to wait a few minutes while you properly assess the situation. If their injury is more severe, then they can’t wait for you to show up first before calling in emergency services. Always stop and think, before you act.

I invite comments.

Cheers, Jack


Hurricane Newton 2016

The night of 6 September, Hurricane Newton reached the Sonoran coast, somewhere just north of San Carlos. All day long, the rain came down and the wind gradually increased. By midnight the wind reached its howling peak, driving the rain sideways, knocking down utility poles and fences, uprooting trees and tearing at roofs and walls. The last privately-owned weather station peaked at over 120 km/h before it too was torn apart.

Hurricanes are a part of life here on the shore of the Sea of Cortez. Fortunately for us, most hurricanes, born far to the south, usually head out to the open Pacific and only come ashore in this general area once about every six years. Those that pass by will exert a strong influence on local weather though, and much of our summer rain is tied to the effects of not-too-distant hurricanes.

From a naturalistic point of view, hurricanes can be seen as destructive elements, or like forest fires, they can be seen as natural, periodic disturbances that re-arrange the environment, tearing out the old, and making space for new growth and new life.

Heavy rains create flash floods, washing out much of the plant life that covered the canyon floors and making room for new growth.. Much of the rain will soak into the ground, replenishing the groundwater, which will provide a long-term supply for deep-rooted trees and the vegetation of the canyon floors.

But the real changes wrought by hurricanes are found on the shore of the sea. Hurricane Newton created eight-metre-high waves that rolled up the beaches and sucked away millions of cubic metres of sand and gravel. Any turtle nests on an exposed beach would have been buried and drowned or smashed and drawn out to sea. Near-shore marine life also took a severe thrashing, uprooted and thrown ashore or dragged out into deeper water, to be fed on by a variety of marine predators and scavengers.

A walk along the shore after a hurricane reveals a glimpse into the tremendous diversity of near-shore marine life. Colourful sponges, soft corals in a variety of shapes and colours, sea cucumbers, starfish and a diverse array of molluscs lay tangled with masses of marine algae (seaweed) and unfortunate fish along the upper edge of shore.

I once found a dead bat, its huge curved claws revealing its identity as a Pacific Fishing Bat, the only species of bat known to catch marine fishes. These bats nest and roost in deep caves and crevices on islands in the Gulf. Such niches are no safe harbour when the island is being hammered by giant storm waves.

So much death is a source of food for crabs, shrimp and lobsters, as well as many other opportunistic scavengers. Gulls, terns, frigatebirds , crows and vultures also take advantage of the sudden smorgasbord laid out along the shore. Underneath the seaweed wrack are thousands of tiny crustaceans, amphipod beach-hoppers and isopod sea roaches. They have already begun to consume all of this waste and return it to the ecosystem. And along the rocky intertidal zone, new space has been made available for barnacles, oysters, scallops sponges, algae and corals.

All of this is no consolation to the people who have to deal with torn-off roofs, downed trees, and the temporary loss of such essential services as water, electricity and phone service. It only takes a couple of days without electricity to end up with a lot of spoiled food. And when your water tank runs dry, the dishes pile up, clothes and bedding go unwashed, and life gets unpleasant It makes you truly understand how dependent we are on the amenities of modern technology, and how much better they make our lives.

Turtle Nesting Season


This is the time of year when the Olive Ridley Turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea) come ashore to lay their eggs. Here in the beaches around San Carlos they do not nest in large numbers, so there is no turtle-watching tourism, but it seems the number of nests is increasing.

The turtles hang around near the nesting sites, feeding and mating for about two months before the females come ashore to lay their eggs, so there is always a chance you will see one while snorkeling or paddling quietly around local waters.

Olive Ridleys aren’t big, as sea turtles go, about 60 cm or two feet in shell length, so watch for a head about the size of a fist, poking out of the water. When they come up for air they stick their heads above the surface several times, gulping air, before they submerge. Once they go down, they may remain submerged as long as several hours, depending on how active they are.

All sea turtle species are in danger of extinction, mostly due to human harvesting of the eggs and adult turtles. Olive Ridleys are actually the most abundant sea turtle, worldwide, but are still listed as vulnerable  by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). There is an international treaty called the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species, commonly known as CITES. Under this treaty, of which Mexico, Canada and the USA are all signatories,  the trade in listed species of plants and animals, and any parts, including a shell you may find on the beach or in a market is strictly controlled. Taking a sea turtle or even a piece of a shell across the border into the U.S. or Canada will land you in very hot water, and may result in heavy fines or even jail time.

Once they reach maturity,  these turtles nest annually, typically in large numbers called arribatas. Here in San Carlos, the turtles are so few in numbers that nesting occurs singly. Turtle mortality is highest in the egg stage. Nests sometimes drown in extra-high tides, can be exposed by beach erosion from storms, or be dug up by egg predators such as raccoons, coyotes or feral dogs.

The eggs hatch after about two months incubation, usually at night. The newly-hatched young dig their way to the surface, and head to the sea, guided by moonlight sparkling of the surface. They have to get into the water before first light. If they are caught out in the open, they are quickly gobbled up by vultures, frigatebirds, gulls and ravens.


Annette Felix is a local woman who is spearheading a campaign to protect these wonders of nature. She has organised support to patrol the beaches, looking for tracks or any evidence of nest-building. She has also recently put together a flyer warning people of the possibility of nests on the beach, and suggesting things they can do and should not do, in order to maximise the survival of eggs and hatchlings.

Because the eggs are just under the surface of the sand, they can be crushed by a careless pedestrian or under the wheels of an ATV or truck. Motorised vehicles are banned by law from the beaches here, but this rule is poorly enforced and often ignored. So the first rule is; be careful where you walk, and try to discourage motorists from using the beach as a racetrack.

When the hatchlings emerge, they may be misdirected by lights from homes and streets, and head away from the sea. By the time they realise their mistake, they are a long way from the sea and are vulnerable to predators. So the next rule is: lights out. Keeping exterior lighting to a minimum is crucial to the survival of hatchlings.

These animals are adapted to swim in the sea and are very good at it. But travelling overland is a tiring and difficult venture for a female turtle carrying a heavy load of eggs. Beached boats, chairs, trash and even sand castles and pits dug in the sand by happy children can be a serious impediment to females and also to the hatchlings heading for the sea. So the next rule is: keep the beach clean and free of trash and obstacles. Fill in your pits and flatten your sand castles when you are finished with them.

Following these simple rules will contribute to turtle conservation, and help to ensure that these magnificent animals which have been on the earth for millions of years, will still be here for your grandchildren to see and enjoy.

Photos from National Geographic.

First Rain Part II: a Moveable Feast

I am sitting outside in the early morning of a cloudy day, after a long, soaking rain that lasted through the night. Swarms of termites hover over the ground and crawl along the wall.  A gecko, normally strictly nocturnal,  is dashing from the cover of a window frame  to  take advantage of this sudden abundance. It seems to know they will be gone soon and this rich feast is too much to ignore, even at the risk of being eaten himself.

Termites are social insects with a caste system. Each colony will have a king and a queen. The queen grows a huge abdomen and pumps out thousands of eggs. The eggs hatch and are divided into workers, soldiers and winged reproductives called alates. The alates have been waiting for the rain.

Termites are essential members of the desert ecosystem. Living underground by the millions, they take the energy and nutrients from dead and decaying vegetable material and redistribute it down into the soil. They do not have a waterproof skin, so they remain underground or build inverted tunnels of chewed cellulose and saliva along the surface of dead grass, sticks and hard surfaces like cement. In this way they search for food without exposing themselves to the dry air.  But after a rain, they take advantage of the humidity to spread farther and faster than tunneling would ever allow. Great swarms of alates take to the air, hoping to find a mate and settle on the ground, look for some wood to chew into and start a new colony. Most don’t make it.

The mating swarm of termites is a rich source of food for many desert animals. Bats, dragonflies and birds snatch them from the air. On the ground they are gobbled up by toads, lizards, snakes, mice, skunks, coatis, more birds and a variety of invertebrates such as ant lions, scorpions and spiders. And the timing couldn’t be more perfect.

This sudden burst of available protein and energy will fuel the mad dash that high temperatures, and abundant moisture and sunlight will bring to the desert. For it won’t be long before the ponds dry, the soil bakes hard again, and most life will shut down or go underground until the rains come again, many months from now.



The Desert Responds to its First Rain: Part 1

The thunderstorm came in just after sunset. Temporarily blinded by a nearby bolt of lightning, I can feel the thunder in my chest. Quickly the storm moves on and the air is filled with a new sound: the calling of thousands of toads. I am standing outside a room at the Posada, with Matt and Richard, two American conservationists spending the night, and sharing their beer with me.

We wander down to a newly-created pond, drawn by the mating calls of Couch’s spadefoot toads, Scaphiopus couchii . Already they are pairing up, the males embracing the females from behind. Soon eggs will be laid, fertilised and left to fend for themselves in a pond which will completely dry up in less than two weeks.

I remember the calls of frogs and toads from my childhood in Northern Ontario. Each species would have its own season, throughout the spring and summer months, and I could hear the calls from my bedroom window.

So imagine my surprise when the very next night, I went down to the pond to listen to the toads and was met with silence. Northern frogs time their mating by temperature and day-length, and call for weeks before all are mated. But in the desert, the ponds dry up, and so the tadpoles have a short time to grow and transform into adult toads.

The mating was over that first night, and already the eggs were hatching into tiny tadpoles. The adult toads have a few days to feed before the ground starts to harden, and they burrow in again to await the next rains.